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The Chevrolet Corvette I, the icon among post-war sports cars

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The Chevrolet Corvette I, the icon among post-war sports cars

1953-1955: difficult beginnings and sharp criticism After the end of the Second World War, the United States was seen as one of the pillars of the free world. The general euphoria and the return to economic growth saw the appearance of series-built sports cars. Luckily, General Motors did not stop at first impressions and supported its Chevrolet division when the initial project for a fiberglass two-seater sports car was nicknamed the "plastic bathtub". After this backlash in 1953, the Corvette, which took its French name from a light three-mast exploration vessel, cut its teeth on Route 66. Its sportiness and new look quickly made it an American automobile legend. At the beginning, Chevrolet set out to produce only 300 Corvettes before the end of the year: in 1953 only VIPs were allowed to possess a Corvette in order to stimulate interest and to demonstrate and increase its prestige. There were numerous constraints due to the assembly of the 46-piece fiberglass body (molding defects, unadapted wooden forms) and work was decidedly manual. To simplify the task, this convertible had no optional equipment other than the radio: white paint only, shiny red upholstery, black hood and whitewall tires. The style was appealing with its chrome grille and headlights in a large housing; the lines were refined all the way to the protuberant rear lights. Easy to handle, the Corvette had an inline 6-cylinder 150 hp engine and a two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission. Its performance was remarkable for the time, reaching almost 170 kph. All this came at an exorbitant price tag of $3,498, well above the original concept and twice as expensive as a sedan by the same manufacturer. Production exclusively for the elite was Chevrolet's policy. However, this did not have the expected effect; although it was a dream car for some, who even paid a deposit to reserve their grail, the majority of potential buyers decided on British sports cars.  The general public therefore had to wait until 1954 before being able to negotiate a model. Things then went big: 10,000 units came out of the Saint Louis plants that were almost identical to the cars of the previous year. The few changes included 155 horsepower thanks to a new camshaft, the top well was revised and given a new color, and the tailpipes were lengthened and directed downwards to reduce exhaust fumes in the cockpit. It was now possible to choose the body paint; in addition to Polo White came Sportsman Red and Pennant Blue with bronze color seats. Six exclusive black models were also manufactured. The price dropped slightly to $3,254 with the corresponding options. Sales were slightly over 2000 units, far below expectations. The sports car market is a microcosm and the price put a damper on sales – the management of General Motors almost gave up on the Corvette project. Duntov, the engineer and driver, took charge of the project from 1955 in order to find a suitable remedy to sustain the Corvette. The incorporation of a 195 hp V8 at 5000 rpm was a revolution. The V in Chevrolet on the fender was ennobled in gold to celebrate the occasion. The car could now reach 100 kph in under 9 seconds and top speed was 193 kph. At the end of the year, a 3-speed manual transmission was available – a first for the Corvette. Copper and green colors widened the range and the trim was clearly revised. Despite all these improvements, sales peaked at 700 units, casting a pall over the future of the car. 1956-1957: the turnaround, growing popularity One of the finest designs in the history of the American sports car, the 1956 Corvette had everything going for it. The most characteristic elements are the side "coves": these semi-ellipses surrounded by chrome started at the front wheel arch and continued in an arc on the door. The headlights came out of their shells to take on a more prominent position at the front. The emblem, which included a checkered flag crossed with a Swiss flag and a lily, was more visible above the grille. The rear was radically different; carefully designed curves appeared in a gentle style that was much more harmonious with the sides. The tires received the new chrome rims that introduced a style and mark the history of this category. A touch of luxury came with the arrival of door handles! An optional hardtop was available for $215. The standard engine was now the V8 that delivered 210 hp at 5200 rpm, with options for 225 and 240 hp available. It was the end of the plastic toy with no options! The 1956 Corvette was dedicated to sports and showed prowess on the race track; its real performance in a perfect body were enhanced with the most diverse equipment. Sales rose accordingly: 3,467 units were sold. It was not necessary to change the appearance for 1957, only the "coves" became more prominent because they could be differentiated from the rest of the coachwork by a separate color ($20 option). A technological progress, Chevrolet used its engineering department to develop fuel injection for its engines (the famous Ramjet): the Corvette then benefited from engines up to 283 hp (a wide range with 4 other versions, from the standard 220 hp, to the 245 hp version and the two 250 hp engines). A 4-speed manual transmission was added as an alternative (approx. $190). Another interesting package for this year was the RPO 684 that offered improved suspension (heavier coils), braking and steering and went for $780. A total of over 6300 vehicles were produced in 1957, justified by the excellence of the performance options available.1958-1959: A well-received style evolution The creation of the 1958 model enabled the Corvette to gain length, width and weight. The headlights were handsomely twinned for a guaranteed esthetic touch. Safety measures were taken: first came the bumper attachment, which was now on the frame with large points of support, and the gauges were repositioned to interfere less with the field of vision (gone were the attractive dials at the center of the vehicle). A gain in engine power: the 5 versions delivered 230, 245, 250, 270 and 290 horsepower. Officialized at 6200 rpm, this latter version was a serious rival at the international level. At $4000 with this option, the price/performance ratio placed the Corvette at the top rung of sports cars. The favorable publicity of racing victories boosted sales: with approximately 9000 units sold, growth was incredible during the recession. For 1959, the model was simply refined: superfluous chrome was removed here and there, as were the hood vents. The passenger compartment was fitted with more comfortable seats, side supports were repositioned, handles changed place and extra storage was provided. A few extra options like sun visors and brakes with sintered metallic linings were added to the range. There were no other changes. The engine power of the 1958 model was retained and sales remained respectable at 9670 units. 1960-1962: the end of a first generation that earned its reputation The 1960 Corvette reached TV fame. Endorsed by Chevrolet, the "Route 66" TV series offered the model comfortable publicity. The image of the Corvette was boosted by two young people who traveled the USA aboard the car. In addition to this commercial series, the Chevrolet Corvette benefited from even greater performance: the most powerful engine took advantage of increased compression to unleash 315 horsepower.  Aluminum was everywhere! The new clutch with aluminum housings, the cylinder head and the radiator – everything was aluminum. Attractive options were offered that year with a larger tank and a power-saving cooling fan. Available in 8 body colors, the Corvette topped the hurdle of 10,000 units sold in 1960. TV promotion for the 1961 Corvette continued. "Route 66" offered itself the new model for its second season, and careful observers noticed a redesigned wedge tail that gave an impressive increase in storage capacity (a fifth more). Four small rear lights were magnificently round. A lengthwise ridge down the middle of the trunk crossed through the Corvette emblem. The tailpipes were less apparent and released exhaust gases under the car's body. The front end also received a few transformations: eye makeup (painted headlights), a sharper nose revealing a mouth without chrome teeth, and now with a mesh grille. The Corvette script and emblem were proudly displayed in the place of the large logo. The Corvette's silhouette was better defined, and the quality of the fiberglass was largely improved thanks to resin. The total weight of the Chevy was slightly reduced, and it was a little faster, going from 0 to 100 kph in 6 seconds for the 315 hp model. Less restricted by the transmission tunnel, the interior space was more refined: different tints for the interior trim could now be chosen.  The engine remained the same and the rear suspension still had not evolved towards independence, but the necessity for this was not felt as handling was easy. Still growing, sales that year reached 11,000 units, for a standard price of $3934. Practically all customers chose the 4-speed manual transmission option, which brought the bill up to $4100. The 62 vintage was optimal, a concentrate of the best for this first generation and the most coveted by collectors. They appreciate the clean lines and the apogee of its power. First, the remaining chrome was even further reduced. On the contour of the coves, the air scoops were then fitted with aluminum fins on a black background, adding incredible finesse. Black also adds to the finesse of the grille. The two-tone paint option was judiciously interrupted to maintain justified refinement. You can guess the performance when you lift the hood: the engine had been largely revised. The 4 available engines offered unreserved power: from 240 hp for the standard model, up to 300, 340 and 360 horsepower for the most exclusive options. At 6000 rpm for the latter engine, the Corvette came under the ceiling of 0 to 100 kph in 6 seconds and excelled at track events. With a base price over $4000, the charm of this roadster nonetheless attracted over 14,500 purchasers: an enormous surge of 40% in extra sales.  The Corvette I marked nine years of revolution: the first American series sports cars with an entirely fiberglass body design. The technological progress over the years would push its popularity even higher. Considered the jewels of the first generation, the 1961 and 1962 Corvettes are more mechanically advanced, have greater performance, a more refined look and no longer sport the flashy chrome parts. They would mark an incredible transition. Although the path towards the Stingray had it beginnings when the design management proposed its racing project, it was the second generation that would soon accrue the greatest merit to become the ever-enduring Stingray.