Only three weeks ago, I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan for the annual Back To The Bricks car festival, which is now in its fifteenth year. The big Saturday show is when the entire main thoroughfare of South Saginaw Street and the surrounding streets are blocked off and filled with classic cars, people, food trucks, bandstands, and other festive vendors and events.
The days leading up to the main event also feature rolling cruises, a live concert (this year, it was Chicago tribute band, “Old Days”), a movie at a local drive-in, and other fun things. The fun surprise this year was that Friday featured yet another car exhibition downtown on a smaller scale of what to expect on Saturday. It was on a Friday that I came across an all-original specimen of a first-year 1953 Corvette.
Of course, I had recognized this example as one of the early models of C1, but I was baffled as to why such a tired-looking example was displayed so prominently in a central part of the main, downtown parking lot. I knew there had to be some backstory, so I zoomed in for a closer look. As it turned out, this ‘Vette was number 253 of the original run of 300 built for ’53, right here in the Vehicle City. Of that 300, only 183 were sold during the ’53 calendar year.
The placard beneath the front of the car, written by its owners read:
“We set out for Maine, February 1971, for a 1954 Corvette, stopped at a market on Franklin & Robert T. Longway to stock up on snacks for the trip, and the teller said he had a 1953 Corvette.
Many years later, August 1976, we purchased that 1953, #253 built, from the McCormick family of the college cultural area of Flint. We have owned it ever since.
A previous owner…purchased it on a car lot in Birmingham, MI in 1954 and brought it to Flint, MI.”
Utterly fascinating. I didn’t see any pictures of what No. Two-Fifty-Three looked like when purchased, but in a reversal of my initial “appraisal” of this car and its condition, I absolutely love that it is all-original, unrestored, and looking like exactly as it does. I imagine the first-year ’53s would hold special interest and emotional and historical appeal to those from the Flint area, where they were built, as production was moved to St. Louis for ’54 (and eventually to Bowling Green, Kentucky, in the early 1980s).
I thought about the span of time between when this car had first been manufactured and when the current owners had purchased it: over two decades. A twenty-three year old Corvette today would be a 1996 model, the last year for the C4. The upcoming 2020 C8 has almost completely changed the traditional Corvette layout and architecture by being a mid-engine design, but backtracking slightly to the final year of the C7, it’s clear that so much more had changed between 1953 and 1976 than between 1996 and present day. Having been in diapers in ’76, I’m trying hard to imagine what the ’53 Corvette might have seemed like in the era of the polyurethane-bumpered C3, disco, and “Charlie’s Angels”.
These ’53s were largely handbuilt in a small, temporary facility next to the main Chevrolet plant in Flint. With its triple-carbureted “Corvette Special Six” 235-cubic inch six-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower (based on the “Blue Flame” six), combined with its two-speed “Powerglide” automatic transmission, it was capable of doing 0-60 in 11 seconds or so. Its base price of $3,513 was considered very high for its day and turned off many prospective buyers, along with some quality control issues and design flaws of the first cars, like fit and finish of the fiberglass body panels and water leaks. All ’53s were finished in “Polo White” and featured interiors in “Sportsman Red”, which is what we see on display here.
In 1953, the plot of parking lot on which this Corvette was parked would have been in the footprint of the former Smith-Bridgman’s Department Store which, from all accounts I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen, was a wonderful place to buy things, look around, and just be. This Corvette was born in a time of great prosperity for both General Motors and Flint. The current and recent chapters of Flint’s story have more hope and triumph in them than has been the case for decades. Let’s celebrate this ’53 Corvette, patina and all, for serving as a reminder that greatness doesn’t always come in the form of a frame-off restoration.
Downtown Flint, Michigan.
Friday, August 16, 2019.