Car of the Week: 1953 Corvette

The first Corvette was built on June 30, 1953 at the Flint, Michigan, assembly plant. It was Polo White — as all the debut Corvettes would be — it was handbuilt, it was small, and it was America’s first postwar production sports car.

To call the 1953 ‘Vette an iconic automobile would probably not do it justice. Although it took a few years for the American buying public to warm up to the idea of a domestic-built sports car, the little Chevy, with all its first-year warts, certainly went where no American car had gone before.

The new 1953 Corvette had a fiberglass body, chrome-framed grille with 13 heavy vertical chrome bars, rounded front fenders with recessed headlights with wire screen covers, no side windows or outside door handles, a wraparound windshield and protruding, fender-integrated taillights. The interior featured a floor-mounted shifter for the Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission and oil pressure, battery, water temperature and fuel gauges, plus a tachometer and clock.

Each 1953 Corvette was virtually hand-built and a lot of minor changes were made during the production run. All of the first-year cars were Polo White with Sportsman Red interiors. All had black canvas convertible tops which manually folded into a storage space behind the seats. Other 1953-only features included special valve covers, a one-piece carburetor linkage and a small trunk mat. Short exhaust extensions were used on all ’53s (and early ’54s) because they were prone to drawing exhaust fumes into the car through the vent windows. A black oilcloth window storage bag was provided to protect the 1953 Corvette’s removable plastic side windows when stowed in the trunk.

The signature stoneguard (or "fencing mask") headlight covers were part of the "sports car” image. Such cages were often used on race cars of the period to keep the headlights from getting broken by rocks and road debris.

Inside, the cars featured full instrumentation, including oil pressure, battery, water temperature, fuel and tachometer. The design of the instrumentation was a bit unusual, however, with the gauges located centrally in the middle of the dash, giving the passenger an equal look at everything but the speedometer, which was wrapped above the steering column.

The new Corvettes had plenty of other flaws, although you’ll rarely hear any complaints from anyone lucky enough to own one today. The early carburetors leaked and were known to cause fires. The bumpers were purely for looks and offered no protection. The lack of roll-up windows made for a leaky cabin. There were no door locks our outside door handles. The huge steering wheels made for a difficult driving position, particularly for larger drivers — who also had to endure little head room.

But the biggest knock on the car was the modest “Blue Flame six” that went under the hood. It was plenty reliable, but only kicked out about 105 horsepower, which wasn’t much even for a tiny car. Chevy engineers mated the mill to three Carter type YH sidedraft carburetors featuring "bullet" air cleaners and aluminum manifolds to stretch the power output to 150 bhp at 4,500 rpm.

In addition to being the first, the 1953 is the rarest Corvette. Model year production peaked at 300 units. About 225 of the 300 Corvettes made in 1953 are known to exist today, although the first two cars built are missing and are believed to have been destroyed.

The ’53s were constructed in an area at the rear of Chevrolet’s customer delivery garage on Van Slyke Ave., in Flint, Michigan. By early 1954, Chevrolet announced that 315 Corvettes had been built and that production of the model had been shifted to the assembly plant in St. Louis, Missouri. Programming, at that point, called for production of 1,000 Corvettes per month in St. Louis by June 1954. The company predicted that 10,000 per year could be built and sold. Zora Arkus-Duntov joined Chevrolet Motor Division in 1953 and would become chief engineer of the Corvette.

I.D. NUMBERS

The Corvette used the standard Chevrolet Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) coding system. A tag located on the left-hand front door hinge pillar consisted of 10 symbols. The first symbol was an E for 1953 models. The second and third symbols indicated the model year, for example 53 = 1953. The fourth symbol identified the assembly plant as follows: F = Flint, Michigan. (All 1953 Corvettes were made in Flint). The last six symbols were digits representing the sequential production number. Corvettes for 1953 were numbered E53F001001 to E53F001300.  Engine numbers were found on the right-hand side of the crankcase behind the distributor. The engine numbers for 1953 models used the prefix LAY. Since the Corvette bodies were virtually handmade, they did not carry standard Fisher Body Style Numbers as did other GM cars. The Corvette model number consisted of the four digits 2934, which also served as the body style number for the early production years.

ENGINE
 Inline. Six-cylinder. Overhead valve. Cast iron block. Displacement: 235.5 cid. Bore and stroke: 3.56 x 3.96 in. Compression ratio: 8.0:1. Brake hp: 150 at 4200 rpm. Single breaker-point ignition. Carburetor: Three Carter Type YH one-barrel Model 2066S (early models); Model 2055S (later models).


CHASSIS FEATURES
  Wheelbase: 102 inches. Overall length: 167 inches. Front tread: 57 inches. Rear tread: 58.8 inches. Steel disk wheels. Tires: 6.70 x 15. Front suspension: Coil springs, tubular shock absorbers and stabilizer bar. Rear suspension: Leaf springs, tube shocks and solid rear axle. Drum brakes. Axle ratio: 3.55:1.

OPTIONS

Signal-seeking AM radio ($145.15). Heater ($91.40). White sidewall tires.

PRODUCTION

COLLECTIBILITY

While it doesn’t perform anything like the Corvettes that came after as far as speed and agility, the first-year, 1953 Corvette outperforms most of its descendants on the auction block. It was not that long ago, before the current market correction put the brakes on most early Corvette values, that a 1953 Corvette, in authentic excellent shape and with correct documentation, commanded in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars or more for the best of the best. With only 300 built originally, and the never-ending love affair that enthusiasts have for America’s sports car, when market mania returns the initial Corvette will be one of the leaders as an investment commanding top dollar.

COLLECTOR PRICING
1953 Corvette

No. 1 condition: $195,000
No. 2: $136,500
No. 3: $87,750
No. 4: $39,000

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