On this day in 1953, a prototype Chevrolet Corvette sports car makes its debut at General Motors’ (GM) Motorama auto show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The Corvette, named for a fast type of naval warship, would eventually become an iconic American muscle car and remains in production today.
In the early 1950s, Harley Earl (1893-1969), the influential head designer for GM, then the world’s largest automaker, became interested in developing a two-seat sports car. At the time, European automakers dominated the sports car market. Following the debut of the Corvette prototype at the Motorama show in January 1953, the first production Corvette was completed at a Flint, Michigan, plant on June 30, 1953. 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.
There was talk within GM of discontinuing the Corvette; however, GM rival Ford launched the sporty two-seat Thunderbird convertible in 1955 and the car quickly became a hit. GM didn’t want to discontinue the Corvette and look like a failure next to its Big Three competitor, so the car remained in production and performance enhancements were made. That same year, a Belgian-born, Russian-raised designer named Zora Arkus-Duntov became head engineer for Corvette and put the car on a course that would transform it into a legend. Duntov had applied to work at GM after seeing the Corvette prototype at the 1953 Motorama show. According to The New York Times: “Once hired, he pushed through the decision to turn the Corvette into a high-performance sports car with a succession of more powerful engines. Chevrolet offered a 195-horsepower engine on the 1955 Corvette, a 240-horsepower engine on the 1956 Corvette and a 283-horsepower engine on the 1957 model.” During the second half of the 1950s, Corvettes began setting speed records on the racing circuit. The car also got a publicity boost when it was featured on the TV show “Route 66,” which launched in 1960 and followed the story of two young men driving around America in a Corvette, looking for adventure.
In 1977, the 500,000th Corvette was built. Two years later, according to the Times, yearly Corvette production peaked at 53,807. In 1992, the 1-milllionth Corvette came off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Kentucky; the 1.5-millionth Corvette followed in 2009.