On this day in 1953, the first production Corvette is built at the General Motors facility in Flint, Michigan. Tony Kleiber, a worker on the assembly line, is given the privilege of driving the now-historic car off the line.
Harley J. Earl, the man behind the Corvette, got his start in his father’s business, Earl Automobile Works, designing custom auto bodies for Hollywood movie stars such as Fatty Arbuckle. In 1927, General Motors hired Earl to redesign the LaSalle, the mid-range option the company had introduced between the Buick and the Cadillac. Earl’s revamped LaSalle sold some 50,000 units by the end of 1929, before the Great Depression permanently slowed sales and it was discontinued in 1940. By that time, Earl had earned more attention for designing the Buick “Y Job,” recognized as the industry’s first “concept” car. Its relatively long, low body came equipped with innovations such as disappearing headlamps, electric windows and air-cooled brake drums over the wheels like those on an airplane.
After scoring another hit with the 1950 Buick LeSabre, Earl headed into the 1950s–a boom decade for car manufacturers–at the top of his game. In January 1953, he introduced his latest “dream car,” the Corvette, as part of GM’s traveling Motorama display at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The sleek Corvette, the first all-fiberglass-bodied American sports car, was an instant hit. It went into production the following June in Flint; 300 models were built that year. All 1953 Corvettes were white convertibles with red interiors and black canvas tops. Underneath its sleek exterior, however, the Corvette was outfitted with parts standard to other GM automobiles, including a “Blue Flame” six-cylinder engine, two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission and the drum brakes from Chevrolet’s regular car line.
The Corvette’s performance as a sports car was disappointing relative to its European competitors, and early sales were unimpressive. GM kept refining the design, however, and the addition of its first V-8 engine in 1955 greatly improved the car’s performance. By 1961, the Corvette had cemented its reputation as America’s favorite sports car. Today, it continues to rank among the world’s elite sports cars in acceleration time, top speed and overall muscle.