Race to the Finish Line

By rushing its new sports car into production, Chevrolet put the Corvette’s early success in jeopardy

December 22, 2016
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The Corvette’s enthusiastic reception at its Motorama launch in January 1953 confirmed Chevrolet’s belief that it had a winner on its hands. That appearance also marked a line of demarcation. The car would no longer be the protected baby of Carl Renner and his small and sheltered design team. Its appearance now became the responsibility of the Chevrolet production studio on the 10th floor of GM’s research building.

Chevy’s mainstream designers under Clare MacKichan made few changes because the need to “freeze” the design for production was urgent. A short chrome “dart” along each front fender grew into a full-length rub rail, more directly aligned with the wrapped-around front and rear bumpers. This served to mask a seam in the assembly of the production body. A small fin was now above the strip instead of below it, adjacent to “Chevrolet” in script.

The two tiny air scoops disappeared from the sides of the cowl. On the show car these had been painted red inside, with exposed portions of the wheel rims also red. Production men confirmed the wire-mesh-effect design of the headlight covers. A more conventional headlamp mounting had been tried on a test mule but fortunately was not pursued. Plexiglas remained as a cover for the recessed rear license plate; from 1954 cars were delivered with a desiccant in an adjoining chamber to absorb condensation.

State licensing authorities took their own view of these features, said engineer Carl Jakust: “We ran across a couple of minor legal problems in connection with the screens over the headlamps and the rear license-plate compartment. The trouble wasn’t entirely unexpected, but we elected to continue with the screens over the headlamps and the Plexiglas over the license plate because of the styling advantages. In order to overcome the possibility of certain states refusing to license cars with these features, we made these parts so that they could be easily removed.”

Alterations for production were made in the folding-top system. With the unique design proposed by Styling unready for prime time, a more conventional mechanism was used for the roof. On the prototypes the trunk lid and top cover could be lifted up individually. For production the hinges were shared so that only one could be opened at a time.

Exterior door pushbuttons vanished. For entry when the top was up, one had to reach in through the front quarter-window in the final side-curtain design and operate an interior knob. One of the oddest changes concerned the wheel discs. While the show car’s imitation knock-off cap had its Chevrolet “bow-tie” emblem at right angles to the cap’s ears, the emblem was aligned with the ears for the production cars. Where pictures of the original show car were retouched for catalog use, this change was made too, but many of the photos released to the press of the “production” car were taken with the earlier wheel discs in place.

Some two dozen of the first Corvettes left the production line with a simple 1953 Bel Air domed wheel disc. At least one appeared in publicity photos, but it is thought that these were replaced by the proper discs before delivery. It had taken even longer to tool up for mass production of the definitive wheel disc than it had for Chevrolet—working under the most intense pressure—to start making the rest of the Corvette.

Also from Issue 111

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