C1 Corvette Overview: The Making of America’s Sports Car

How The C1 Corvette Was Made: See The Car’s Evolution

We are looking at the C1 Corvette’s history in our overview of the first generation Vettes. Although the C1 Chevrolet Corvette ran from 1953 through 1962, its legacy lives on in cars from more recent generations.

Let’s explore the significance of the Chevrolet Corvette C1’s impact on America’s car culture by going back and understanding the details of its history.

Chevrolet created the C1 Corvette and called it the solid-axle Corvette due to the independent rear suspension that was absent until the 1963 Stingray model.

Throughout its lifetime, the car had many changes, but the most important one for the C1 was when in 1955 the fuel-injected V8 engine was put in place of the straight-6 engine.

The C1 Corvette has been a classic part of American culture since it was first released and the Corvette has retained its popularity and has a strong fan base today.

So let’s dig in and learn some C1 Corvette history.

How many C1 Corvettes were made?

As we start our C1 Corvette overview, we have one of the first photos of the 1953 Corvette. The first C1 Corvette came off the Flint production line on June 30, 1953, and carried a price tag of $3,490.  The two-seat sports car could go zero to 60 in 11 or 12 seconds.
As we start our C1 Corvette overview, we have one of the first photos of the 1953 Corvette. The first C1 Corvette came off the Flint production line on June 30, 1953, and carried a price tag of $3,490. The two-seat sports car could go zero to 60 in 11 or 12 seconds. Photo Credits GM Archives

The first generation Chevrolet Corvette ran from 1953 through 1962. So, how many Corvette C1 models were made?

A total of 69,015 C1 Chevrolet Corvettes were made. All Corvette bodies were Roadster/Convertibles.

  • 1953 Corvette – 300 Units Sold
  • 1954 Corvette – 3,640 Roadster Sold
  • 1955 Corvette – 700 Roadsters Sold
  • 1956 Corvette – 3,467 Convertibles Sold
  • 1957 Corvette – 6,339 Convertibles Sold
  • 1958 Corvette – 9,168 Convertibles Sold
  • 1959 Corvette – 9,670 Convertibles Sold
  • 1960 Corvette – 10,261 Convertibles Sold
  • 1961 Corvette – 10,939 Convertibles Sold
  • 1962 Corvette – 14,531 Convertibles Sold The C1 Corvette Stingray is a classic car. If you are looking to buy one, you can find them for sale here.

Harley J. Earl and Sports Cars

Harley Earl was a famed American automotive designer and an executive at General Motors. His Art and Color department was renamed General Motors Design Staff in 1937. Some of Earl's most popular and recognizable works include the Chevy Nomad, the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, all of the Buicks made in the early 1950s, and the Corvette.
Harley Earl was a famed American automotive designer and an executive at General Motors. His Art and Color department was renamed General Motors Design Staff in 1937. Some of Earl’s most popular and recognizable works include the Chevy Nomad, the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, all of the Buicks made in the early 1950s, and the Corvette. Photo Credits GM Archives

As we look at the C1 Corvette overview we start with the man responsible for the design of the first Corvette, Harley J. Earl.

Earl liked sports cars and in the early 1950’s he noticed the GIs were bringing back MG-TCs and Alfa Romeos, and in 1951 Nash Motors started selling a two-seater sports car called the Nash-Healey.

He created a prototype for the Motorama shows which were full of show cars to razzle and dazzle the public. Earl showed the prototype to Ed Cole, a Chevy engineer, and won himself a convert. Edward Cole, a GM engineer, and an industrial designer and engineer Robert McLean joined the team to produce the idea.

Although there was a bit of back and forth to convince GM’s executives, America’s sports car had finally arrived and astounded show-goers.

You can see scenic running footage of the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette unveiled at the 1953 Motorama in New York in this blog post.

The public reaction to the concept vehicle we more than enthusiastic so GM rushed into production with the new 1953 C1 Corvette.

Prototype EX-122

1953 EX 122 Corvette is on display at the 2010 Bloomington Gold held at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois. It was inducted into the Great Hall.
1953 EX 122 Corvette is on display at the 2010 Bloomington Gold held at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois. It was inducted into the Great Hall.

Project Opel was the effort’s code name, which ended up producing the hand-built, EX-122 pre-production Corvette prototype. The EX-122 was first revealed to the public at the 1953 General Motors Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City on January 17, 1953.

The EX-122 car is now on display at the Kerbeck Corvette Museum in Atlantic City and is believed to be the oldest Corvette in existence.

People’s Perception of the Production Corvette

Once the new Chevy C1 Corvette rolled off showroom floors it had virtually no changes from the show car.

But the reviews were mixed and sales fell far short of expectations. From 1953 to 1955, the car sold a total of just 4,640 units, and the general consensus in those early days was that the Corvette was finished. They almost canceled the program, which over its history has happened more than once.

Zora Arkus Duntov and the C1 Chevrolet Corvette

Zora Arkus-Duntov, an American engineer of Belgian descent, played a major role in the success of the Chevrolet Corvette.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, an American engineer of Belgian descent, played a major role in the success of the Chevrolet Corvette. Photo Credits GM Archives

Fortunately for Corvette, a Belgian engineer by the name of Zora Arkus Duntov had taken notice of the car at the 1953 GM Motorama. He drafted a letter to the executives at Chevrolet describing those elements of the car that worked and making a number of recommendations to improve the car’s power and performance capabilities.

The car was striking. However, its six-cylinder engine was not strong enough, which meant that the car gained a reputation for being an overpriced rolling bathtub.

Starting on May 1, 1953, Arkus-Duntov began as an assistant staff engineer for Chevrolet. By 1956 Zora Arkus Duntov had attained the position of director of high-performance vehicle design and development for Chevrolet, earning him the moniker Father of the Corvette. But that’s another story.

The C1 Corvette was designed by Harley Earl and his team at General Motors.

As we learn more in our C1 Corvette overview, the cost was certainly part of the equation. Knowing costs would be an issue GM Executive Robert McLean ordered that the mechanical components that would be used would be off-the-shelf. He borrowed the chassis and suspension design from the 1949-1954 Chevy.

They moved the drivetrain and passenger compartment rearward to achieve a 53% front-to-rear weight distribution.

First-generation Corvettes used a modified chassis from Chevrolet’s passenger car lineup, which featured a central X-brace and accommodated the car’s 102-inch wheelbase, which was 13 inches shorter than a Bel Air sedan.
First-generation Corvettes used a modified chassis from Chevrolet’s passenger car lineup, which featured a central X-brace and accommodated the car’s 102-inch wheelbase, which was 13 inches shorter than a Bel Air sedan.

The wheelbase was 102 in.

Under the hood, the engine was an inline-six-cylinder 235 cu in (3.85 L), similar to the 235 engines that powered other Chevy models. But it had a higher-compression ratio, three Carter side-draft carburetors, mechanical lifters, and a higher-lift camshaft. The engine is nicknamed ‘Blue Flame,’ and produces 150 horsepower.

Chevy did not have a manual transmission that could handle the 150 HP Corvette, so a two-speed Powerglide automatic was used.

The Corvette could do 0–60 mph in 11.5 seconds.

Because of the curves of the Corvette, they decided to use fiberglass for the bodywork.

Three-body styles were made for the Motorama: the Corvette was created as a roadster. While a Corvair fastback was built, it never went into production. In addition, a Chevrolet Nomad was built and came in a two-door station wagon model. The Nomad was eventually produced. Check out some of the Vintage Ads for the Motorama. The one ad has three body styles in the advertisement.

1953 C1 Corvette American Classic

The 1953 C1 Corvette is an American classic that is timeless and has its own place in automotive history.

In 1952, GM's Harley Earl and a small team of designers set out to create an American sports car using fiberglass technology. They created the Chevrolet Corvette. When it was unveiled at the 1953 GM Motorama, crowds flocked to see it. At the time, Corvettes had a 235ci engine capable of 150 horsepower and 223 lb-ft of torque. A few years later, GM engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Russian-born émigré who knew his way around European sports car racing, came to give Corvette a more powerful engine. Thanks to Duntov, Ed Cole's elegant and lightweight 1955 Chevy small-block V-8 became a lightweight racing engine competitive in nearly any environment. In 1956, a Corvette race car with the right factory-authorized parts could take on nearly any car in the world. And that was just the start.
In 1952, GM’s Harley Earl and a small team of designers set out to create an American sports car using fiberglass technology. They created the Chevrolet Corvette. When it was unveiled at the 1953 GM Motorama, crowds flocked to see it. At the time, Corvettes had a 235ci engine capable of 150 horsepower and 223 lb-ft of torque. A few years later, GM engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Russian-born émigré who knew his way around European sports car racing, came to give Corvette a more powerful engine. Thanks to Duntov, Ed Cole’s elegant and lightweight 1955 Chevy small-block V-8 became a lightweight racing engine competitive in nearly any environment. In 1956, a Corvette race car with the right factory-authorized parts could take on nearly any car in the world. And that was just the start.

The Chevrolet Corvette C1 was manufactured by General Motors. Production took place from June 1953 through July 1962. The model years were 1953 through 1962.

The 1953 Corvettes were assembled in the United States of America. The first 53 Corvettes, 1953 through early 1954 were all hand-built. They were manufactured in a makeshift assembly line at a Flint, Michigan truck factory. The rest of the 1954 Corvettes were assembled at St. Louis Assembly, St. Louis, Missouri, and remained produced there through the C1 1962 models.

1953 CORVETTE ASSEMBLY PHOTOS
Here is an early assembly line photo. Photo Credits GM Archives
The first Corvettes were produced in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953. Only 300 Corvettes were made for the 1953 model year - all Polo White with red interiors.
The first Corvettes were produced in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953. Only 300 Corvettes were made for the 1953 model year – all Polo White with red interiors. Photo Credits GM Archives
1953 Corvette
1953 Corvette Historical Photo – Photo Credits GM Archives
The first Corvettes were produced in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953. Only 300 Corvettes were made for the 1953 model year - all Polo White with red interiors.
The first Corvettes were produced in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953. Only 300 Corvettes were made for the 1953 model year – all Polo White with red interiors. Photo Credits GM Archives

In December 1953, Chevrolet had just completed and established a brand new factory in St. Louis, and was now able to produce 10,000 Corvettes per year.

There was no choice of colors the first year. All Corvettes were Polo White. All the soft-tops for the roadster were black, and they all had a red interior.

The base price was $3,498.00 which was more expensive than the basic $2,000 roadster Harley Earl originally had in mind in spite of their hard work to keep costs down.

Serial number E53F001001, the first C1 Corvette rolled off the assembly line on Tuesday, June 30, 1953. This Corvette was thought to be destroyed, but no evidence currently substantiates this and there were no witnesses. You never know, this Corvette might surface one day.

The 1953-1955 Corvettes had the Blue Flame 6 straight six-cylinder engine and a dual exhaust featuring three cylinders per pipe.

1954 – 1955 Chevy C1 Corvette History

Shown here is a 1954 C1 Corvette in Sportsman Red and a beige Soft Top. It was exhibited at the Corvettes at Carlisle in 2015.
Shown here is a 1954 C1 Corvette in Sportsman Red and a beige Soft Top. It was exhibited at the Corvettes at Carlisle in 2015.

As we look at the overview of the 1954 Corvette we learn that the price dipped and the fiberglass body Corvette had a minor redesign. But sales were slow. This brand needed more than just a lovely design to attract customers going forward. It needed more power.

There were four Corvette colors by 1954: Polo White, Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black. Apparently, there may have been a few Corvettes in other colors.

All of them in 1954 had the “optional” Powerglide automatic transmission.

The 1954 Corvette had a 235 ci and was either a 150-horsepower or 155-horsepower engine.

Having joined Chevrolet, Duntov became a part of the Corvette program. Growing up, Zora Arkus-Duntov raced in Europe and had knowledge of cars from that time like Ferraris and Jaguars.

In 1954, Ford also announced the release of the Thunderbird with a V-8 engine.

Though not originally part of the Corvette project, Zora Arkus-Duntov is known for having added the V8 engine and three-speed manual transmission. It took until 1955, but Zora got his first V-8 into the Corvette and turned it into a fiberglass rocket.

Sales of the Corvette were not doing well. Chevrolet was going to stop making the Corvette because of the inability to sell the small sports car. Fortunately, with the introduction of the new V8 Ford Thunderbird, that did not happen. Let’s say that the Thunderbird was partially responsible for the Corvette’s survival.

1956-1957 Corvette C1 History

in 1956, St. Louis painted 290 vehicles in a special Cascade Green out of 3,467 produced that year. In 1956 C1 Corvettes, there were three different engines available, but most Vette buyers chose the 265 hp 265 cubic inch V-8 with dual four-barrel carburetors. The photo was taken at the Bloomington Gold Corvette show.
in 1956, St. Louis painted 290 vehicles in a special Cascade Green out of 3,467 produced that year. In 1956 C1 Corvettes, there were three different engines available, but most Vette buyers chose the 265 hp 265 cubic inch V-8 with dual four-barrel carburetors. The photo was taken at the Bloomington Gold Corvette show.

In 1956, the Corvette included a new design and style which changed the perception of the Corvette in America. In 1956 the car also received a facelift as well as new optional accessories to make it a bona fide performance machine. As a result of new design features and increased production numbers, the Corvette captured the admiration and popularity it had been lacking up to that point and annual sales grew to over three thousand. The transmission remains the standard three-speed manual or there is the optional Powerglide automatic.

In the 1956 through 1962 models the Corvette received a V-8 engine and featured dual exhaust, some of which also came with a crossover pipe. Two types of mufflers were available, either a quiet oval muffler or a round off-road muffler. The pipe had a measurement of 7/8 of an inch.

In 1957, the largest news for the Corvette was that it was now available with fuel injection, cutting-edge technology in the 1950s.

For 1957, visually it was unchanged but the engine displacement was increased from 265 cubic inches to 283 cubic inches.

With the new 4-speed transmission and radical fuel injection, 283 cubic inch engines proved to be a winning combination in factory-sponsored racing. Perhaps the new racing combinations led to the 2-seat 1957 Thunderbird’s last year.

1957 C1 Engine Choices

New for the 1957 model was buyers could have a choice in engine options.

  • 283ci, 245hp Engine (2×4 carburetor)
  • 283ci, 270hp Engine (2×4 carburetor)
  • 283ci, 250hp Engine (fuel injection)
  • 283ci, 283hp Engine (fuel injection)
  • 283ci, 250hp Engine (fuel injection)
  • 283ci, 283hp Engine (fuel injection)

Transmissions were:

  • Powerglide 2 speed automatic transmission
  • 3-speed manual
  • 4-speed manual

1958-1960 C1 History

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The 1958 C1 Corvette was loaded with chrome decorations all over and the twin chrome trunk spears were unique to the model. Here is another perfect example of Corvette history!

1958 marks the end of Harley Earl’s involvement with the program. The one major stylistic choice Earl had was a heavy reliance on chrome, and the 1958 edition was loaded with chrome decorations all over the exterior.

General Motors introduced the new corporate four-headlight look as a mandate for all cars in its 1958 model lineup. The Chevrolet Corvette C1 had a longer front end with quad headlights. The grill was now a 9 tooth whereas the previous one was 13. The bumper now had the exhaust tips exiting it.

It’s important to note that in 1958 hood louvers and twin chrome trunk spears were unique to the model.

A Corvette from 1958 was remodeled extensively in terms of body and interior. On the inside a new steering wheel and a dashboard with all gauges that is located in front of the driver. There is now a tachometer that drivers can see from the cockpit of the car for an improved driving experience.

The 58 Corvette was also the first year seat belts were installed at the factory.

The car weighed about 200 pounds more, and was about 9.2 inches longer and about 1.7 inches wider.

Some questionable the placements of chrome trim on the car’s body but sales of the 1958 Corvette jumped up to 9,168 units in 1958.

This beautiful 1959 Corvette is Tuxedo Black with Silver Coves and has a Red Vinyl interior. It also has a 283 CI, 290 HP engine. The following options are available, including an AM radio signal seeking, a heater, a windshield washer, and a radiator fan clutch. The car is owned by Bob and Linda Cook and is on display at the NCRS Gallery at Corvettes at Carlisle in 2021.
The NCRS Gallery puts together each year a beautiful display at Corvettes at Carlisle showing the history of the Corvette. This beautiful 1959 Corvette is Tuxedo Black with Silver Coves and has a Red Vinyl interior. It also has a 283 CI, 290 HP engine. The following options are available, including an AM radio signal seeking, a heater, a windshield washer, and a radiator fan clutch. This highly original Corvette is owned by Bob and Linda Cook and is on display at the NCRS Gallery at Corvettes at Carlisle in 2021.

Excluding the change in chrome trim, the 1959 and 1960 Corvettes were virtually identical to the 1958 model.

The 1959 Corvette sold 9,670 cars sold in 1959. In the following year, the 1960 Corvette surpassed the 10,000-unit barrier for the first time, with 10,261 units sold.

1961 Redesign

Bill Mitchell replaced Harley Earl as general manager of design and the Corvette became “his baby.” Mitchell was designing an assortment of new features for the first-generation Corvette based on the Corvette Stingray prototypes he’d been working on.

As Corvette sales have gone up each year, GM executives have been looking at Mitchell’s designs more and more.

It wasn’t long before they reached the decision to manufacture another redesign of the Corvette for the 1961 model year.

When the 1961 first-generation Corvette was created, it was unlike anything that had come before.

1961 Corvette Rear End. Photo courtesy Mecum Auction
1961 Corvette Rear End. Photo courtesy Mecum Auction

In 1961, the rear of the Corvette was significantly updated with the addition of a ducktail. The rear of the Corvette had four round taillights. This taillight design was implemented on every Corvette to come until it was changed in 2014. The C1 Corvette Stingray has an unforgettable, elegant, and emblematic rear-end styling that would characterize the succeeding generations. The curves seen in the production of the Corvettes led up to the inevitable second-generation Corvette already in the process of design.

The 1961 Chevy Corvette C1 grille differed from the teeth on the previous models to a mesh-based one and was a three-unit front grille.

One major change in the 1961 C1 Corvette is the rear end, which is modeled on the Sting Ray, GM racing Corvette owned by Bill Mitchell. Rick Hale owns this 1961 C1 Corvette in Jewel Blue that was displayed at the 2021 Bloomington Gold Corvette show.
One major change in the 1961 C1 Corvette is the rear end, which is modeled on the Sting Ray, GM racing Corvette owned by Bill Mitchell. Rick Hale owns this 1961 C1 Corvette in Jewel Blue that was displayed at the 2021 Bloomington Gold Corvette show.

1961 was the last year for the two-tone colors. The Corvettes were painted Magic-Mirror acrylic lacquer finish and came in seven solid colors.

Read on to learn about the 10th year in our Corvette historical overview.

1962 Corvette Overview

Alan B. Shepard (center) with GM Styling President William L. Mitchell (left) and Chevrolet General Manager Edward N. Cole (right) with Shepard's 1962 C1 Corvette.  © General Motors
Alan B. Shepard (center) with GM Styling President William L. Mitchell (left) and Chevrolet General Manager Edward N. Cole (right) with Shepard’s 1962 C1 Corvette. © General Motors
On display at the NCRS Gallery 2021 is Gary and Andrea Dukeman's 1962 C1 Corvette convertible.  It is almond Beige with Fawn Beige vinyl interior and has the 327 CI, 300 HP with 4-speed manual transmission.  Additional options include direct flow exhaust system, heater, AM radio signal seeking.
A perfect example of Corvette history on display at the NCRS Gallery 2021. It is owned by Gary and Andrea Dukeman’s 1962 C1 Corvette convertible. It is almond Beige with Fawn Beige vinyl interior and has the 327 CI, 300 HP with 4-speed manual transmission. Additional options include a direct flow exhaust system, heater, and AM radio signal seeking.

1962 Corvette was a transitional car for Chevy’s sports car that led to a change in design that was much more competitive and modern-looking, the C3 Corvette which came out in ’63. The 1962 model year of the Chevrolet Corvette was the end of an era.

The Corvette, now ten years old, had changed a lot from Harley Earl’s two-seat sports car concept. The early Corvette experienced deficiencies in both design and performance. With the quality and competitive advantages that the Corvette enjoyed, it was now a real rival to the world’s best-selling sports cars.

The 1962 Chevrolet Corvette C1 was the year that the smaller 283 cubic inch engine was replaced by the 327 cubic inch V-8 engine.

There were a lot of lasts with the ’62 Vette:

  • The wrap-around windshield was discontinued after 1962.
  • The 62 was the last model to include a conventional trunk for many years. It wasn’t until 82 then the hatch window allowed access to the rear storage compartment.
  • The exposed headlamps also would not reappear again for many years.
  • 1953 through 1962 Corvettes were all rear axles sometimes called solid axles. The 62 was the last year and beginning in ’63 Corvettes had an independent rear suspension.
  • All the Corvettes built so far were roadsters/convertibles. This was the last year where only convertibles were offered. The ’63 would offer both a coupe and convertible.

As we look at the history we see that 1962 was the most successful of all the first-generation Corvettes with sales totaling 14,531.

How much is a C1 Corvette worth?

At the Mecum auction in Kissimmee this year (2022) 1953 sold for $418,000. You can find all the C1 Corvette auction results from Kissimme at this link.

If you want to know what the Corvettes sold for at other auctions you can click on the link that says Corvette Auction Results.

Do you want to buy a Corvette? We have several fantastic models of Corvettes for sale in our Corvette for Sale classified ads.

Did you know? By signing up for Vette Vues Magazine, you’ll get a free classified ad in the monthly issue. You can advertise for something you want or for your car for sale! The ad appears in the print edition as well as online. Subscribe to our Corvette magazine today!

What engines were used in the C1 Corvettes?

1953-1955: Blue Flame Inline 6
1955-1956: 4.3L 265CI V8
1957-1961: 4.6L 283CI V8 (Fuel-injected or Carbureted)
1962: 5.4L 327CI V8 (Fuel-injected or Carbureted)

What did the C1 Corvettes Cost?

Note: All C1 Corvettes were roadsters/convertibles, there were no coupes.

  • 1953 $3,498.00
  • 1954 $2,774.00
  • 1955 $2,774.00
  • 1956 $3,120.00
  • 1957 $3,176.32
  • 1958 $3,591.00
  • 1959 $3,875.00
  • 1960 $3,872.00
  • 1961 $3,934.00
  • 1962 $4,038.00

Envisioning the Future

Edward Cole, Zora Arkus-Duntov, and Bill Mitchel had created an American Sportscar that was ready to compete on the world stage. On to the C2 Corvettes!

You can read more about Corvette’s History by generation. Check out these Corvette overviews:

C1 Corvette Enthusiasts

Did you know there are two clubs dedicated to the C1 generation Corvette?

They are both great organizations you might want to check out.

You can find these and other Corvette clubs on our US Clubs, Canada Clubs, and International Clubs pages. Clubs on these pages may be regional or national. Visit one of their sites to find the Corvette club that matches your interests.

Want more Corvette reading?

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