Brian Sewell looks back at the sports car that was more boulevard cruiser

The Chevrolet Corvette has long been known in its home country as "America's only true sports car''. Of these five foolish words, "only'' is a downright lie, and "true'' and "sports'' are half-truths. How could the man who first uttered this glib slogan have conveniently forgotten the great Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs of the 1930s, the Dupont Speedster and the Stutz Black Hawk? And how could he have uttered it of a car with a two-speed automatic slushbox for transmission, and a conventional 4.0-litre straight-six engine with a performance marginally inferior to that of the exactly contemporary 2.0-litre Triumph TR2?

Both cars date back to 1953, and both were sensibly based on reliable components well tried in day-to-day saloons, but while the Triumph was aimed at the driver for whom wind, water and imminent death were masochist delights, the Corvette's driver was to be a softie, even a woman for whom, as one American reviewer put it, "three-tone colour schemes and frilly curtains'' must be among the accessories demanded by "the lady of the house''.

No motoring journalist now, not even Jeremy Clarkson, would dare to affront the thought police with such misogynist sentiments, but there was serious substance in these political incorrectitudes, for Chevrolet's panjandrums had funked the decision to build an out-and-out sports car, and had forced a compromise on the Corvette's engineers and designers. It was to be a "sportster", a boulevard cruiser, and the most dashing of shopping-trolleys at the supermarket, but - and Chevrolet's official brief was clearly couched in the negative - "it is not intended to be a racing sports car''.

The panjandrums' ambivalence was reflected in the engineering. The lazy Chevy six was given three carburettors, and its power raised from 105 to 150 bhp at 4,200 rpm, by shrewd tinkering with camshaft, compression and exhaust; but no manual gearbox had ever been made to mate with it, and as the engineers had, in 1952, been given only months to get the car ready for General Motors' Motorama of 1953, they were forced to use the two-speed Powerglide automatic - absurdly incongruous in a car with sporting pretensions and greeted with derision.

The chassis-frame, too, was Chevrolet saloon stock, shortened, but this proved to have remarkably good qualities of ride and handling, and at least as little roll as many European sports cars of pedigree. In performance, it got nowhere near the 120mph its designers hoped for - 107mph its maximum, 11 seconds its time to 60mph, 40 seconds to 100mph, but it could manage 20mpg in daily driving.

The line and form of the body were much applauded, but the details were not. It was made of fibreglass, the first use of a material that was to become the commonplace of small sports cars, but the Corvette was eventually to be produced in numbers that its European rivals would envy, and, from the start, Chevrolet admitted that, were production ever to exceed 15,000 a year, it would be cheaper to make the Corvette in steel. In the event, quality control was appalling. The bodies had the predictable ripples, dips and swellings in every panel, and thus dire panel fit, and no Chevy dealer knew how to repair the stress cracks that appeared in almost all the first 300 - the production figure for 1953. The few that escaped on to the open market did the Corvette's reputation near-mortal damage, and Chevrolet kept the rest in the family, so to speak, by giving them to their executives, most of whom voted for its immediate suppression.

They were mistaken. In 1954, some 3,640 enthusiasts were fool enough to buy the Corvette, though it was no match for the Jaguar XK120, or even the Austin-Healey with the four-cylinder A90 engine. In 1955, sales slumped to 770, but redemption was on hand in the form of a V-8 engine that clipped four seconds from the 0-60 time and halved the 0-100 figure. At last the Corvette was becoming what it should always have been, even with the option of a manual gearbox - but that is another story.

Most of us drool over the Sting Ray Corvette introduced in 1963, a body that deserves consideration as a great beauty, but its 1953 predecessor, too, is worth a thought, for in spite of its transatlantic quirks and mannerisms, it has European proportions and short front overhang, with seats set behind a long, high nose and just ahead of the rear wheels. Its Americanisms lie in a potato-chipper grille, mesh stoneguards over the single headlamps in the wings (soon to be doubled), a one-piece wrap-around windscreen, a neatly disappearing hood, jet-pod tall lamps and long rear wings that, from behind, echo the idiom of a Thirties Auburn, and make a conventional bumper impossible to manufacture. A worthwhile stylistic exercise would be to stand one of these surprisingly well-balanced cars amid a posse of Ferraris with American ambitions to see which of them makes the better formal sense.

Very few of these early Corvettes survive - perhaps 200 of the 4,710 made to the original six-cylinder specification - and as classic cars, they are compromised by the disastrous flaws in their basic engineering, and the even worse flaws in the fibreglass mouldings of their bodies. The engineering was at least solidly reliable (though the triple carburettors could be temperamental and wreck the fuel consumption), but the bodies had no external door handles, the windows were mere side-curtains of Plexiglas, and the hoods leaked.

I suspect that those few early Corvettes that appear in Concours d'Elégance and win prizes have been entirely reconstructed by NCRS - the National Corvette Restorers Society - but they are well worth the cherishing, for they are the progenitors of a marque within a marque that is now in its sixth generation as a high-performance car. By 1957, it had raced at Sebring, Daytona and Le Mans - blisteringly fast - and though it developed two-tone colour schemes (never three), no one ever, after that first faltering year, again suggested that frilly curtains should be included in the purchase price.

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