Chevy Corvette History

Corvette history brings together two legends of automotive engineering and design. What began as a concept car became an American icon of speed with a devoted following.

Concept Car Roots
Harley J. Earl was GM’s chief designer in 1951. In the fall of that year, Earl began thinking about a sports car that would sell for around $2,000. He took his idea to Robert F. McLean, and a concept car was born. The concept car used the ’52 Chevy sedan’s chassis parts, but the drivetrain and cab were shoved toward the back of the car, so that it had a longer hood. The concept car had an inline six-cylinder engine, but the horsepower on the engine was jacked by increasing the compression ratio. The original transmission was a Powerglide automatic transmission, as GM was not sure that the manual transmission could handle the power output. The body was made from fiberglass in order to keep the costs down.

GM planned to display their concept car as part of their Motorama exhibit in the 1953 New York Auto Show. Ed Cole, the chief engineer at Chevrolet, was so enthusiastic about the car, he began production on it before it appeared at the Auto Show. Cole saw the car as the perfect match for the small-block V8 engine he was developing.

Choosing a Name
The concept car needed a name, but Cole could not think of a name he liked. Cole contacted Myron Scott, the founder of the All-American Soap Box Derby, who had been hired as the assistant advertising manager for Chevrolet. Scott suggested that the concept car’s name should be Corvette. Scott took the name from fast patrol ships used by the British navy.

Corvette Heads to Market
The first Corvette was sold in June 1953. Only 300 Polo White Corvettes were built in the first year. The 1954 version did not have any structural changes, but it could be ordered in more colors. Although people liked the design, it did not sell well because it did not have the performance to match its looks.

Performance caught up in 1955, when the Corvette got the new small-block V8 engine. This new engine had 265 cubic inches and 195 horsepower. Unlike the older Corvettes, it could go from 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds. GM limited production to only 700 cars, because there were too many leftovers from previous years.

In 1956, the Corvette got a new body. It had chrome teeth on the grille, scalloped flanks and a rounded trunk. The removable hard top was first offered in 1956. The Corvette style had been born.

Corvette Changes
Through the years, Corvette has been a leader in body design and engine power for factory-made US cars. From 1968 to 1982, the Corvette adopted a “Mako Shark” concept design, with a slanting front hood, high fenders and pop-up headlights. Engine power peaked in 1971 with a 454 big-block V8 that could produce 425 horsepower. 

The oil embargo of the 1970s brought gas shortages, high fuel prices and a desire for more economical cars. Corvette continued to produce cars with great styling, but the engines gradually declined in power. This trend would continue until the early 2000s, when advanced engine designs allowed Corvette engineers to pack in extra horsepower without making the car a magnet for gas stations.