In the latest Car Spotter’s Guide here at Mac’s Motor City Garage, we explore America’s favorite sports car in its early, formative years: 1953 to 1957.
For this latest Spotter’s Guide, we’ve departed from the traditional format a bit. Here we’re including contemporary color photos to help map the annual model year changes. Several reasons: First, the Corvette world has no shortage of cars restored to precise technical accuracy down to the tiniest detail. Few American cars are as extensively researched and documented as the Corvette, and we’re confident we can safely depart from original factory photos.
Next, color is a very useful car spotter’s aid with these early years of Corvette. There were two basic body styles in the ’53-’57 timeframe: the ’53 to ’55 and the ’56-57, and beyond that, the changes tend to be few and subtle. Paint and trim colors will help us sort out the years. Let’s get started.
The first 300 production Corvettes for 1953, built in Flint, Michigan starting in June, were peas in a pod. All were essentially identical with Polo White exterior paint, red vinyl interior, black cloth convertible top, and red-painted wheels visible around the full wheel covers. These covers are unique to the Corvette; however, it seems that due to a supply issue, approximately 25 cars were equipped with dome-style ’53 Chevy passenger car wheel covers.
The first Corvette many Americans got to see was the New York Waldorf show car, aka EX-122, and there are plenty of photos around. Visually, the prototype is almost identical to the production car, but with a few differences that are easy to spot. The bright side trim does not run the length of the body, only for a short section of front fender behind the wheel house. Also, the Corvette badge and dart are beneath the chrome trim rather than above it. The Waldorf Corvette is still in existence today. Two additional prototypes were used as test mules and then destroyed, reportedly.
For 1954, the Corvette was virtually identical but for some color changes. Most notably, the convertible top on all ’54 models was beige rather than black. This is the easiest way, from middle distance, to tell a ’54 Polo White Corvette from a ’53. While Polo White was by far the most common exterior color in ’54, Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and black paint were also offered. All had red interiors except the Pennant Blue cars, where beige was used. Only four black ’54 Corvettes were built, reportedly.
The earliest Corvettes used Chevrolet’s standard Stovebolt six with a few traditional hop-up aids, including a bump in compression, a sportier cam, and three Carter YH side-draft carbs. All 1953 models and the early 1954 models were equipped with these three very basic bullet-style air cleaners.
Midway in the 1954 model year, there was a running change from the three bullet-type air cleaners to a pair of conventional saucepan-style units. Chevy’s cast-iron, two-speed Powerglide automatic was the only transmission offered with the inline six.
At the rear, the Corvette look for ’53 through ’55 featured these rocket aka bullet taillamps, through-the-body exhaust outlets, and recessed license plate housing with plastic cover. Note the ’53-’55 wheel cover with red paint detailing regardless of body color. Front and rear bumpers in these years were primarily decorations—they didn’t bolt to anything substantial underneath.
Here’s the Corvette nose for ’53 through ’55, with its signature stone guard aka fencer’s mask headlamp surround. These stone guards alone make the ’53, ’54, and ’55 Corvettes difficult to confuse with anything else. The trick is telling them apart.
Styling remained unchanged for 1955 but there was a critical change under the hood: the brand-new small block V8 was now available, along with an optional three-speed manual transmission. The 265 CID V8 totally transformed the Corvette from a boulevard poseur into a real sports car.
Here’s the easy tell on the ’55: the gold V trim behind the front wheel signifying a 265 CID V8. Seven Corvettes were reportedly built with six-cylinder engines in ’55, but Corvette experts don’t believe any of them survive. The brilliant color shown here was called Gypsy Red, but Harvest Gold, Polo White, Pennant Blue, and Corvette Copper were also available. Interior vinyl colors were red, dark beige, light beige, and yellow.
Styling got a much needed overhaul for 1956, giving the Corvette a new visual identity to go with the muscular small-block V8. The toothy grille was retained, but the fencing mask headlamp nacelles were ditched. This was the first year for Corvette’s signature fender coves—on the ’56 and ’57, the coves are open at the front. The ’56 was also the first Corvette with roll-up side glass; previous models were true roadsters with pop-in windows.
On the the first 500 ’56 Corvettes, the headlamp rings were painted body color. From then on, ’56 and ’57 models wore chrome lamp trim.
Taillamp assemblies were identical in ’56 and ’57, and similar to ’58-60 but with a small vertical lens.
The ’56 and ’57 models are nearly indistinguishable in most ways, except for this odd little detail. The ’56 uses the thumb screw shown here to adjust the dash-mounted rear-view mirror. In contrast, the ’57 uses a jam nut on the mirror stalk. It’s not much, but the mirror is usually in easy view, and it makes a useful tell.
And here’s the 1957 mirror with a jam nut on the stalk for adjustment.
One new color for 1957 not available in ’56 was Inca Silver, shown here. Colors for ’57 were Onyx Black, Inca Silver, Aztec Copper, Cascade Green, Arctic Blue, Venetian Red. and Polo White.
Another way to distinguish the ’57 Corvette from the ’56 is at hand if the ’57 happens to be equipped with optional fuel injection, a new feature that year. Externally, the ’57 FI models carried these badges in the fender coves, with crossed flags and fuel injection script.
Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated (left) and Zora Arkus-Duntov inspect the ’57 Corvette’s new fuel-injection system. A Borg-Warner four-speed manual gearbox also became available in ’57, further transforming the Corvette into a real, world-class sports car.
With mechanical fuel injection, the 283 CID Corvette V8 for 1957 developed 283 horsepower. The Rochester Ramjet unit carried its fuel meter on the right, the air meter and throttle body on the left, and the intake manifold plenum in the middle.