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'Vette Vogue

Since the Corvette debuted five decades ago, GM has sold 1.2million of them, ranging from gutless wonders to racing machines disguised as street-legal cars

October 09, 2002|SCOTT DOGGETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We could thank Mr. and Mrs. Brooks for the Chevrolet Corvette.

In 1949, Maj. Kenneth Brooks of Newport Beach wanted to give his wife, Dottie, a special sports car. The retired Army Air Corps officer hired boat builder Bill Tritt to craft a fiberglass roadster body that could be fitted to a Jeep chassis the Brookses owned.

In a one-car garage in Costa Mesa, Tritt created a striking light-green two-seater reminiscent of the Jaguar XK120.

Earl Ebers, a sales executive for U.S. Rubber, saw the car and in it the potential to make his fiberglass-producing company loads of money--if Detroit's automakers could be swayed to make car bodies out of the glass-reinforced plastic.

Ebers commissioned Tritt to make a second vehicle using the Brooks mold, and in late 1951 Ebers had his car. A few months later, the salesman showed the vehicle to General Motors Corp. styling guru Harley Earl, who was so taken by what he saw that he arranged to have it kept at a GM auditorium for detailed study.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 285 words Type of Material: Correction
Corvette headlights -- A story in the Oct. 9 Highway 1 section incorrectly stated that 1961 was the last year the Corvette had fixed, exposed headlights. General Motors Corp. began using retractable headlights on Chevrolet Corvettes in 1963.

That was in the spring of '52, and a mere nine months later a sports car debuted at the GM Motorama in New York. At 150 yards, the fiberglass-bodied, two-seat Chevrolet Corvette could be mistaken for the car Tritt created.

It's been half a century since Maj. Brooks set things in motion, and during those years, GM's Chevrolet division has rolled out 1.2 million 'Vettes, ranging from gutless wonders to street-legal cars that are racing machines in disguise.

The debutantes--the 1953 models--featured anemic motors with two-speed transmissions hidden beneath classy polo-white exteriors. Interiors were red vinyl and tops were black canvas and convertible.

Today, because they started it all and because only about 200 of them still are around (out of a class of 300), the '53s typically fetch $125,000 to $190,000 at auction.

Chevrolet had planned to put 10,000 'Vettes on the streets the next year, but only 3,640 were made for 1954 because of meager demand. The car's paltry six-cylinder engine, a carry-over from the year before, and its hefty price--$2,774 for the base roadster, or $959 more than the annual per-capita income in the U.S. back then--helped curb demand.

Chevy offered the Corvette with a three-speed manual transmission in 1955 and in most '55s replaced the six-banger with a V-8 engine. But third-year Corvettes otherwise varied little from their predecessors. Only 700 of the cars were built, due to fears they wouldn't sell. That low number makes them very expensive today.

Chevy stylists redesigned the Corvette in 1956, giving the car a lean, mean look befitting its made-over spirit: Under the hood lurked a 265-cubic-inch engine producing 210 horsepower (240 horsepower with performance options).

No longer did anyone look on the 'Vette as a cute little car. 1956 also was the first year the Corvette was offered with a removable hardtop.

The '57 Corvette resembled its predecessor, but '57s are notable for being the first with optional fuel injection and an optional four-speed transmission. The engine now displaced 283 cubic inches, with the stronger of two available motors producing 283 horsepower.

Perhaps taking cues from Cadillac, the Corvettes of 1958 traveled down Gaudy Lane. The lithe, lean cars of '56 and '57 were followed by a '58 chromium colossus brandishing quad headlights, 18 ludicrous faux hood louvers and kitschy trunk spears. The '59s and '60s were less gaudy, but all three model years packed excessive weight: 3,000-plus pounds with an empty tank.

The 'Vettes of 1960-61 marked the end of the so-called classic Corvettes--those with external trunks that permitted owners to lock stuff out of sight and solid rear axles instead of independent rear suspensions all later Corvettes carried. The '61 also was the last Corvette to feature exposed headlights.

Enthusiasts often speak of Corvettes in five groups: the C1s (1953-62), the C2s (1963-67), the C3s (1968-82), the C4s (1984-96) and the C5s (1997-present). The first year in each group was a year an extensive redesign was introduced.

A 1983 Corvette doesn't exist; Chevy was so late with its '83 offering that it designated as '84s all Corvettes built that year.

Today, most C1s are collectibles commanding $25,000 on up, and all but extensively modified C1s and C2s are horrible drivers. The cars also are geared so low that their motors tach up high, letting out a continuous, unwelcome moan starting at about 65 mph. "They're not comfortable cars due to their harsh ride, difficulty getting in and out of, lots of wind noise--and they aren't watertight," said Carlos Vivas, owner of C&S Corvette Restoration in Torrance. His personal stable contains eight early 'Vettes.

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