The Real McCoy

Though the ’56 Corvette’s redesigned bodywork gets most of the attention, the changes made beneath the skin were even more significant: They made this Chevrolet a legitimate sports car.

May 4, 2010
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It’s easy to forget that, in the beginning, the Corvette was a flop. With its side curtains and Powerglide automatic transmission, it wasn’t the sports car that buyers expected. Nor was it the easy seller that Chevy’s dealers anticipated; sales were disastrous during the first two years of production (1953-54). Yet, against all corporate logic, GM decided to continue with the Corvette.

Crosstown competitor Ford had a lot to do with GM’s decision. Ford’s rival two-seater “personal car” was first shown as a plastic styling model at an auto show in Detroit in February 1954. Though production didn’t begin until September, the impending release of the undeniably handsome Thunderbird was enough to keep some potential sports-car customers from casting their lot with the Corvette. Yet, perversely, it was also enough to keep the Corvette alive.

The Chevy sportster’s fate had seemed sealed. Corvette historian Jerry Burton has written that in the autumn of 1954 “an anonymous GM executive buttonholed [Zora Arkus-Duntov] and announced with glee that the Corvette was ‘finished’ and no more would be built.” Former Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan concurs: “Chevrolet decided to cancel the Corvette at the end of the 1955 model, when providence—by way of Ford—intervened. The simple fact that Ford sold 16,155 Thunderbirds in that first year—1955—showed that there was hope for successful sales in the market segment. If Chevrolet had quit the field—as sales performance justified—it would have been a great embarrassment, so the company had to make the Corvette successful.”

Ford’s two-seater entry was what the 1956 Corvette catalog obliquely referred to as a “scaled down convertible.” Chevrolet wondered if it should go this way or if it should listen to pundits like Ben West, who urged Chevrolet to “bring the American sportsman a truly good sports car.” In Autosport, West added, “Let’s all pray that the new GM pride and joy [the 1956 Corvette] is just that and not a beast burdened under automatic window raisers and other useless chrome adornments.”

In the end, Chevrolet decided to go both ways—but somewhat more in the direction West desired. Ironically, Ford went even more toward a grand-touring car. Indeed, even before the ’55 T-Bird was launched, Ford had already decided to replace it with a four-seater.

Thanks to the work of engineers such as Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette became a sports car that commanded far more respect. Testing with a V8-equipped 1955 prototype led to some significant chassis improvements. “The target,” Arkus-Duntov wrote in Auto Age, “was to attain such handling characteristics that the driver of some ability could get really high performance safely. The main objects of suspension changes were: increase of high-speed stability, consistency in response to the steering wheel over a wide range of lateral accelerations and speeds, and improvement of power transmission on turns (that is, reduction of unloading of inside rear wheels).”

These goals were achieved by making several chassis changes. Shims between the front crossmember and the frame increased the caster angle to two degrees, which had the effect of increasing understeer when the car rolled. Shimming also altered the angle of the central idler arm of the steering so that the “roll oversteer” geometry was taken out of the linkage. In concert with this, the “roll understeer” at the rear was reduced by raising the front spring hangers so the slope of the springs would be less precipitous.

Also from Issue 58

  • Lingenfelter Supercharged C6
  • Interview: Ken Lingenfelter
  • Road trip: 2010 Grand Sport coupe
  • 1996 LT4 coupe
  • Market Report: C4
  • Special-order 1967 big blocks
  • Racing: GT2-class C6.R race car
  • How To: C5 headlight gear replacement
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