Classic test: 1959 Chevrolet Corvette
Now that certain new American cars from General Motors have been certificated for sale in the UK, we thought it would be educational to look back at one of the lavishly-decorated big-engined products of GM in the States, products which once aroused derision amongst those with a European view of what a car should be and how it should behave — the Chevrolet Corvette.
When it was unveiled in 1953, the new Corvette was the first production sports-car to be built in America post-war, and thus was guaranteed enthusiastic acclaim. That following has continued and increased since, as the car has matured into the current elegant shape with its astonishing roadholding. But while the body shape has changed, two things have remained constant throughout most of that time— a V8 engine and fibreglass bodywork.
The car we drove dates from 1959, and is a fuel-injection example belonging to Marion Walker, whose husband Alastair Walker raced in Formula Two in the Sixties and Seventies, as well as finishing fifth at Le Mans in 1970, with Hugh de Fierlant in a Ferrari 512S. (He describes it as one of the worst cars he ever drove).
Although the Walkers only bought the car last year from California, it had had just the one owner since it was new and had never been interfered with, though it did require some attention, dealt with by Westlake Motors in High Wycombe. It arrived on Cragar wheels, a popular sporting extra, but now has the proper pattern ones fitted. At the same time, a trunk-full of rare spares (light lenses and chrome trim) was obtained, which makes the thought of traffic bumps less alarming.
Marion uses the car as daily transport, except when the rain is falling; the dainty white hood is not up to British weather, and the owner describes the effect as “like standing under a thatched roof—permanent dribbles”.
This was an early machine to be blessed with fuel-injection; in “low” power applications, simple carburetters worked well on these big V8 engines, but when multi-barrel Holleys and Carters were used for larger outputs there could be problems of cornering surge and hesitation on sudden throttle opening. The Rochester injection system introduced in 1957 cured many of these faults, but being of an unsophisticated design, soon developed a reputation for difficult starting.
Nevertherless, after a longish twist of the key, the expected noises blossom from the exhausts. First is fiddly to find, but is not an important ratio in any case, and as the long-travel clutch comes up, so does the nose. It is softly-suspended; lean on the heavy brake pedal for the four broad drums and the body tips forward, bobbing up again at a standstill if the pedal is not carefully feathered. But the damping is surprisingly efficient, as you turn the wheel the car rolls away from the comer, naturally, but as everything straightens up again the body reverts smartly to the level without bobbing around.
From the way it looks, the way it is laid out, and the way it goes, this is pre-eminently a car for cruising in; the rich V8 burble oozes from oval outlets incorporated into the chrome of the rear bumper and washes over the extensive rear deck, and the engine’s torque, 290 lb ft of it according to contemporary data, wells up from idle and sweeps the car along in third or fourth without the need to change gear too often. Indeed, second is good for 77 mph, though this would entail using 6500 rpm, not the lazy V8’s best regime.
Yet the shift action is pleasant, too, using the traditional American system of operating rods outside the box to connect lever to forks; the result is not fast, but it is positive, with reassuring clankings confirming that the hefty gearsets, which have to be tough enough to cope with 4639cc, have swapped places.
At first glance the chrome and paint cowls for the instruments look impractical and showy, but in fact the large speedometer and smaller concentric tachometer work together in a logical and legible fashion; seen from an angle the various dials and cowls dissolve into a three-dimensional jumble, but from behind the large wheel they reassemble into a sensible layout. With a finger-stalk for the indicators, short gearshift with round metal knob just below the wheel rim, and a bright chrome bar embossed with the legend “Parking Brake” tucked under the dash by the left hand, the ergonomics are surprisingly efficient, and with the wide soft seats to lounge in, and a ride like a hovercraft fending off any nasty interference from ground level, the Corvette envelops its passengers in a cocoon of well-being.
On the meandering Berkshire roads we explored, the ‘Vette turned out to be a real pleasure for relaxed driving, burbling along in the sunshine, squeezing past farm trucks with an inch to spare, and taking off from junctions with an invariable chirp from the broad tyres. A light foot is needed in first or the rear wheels and positraction ltd spin away all the forward motion, but in second and third the car bolts forwards pretty well as quickly as any big sports-car of today, with a crisp but well-silenced engine-note. The soft seat cushions draws the crew into them when the power is on, but there are only lap-belts for restraint, which I suspect would be worse than nothing at all in a frontal accident.
In contrast to all this power, the chassis behaviour is a different matter. The thin wheel is very low-geared, so it is no effort to turn it with one hand, but negotiating English street-corners is a wheel-twirling chore. There is no lost movement in it, it is just rather slow. More worrying is the Corvette’s desire to oversteer at moderate, even pedestrian speeds; a function of the unsophisticated suspension and tyres, not of excess power application.
GM, sensibly enough, used the technology it knew well from its sedans for the early Corvette: there is a bolt-on cross-member with coil-sprung double wishbones at the front, and a solid axle at the back mounted on inclined leaf-springs which are supposed to provide some roll-understeer. Well, if they do, you are through it and out the other side into opposite lock before you can say “jack-knife”, with the wheel spinning madly to keep up. One such lesson should be enough to re-learn the lower limits of earlier days, and in fact the set-up is very likely no worse than other late-Fifties/early Sixties machinery, merely exaggerated by the bulk of the car and the prodigious performance.
In its day, the 1959 Corvette was timed over the 0-60 mph dash in 6.6 seconds, with a peak of 128 mph; at a time when manufacturers’ horsepower figures were often misleading, independent sources were proving that such cars were genuinely fast, at least in a straight line. And that figure was on a four-speed car similar to the one we drove; the previous three-speed manual had such a high first that 60 mph was reached without any changes at all. Consequently it looked even faster at just 5.5 seconds, the same as a current Porsche 911 Turbo.
It is difficult to imagine that the ’59 model pictured here was actually less ornate than the model before it, on which the stylists had added fake bonnet louvres and heavy chrome strips across the boot. Yet in all its gaudy attire and non-functional decoration, the Corvette has a basic elegance of line in the way the various elements all slope forwards, from the projecting headlamps, through the sweeping scallop on the flanks, to the flat tail with its lights recessed into the tops of the wings, and all of these are bound together by the strikingly-angled chrome hoop of the wraparound windscreen.
Cars like this could never have originated in this country, but whether or not the look appeals, there is no doubt that the GM stylists of those days bubbled with creativity, even in details. That big badge on the nose, for instance, has the Corvette legend on a perspex dome over a plated recess, an inventive and eye-catching device. And the hood disappears completely beneath a metal cover sculptured to sweep down between the seats, making the car as clean when open as when closed. When fitted with the rakish hard-top, the entire roof can be lifted like a huge air-brake to get at the extra storage space liberated when the hood is removed. This cover is counter-balanced by the same springs as the large bootlid, so that if the boot is open, raising the other gently lowers the bootlid. With every aspect of the car being on the grand scale, the boot is also large, swallowing the 15in high profile spare tyre and much else, despite the declining curve of its shape.
Corvettes have been on the scene in various incarnations for over 30 years, and for much of that time GM’s two-seater has been seen as America’s only real sports-car. That description was stretching a point over the first models, with a heavy in-line six and production running gear, but with the arrival of the V8 engine in 1955 the American appetite for power was whetted. In the following years the ‘Vette’s rated output (always given as a gross figure by the big makers, and often from a blue-printed engine run on the bench without ancillaries) soared, along with engine capacity, until in 1967, there was a 7-litre available with a claimed 435 bhp. And a further competition option, using aluminium cylinder heads, was reputed (by independent sources, not Chevrolet) to reach a staggering 560 bhp on high-octane fuel.
Many Corvette owners went small-time racing with their beloved cars, and a wide choice of engine and suspension tuning options was offered by the factory and specialist tuners. But for most, the imposing presence of the car, always a trend-leader in American styling from the Fifties to the current model, coupled with the ability to “burn rubber” at will and impress onlookers, made it the only car to be seen in, the proud upholder of an American legend which ignored European qualities such as agility in favour of something perfectly suited to American roads and the American character. GC