Maurice Olley, Chevrolet’s chief engineer, completed his chassis, code-named ‘Opel’, which would eventually become the chassis for the 1953 Corvette

Thursday 12th June 1952

Maurice Olley, Chevrolet’s chief engineer, completed his chassis, code-named ‘Opel’, which would eventually become the chassis for the 1953 Corvette. The Opel project had been initiated after Harley Earls’ General Motors (GM) Design Division created models and drawings for a new GM sports car. Later in 1952, a prototype GM fibrglass car accidentally rolled during testing. The car’s fibreglass roof remained structurally intact, and GM engineers for the first time considered building an all-fibreglass body for one of their cars. As project Opel moved forward, the new sports car took shape as a rear-engine, all-fibreglass sports car, the first in America. In July of 1952, the Corvette got its name from an extensive search through an English dictionary, which found that a corvette was a small-sized, speedy warship of the Royal Navy. Strong consideration was also given to the name Corvair. In January of 1953, the Corvette was exhibited as a dream car at the Motorama Car Show in New York City. The first Corvette, a white convertible with red interior, drove off the assembly line on June 30, 1953. That year, the car was produced in limited numbers, but full-scale production began the following year after Ford released its T-Bird at the New York Auto Show in February. The small-car competition from Ford prompted Chevrolet officials to continue Corvette production in spite of misgivings. By 1954, the Corvette was a failure, with some 3,500 cars sold and another 1,200 left unsold by year’s end. Chevy engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, initially brought on to develop the Corvette’s performance, urged his superiors not to admit defeat on the project; instead, he sought to create a separate department to oversee development of the car. From this point forward, Arkus-Duntov took turning the Corvette into a legitimate sports car as a personal challenge. He overhauled the engine and drive-shaft. Over the next two years, minor adjustments were made to the car’s body and styling. By 1955, the Corvette, equipped with new suspension and a 195 hp engine, was tested in disguise at the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, where it shattered the stock-car record with Arkus-Duntov behind the wheel. In February of 1956, Arkus-Duntov drove a modified Corvette V-8 to a two-way stock-car record of 150 mph at the Daytona Raceway. While the Corvette would not surpass the T-Bird in sales during the 1950s, it would fulfil its initial expectation to become the first American sports car.

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