Car of the Week: 1957 Chevrolet Corvette

By David W. Temple

In the beginning, the Corvette did not satisfy many people. The Chevrolet sports car built to American tastes beginning in 1953 for was a flop with the public in its first few years. Never mind that it was innovative and styled well. Furthermore, the first Corvette was not as underpowered as it has been made out to be — at least for street use. However, it was not a true sports car, so the serious sports car enthusiast was not impressed, and justifiably so from their perspective. It did not have a V-8 nor did it have the option of a four-speed. That useless tach in the center of dash only added insult to injury as it was not needed with the Powerglide automatic, and even if it had served a real purpose, the driver could not easily see it. Handling characteristics were reasonably good on the street, but not so much on the track. Braking, too, was short of the mark among the Corvette’s competition. Those who wanted a sporty cruiser to drive to the golf course on the weekends were not particularly impressed, either, due to a lack of features they were accustomed to having, such as roll-up windows. In their place were snap-in Plexiglas panels.

The first Corvettes also lacked outside door handles. That was not a problem with the soft top stowed away in its well; just reach down and slide the inside door release. With the top up and the side window panels in place, one had to push open the vent window and reach inside — not at all a convenient process in the rain.

There were other issues with the first Corvette, such as ill-fitting doors, the steering wheel position and the fact that those first 300 cars built for 1953 could not be had by just anyone who wanted one. No, those were reserved for VIPs: People of social prominence, Hollywood stars and the like. That marketing plan turned off a lot of potential buyers and at first there were plenty of them. One survey taken during the GM Motorama, where the prototype Corvette was displayed, indicated great interest among the public with some actually saying they would cancel their order for an Eldorado to buy a Corvette!

Even though the 1955 Corvette offered a V-8, it was not until 1956 that the restyled Corvette began to be taken seriously as a sports car. It was taken even more seriously for 1957. The 1957 Corvette was an improved version of the 1956, though visually speaking, there was practically no difference between them. Even the paint color offerings were identical with the exception of the addition of Inca Silver, though it was far and away the least popular color choice. All of the important changes were mechanical in nature and made a big difference in the Corvette’s performance capabilities which, in turn, boosted sales. An array of regular production options (RPO) were offered to help transform the Corvette into a serious race car. The body was also more rigid with the introduction of aluminum reinforcements in the dash structure.

Building a better small-block V-8

The 1956 small-block 265 V-8 was enlarged to displace 283 cubic inches for ’57. However, Ed Cole, who had been promoted to a GM vice president and to General Manager of Chevrolet beginning July 1, 1956, demanded more than additional cubic inches for the small-block. What he had in mind was the fuel-injection unit being developed by Chevrolet Engineering. It would put another spotlight on Chevrolet’s ability to offer technical innovations.

Chevrolet’s small-block for 1957 received a bore increase of 0.125 inches, which brought up its displacement by 18 cubic inches to 283. While a 265 was still offered in Chevrolet’s passenger car and truck lines that year, it was dropped for use in the Corvette. A four-barrel 283 V-8 rated at 220 hp at 4800 rpm coupled to the close-ratio three-speed Synchromesh transmission was standard equipment in the ’57 ’Vette.

Powertrain options were highly revised this model year. The 283 with twin four-barrel carburetors was offered in two states of tune with one delivering 245 hp at 5800 rpm (RPO 469) and the other, 270 hp at 4800 rpm (RPO 469C). Well more than half of the buyers of this year’s Corvette opted for one of the dual-carb engines. Next up the engine options chart was the fuel-injected 283 of which there were three versions. Corvettes equipped with one of these engines were denoted with “Fuel Injection” scripts and crossed-flags emblems mounted on the side coves as well as a script for the deck lid.

The mildest version of the fuel-injected 283 engine (RPO 579) had a compression ratio of 9.5:1 and hydraulic lifters, a combination good for 250 hp at 5000 rpm. Second up the tier of fuel-injected engines was RPO 579B or RPO-579E with 10.5:1 compression and mechanical lifters rated at 283 hp — one horsepower per cubic inch — at 6200 rpm. However, that rating was simply an advertising gimmick as true output was about 290 hp. Torque specs were 305 lbs.-ft. at 3800 rpm and 290 lbs.-ft. at 4400 rpm, respectively. Either engine added $484.20 to the $3,176 base price, an approximately 15 percent premium. The racing version of the fuel-injected 283 (RPO 579D), priced at $726.30, included a column-mounted tachometer where it could easily be seen, and a hand-built cold-air induction system, but getting this option also required the purchase of the Competition Brakes and Suspension option (RPO 684), adding another $780.10 to the cost. A complex set of ducts funneled cool air to the brakes of the so-called “Air Box” Corvettes. The radio and heater were deleted from these cars and the hole at the center of the instrument panel where the tachometer was usually installed was filled with a Corvette emblem like the one that was placed on the car’s exterior. Only 43 “Air Box” Corvettes are believed to have been built at the St. Louis assembly plant.

The twin four-barrel carburetors offered a couple of important advantages over the exotic fuel-injection setup. Namely, the dual quads were less expensive and did not require as much maintenance. Fuel Injection proved somewhat troublesome; fuel nozzles would clog with dirt deposits and also absorb heat, causing rough idling. Even so, the “fuelie” engine was not intended for those who wanted to drive their Corvette to the golf course on the weekend; it was for those who were serious about competing against other sports car owners.

The aforementioned RPO 684 Competition Brakes and Suspension option consisted of heavy-duty springs, a thicker front anti-sway bar, a limited-slip axle, larger-piston shock absorbers with firmer valving, a faster steering ratio reducing turns lock-to-lock from 3.7 to 2.9 and Cerametallic brake linings with finned ventilated drums. These brakes required heavy pedal pressure when they were cold, but as they heated from use, they became easier to apply and were highly effective. The limited-slip rear end (RPO 677) was also offered as an option for cars equipped with a manual transmission along with a choice of 3.70, 4.11 and 4.56:1 rear axle ratios.

Until the availability of the four-speed transmission in mid 1957, Corvette owners had to make do with either the three-speed transmission (released in late 1955) or the Powerglide automatic. Finally, starting on April 9, a Borg-Warner close-ratio four-speed transmission (RPO 685) priced at $175 was added to the roster of optional equipment. Ratios were 2.2:1 in first, 1.66:1 in second, 1.31:1 in third and 1:1 in fourth. Because of its late introduction, only 664 of the 1957 models received the four-speed. The Powerglide remained an option (except with the 270 hp and 283 hp engines), though the vast majority of Corvette buyers preferred shifting the gears themselves.

A legendary car for a GM legend

The 1957 Corvette featured on these pages is quite a rarity, and even when new, it was particularly uncommon. It is one of only 65 1957 Corvettes painted Inca Silver. Furthermore, it is equipped with the 250-hp fuel-injection engine and a four-speed. The car is also unusual since it does not have a radio (the radio opening in the instrument panel is covered by a delete plate). The fortunate owner of this car is the recently retired Vice President of GM Global Design, Ed Welburn. Welburn bought the car from baseball great and car enthusiast Reggie Jackson in 2016. Jackson had owned it for about 20 years.

“I love Corvettes and in my opinion, the ’57 Corvette is an absolute pure expression of the first-generation Corvette, with its lean forms and magnificent front end design,” Welburn said. “It’s one of the finest Corvettes of all time. I have loved the ’57 ’Vette for many years. I never imagined buying one, but when I first saw this silver car in Reggie Jackson’s garage, I had to have it. The fact that it was silver, with silver coves, gave the car a very exclusive look, much like the GM design studio models which were frequently painted silver. It wasn’t until after I purchased the car that I learned how exclusive the car was. Not only is my Corvette a fuel-injected, four-speed car, but also one of 65 silver Corvettes in 1957. The color wasn’t even listed in the brochure.”

Welburn’s car is a Triple Crown, Bloomington Gold, Top Flight, Gold Spinner award winner.
The 1957 model year was an important one in the history of the Corvette, because the sports car that so few wanted just a short few years earlier had grown into the role of a true sports car built to American tastes. Though it still fell short of the goal for production of 10,000 units for a couple of more years, it was on its way there and today, it is here to stay.

Note: This article was partially compiled using information from the author’s upcoming book “Chevrolets of the 1950s,” to be released by CarTech during the spring of 2018. Also, the author expresses his thanks to the College of Creative Studies in allowing our feature car to be photographed in the auditorium on the building’s 11th floor.

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