Race to the Finish Line

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

Race to the Finish Line 1
December 23, 2016

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.

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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.

The first series-built Corvettes came to life in a building that had been used for customer delivery of Chevrolets. It adjoined a Fisher Body plant and Chevrolet engine factory along the north-south Van Slyke Road on the southwest side of Flint, Michigan. In the center of the floor, the bodies were glued together and hand finished. On one side were paint booths, and along the other side was the body drop and final-assembly area, no longer than it needed to be with its six stations to produce three cars a day. The nominal rate at Flint was 50 cars per month.

Job One rolled off the Flint line on June 30, 1953, officially the first production Corvette. Foreman Tony Kleiber was pictured behind its wheel, joined by F. J. Fessenden, manager of the shop, and by the overseer of all Chevrolet car assembly, R. G. Ford. Other workers and executives soon posed proudly next to the historic car. No guesses as to who had the honor of putting the first road miles on a production Corvette. That was GM chief Harlow “Red” Curtice, without whose backing it would never have come to fruition.

The first two cars off the line were used for testing and then scrapped. One was chosen to be weighed on July 2 as Chevrolet’s new Model 2934. Its dry weight was 2,705 pounds, distributed 55.8 percent over the front wheels. With fuel and water, that weight climbed to 2,850 pounds, while with two 150-pound occupants, the 3,150-pound package had its mass distributed 52.7 percent front, 47.3 percent rear.

Corvettes 003 through 012—all with GM Parts Fab bodies, made between March and May 1953—went to Chevrolet Engineering for tests and rectification. That the latter was needed was indicated by what historian Kenneth W. Kayser called “internal Chevrolet reports concerning the completely unacceptable panel gaps, panel flushness and fiberglass matting visible on Corvettes serial 003 through serial 006.” In effect pilot manufacture and series production began simultaneously with the initial two dozen or so cars, called “salable pilot-build vehicles.”

Thus, the first car and the early sisters that followed it were actually hand-built prototypes, because the Flint body operation was not yet ready to come on line. This forgivable sleight of hand allowed Chevrolet to meet Curtice’s seemingly impossible requirement that the Corvette be in production in June, less than six months after the Motorama.

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“This occasion is historic in the industry,” proclaimed Chevrolet chief Thomas Keating. “The Corvette has been brought into production on schedule in less than 12 months from designer’s dream to tested reality. Some four million persons have seen two experimental models of the Corvette at the GM Motoramas and other special events at which it has been shown since January. They wanted most of all to know when Chevrolet would start production and how much the Corvette would cost.”

The answer to the latter, Keating added, was “$3,250 including a 1953 Powerglide automatic transmission as standard equipment.” This was well below the $3,668 that a Kaiser-Darrin would cost when it went on sale six months later. The Corvette comfortably won its first race—the dash to become the first production sports car with a glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) body.

Production-Line Challenges

Manufacturing began at a rate of no more than one car daily. Although some sources suggest that parts shortages slowed output, Tony Kleiber told John Amgwert that “there was no problem with a delay in parts used in production.” Rather, the foreman recalled, the slow pace was owed to “a general lack of know-how in assembling this new type of car.”

Production at Flint got the Corvette rolling, some 49 or 50 cars being assembled there before the move was made to the Corvette’s designated home in the Mill Building at the division’s plant complex in St. Louis, Missouri. As much a veteran as its name implied, the Mill Building had traditional wood-block flooring to soak up grease and oil. It offered places, a production man remembered, “where you couldn’t walk through without getting dirty. There were lots of dead-end aisles and narrow walkways. It was cramped and pretty tough moving around.” A visitor described it as a “chicken coop,” saying that it dated from the William Crapo Durant era (1908-1920) at General Motors.

“The prototype and early production cars were produced by a very small group of very skilled and very elite people,” Charles Francis O’Keefe told Shark Quarterly. “But to make the car a production item, it had to be put together on an assembly line by a more representative group. It was my job to examine how the car was built and to get a team of trainers ready to come back to St. Louis to train the assembly-line workers. We spent one week in Flint learning how to do it.

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“At the same time,” added O’Keefe, who had been with GM since 1935, “the old woodworking mill that Fisher Body had used to assemble wooden bodies in earlier years was being converted to our assembly area. When we came back to start production, the roof still wasn’t finished and it was snowing—on us! The first car we put together was number 50 or 51, on a Friday afternoon. Regular production started on Monday. We first produced about one car a day. We finally reached a peak of three cars per day that year.”

After completion of number 300, 14 cars, officially 1954 models, were turned out in St. Louis in December 1953. In the St. Louis plant the bodies were assembled in an area measuring 200 by 500 feet. “There were four main parts,” Charles O’Keefe explained, “the body shop, paint, chassis and trim. The facility had a basement so there were areas where parts could be accessed and brought up to the assembly floor. The assembly line was a combination of track on the floor, pushed hand carts and what we called a ‘knife-edge’ conveyor.”

Subassemblies came together to a central line where the body was put together, starting with the underbody, into which some 180 holes had been pre-drilled. On the body-trim line the radiator, steering column and wiring harness were put in along with the seats, upholstery and folding fabric tops. Mating the chassis and body, said O’Keefe, “we simply picked up the bodies from the trim-line assembly area on a hoist and conveyed it to the chassis-line conveyor.” While the first 300 cars had all been Polo White with red interiors, blue, red and black exterior colors were added in St. Louis, together with a beige interior alternative. Instead of Flint black, tops of St. Louis Corvettes were tan.

Arriving from Flint, the Blue Flame engines were “dressed” with carburetion, ignition and transmission, then tuned and tested for 30 minutes on three dynamometer stands. Built-in equipment on the chassis assembly line spun and balanced the road wheels in position, a novel technique at the time. After completion, each Corvette was driven off the line and taken for a brief run around the plant grounds.

These were some of the techniques that made it, according to Chevrolet engineer Maurice Olley, “possible for a great mass-production organization to step out of its normal role of producing over 500 vehicles an hour, to make 500 specialized vehicles in, say, two weeks. This is an interesting fact even outside the United States, where it is generally considered that American manufacturing methods are too inflexible to meet modern conditions. This was well disproved within our own knowledge by the wartime performances of the automobile industry. It is proved to the whole world by such a specialized vehicle as the Corvette.”

Chevrolet made an order-of-magnitude saving in tooling cost as a result of its decision to make the Corvette body in fiberglass. Ed Cole said at the time that dies for a steel body would have cost $4,500,000, compared with only $400,000 for the GRP production molds. (This didn’t include the tremendous extra expense incurred in accelerating the early production with additional shifts, or the many provisional molds needed for early vacuum-bag installations at the Ashtabula, Ohio facility.) It was significant as well that Chevrolet itself had control over the body-production process, having rejected the bid for its manufacture from GM’s Fisher Body Division. Chevy would have to fight hard to keep that rare privilege.

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Supply and Demand

These and many other considerations, both tangible and intangible, were factored into the Corvette’s initial suggested list price. In addition to the Powerglide automatic, $3,250 included windshield washers, whitewall tires, clock, cigarette lighter, outside rear-view mirror and a feature that was novel at that time: a bright-red warning light that came on when the parking brake was applied. However, in a time-honored industry scheme all Corvettes were delivered with the “mandatory options” of radio and heater, adding $220 to make the effective base price $3,470. When destination and handling charges were added, plus a three-percent excise tax, a Corvette cost $3,846.59, not including freight to the dealer and local licensing costs.

In a July 10 letter from General Sales Manager William E. Fish, Chevrolet’s 7,600 dealers learned what they would be charged for their Corvettes: $2,470, a 24 percent discount from list, plus $248 in factory delivery and handling charges. Of the 300 cars to be made in 1953, they were told that “some of these, necessarily, will be used for further engineering and experimental purposes, and many will be retained for display, publicity and show purposes in connection with our regular regional trailer shows and exhibits around the country.” Calculated to dampen expectations, Fish’s remarks continued in a similar vein:

“We have received urgent requests, both from dealers and directly from the public, totaling many times the few Corvettes available in 1953. Distribution of these cars to dealers will be controlled entirely from Central Office in Detroit, and will be tagged and assigned specific delivery. This will be done as equitably as possible, giving proper consideration to various geographical locations of the country, the past and future value to Chevrolet of the customer assigned the Corvette, and as wide a distribution among dealers as the extremely limited availability will permit. Under these circumstances no dealer is in a position to accept firm orders for delivery of a Corvette in 1953. As previously announced, our 1954 Corvette production program will be at the rate of 1,000 a month, and we will then be in a position to handle this model as any other regular production car.”

Such was the wealth of publicity already surrounding its Corvette that Chevrolet saw no urgent need either to buy print advertising or to launch its new sports car to the press. Not until Monday, September 28 did it bring 11 cars to Milford to allow each of more than 50 newsmen to drive a Corvette over a seven-mile route. Chevy supplied one of its test mules and asked for a volunteer to attack its fender with a sledgehammer after doing the same to a standard Chevrolet steel fender. He succeeded in making two holes in the Corvette panel, which then was repaired on the spot by a technician to demonstrate GRP’s ease of repair—an important issue with this new material.

“One Monday in late September,” wrote Paul R. Hayes in Car Life, “I slid behind the wheel of a Chevrolet that could accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 11.4 seconds and top 100 mph with plenty to spare. The scene was General Motors’ proving ground at Milford, Michigan, but the car was no ordinary Chevrolet—it was the low-slung Corvette which has been admired by four million and driven by less [sic] than 400. The occasion was the formal press introduction to the first sport car to be placed in production by a nationally known manufacturer.”

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At the press launch Chevrolet had an ace up its sleeve: racer-engineer Mauri Rose. Rose’s third and last Indy 500 victory had been only five years earlier. Motor Trend editor Walt Woron was a passenger with Rose. “Taking the Corvette around GM’s Ride & Handling course,” Woron said, “the Corvette’s suspension seemed good enough to not only keep it flat in the corners, but it stuck better than some foreign sports cars. Mauri showed me how stable the car really was by taking some sweeping bends at 70-75 mph that I felt would have flipped a stock Chevy into the bushes. Yes, I guess you’d say I was impressed.

“To a purist like me…the idea of an automatic transmission in a sports cars was unthinkable,” Woron continued, “even if the selector lever was next to the driveshaft tunnel. Later, with…Rose demonstrating his effortless technique of downshifting for braking and accelerating out of corners, I had to admit grudgingly that an automatic could be at home in a sports car.”

In fact automatics had already found homes in the SCCA’s modified sports cars. With the help of GM’s Charles Chayne, Bill Milliken installed a two-speed Dynaflow in the Bugatti Type 54 he raced for Sam Scher. It won its class in the Giant’s Despair Hill Climb. Chicago’s Fred Wacker successfully competed with a Hydra-Matic in his “Eight Ball” Cadillac-Allard. In fact the Hydra-Matic, with its four forward speeds and fluid coupling instead of a torque converter, would have been a far better bet for the Corvette.

Chevrolet’s nine-page news release of September 29 was headed by a quote from General Manager Tom Keating that deserves repetition in full because it was the closest that the Division came to describing what it was trying to achieve with its sports car:

In the Corvette we have built a sports car in the American tradition. It is not a racing car in the accepted sense that a European sports car is a race car. It is intended, rather, to satisfy the American public’s conception of beauty, comfort and convenience, plus performance. Just as the American production sedan has become the criterion of luxury throughout the world, we have produced a superior sports car. We have not been forced to compromise with the driving and economic considerations that influence so broadly the European automotive design.

Some question as to whether the Corvette was really “a sports car in the American tradition” might justifiably have been raised by Finley Robertson Porter, the then-82-year-old designer of the Mercer Raceabout. Although the Corvette would quite soon meet this criterion, it did not at birth. But this caused no concern among the 20,000 Americans who, since the car’s first showing, told Chevy and its dealers that they would be interested in buying one. “To all of these inquiries,” said sales chief Fish, “we have avoided definite commitments.

“The problem of distribution,” Fish continued, “is not insolvable. Many times since the war Chevrolet has been faced with far more dealer orders than we could hope to handle.” With only a handful of cars to deal with in 1953, Fish decided to make them available only to outstanding high-volume dealers and, at those dealerships, solely to Very Important People in the community—industrial leaders, urban officials, the socially prominent, military officers, celebrities and the like.

Here was a head-on clash between Harley Earl’s vision and the reality as posited by the Chevrolet Motor Division. Earl had conceived the Corvette as appealing to the enthusiasts he had met at Watkins Glen, people who were buying “those English cars” that he hoped to blow into the long grass. Young people were Earl’s target, and if the Corvette’s price had come out higher than he hoped, he nevertheless expected them to aspire to own Chevy’s sports car. Folks like this were surely among the 20,000 who had expressed interest. But they and their dealers were ignored by Fish and his minions. It was a disconnect that would have a profound impact on the Corvette’s success—or lack thereof—in its initial years of availability.

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