Simanaitis Says

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CHEVROLET CORVETTE ROADSTER—1954

WHAT WITH the real mid-engine Vette waiting in the wings (as opposed to R&T’s random speculations back in the old days), it seems most appropriate to look at the original Chevrolet Corvette Roadster, as described in the June 1954 issue of that magazine.

This, other images, and caption information from R&T, June 1954.

The magazine’s Corvette Road Test subhead asked, “Is it really a sports car?” In an accompanying engineering feature, John R. Bond, then R&T technical editor, wrote, “To enable each reader to evaluate the Corvette,… the following facts and information are presented.” Bond based his June 1954 engineering analysis on an SAE paper presented in October 1953 by GM’s Maurice Olley, renowned as a suspension wizard since the 1930s.

Bond writes, “The thinking behind the Chevrolet Corvette is based on the assumption that a sports car must have a cruising speed of more 70 mph, a weight/power ratio of better than 25 to 1, ample brakes and good handling qualities.” Challenging back then, these criteria are met by an average 2018 car having more than 163 hp, capable of cruising far beyond 70 mph.

Above, Olley’s sketch for a 1952 car codenamed Opel. Below, the Corvette introduced in late 1953.


Among other Olley desirables included a low center of gravity, minimum overhang, smooth yet firm suspension, and quick steering response, but no oversteer.

The Corvette’s wraparound windshield became ubiquitous in American car styling.

Bond observed, “The front suspension uses many standard parts but is stiffer in roll by virtue of a larger diameter stabilizer bar.” This thicker bar would promote understeer, i.e., lessen oversteer.

“The coil springs,” Bond continued, “are special because of reduced load, but their rate appears to be the same as the stock sedan’s. However, the sprung weight is less than stock, giving the effect of ‘stiffer’ springs with a faster bounce frequency.”

“The rear springs … are inclined (low in front, high at the rear) so as to give approximately 15-percent roll understeer. Quoting Mr. Olley, ‘This may appear excessive, but … it may become necessary to put a strong understeering tendency into the rear axle control, to provide an adequate tail for the arrow.”

“Although being deliberately whipped around this turn, the Corvette leans very little.”

In the Road Test, R&T commented “The biggest surprise is the low roll angle—actually less than two of the most popular imported sports cars. (These are unnamed, but perhaps the MG TD and Jaguar XK-120.)

“The outstanding characteristic of the Corvette,” wrote R&T, “is probably its deceptive performance.” The magazine recorded 0–60 mph (with two aboard) in 11.0 seconds and the quarter mile in 18.0. To put these in 1954 perspective, a $3975 Jaguar XK-120 Sports Convertible did 0–60 in perhaps 10.0 seconds; a $1995 MG TF 1500, in 16.3.

The Corvette was powered by Chevy’s trusty 235.5-cu.-in. (3861-cc) overhead-valve inline-six, producing 150 hp, compared with 115- and 125-hp variants powering other 1954 Chevrolets. Bond wrote, “Many people like to point out that ‘Chevrolet hasn’t changed their engine since 1937.’ This is, however, a compliment for it attests to the excellence of a design which, though perhaps not exciting or dramatic, has stood the test of time.”

Sort of an earlier Chevy small-block.

“Detail shows side curtain vent.” These plug-in side curtains justified R&T’s “roadster” nomenclature.

Noted R&T, “During the rain storm, the top and very practical side curtains were completely effective, but the leading edge of the door opening leaked. The slight drip was however useful in putting out cigarettes.”

Always pragmatists, those R&T road testers.

The Corvette’s two-speed Powerglide automatic—no manual gearbox!—was controversial: “Admittedly,” R&T wrote, “It will convert a lot of people to sports cars who have no desire to develop driving skill….”

GM’s Olley is quoted: “The answer is that the average sports car enthusiast, like the ‘average man,’ or the square root of minus one, is an imaginary quantity.”

I give Olley full marks for working the imaginary number i into an R&T article, but I prefer R&T’s rejoinder: “That statement, from Chevrolet, should get a rise from 100,000 Road & Track readers!”

Not today, of course. “What’s a non-synchro first, Grandpa?” But it sure was a good comment back in 1954. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

One comment on “CHEVROLET CORVETTE ROADSTER—1954

  1. Gordon Craig
    September 7, 2018

    Thanks for this story….not a knock on the successive Corvettes, but always loved the body styling of the ’54 ‘Vette, why it was only for one year has always puzzled me, it had “staying power”….

    On another note, the companion tag on the cover about the. “MG-V8-60 Conversion” brings to mind a very short lived venture between Morgan and Ford. HFS Morgan (founder of MMC) built a pre-war Trials Competition 4/4 Ser. 1 with a V8-60 engine but the combination proved unwieldy as that engine was way, way too heavy for such a light car. Makes me wonder how the similar MG (presumably TD) fared. bw, gordon

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