Some people don’t think the Corvette is a muscle car, but those people have never driven one. Take it from me, this car has plenty of muscle.
America’s First Sports Car: the Chevrolet Corvette
Welcome to America’s first real sports car: the Chevrolet Corvette. From the very beginning, Corvette was a special car. It was born during the plain vanilla Eisenhower years. And in a market full of drab, lookalike cars, it was a breath of fresh air. For the first time, a major Detroit automaker took a shot at building a car to rival the classic European two seater. The effort was led by two giants int he American automobile industry: Harley J. Earl, GM’s head of styling, and Ed Cole, in charge of engineering These men held the notion that cars were fun in general and sports cars were particularly fun. And so, they applied talent, genius, and influence within General Motors to create just such a car. They kept it alive during its troubled, uncertain first few years until it became the world’s greatest sports car.
GM had really been overly optimistic when it gaged the size of the sports car market in America in the early 50s. They actually thought they could sell 20,000 Corvettes a year. In fact, the entire US sports car market probably wasn’t 20,000 cars in 1953 and when Chevrolet sold less than 3000 Corvettes in ’53, ’54, and ’55 altogether, well it’s a miracle th Corvette stayed around. It’s a good thing for Corvette lovers everywhere that the ax didn’t fall in 1955. If that happened, the world would never have seen this car: the one many people call the most beautiful Corvette ever. The ‘Vette for 1956 was very definitely not the same car that hadn’t sold in its first thirty ears. The ’56 Corvette was, well it was a Corvette!
This was the Corvette Harley Earl had under wraps. This car had been ready to debut, complete with the magnificent small block V8 in 1955. However, the massive costs of redesigning and retooling Chevrolet’s entire passenger car line had caused the GM brass to delay the introduction of this body style one year. And that one year delay was almost disastrous.
Tom Shaw of Musclecar Power magazine recalls: “Also in 1955, Ford’s Thunderbird hit and while GM was struggling, trying to sell Corvettes, Ford was having a field day with the Thunderbird, selling 16,000 units. So the car that appeared like it was the Corvette’s chief competitor, ironically proved to be the Corvette’s salvation, because had Chevrolet pulled the plug at that time, it would have appeared to everybody that was watching that Ford had beat Chevy and that was something they couldn’t afford.”
The 1956 Chevrolet Corvette
The ’56 Corvette looked fabulous. The styling features everyone liked stayed and all the cutesy little gimmicks were gone, replaced by strong touches, which would define Corvette for years to come. In the biggest styling change, the Corvette Coves appeared on the body sides. One of the most distinctive automotive styling elements in the world. The ’56 ‘Vette was full of creature comforts, too. For the first time, the ‘Vette had real roll up windows. And you could even order power windows.
Tom Shaw goes on to say: “The European sports cars, the Austin Healies, MGs, may have been the inspiration for the Corvette. The Corvette had to forge its own identity in the United States. This was a different market and a different car. ”
When you drove the ’56 ‘Vette, the first thing you noticed was horsepower. The 265 V8 was now the standard engine. The 6 was gone forever and it was warmed up to 210 horsepower with iron 9.25/1 compression and a higher lift cam. If you wanted to go the whole route, you could order it with an aluminum intake manifold and dual four barrel carbs for a net 240 horsepower. Part of the Corvette’s mystique is that every year the car became more powerful it handled better and it became more of a driver’s machine. This was largely due to a Chevrolet division engineer named Zora Arkis-Duntov. Duntov had joined GM’s engineering research and development staff in 1953 and had been intrigued by the Corvette since the first model. His efforts to correct some handling problems on the ’53 through ’55 models had already mad the Corvette a much better car. In 1956 he knew just what they had to do to really get the world to sit up and take notice of the Corvette. They had to go racing.
Zora Arkis Duntov was a world class automatic engineer. He was also a racing driver and he knew a few racing victories would really elevate the Corvette’s image. Duntov put Corvettes in the hands of some really accomplished American racers of the day and the car did quite well. This performance momentum carried the ‘Vette through 1956 and right into 1957. By the beginning of the ’57 model year, you heard no more talk from the corporation about dropping the ‘Vette.
The 1957 Chevrolet Corvette
“The information and the development that he brought back from the racetrack went right into the car for ’57. In ’57 you had big brakes, four speed transmission, which was long overdue, improved suspension parts and for the first time a milestone breakthrough: one horsepower per cubic inch with the 285 fueling.” Says Tom Shaw.
But in just 3 years, the little small block, further enhanced by the incredible efforts by the Chevrolet engine team was rapidly becoming the engine to beat. What they did was bore the 265 an 1/8th of an inch to make it 283 cubic inches. The optional dual four barrel induction system was enhanced to now produce 270 horsepower. On some models though, a strange device appeared where you’d normally except to find the carburetors Duntov had been working on a fuel injection system since early 1956. In fact, he’d almost killed himself testing a Corvette with an early design injection unit at GM’s test track. He finally felt the unit was ready for production for the 1957 models. And this fuel injection was what finally helped Chevy achieve the holy grail of one horsepower per cubic inch. With fuel injection, the ’57 Corvette was the fast accelerating American production car ever made up to that time.
Tom Shaw describes the Corvette’s amazing speed: “Well the ’57 Corvette could run 0 to 60 in seven and a half seconds. It would blaze through the quarter mile in 14.3, which was quick enough to knock off a lot of the classic muscle cars from the 60s. And so here’s a car now defining the cutting edge of Chevrolet performance. And what do they run into? The 1957 AMA ban on racing.”
This gentleman’s agreement between the Detroit car makers should have sharply curtailed development of performance cars, but the net effect on the Corvette, thank to Zora Arkis Duntov was nothing. He ignored the edicts completely and continued making a faster, better handling car. Coming out of 1957, sales were up, the car had the respect of the motoring world and one of the strongest performance images of any car in America. But for 1958, the ‘Vette was due to receive another face lift. For some purists, what they came up with was a bit of a step backwards.
The 1958 Chevrolet Corvette
Richard Wagner of Marietta, Georgia remembers: “I had the opportunity to get a ride from Niagara Falls, New York to Cleveland, Ohio in a ’58 Corvette. It was a convertible, we had the top down and a Thunderbird started to pass us and the gentleman driving the Corvette said, ‘Nobody passes us, let alone a Thunderbird.’ And he shifted the thing down into third, wound it up to 105, then shifted to fourth. We continued up to about 130, left that Thunderbird in the dust.”
The ’58 ‘Vette was Harley Ear’s last Corvette and it did include some classically Earl touches. Fake louvers on the hood, chrome strips on the trunk lid, bigger and heavier bumpers. In the style of the day, the ‘Vette went to quad head lamps, surrounded by a chrome bezel, which tied into a chrome strip down the top of each front fender. The new instrument panel was a welcome change for drivers. Underneath, it was a Zora Arkis Duntov car. Even if it was gussied up top side. The big news for 1958 was, for the first time, the Corvette turned a profit for Chevrolet. 9816 were sold in this first year of recession. And it was one of the few American cars to actually sell more cars in ’58 than in ’57. For the Corvette, it was a long overdue success.
The 1959 and 1960 Chevrolet Corvette
’59 and ’60 concentrated on refining the car’s engineering and by 1960, the 285′s compression ratio had increased to 11 to 1. Horsepower for this top of the line engine was up to 315 at 6200 RPM. And there was a hydraulic lifter engine, which produced a very nice 275 horsepower. Another milestone was reached when Chevrolet dropped the power glide from the option list. The reason? It couldn’t handle all the horsepower and torque the engines were making. Harley Earl ended his over 30 year career at General Motors in 1958, taking his position as head of the styling department was his protégé Bill Mitchell. Mitchell’s first models were the 59s. Mitchell shared all of Harley Earl’s passion for the Corvette, but none of this affinity for fins and chrome trim. The ‘Vette remained pretty much unchanged all the way through 1960, except for removing some chrome and smoothing out the fake hood louvers. Starting in 1961, though, the Corvette got its first Bill Mitchell styling change and it was fantastic: a hint of things to come.
The 1961 Chevrolet Corvette
Reggie Di Rezze of Warren, Michigan talks about the impression the Corvette made upon him: “The very first Corvette I remember seeing, it was a friend of my dad’s and I think I was about seven years. The first that I remember that impressed me all to heck about the car was that the speedometer went to 160 miles an hour. And when you’re seven years old and impressionable it makes a difference.” Reggie Di Rezze is a Corvette enthusiast whose love for the car started early in life and has endured until he now owns the show quality ’61 model.
“The one thing I’m particularly proud of, and we’ve been gathering the pieces for almost 5 years and thanks goes out to all my friends, too, who helped me out. We were finally able to piece together an original dual four barrel set up for the car, which was available as an option that year in 1961 and each piece you see there was gathered one at a time, painstakingly and from swap meets and from friends coming up with parts and finding parts for me and gifts and birthdays, etc. It wasn’t like we went down to the local auto parts and ordered one dual quad set up. We put a lot of time and effort into this. I’m particularly proud and I’m really thrilled because it runs so good and this is one of the few dual quad setups that’s ever gone together with almost no adjustment, it runs great. Martin Millner, where are you?”
Before ’61, the Corvette had been merely one of the nicer cars in America. Now it was to die for. The car seemed to symbolize the energy of the 60s. It said, “That was then, this is now.”
Di Rezze recalls: “The only difference is that gas isn’t 19 cents a gallon anymore. That’s the only thing I miss.” Bill Mitchell’s first ‘Vette drew heavily from its XP 700 show car and also from the Stingray racer. This was basically just a face lift of the 1956 design but the whole thing looked new and fresh. The old 50s looking chrome grill was gone, replaced by a recessed chrome mesh grill. The taillight panel and rear deck was completely new with four little recessed tail lamps. The new rear end design was actually functional. It increased trunk space by 20%. It’s unclear, though, how many people chose to buy the Corvette for that feature.
There were more choices under the hood in 1961, too. The 283 now came in five different versions: from a 230 horsepower single four barrel version all the way up to 315 horses. The 270 and 315 horse engines were fuel injected. The three speed manual transmission was now standard with a four speed box an option. In a bit of a surprise, the power glide trans was back as an option on the two lower horsepower engines. Performance continued to increase with every power train package Even the 230 horse single four barrel power glide ‘Vette, would do 0 to 60 in just a shade over seven and a half seconds. The four speed model would knock two seconds off that time. The ‘Vette was definitely the stoplight bandit in 1961.
“By now the Corvette was such a tight package that a nearly stock one went to Sebring and was dicing with the factory works. Ferraris, Porsches, all the really hot stuff: placed eleventh.” Observes Tom Shaw.
The 1962 Chevrolet Corvette
Coming into the 1962 model year, this Corvette design had been in production for 7 years. And if anyone was growing tired of it, it didn’t show. In 1961, 10,931 Corvettes were produced: a far cry from the 1955 production of only 700 units. It seemed like Chevrolet could continue to sell this car forever.
Shelby Jett of Warra, Michigan talks about waiting for his Corvette: “Well, I built it brand new and took delivery on April 4, 1962 and I had to buy it out of stock because there was a 12 week waiting list. So, I took what I wanted, I found a color I wanted and the metallic brakes and the high performance motor and that’s , the red was the only way to go in ’62. If it wasn’t red, it wasn’t a Corvette.”
The 1962 Corvette continued the pattern of the past seven years by mildly upgrading the body styling and trim and continuing to make improvements to the engine and chassis. The ’62 was undoubtedly the cleanest style since 1956: the chrome accents and the coves were minimized, the mesh grill was black instead of chrome. The rest of the car looked pretty much the same, but for the first time the heater was standard equipment. By far, though, the big news was under the hood. From 265 to 283, now to 327.
The small block underwent its second major displacement change and the base model now pumped out 250 horsepower, more than the hottest 265 six years ago. Gone forever was the dual four barrel carburetor system. But you could still get 300 horses easily from a single four barrel 326. With new cylinder heads, which offered bigger ports, the Duntov solid lifter cam, 11.2 point compression and fuel injection, the top model 327 now made 360 horsepower Sales of the ’62 were up 40% over 1951. Over 14,062 Corvettes rolled off the assembly line. By now, this car was an American legend and it achieved this status the good old American way, by starting out on the right track and getting better and better every year.
Says DiRezze: “In Detroit we had Cruise Woodward, Telegraph…it was like a nightly occurrence. You had to be out in Telegraphs. Thursday night was race night out on the freeway, which I paid my dues on that. Cost me my driver’s license before I left for the military.”
Driving a ‘Vette Is Driving a Piece of History
Another classic car enthusiast remembers wanting a Corvette from a young age: “From when I was six or seven years old, you wanted a Corvette, you just didn’t realize what it took to accomplish that. The enjoyment of just working on a car is not only therapeutic, it gives you a sense of accomplishment I’ve preserved a little piece of automotive history.
Some people don’t consider Corvette a muscle car. But because of its sporty car heritage or perhaps because it’s always been sort of a big ticket item. Or maybe because the Corvette has always been at home with the sports car crowd, the Corvette sometimes doesn’t get the credit it deserves as a real muscle machine But, at a time when American cars featured hydromatic drive, portion bar suspension and yards of sheet metal, a group of car nuts, led by a few legendary giants in the American car industry stuck their necks out and made a little car and kept it alive. They kept improving it and didn’t lose their focus, so that today, years later, the car has become a word class performance car.
The second generation Corvette, 1956-1962 was the springboard to which some have called the greatest American car ever made; the Stingray Even if a car with a 6 cylinder engine doesn’t deserve the title muscle car in everyone’s book, that first little upside down bathtub with the funny looking tail lights made it all possible. In the final analysis, the second generation Corvette was simply an amazing car. It was well engineered, extremely trouble free, and every year it got better. Th newest engineering, the best technology that GM could develop, every year found its way into the Corvette. Every model of the Corvette looks great.
Don Carlson of Marietta, Georgia talks about his restoration hobby: “I see people spend a lot of money go golf or go on a lot of great vacations. This is where I spend my money and I enjoy it. There’s just something nostalgic about all the manual aspects of this car that kind of bring you back to your childhood and remind you of when times were a little bit simpler and cars were kind of fun to work on. But the bottom line: doggonnit, it’s fun.”
Remember the old saying about success having many fathers? Well, you’d have to expect this kind of success when your Daddies were Harley Earl, Ed Cole, and Zora Arkis Duntov.
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