Sunday, August 7, 2011

1953 Chevrolet Corvette

E53F 001300 - The Last of the First Corvettes

The featured Corvette is the 300th and last of the ‘53s built. It is currently owned by a collector in the Houston area and has won numerous awards and honors including a two-time selection to the Bloomington Gold Special Collection and a Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame Induction.
 Photography and text by David W. Temple

Chevrolet’s Corvette has been with us for nearly 60 years. Clearly this sports car has been popular for quite a while, hence its longevity. As practically all Corvette enthusiasts know, this fiberglass car almost did not survive beyond its first three years of production. Now all of those models are in demand by collectors. However, some of them are more special than others. When a ’53 Corvette is offered for sale or displayed at a car show, the question probably most asked by knowledgeable types is, “What number is it?” The oldest known surviving Corvette, number three or E53F 001003, sold for $1 million at Barrett-Jackson in 2006. Number one is evidently no longer in existence though rumors to the contrary do persist about it. Incidentally, number two was tested and rebuilt by GM – so much so it was “phased out” of existence over time piece by piece so little if any of the original car remains. Even the body of #2 was replaced. Then there is the case of the “Last Stingray.” That ’67 model sold for $600,000 at Barrett-Jackson in 2007. First, last and oldest obviously have much meaning to Corvette fans.
VIN plate
The creation of the phenomenal Corvette was the brainchild of GM Styling VP Harley Earl who desired to produce an American sports car. Sports cars were becoming increasingly popular, but nearly all of them were of European design such as the M.G. TD and the Jaguar XK 120. However, as popular as these cars were to American enthusiasts, only little more than a quarter of one percent of new car registrations in this country were for sports cars. To most Americans, these cars had several undesirable characteristics. Zora Arkus-Duntov told a group at an SAE meeting in 1953 statistics showed that the American public did not want a sports car, but went on to question if the statistics gave a true picture. He noted the market for such a car was an unknown quantity and that perhaps a sports car designed to American tastes and roads might have a significant following.
In September of 1951, Harley Earl drove his experimental LeSabre to the sports car races at Watkins Glen and watched the M.G.s, Allards, Ferraris, and Cunninghams speed around the track. Earl said the idea for the Corvette was born while driving the LeSabre as the pace car for this race; it was a significant turning point in automotive history.
A 150hp “Blue Flame Special” powered all 1953 Corvettes. It was a modified version of the engine used in other Chevy passenger cars.
Thus was born the Opel Passenger Car Development Project. Opel, incidentally, was a name borrowed from GM’s German division, so it served to conceal the true nature of the project. Amazingly, the time to bring the car from a paper proposal to the mockup stages and then finally a functional prototype was accomplished in about eight months. One of the requirements for the proposed sports car was that it be economical to build in order to for it to meet a selling price target of around $1,850. Unfortunately, the price for the production car would be twice that of the original goal. This necessity meant that as many already existing components as possible had to be incorporated into the design. One of those was the Chevrolet chassis. Other items already in use by Chevrolet were the straight-six and Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission. A Chevrolet V8 was two model years away and a manual transmission befitting a sports car was even further into the future, so the Vette would have to settle for Chevy’s 235 inline six coupled to an automatic. Basically, the Corvette became a “crash program” thus there was a certain amount of “make do” involved with the project.
All of the 300 1953 Corvettes had a Sportsman Red interior with white accents.
Engineers were shown a plaster mockup of the proposed Corvette in early June of 1952. Barely more than one year later, the first three production cars departed the makeshift assembly line in Flint. During that time, two prototype show cars were assembled as well as a “mule” for testing. One of the show cars debuted at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, the starting point of the 1953 General Motors Motorama multi-city tour. Many of those who waited in line to see the Corvette as well as the other show and productions cars on display there indicated a serious interest in buying Chevy’s little sports car. Because of this great interest, the go ahead was given for 250 cars (later increased to 300) to be built prior to the start of the 1954 model year.
Essentially, the first 300 cars were pilot line cars with various changes made during the run. Even the way the fiberglass body parts were made changed a couple of times. Early cars did not receive the intended wheel covers because the tooling was not quite ready and therefore they had to be equipped with the Bel Air type. Because of all the improvements made during 1953, Corvette number 1 and Corvette number 300 were not exactly alike even though at a glance they seemed very nearly so. As time went by, forming and assembly techniques improved so the last of the 300 ‘53s were no doubt better than the first ones. By ’54, the bodies were of sufficient quality that colors other than Polo White were offered.
Road test reports regarding the 1953 Corvette were generally favorable, but the first 300 cars which were all built at Flint were offered to VIPs or retained by GM for further testing. When interested members of the general public discovered that they could not simply go to the local dealership to purchase one, they began to lose interest in the car. Several of the early prospects had to be called before Chevy found a buyer for a Corvette. Moreover, the lack of roll up windows and other conveniences made the car somewhat of a disappointment to many of the VIP owners. Quality control was another problem with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. The price tag of $3,490 was certainly on the high side as well and though that was the official base price, in reality the so-called optional AM-radio and heater was mandatory equipment! In reality the base price was $3,734. At the end of the ’53 model year over 180 of the 300 Vettes assembled remained unsold. At the time this did not alarm GM because so many of the cars were being used for special dealer displays to draw people into showrooms.
Those who obtained a ’53 Corvette at least got a car with great styling and decent performance. All were Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior. The six-cylinder engine received a number of upgrades to improve its performance including a trio of Carter YF sidedraft carburetors, aluminum intake, higher lift camshaft with aluminum timing gear, increased compression ratio, and dual exhausts. Modifications pushed the output from 115hp to 150. The suspension was composed of as many standard parts as possible, but included a larger diameter stabilizer bar, special front coil springs, 16:1 steering ratio, and four-leaf springs in back. Weight distribution with driver, passenger, full fuel tank, and luggage worked out to about 50/50; empty it was 53/47. The center of gravity was low – just 18 inches above the ground. Motor Trend judged the Corvette to be “an exciting car to drive” but noted it would “barely nose out an average [Buick] Century on an unobstructed freeway.” The Vette’s top speed was found to be approximately 108 mph.
Chevrolet expected to increase production to 10,000 units per year, but for 1954 sales were slow forcing a drastic cut in production which in the end amounted to only 3,640. Of those, more than 1,100 remained unsold at the end of the model year. Intervention by engineers Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov helped save the car. Many improvements were eventually made including a V8 engine, four-speed transmission, improved suspension, and roll-up windows.
Today, the 1953 Corvette is judged on its rarity as well as its great styling as it has been for many years. The long-time popularity of the 1953 Corvette has resulted in approximately 200 of the 300 built still remaining in existence including number 300 which is shown here. It is currently owned by a collector in the Houston area.
This Corvette was originally sold to a prominent physician who reportedly loved the car, but disliked the color and immediately painted it black. After keeping it for several years he sold it to a policeman. By 1971 the car had been purchased by another owner who advertised it for sale in the 1953-55 Vintage Corvette Club of America newsletter. The car appears in the newsletter looking tidy and back in its original exterior color.
In 1984 the car was purchased by a doctor in Florida who had a body-off-frame restoration performed on it by Corvette Specialists Sara Blake and Joe Meyer. Upon completion of the restoration, the car was shown around the country and it won virtually every award that could be attained. In 1998 the 300th production Corvette was sold to its current owner and soon thereafter it was freshened by Corvette Specialist Naber’s Motors of Houston. Finally, due to some crazing of the exterior paint the car was completely redone in 2006 by 1953-55 Master Judge and Restorer, Steve Newsome. The car has had an incredibly fortunate history with not one panel on the body ever being damaged. It was a two-time “Bloomington Gold Special Collection” car as well as a Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame Inductee – both uncommon honors. Furthermore, it was part of the General Motors “World of Motion” exhibit at Disney World. 
Perhaps the last ’53 Corvette was and still is the best of its kind.

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