Straight Six, Round Top

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1954: Sports Illustrated publishes its first issue, Bill Haley and the Comets top the record charts, Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando take home Oscars, Marilyn Monroe weds Joe DiMaggio, gas tops more 20 cents a gallon and the Chevrolet Corvette enters its second year of production.  It’s almost hard to fathom given the more than half century lifespan and now iconic status of the Corvette, but its second year of production was dangerously close to being its final year of production.

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The first Corvettes were hand assembled and thus, limited to a production run of just 300 cars, all Polo White over Sportsman Red interiors.  In December of 1953, production was moved from Flint, Michigan to a dedicated assembly plant in St. Louis, Missouri, capable of rolling out 10,000 cars a year.  With the move to the new plant, Chevrolet ramped up production more than tenfold, with a final production number of 3,640 cars for 1954.   Unfortunately for Chevrolet and its dealerships, demand didn’t meet supply.  It’s said that at the start of 1955, more than one-third of the ’54 Corvettes hadn’t left showroom floors and that a number of those that had were let go below cost.

While billed as “The First All-American Sports Car”, the Corvette suffered from a bit of an identity crisis.  Its rear-wheel drive, two-seat, open top layout is the definition of a sports car and its fiberglass body and lean proportions created a low curb weight of just 2,886lbs.  However, the Blue Flame Six power plant lacked the sophistication and output of many of the Corvette’s competitors and was mated to a two-speed automatic that was more at home in a plush cruiser than a svelte sports car.  On top of that, its base price sat at $2,774; a number that eclipsed V8 Cadillacs and approached the more refined and powerful Jaguar XK120.

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The ’54 Corvette’s Blue Flame Six, a 235ci inline six with three sidedraft Carter carburetors, produced 150hp (upped 5hp mid-year by way of a revised camshaft) and 223lb-ft of torque.  1954 was the final year for the Blue Flame as 1955 saw the introduction of what is now considered a cornerstone of the modern Corvette, the small-block V8.  While the straight-six may lack the grunt of the larger displacement V8 (an increase of about 40hp and 35ft-lb of torque), it’s unique characteristics and limited run are part of what make the very earliest Corvettes most desirable to many collectors.  Other interesting features include the optional AM radio with its antenna coming in the form of a wire mesh sandwiched into the fiberglass of the trunk lid and lack of exterior door handles, as the doors are opened with inside release levers, a feature possible due to the lack of traditional side windows.  Like many European sports cars of the era, side windows came in the form of plastic side curtains which are stored in a bag in the trunk.

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However, without question, the standout feature of this stunning Pennant Blue example is its green-tinted acrylic bubbletop.  During the ‘50s, Model Builders, Inc of Chicago, Illinois was contacted by Eugene Kettering, Chief of GM’s Electro-Motive Division, for one of his personal cars and word has it that Chevrolet actually fitted one for testing, entertaining the idea of making it a factory option.  With a production of only 15-20 (only five being green-tinted, the remainder being clear) at a price of $500 each, originals are a very, very rare sight.  And as is the case with virtually everything on the car, this is one of the five original green-tinted tops.

That being said, this beautiful bubbletop wasn’t always so beautiful.  In fact, when the current owners picked the car up in St. Louis two years ago, the car was literally in boxes.  And not clearly labeled, organized boxes.  Bolts and screws were randomly thrown in with other random parts and while nearly every original piece was there (including the 55 year old, original windshield), many of them needed more than a little TLC.  For example, the show-stopping bubbletop had been painted silver and given the nature of the top, required an extremely careful and even more time consuming sanding process that took six months alone.  The meticulous, exhaustive restoration took more than two years to complete and as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.

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It’s funny how many of the features and “shortcomings” that caused such poor sales for Chevrolet and the Corvette in 1954  seem so minor and trivial today and in fact, today, some of these particulars are what actually make the car as interesting and unique as it is.  Regardless of whether things like the Blue Flame Six are viewed as a negative or positive, one thing is undeniable; while the earliest Corvettes may not be the powerful, dynamic driving machines that the Corvettes of today are, they are some of the most interesting cars in the model’s rich history and are true American classics.

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