Sunday, June 19, 2011

1955 Corvette

More Colorful and More Powerful
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
After much fanfare but less than anticipated sales, the Corvette slipped into the 1955 model year with serious doubt about its survival. Chevrolet had rushed the sports car into limited production in mid-53 in response to the highly favorable comments about its prototype; only 300 were built, though managers expected to boost production to about 1,000 per month for the next model year. Actual production amounted to only 3,640 with some of those left unsold when the ‘55 season arrived.
Road test reports regarding the 1953 Corvette were generally favorable, but the first 300 cars which were built at Flint went to VIPs or were retained by GM for further testing. When interested members of the general public discovered that they could not just go to the local dealership to purchase one, they began to lose interest in the car. Moreover, the lack of roll up windows and other such conveniences made the car somewhat of a disappointment to many potential buyers. Quality control was another problem with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. The price tag of $3,490 made some rethink the idea of buying this sports car. The lack of sales of the ‘54s would seriously impact planning for the Corvette for a while.
The 1955 model Corvettes received little styling updates though some were proposed. The money for alterations was extremely limited so these proposals were rejected for production. However, Chevrolet had a V8 ready to drop into the sports car. The new Chevy V8 went from drawing board to tooling within four months with Chevrolet division’s engineering team of about 2,900 personnel all under the then chief engineer, Ed Cole, and an assistant brought in from Cadillac, Harry Barr who had lead the development of that division’s 331 V8 first offered for model year 1949. The modern V8 weighed 40 pounds less than Chevy’s in-line six-cylinder and had a total weight of 488 pounds. The Turbo-Fire featured hollow pushrods, independent stamped-metal rocker arms, fully water-jacketed ports, aluminum pistons, pressed forged steel crankshaft, and splash lubrication system. The hollow pushrods allowed for oil flow to the fulcrum ball surface and valve stem; as a result, oil passages in the head were no longer needed. The design of the rocker arm assembly permitted lower reciprocating mass, which in turn brought a higher maximum attainable rpm. The fully water-jacketed and aluminum pistons provided improved heat dissipation and new forging techniques resulted in a relatively short crankshaft, and thus less vibration. The splash lubrication system eliminated the need for expensive oil feeder lines. Furthermore, the new block casting technique delivered much higher precision cylinder bores. The fresh design accomplished its goal of bringing a high performance image in an economical to produce way to Chevrolet. The powerful Turbo-Fire was an option offered for the Corvette, though extremely few of the ‘55s had the standard six-cylinder which incidentally was given a five horsepower boost in output. The V8 installed in Vettes was rated at 195hp.
The July 1955 issue of Road & Track reported the upgraded Corvette handled “very well” but noted the brakes “show up poorly.” Performance of the V8 powered version showed great improvement over the six; the time required for zero-to-sixty was trimmed from 11 seconds to 8.7. The quarter-mile result was 16.5 seconds rather than 18. Steering, like the brakes, was judged to be not “fast enough for a sports car.” High-speed stability, though, was reported to be “near perfect.”
Originally, all Corvettes were Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior. Color choices were expanded for ’54 and new colors were offered for ’55. One of the new color choices was Harvest Gold – the same color as the 1955 Corvette shown here. Our feature car which is number 499 of 700 built was owned by Steve and Francie Newsom of Seabrook, Texas at the time it was photographed by the author. The car has since been sold. Before purchasing it, the previous owner asked Steve who is a technical adviser on the first generation Corvettes and member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) to take a look at the car which was then located in Wichita, Kansas. The car was judged to be a good restoration candidate. Steve was given the task of performing some of the restoration and locating the needed parts. The prior owner specified that only NOS parts be used to restore his latest acquisition; even the upholstery had to be NOS. The last known supply of NOS yellow vinyl for ’55 Corvettes was used to renew the interior of “499.” John Kennedy of House of Customs who is well known to Corvette enthusiasts supplied the material and performed the interior and convertible top work. Coulter Automotive (also well known to Vette fans) handled the paint and body labor. Steve’s ’55 Corvette (number 96) was used as a guide to bring the subject car to award winning condition. About seven years ago, the owner decided the time to sell the car had arrived and Steve and his wife Francie became the next title-holders.
This Harvest Gold Vette won “Top Flight” honors as well as the coveted Duntov and Performance Verification at NCRS competition. It was also judged as “Best Corvette” at the 2005 Keels and Wheel Concours d’Elegance in Seabrook.
The total production of Harvest Gold 1955 Corvettes is uncertain, but has been estimated to be around just sixty. All ’55 Vettes painted this color came with the dark green top as shown here. As workers at Chevrolet became more experienced with fiberglass, the body work on Corvettes became better. As a result, colors other than Polo White were offered. (White hides relatively poor body work which is why all of the ‘53s were offered only in that color.) Polo White continued to be offered along with Corvette Copper and Gypsy Red, as well as Harvest Gold. New selections of paint and the V8 made the Corvette more colorful and more powerful; the trend would continue in later years leaving enthusiasts with over a half century of great sports cars from Chevrolet.