The Real McCoy

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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Two powerful influences affected the changes in the ’56 Corvette’s styling. One was the LaSalle II roadster shown in the 1955 GM Motorama exhibit. It had a curved inset in its side that swept back from the front-wheel housings well into the doors, painted in a contrasting color. A more subdued depression of this type, reversed in direction, also appeared on the handsome ’55 Chevrolet Biscayne concept car. The scooped-out parabolic curves in the fenders of the ’56 Corvette combined the best features of both these experiments. It was not coincidental that GM stylist Carl Renner worked on both the LaSalle and the Corvette.

The other influence was the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, the production version of which had been shown early in 1954. It was the inspiration for the 1956 Corvette’s forward-thrusting fender lines, which peaked in conventional headlights, and the twin hood bulges. These changes blended admirably with the Corvette’s horizontal grille, and gave the new car a very handsome “face.”

Greatly increasing the ’56 Corvette’s practicality, wind-up windows and external door handles were added. Power windows were optional, as was power operation for the convertible top, plus the top could now be folded without having first to detach it from the windshield. The hardtop first shown in the ’54 Motorama was also available, mated with a higher windshield rail that improved vision with the top up.

Though the basic shape of the new car was set by February 1955, the flexibility offered by fiberglass construction permitted some last-minute detail changes. One was the addition of a chrome trim piece around the coves in the flanks of the fenders. Another was the installation—at the 11th hour—of small scoops at the corners of the cowl, like those on the original show Corvette. Ducts to make them functional had been designed, but cost ruled out their use, so the scoops were fakes on an otherwise commendably honest car.

One other dummy item, the pseudo-knock-off wheel cover, was revised at the last minute—so late, in fact, that some early photos of the ’56 model show the older discs. The new covers were more convincing, so much so that you had to take a very close look to see that they weren’t real. They were also good enough to remain unchanged in production for seven years, an almost-unheard-of life span in Detroit, where hub caps were practically the first thing stylists thought of changing.

Although Joe Schemansky’s original interior was carried over mostly unchanged, it gained a much sportier-looking steering wheel with three drilled spokes. The seats now had waffle-pattern inserts. A new lozenge-shaped plinth atop the transmission tunnel housed an ashtray. A fresh-air heater and dealer-installed seat belts were added to the options list. Available exterior colors included Onyx Black, Venetian Red, Cascade Green, Aztec Copper, Arctic Blue and Polo White.

Making a late start from the blocks, the Corvette overhaul was tardy at the tape. It didn’t bow publicly in production form until January 1956. On its Motorama turntable at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, the updated car was an undeniably handsome machine, but one without proven performance credentials. That changed suddenly with news from Daytona Beach, Florida of an astonishing top-speed record run. According to Duntov, it was news that “got the word about the new Corvette to sports-car people. We told them, ‘Look, now it is not a dog.’”