Vintage R&T Road Test & Tech Report: 1954 Chevrolet Corvette – “Is It Really A Sports Car?”

One of the most memorable experiences on my third day in the US, on August 29, 1960, was a long drive through Manhattan in a relative’s white over yellow ’57 Bel Air Coupe. And the highlight was my first Corvette sighting, an Ermine White ’57 (possibly a ’56). That slammed my assimilation into high gear; I had found my new American lust object (full story here).

My passion for C1 Corvettes was very narrowly focused on the ’56 and ’57s, with their single headlights and relatively unadorned body. The ’58 and up versions were too fussy for me, although I would have gladly ridden off with either Martin Milner or George Maharis in their quad-light ‘Vettes on Route 66. And I was also rather intrigued by the original ’53-’55 model, which were not at all common back then, due to their low production numbers. Finding an actual road test of them on the web is seemingly impossible, so I bought a June 1954 Road & Track, which arrived this evening. And I’m eager to share it with you.

R&T raised the question that was (and still is) on so many minds as to the Corvette: is it really a sports car? It’s important to keep in mind that the definition of a sports car has changed over time. In the modern context, a sports car is often thought of something that’s “sporty”, a word hard to pin down easily, but generally thought of in the sense of delivering a certain driving experience subjectively different than a sedan, although in reality many sedans have long been able to equal or top the various performance and handling parameters of sports cars.  And sports cars are now almost universally thought of as a two-seater, close coupled, often with a convertible top. But feel free to disagree; it’s an endless subject of debate.

But historically the definition of a sports car was different. In essence, it was any car that was suitable for use in sporting events, hence the name: road racing, hill climbs, endurance races, airport races, and other genuine competitions. That often included cars with four place seating, as in this 1910 Austro-Daimler (with F. Porsche at the wheel), considered to be one of the first great sports cars, and even some sedans. How is a BMW 2002Tii not a sports car?

Or a VW Beetle? Believe it or not, in the ’50’s the VW was seen as an affordable sporty car; a poor man’s Porsche, and commonly used in competitions, like this airport race.

The Great Sports Car Boom in the US exploded after the war, and Road & Track’s name reflects the intended use of sports cars by their enthusiast owners. Of course not all sports cars were raced, and the proportion that did diminished steadily as the Sports Car Boom continued to unfold into a mass-market fad of major proportions. But racing and other sporting events were the heart of the whole thing, and there were events in or near every city on many Sundays.

But the definition was inherently not rigid and highly debatable. The Jaguar XK120 was conceived to be a high speed touring car, and not one intended for actual competition. Needless to say, it was quickly put to the test in tracks all over the world, and acquitted itself quite well, although with the appropriate modifications. The XK120 was profoundly influential in the US, and influenced the Corvette most directly.

It’s clear that Chevrolet intended to create and build a sports car in their mind, and certainly the XK120 was foremost in their minds, as it was far from a harsh-riding uncompromising sports car. The Jag was very happy to putter down Rodeo Drive, take an extended brisk tour down Hwy1, and be a daily driver for its more affluent owner. So if the XK120 was a sports car, why not the Corvette?

One big reason: the Corvette only came with an automatic transmission, the two-speed torque converter Powerglide. That instantly raised a chorus of “heresy” from the died-in-the-wool sports car crowd. So the question asked was relevant. And the answer is somewhat surprising.


Part 1: R&T’s Road Test:

It will forever be a mystery why the initial Corvette didn’t also offer a three-speed manual; especially with overdrive, it would have made the question of the Corvette’s pedigree moot. And it would have made it more suitable for actual sporting events, as in downshifting for curves and such. It’s not because the PG didn’t deliver quite good performance, due to its wide-range torque converter and very efficient design. Its actual performance numbers (0-60 in 11 sec.) are competitive; the XK120 typically did that in 10-11 seconds itself. And its top speed of 107 mph was good too, if not quite up to the Jag’s 120 mph. The Corvette was faster to 60 than the vastly more expensive and manual-shift 140hp Nash-Healy by a half-second or so.

We know that Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole was smitten by the Powerglide; he also wanted to make it standard on the 1960 Corvair and almost got his way. Contrary to popular opinion, the PG really wasn’t much slower than a comparable three-speed car; in fact R&T found the 1960 PG Corvair faster than the three-speed version, and about equally fast as the four-speed. The issue with the PG (and many automatics) is the subjective experience; with a gently but firm whooosh, and no shift until some 60 or more mph, a PG car just feels less dramatic than a stick shift car with all the attendant revving and abrupt shifting and fast clutching.

But the obvious thing would have been to offer both. And one can only speculate whether the slow sales of the ’54 Corvette was in part due to it not having a manual available. In the third to last paragraph, there is some interesting speculation as to how the Corvette could be made into a more suitable genuine sports car. Adapting the close ratio Lincoln Zephyr three-speed manual (a popular hot rod swap), utilizing the new 261 CID truck block, or even swapping in a 320 GMC six, an engine that could readily make 200hp or more depending on the degree of modifications.

The Corvette’s handling was generally praised, especially so since it offered a quite comfortable ride in the process. In that regard, it had to be seen as a reasonably successful compromise, but of course that’s from the view point of 1954. There were a lot of harsh and rough-riding sports cars at the time.

As to the Corvette being a genuine sports car in terms of its abilities on the tracks, that was clearly not yet the case, except for more informal events. It would take Zora Arkus-Duntov’s deft hand to make the Corvette track-worthy, as in the biggest and most competitive events in the country. That would start to manifest itself in phases: in mid-year 1955, the new 195 hp 265 CID small block V8, now available with a three speed manual.

In 1956, the Corvette started to hit the tracks with the availability of a number of HD suspension and brake and other options. And by 1957, these were expanded, and the new fuel injected 283 V8 made the Corvette not only the fastest production car in the world, but a highly successful one on the tracks as well. It was a genuine sports car now, but only if properly equipped.

Ultimately, the question that R&T posed had already become largely irrelevant by 1954. Competition on the tracks had escalated rapidly, and realistically, and very few sports cars still lived up to the name anymore without modifications. The Corvette continued a trend that the XK120 (and others) had already well established, and the 1955 Thunderbird would soon expand upon further: the relatively comfortable and civilized two-seat high-speed touring car; or in other words, the newly-evolving definition of the sports car.


Part 2: R&T’s Tech Write-up on the 1954 Corvette: