On January 17, 1953, the Chevrolet Corvette prototype was unveiled at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City at Motorama. But the car that we recognize today as synonymous with (relatively) accessible sportiness wasn’t as loved when it first appeared.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
Harley Earl, head designer over at GM at the time, was convinced that a two-seater sports car was the way to go, and introducing a good one could make an impression in what was then a European-dominated market. People were curious, so Chevy had to make sure it filled its expectations.
The car featured an all-fiberglass body, a white exterior and red interior, a relatively unremarkable 150-horsepower engine and a starting price tag of around $3,500 (not including taxes or an optional AM radio and heater). In an effort to give the Corvette an air of exclusivity, GM initially marketed the car to invitation-only VIP customers. This plan met with less-than-desirable results, as only a portion of the 300 Corvettes built that first year were sold. GM dropped the VIP policy the following year; however, Corvette sales continued to disappoint. In 1954, GM built around 3,600 of the 10,000 Corvettes it had planned, with almost a third of those cars remaining unsold by the start of 1955.
To make matters worse, customers at the time just weren’t impressed with the Corvette. The fiberglass body suffered from poor quality. Doors could open while the car was being driven. Water leaked all over the damn place. GM did its damndest to make sure newly produced cars didn’t feature those same issues, but it’s hard to correct a poor first impression.
That said, a Popular Mechanics survey released in late 1954 revealed that half of the Corvette owner who also owned a foreign sports car said the Corvette was superior to its international competition. Another 19 percent said their Corvette was, at the very least, on the same level as foreign competition. Apparently, GM was onto something.
And then Ford launched the Thunderbird, a rival to the Corvette. If it hadn’t been for a serious competitor attempting to occupy the same market space, we might have seen the Corvette taken off the lots, left to become nothing more than a footnote in automotive history. But with Ford waiting in the wings, GM had another stab at the Corvette.
I have to say that the investment paid off. The 500,000th Corvette was built in 1977, with the one millionth coming in 1992. The Corvette has become a staple of sporty Americana—definitely worthy of the foibles at the start of its life.