It was Harley Earl that sold GM on the need to produce an all-American sports car, and to test the waters, his Special Projects team created the EX-122 concept for display at the 1953 Motorama display in New York City. Less than six months later, the car – now named the Corvette – was in production, hand-built by a team of workers in Flint, Michigan. Just 300 examples were built that year, and this August, chassis E53F001300, the final 1953 Corvette built, heads to auction at Mecum’s Monterey sale.
The market for sports cars may have been a small one, but Earl understood its importance. British makes like MG and Jaguar were common sights at sports car races in North America, and kit cars, built from a variety of automobile frames topped with lightweight fiberglass bodies, were growing in popularity. In 1951, rival domestic automaker Nash introduced the Nash-Healy, an Anglo-American hybrid that blended a frame and body from the Donald Healey Motor Company with the drivetrain from a Nash Ambassador. Even Kaiser was getting in on the action, showing the fiberglass-bodied Darin to the public in September 1952.
As Karl Ludvigsen wrote in Corvette: America’s Star-Spangled Sports Car, Chevrolet’s announcement of the car included the following description, penned by general manager Tom Keating:
In the Corvette we have built a sports car in the American tradition. It is not a racing car in the accepted sense that a European sports car is a race car. It is intended rather to satisfy the American public’s conception of beauty, comfort and convenience, plus performance. Just as the American production sedan has become the criterion of luxury throughout the world, we have produced a superior sports car. We have not been forced to compromise with the driving and economic considerations that influence so broadly the European automotive design.
That sounded great on paper, but in the flesh the early Corvettes came up lacking in a few areas. Fit and finish were not up to contemporary standards, thanks in part to the car’s fiberglass reinforced plastic (GRP) body panels. Early in the production run, GM had not yet settled on a specific method of producing the myriad of panels needed, and to further complicate matters, a variety of vendors were needed until the main supplier, the Molded Fiber Glass Body Company of Ohio, ramped up output in time for the 1954 models. During 1953 Corvette production, no less than four vendors were utilized for body panels, but on the plus side, the complete GRP body weighed in at roughly 260 pounds less than a comparably sized steel body.
Then there was the drivetrain to consider. To obtain approval for Corvette production, the car was to use as many existing GM parts as possible. For the engine, the team chose the 235.5-cu.in. Blue Flame inline six, an available option on Two-Ten and Bel Air models. In this tune, with 7.5:1 compression and fed by a single one-barrel carburetor, the engine produced 115 horsepower, not quite enough for a car with sporting ambitions. To liven things up, the Blue-Flame six used in the Corvette received 8:1 compression, a trio of Carter side draft carburetors and a higher-lift camshaft with mechanical lifters. Output grew to a respectable 150 hp, which created another issue for Chevrolet: The automaker lacked a manual transmission capable of handling this.
Instead, the two-speed Powerglide automatic was adapted for use in the Corvette, creating another objection from potential buyers demanding a manual transmission option (which would arrive for the 1955 model year, along with the V-8 engine). Despite this, the 1953 Corvettes delivered impressive performance for the day, dashing from 0 – 60 mph in 11 seconds, on the way to a top speed of 110 mph. Magazine reviews were generally positive, though several noted that production would go to VIPs first, and that the 300 examples built for 1953 likely wouldn’t be enough to meet demand among GM staff, let alone the general public.
By the end of the year, however, only 180 of the 300 had found buyers. Perhaps sales were hampered by the notion that all Corvettes were already spoken for, or the car’s $3,513 sticker price (more than double that of a Chevy Two-Ten Club Coupe, which listed for $1,726), or the lack of color options besides Polo White over red, or the sizable panel gaps seen by prospective buyers in dealer showrooms. That the Corvette survived beyond its first year is a testament to the power and influence of Earl himself, though the 1955 introduction of the 265-cu.in. V-8 certainly helped the Corvette to establish its market.
Assembly of 1953 models began on June 30, 1953, and chassis E53F001300 rolled off the Flint line on Christmas Eve, 1953, the last Corvette built at the Customer Delivery Garage on Van Slyke Road before production shifted to St. Louis. Its first owner was a California doctor, who immediately had his new Corvette painted black, and it remained on the West Coast until 1984, when it was purchased by Florida dentist and Corvette collector Ernie Hendry.
After years in storage, the car was in need of a complete restoration, and in 1986 this effort was entrusted to Sara Blake and Joe Meyer. Following the work, the Corvette began to rack up the accolades, earning Bloomington Gold certification in 1988, along with National Corvette Restorer’s Society (NCRS) National Top Flight, Performance Verification and Duntov Mark of Excellence awards by 1990. In 1991, it was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Special Collection.
Chassis E53F001300 sold to the Jim Fasnacht Collection in 1998, and was given a “freshening” by the Naber Brothers in Houston, Texas, before being inducted into the Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame in 1999. By 2007 a fresh repaint was needed, but instead a second comprehensive restoration (described as “fanatical by all accounts”) was carried out by NCRS Master Judge Steve Newsome, aided by top and interior specialist John Kennedy. Displayed at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2008 (and driven on the Pebble Beach Tour), the Corvette was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Grand Finale Special Collection in 2009.
In 2016, chassis E53F001300 was sold to its current owner for a fee-inclusive $533,500 at a Scottsdale auction. Mecum has not yet established a pre-auction estimate for the last 1953 Corvette, though it’s a safe bet the consignor won’t lose money on his investment. Included in the transaction are the car’s numerous awards and judging sheets, as well as a corresponding brick (#300) from the original Corvette assembly building in Flint, Michigan.
Mecum’s Monterey, California sale takes place from August 15-17 at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa’s Del Monte Golf Course. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.