With pageantry befitting a Hollywood premier, and all the showmanship of a Broadway production, the grand ballroom doors of Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel swung open on January 17 to kick off GM’s 1953 Motorama. The undisputed star of the show in New York—as in subsequent showings in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston—was a gleaming, white, fiberglass-bodied sports car called Corvette.
Chevrolet’s sporty two-seater was the brainchild of Harley J. Earl, the godfather of automotive design who led GM’s Art and Color Section (later called GM Styling) for more than three decades. The genesis of the idea likely stems from Earl’s own fascination with cutting-edge styling and high-performance cars, as well as his sons’ interest in post-WWII sports cars. The final motivator may well date to September 1951, when Earl brought his LeSabre “dream car” concept to Watkins Glen, then a hub for sports-car racing in the United States. While at the Glen, Earl got up close and personal with the best European sports cars of the era.
By the spring of 1952, a small group of GM engineers and stylists hand-picked by Earl had penned a sports-car design and created a full-size plaster model. Upper management, including GM President Harlow “Red” Curtice, Chevrolet General Manager Thomas H. Keating and Chevrolet chief engineer Edward Cole, all liked what they saw and gave their approval to transform the design into a functional dream car for the following year’s Motorama.
The prevailing story is that tremendous public reaction to the Motorama Corvette convinced GM to quickly put it into production, but that is not entirely accurate. The lead designer for the Motorama Corvette, tasked with transforming Earl’s ideas and rough sketches into a finished product, was a recent Cal Tech graduate named Bob McLean. McLean also happened to be an engineer, a fact not lost on Earl. It’s also no coincidence that the lead engineer assigned to work with McLean was Maurice Olley, head of Chevrolet’s Research and Development Department. Olley began his career at Rolls Royce in 1912 before joining Cadillac in 1930, so by 1952 he had amassed 40 years of diverse experience in engineering, designing and manufacturing. From the beginning, the fully functional Motorama show car was intended to be feasible for production, making it something of an anomaly among GM dream cars of the era.
Together, Earl, Keating and Cole were the driving force determined to put Corvette into production. But to do so they had to gain the approval of Harlow Curtice, and it was he who insisted upon waiting to gauge the public’s interest as the 1953 Motorama toured the country. Predictably, people were captivated by Chevrolet’s radically styled two-seater, and GM reportedly received more than 7,000 letters from prospective buyers. That was more than enough to overcome any remaining resistance within GM’s top ranks, and Curtice gave the go-ahead to enter Corvette into production immediately. But in reality, the car was already coalescing well before Curtice issued his approval.
In order to get the ’53s into customers’ hands as quickly as possible, a temporary assembly line was set up in a small customer delivery building on Van Slyke Avenue in Flint, Michigan. The very first production Corvette reached the end of that line on June 30, 1953. By December a total of 300 ’53 Corvettes had been completed. Each of the hand-built cars was painted Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior, and all were fully equipped with the nominally “optional” radio, heater, directional signals, windshield washers, courtesy lights and whitewall tires.
The ’53 Corvette’s chassis was similar in design to that of other GM cars, but modified with reinforcements to compensate for the absence of a structurally rigid steel body. Most of the front and rear suspension was sourced from Chevrolet’s passenger-car line, with a few changes and additions, such as a large front stabilizer bar, to accommodate Corvette’s diminutive size and low hood line. Similarly, brakes and steering, with a few tweaks, came from the Chevy parts bins.