Tuesday, June 30, 2015

This Day in Pop Culture: June 30th

The First Corvette Rolls Off the Production Line, 1953

What I lack in any knowledge of the mechanics of cars I make up in aesthetic appreciation. I've been to many classic car shows and while true afficianados discuss the evolution of the power train, I can articulate at best the insightful assessment of "cool". But the afficianados love the aesthetics as much as I do, so we get along just fine. They're a welcoming bunch.

1953 Cherolet Corvette

But if you refer to the 1953 Corvette as the first American sports car, you'll quickly be re-educated with a firm explanation that feels like it was driven by its own power train. You see, there are some topics that a car enthusiast is willing to immediately battle over.

Like, what was the first American sports car, or what qualifies as a sports car.

Second things first. I try to keep my criteria for a sports car simple. Its smaller than the average car with usually only two seats. Its designed for speed over the open road so more than just speed, it needs to handle well around curves. Finally, it needs to be both sexy and impractical.

American men returned from the Second World War with some exposure to small European cars that couldn't have been more different than the living-rooms-on-wheels touring cars they saw at home. By the late forties independent auto manufacturers, as well as some dedicated amateurs, began designing there own version of a sports car. Sometimes they only made a few, sometimes only one. Often they made the body out of molded fiberglass because they lacked the facilities to stamp out steel.

Many with greater knowledge in these matters believe that the 1951 Nash-Healey deserves to be recognized as the first mass-produced American sports car from a major (at the time) manufacturer, beating the Vette by two years. Looking at the image below of the car, the only thing that I can add to that argument is "cool".

1951 Nash-Healey

So where does that leave the birthday boy? I think of it this way. How many people outside of die-hard car enthusiasts have ever heard of the Nash-Healey? William Holden drives the '54 model in "Sabrina", but that takes us into the realm of deep, deep trivia more obscure than the car itself. Nash Motors was bought by AMC in 1954 and the Nash-Healey was almost immeditely abandoned by its new parents.

The Corvette wasn't much of a car when it was launched. The engine was small and it handled poorly. So other than being sexy and impractical, it barely meets my qualifications as a sports car. In fact it almost failed, being saved only be Chevrolet's deep pockets and a major redsign in 1955. But by the end of the fifties the Vette was the most popular sports car in the US.

So lets give the Vette its due. It may not have technically been the first American sports car, but where it's predecessors failed, the 1953 Corvette eventually survived and established its place in the heart of American pop culture.


We found this interesting 22 minute video on YouTube. It a "home movie" of the production of the '53 Vette. Don't try to adjust your speakers. There's no sound. But its interesting to watch how the fiberglass body is molded and glued together and it gives the first Vette the feeling of a custom car.

Here's a link to the New York Times obituary of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Chevrolet engineer responsible for successfully evolving the car in the 1950's.

And for a few more pictures of the birthday boy please head over to KultureKat on Pinterest

Follow KultureKat's board Corvette on Pinterest.

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