Car of the Week: 1955 Chevrolet Corvette

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Story and photos by
Angelo Van Bogart

Despite its historic significance, the 1955 Corvette is often overlooked among early Corvettes. It’s through no fault of its own, but rather a case of “out of sight, out of mind.”

Dennis and Laurie McGill almost overlooked the Gypsy Red 1955 Corvette pictured here, but when it appeared for sale after their long hunt for a later Corvette, they quickly learned to appreciate what they had found.

“My wife had been saving up for a 1957 Corvette, because that’s the year she graduated, and her father worked at a Chevy dealer around that time,” Dennis said. “We had been looking around [the Iola Old Car Show] for years, but every year, the price would go up.”

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During their annual pilgrimages to the big car show and swap meet in Iola, Wis., the McGills never found the right 1957 Corvette. But in 1983, they did find the right 1955 Corvette, and it was located closer to their northern Wisconsin home.

“I was looking at the local shopper and here was a 1955 Corvette, so I called,” Dennis said. “The guy said, ‘You’re the 23rd person in line — I will take your name and number and if I don’t have it sold to someone who called earlier, I will call you.”

Fortunately for the McGills, not one of the previous 22 people in line followed through with a sale. It’s also easy to see why the seller burned through so many callers: He offered the McGills one chance to see the car. If they didn’t take him up on it, he was moving on to the 24th caller.

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“He called at 5 o’clock on a Monday and said we had an appointment at 6:30 to look at the car, so we jumped in the car and ran over there,” Dennis said.

When they arrived in Tomahawk, Wis., to see the car, Dennis could sense Laurie was lukewarm over the red 1955.

“It had an aftermarket hardtop and it was kind of ugly, so I said ‘Let’s take the top off so she can see what it looks like.’”

Even though Dennis described the car as “rough and ratty,” seeing the Corvette as a roadster — and the form Harley Earl intended — was enough to seal the deal.

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“I said, ‘We’ll take it, but we’ll have to go to the bank,’” Dennis said. “The seller gave us until noon the next day, so we ran to the bank in the morning and bought the car.”

Shortly after the sale, the seller called the McGills again, but it wasn’t to buy back the Corvette.

“We bought it on a Tuesday, and that weekend, a magazine came out with an ad that the seller had sent in earlier and he was hammered with calls. He called us to say, ‘I need to send you this envelop because it has a lot prospects if you ever want to sell it.’”

Although the McGills’ 1955 Corvette received a lot of interest when offered for sale in the early 1980s, Corvettes were not hot sellers in 1955. While other cars were shattering sales records that year, Corvette sales were dropping. There were 1,100 unsold 1954 Corvettes at the end of the model year, so only 700 Corvettes were built in the 1955 model year. Any way you slice it, the number of Corvettes built for the 1955 model year is a far cry from the still-dismal 3,640 cars built in 1954, and it’s only slightly more than double the limited production of 300 cars in 1953, the Corvette’s first year. Unfortunately, that low production has kept 1955 Corvettes largely out of sight, making appearances a real treat. The cars are also unique, because they retain the original Motorama styling with tailfins and baskets over the headlamps for one more year, yet could be fitted with the famous Chevrolet small-block V-8 for the first time.

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Other Corvette improvements for 1955 included a more modern 12-volt electrical system and body fiberglass made thinner and smoother for better panel fit and construction. Those fiberglass panels could also be sprayed in a greater number of colors for 1955. But for all their improvements, the three-year-old design was overshadowed by Ford’s new two-seat Thunderbird, which came exclusively with V-8 power and a conventional steel body, and perhaps even by the “hot” V-8-powered full-size Chevrolets with very handsome styling, particularly in two-door hardtop or convertible forms.

The early history of the McGills’ Corvette is not known, but Dennis said the previous owner collected C1 and C2 Corvettes, and he bought the Gypsy Red ’55 from a used car lot in Madison, Wis., at least three decades ago. This car retains its 265-cid V-8 good for 195 hp (15 hp more than the Power Pack 265 in full-size Chevys) and the Powerglide automatic transmission found in most ’55 Corvettes.

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“There were supposedly a few late-number three-speeds,” Dennis said. “I have heard that GM didn’t think its three-speed was strong enough for that V-8.

“Also, the unique thing about the ’55 V-8 is it doesn’t have an oil filter. With the ’Vette, there wasn’t room under the hood for the oil bath air cleaner. There’s no tranny cooler, either.”

The McGills’ Corvette is one of 180 built that year in the new Gypsy Red color (Corvette Copper and Harvest Gold were also new-for-1955 Corvette colors). The car also carries a Wonderbar radio and heater among its options. Directional signal lamps, windshield washer, parking brake alarm, courtesy lamps and white side walls were all options and not included in the 1955 Corvette’s lofty $2,934 base price. The six-cylinder is sometimes considered an “option” in 1954, but less than a dozen buyers “opted” for the less-powerful, three-carbureted powerplant. (Some experts believe six-cylinder-powered 1955s may be leftover 1954s with 1955 serial numbers.)

Since the McGills bought their car, appreciation for the 1955 Corvettes’ blend of early styling and V-8 power has only grown, which became evident to the McGills as the Corvette’s 50th anniversary approached a few years back.

“I got a call from this guy and he said, ‘Did you bring a ’55 Corvette to our show 18 years ago? Well, for the Pierce Park show in Appleton (Wis.), the Corvette club is trying to get one from every year. Do you know where that ’55 is now?’ I said, ‘Sure, it’s in my garage.’”

The organizer’s ability to track down the McGills’ Corvette was impressive since the couple mostly limits the car’s appearances to the annual Iola Old Car Show. But before the car could be displayed at the Appleton Old Car Show in 2003, Dennis McGill had some work to do. Restoration work begun in the early 1990s remained at a stand still. While the paint had been stripped and fresh Gypsy Red had been applied by McGills’ brother, the car hadn’t been completely reassembled.

“I told him I had the body redone and there’s no upholstery, no wiring harness, I don’t think I had started it for two years — I put it on the back burner,” Dennis said, but the show organizer persisted. “He said, ‘Can I tell the show I found a ’55 Corvette? We have been looking for a long time.’

“I e-mailed him pictures and tried to make them look as crappy as I could,” Dennis said, but the organizer was not deterred. “He called back and said, ‘We got to have your car.’ I said, ‘My brother is here and we’ll hand-push it out of the shed and see if it will start. If it has brakes and it runs, we’ll take it there.’ We let it idle for about a half-hour and it didn’t overheat. There were no seats so I grabbed a milk crate and he grabbed a block and we went to the end of the driveway. I said let’s go to the end of the road. It idled and ran and sounded nice, so I said, ‘I will bring it down, but I don’t want to hear bad comments about its condition — it should not be at your show.’”

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In the end, attending the Appleton Old Car Show may have been the best thing for the McGills and their Corvette. Displaying it at the event encouraged them to complete its restoration, and share to share it at even more venues.

“We took it down there and had a great time,” Dennis said. “People said, ‘You are going to have to restore this car by 2005 (for its 50th anniversary), because everyone is going to want it at their show. We had joined the NCRS when we started restoring it, and they have a registry so they knew we had the car. They started hounding us to display it and I said to my wife, ‘We have two years, let’s get this car at least decent.’”

With the help of his brother, Dennis wrapped up the car’s restoration so it could be displayed when invited to Corvettes at Carlisle, Bloomington Gold and a Corvette meet in Utah. Fortunately, the McGills’ Corvette was a good restoration candidate, because parts for 1955s are difficult to find.

“I spent quite a lot of time looking for ’55 parts,” Dennis said. “I should have bought them back when I first got the car, because they had them back then. I’d see them at Iola.”

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New reproduction pieces are also hard to come by, and like original parts, they are expensive when they can be found. As an example, McGill pointed to the chrome-plated cover set for the distributor and spark plug wires for the 265-cid V-8, a ’55-only part. The parts not only brighten the V-8 engine, they also prevent interference with the radio. Replacing the cover set with a reproduction set will set back a 1955 Corvette owner about $2,800, said McGill.

Six-figure values for 1955 Corvettes certainly justify the cost of their parts, but their low production numbers and parts scarcity also makes driving a risky adventure. Dennis remembers the day he realized the little red Corvette was more than just a toy — it was at that Appleton, Wis., show where the unfinished Corvette debuted with fresh paint.

The McGills reserve drives in their 1955 Corvette for special occasions, including the annual Iola Old Car Show, but they wouldn’t dream of selling it.

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“She likes the ’55, but it has become a trailer queen, so we have a 1977 to drive,” said Dennis. “We have had the ’55 so long it’s like having a grandchild, and you’re not going to get rid of it.” But would they buy it all over again?

“Somebody said it was a pretty good investment,” Dennis said, “Yeah, we would buy it all over again.”

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