They say that every legend has a beginning and that is certainly true of the Chevrolet Corvette. The first mass-produced fiberglass car made its public debut at the GM Motorama held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City on January 17, 1953. A crowd of 45,000 attendee’s saw Harley Earl’s Corvette dream car on opening day alone. The next day, Chevrolet announced the Corvette would enter production with 200-300 units of the 2-seater being made available to the public later that year.
The genesis of the first American sports car came in 1951 following Harley Earl’s trip to Watkin’s Glen. Impressed with the small European Sports cars, he begins thinking about a 2-seater American sports car. Code named “Project Opel” the Corvette was known to only a few at the time. In 1952, Harley Earl showed his initial designs to Chevrolet engineering chief Ed Cole who was reportedly very enthusiastic about the project. Together, the two pitched the Corvette to the GM suits and were given the go-ahead to develop a prototype for the 1953 Motorama.
In late December 1952, the prototype was completed. It was officially known as the Corvette after being named by Chevy photographer Myron Scott. Chevy wanted the car to start with a “C” and supposedly rejected 1500 suggestions.
The Motorama Corvette was shown to GM executives in early January 1953. The only changes suggested was removing the American flag from the original logo. A new logo was designed in a hurry and featured two crossed flags – one being the Chevy bow-tie and the other being a fleur-de-lis which paid homage to the French background of Chevrolet namesake Louis Chevrolet.
While on display at the ’53 Motorama, the Corvette caught the attention of Belgium-born Zora Arkus-Duntov. Zora was so taken with the Corvette and its potential that he wrote a letter to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole. Ed Cole was so impressed with Zora that he offered him an assistant staff engineering position! Zora would later become the Corvette’s first Chief Engineer.
The Motorama Show car eventually retired from the show circuit and was returned to GM engineering where is was used as a test mule. It was during this time that the car was painted red and received a new 265 ci V8 engine. Eventually the Corvette passed into the hands of Russell Sanders who was then in charge of the Experimental Division. Sanders drove the Corvette for a few years and then sold the car to Jack Engle for $1,000 in 1959. Sanders was asked about the history of the Motorama Corvette and send Ingle the following letter:
December 8, 1959
Mr. John W. Ingle
21 Creekside Lane
Rochester 18, New York
This letter will give you the information you desire concerning the red Corvette you purchased from me around the middle of October, 1959. This little car has quite a history and is certainly worth recording, particularly if you intend to keep the car for a considerable period of time.
It was built up originally in the Experimental Department of Chevrolet Engineering in Detroit around the latter part of 1952. Although all the pieces were made by hand at that time, they represented the intent of production drawings being released. It was extremely difficult to say how many thousands of dollars were spent in producing the vehicle. I would guess in the neighborhood of $55,000 or $60,000. Of course, you realize that most of this was spent to pay the very high skilled labor and technicians that swarmed over these parts during their inception and manufacture. When completed, it was white and equipped with a 6-cyinder Chevrolet engine with three Carter side-draft carburetors and a special high capacity Powerglide transmission. Workmanship and quality, of course, were the best possible at Chevrolet Engineering because it was to be used in the Motorama at the Waldorf in New York as a showpiece of the new 1953 model Chevrolet Corvette. This was in December, 1952.
It was carried, babied and handled very carefully through the various automobile shows in the United States and then it stood in the lobby of the General Motors Building for a considerable period of time where it is needless to say that it drew a great deal of interest and comment. As the 1953 model became more common because it was being produced in regular production manner, the Corvette was taken back to the Engineering Department and used as a test car.
About that time the new Chevrolet V-8 engine 265 cu. in. capacity was being developed by Engineering, and it was a natural move to see how this engine would perform in a Corvette in place of the 235 cu. in. valve in head 6-cylinder engine. The car became a plaything for the Engineering Department. The 6-cylinder engine was removed and an 8-cylinder engine installed, and it was used for various performance demonstrations. it gave such a good account of itself that immediately it was decided to abandon the 6-cylinder engine in regular Chevrolet Corvette production and supplement it with the new 8-cylinder as standard equipment.
The natural question was with this added power, what happens to the durability of the automobile? So the car was taken to the Proving Ground where it was run on a 25,000 mile durability test and then it was completely torn down and each part inspected and reports made for production reasons. After being displayed in this manner for several weeks, there was no further need for the vehicle, and it was reassembled using new production pieces wherever the experimental parts showed wear. I was in charge of the Experimental Department at that time and saw to it that the car was rebuilt in the very best of condition. It was repainted red, a new top and new seats installed, a new speedometer installed, transmission was completely overhauled, safety items were replaced and a new set of tires put on. It was used as a courtesy car for about 5,000 miles and then put up for sale. I purchased the car from Chevrolet on April 11, 1956. We were never able to put a production serial number on the car and this gave me considerable difficulty in getting it properly licensed both in the states of Michigan and New York. As you know, the serial number is EX-122, which denotes an experimentally built automobile.
I am enclosing the 1957 Michigan certificate of registration which may be of interest to you with your papers on this automobile. I cannot locate the certificates for previous years. The car was used considerably by various members of my family, particularly my wife and daughter. While my daughter attended the University of Rochester here, she was known as the girl with the little red sports car. She is now attending Michigan State University at East Lansing where she is not permitted to have an automobile, and therefore, the car was put up for sale. Our family misses the Corvette very much, however, I think we will probably buy another one in the future when my daughter returns from school.
I hope you will find this information interesting as much as we have. If there is any other information you need, I will be very happy to give it to you, if it is available.
I hope that I have not given the impression that this is the first Corvette ever built because that is not so. It is the first Corvette built for show. There were other test cars built for test that were far from good looking, in fact, they looked nothing like the Corvette at all, having some hand made bodies in place of the smooth plastic body which was finally released for production. The styling Department made up a mock-up model of the complete styling proposal which appeared to be the same as this car, however, it was of dummy construction and the body was made of clay. It was from this clay model that styling was finally approved, and this car was then built.
R. F. Sanders
After Engle passed away in 2001, the Corvette was sold to Kerbeck Chevrolet, the world’s largest Corvette dealer. The Corvette was provided a no-expenses-spared restoration to bring that car back as close to its Motorama specs as possible. Today, when its not on the show car circuit, the Motorama Corvette can be found at the Kerbeck Corvette dealership in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The Motorama Corvette is a special part of Corvette history – a history that began 58 years ago today with the pubic unveiling of the Corvette dream car at the Waldorf Astoria.
NCM Corvette Timeline