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Oldest surviving production Corvette chassis donated to National Corvette Museum

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy National Corvette Museum, except where noted.

Of the three cars in those famous June 1953 photographs of the first Corvettes coming off the Flint, Michigan, assembly line, only one still exists. But it now exists as two separate cars. But one of the two cars is only half of a car. But it still carries enough unique history to warrant its recent donation to the National Corvette Museum, where it’s since been installed as one of the museum’s crown jewels.

“This is the oldest surviving production Corvette chassis,” said Derek Moore, the curator for the museum. “It’s a huge, huge donation for us. It’s one of the most significant cars in the museum now.”

The first two Corvettes off the assembly line didn’t last long; Chevrolet destroyed each in the process of testing them. The third one, E53F001003, which carried the internal designation of ES-127, nearly suffered the same fate. According to Chevrolet’s records, Chevrolet sent it off to GM’s Harrison Radiator division up in Lockport, New York, for cold weather testing to see if its fiberglass body would hold up to jarring use in sub-freezing temperatures. As John Amgwert wrote in Corvette Restorer, the so-called “shake test” involved 14 hours of a dynamometer driving the wheels, each with a weight placed out of phase, all at negative 20-degrees Fahrenheit.

Once #003 passed those tests, Harrison then sent it to the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, where it underwent 5,000 miles of testing on the Belgian block road. While the Belgian blocks didn’t do the car in, the engineers who scrutinized #003 afterward found some chassis fatigue and so in August 1953 separated the body and chassis to study each further. According to Randy Leffingwell’s Legendary Corvettes: ‘Vettes Made Famous on Track and Screen, the engineers’ inspections led to a number of improvements incorporated into the 1954 Corvette’s chassis.

Photo courtesy GM.

From then on, according to Moore, the stories of each half diverge. Chevrolet ended up mounting the body of #003 onto a 1955 Corvette chassis and selling it to the public. Not until the 1970s did it reemerge in the possession of Fresno-based early Corvette collector Ed Thiebaud. That car has since gone through a full restoration before selling at Barrett-Jackson’s 2006 Scottsdale auction for $1.1 million.

The chassis of #003 similarly sold to the public with either a late 1954 or 1955 Corvette body atop it. While urban legends seem to abound regarding the early years of chassis #003, it didn’t resurface until the early 1980s, after Phil Havens went to restore his 1955 Corvette only to find that the body and chassis didn’t quite match up. Even after discovering the chassis number and its historic value thanks to Corvette historian Sam Folz, Havens reportedly only wanted to restore his ’55 and, if it worked out for everybody, to reunite chassis #003 with body #003.

Photo by Kevin Mackay.

It never did work out, however, so Havens held onto chassis #003 until several years ago, when he sold the chassis to Ed Foss of Roanoke, Indiana. Foss, in turn, decided that the world didn’t need yet another Polo White six-cylinder 1953 Corvette #003, especially one without its original engine or body, but he also wanted to highlight the chassis number that made the car unique. So, after seeing the various cutaway cars that Corvette restorer Kevin Mackay built, he took chassis #003 to Mackay to have him build it as another cutaway.

For this one, Mackay sourced a 1954 body and sliced it lengthwise down the middle of the body. The idea being, according to Moore, “to leave the driver’s side open to see the serial number” stamped on the left frame rail just behind the driver’s seat. At the same time, it was to remain driveable, so Mackay installed a full Blue Flame six-cylinder drivetrain, driver’s seat, and floating headlamp and taillamp.

The cutaway #003 debuted in March 2017 at Amelia Island, and Moore said he had it on his wishlist for the museum since before he became curator there. That wish came true this month when Foss donated the car to the museum and the museum, in turn, debuted the car as the centerpiece of its new Gateway exhibit dedicated to the foundations of the Corvette.

Also included in the new exhibit are a 1947 MG TC as part of a section dedicated to the postwar sports car craze in America, the 1946 Stout Y46 as part of a section dedicated to early experiments in fiberglass-bodied cars, and a 1951 Crosley to illustrate prior American sports cars, along with a Corvette clay modeling buck and a model of the Firebird I concept car.

“The cutaway is now the very first car that you see in the museum and sets the tone for the whole museum experience,” Moore said.

As for that wishlist of Moore’s, now that the museum has the cutaway, he said he’s not exactly sure what’s atop the list. “I definitely would like to see one of the three Scaglietti Corvettes live here at the museum,” he said.

For more information on the National Corvette Museum, visit CorvetteMuseum.org.