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Chevy’s Little Engine That Could


“The interesting thing that can be gleaned from the letter Zora wrote,” said Derek E. Moore, director of collections at the National Corvette Museum, “is that although he is an incredible engineering mind, he is looking at marketing to the youth that is going to be the next generation of buyers.”

Arkus-Duntov conceded that image-conscious drivers would not accept dowdy Chevrolets as a framework for hot-rodding. With an exception: “Possibly the existence of the Corvette provides the loop hole,” he wrote.

The problem was that the Corvette was already failing, and failing badly.

Rushing to market in 1953, Chevrolet produced only 300 Corvettes. To build prestige, dealers were told to restrict sales to V.I.P.s, such as mayors, business leaders and favorite customers.

For 1954, G.M. geared up to produce 10,000 Corvettes. But faced with low demand, it built only 3,640. The year ended with about 1,100 unsold. Part of the problem was the Corvette’s humdrum 150-horsepower Blue Flame Six. Then there was the expense; the Corvette listed for $2,774 (nearly $27,000 in 2020 dollars), reduced from the $3,498 (roughly $34,000) list price for the 1953 model. But thrill seekers could buy a Jaguar, a Triumph, an MG or an Austin-Healey for about that price or less.

G.M. discussed ending production.

Then Chevy got wind of a Ford project — a two-seater. The Thunderbird. To cancel the Corvette when faced with the Thunderbird would look like surrender. The Corvette got a fortuitous reprieve.

Fortuitous because Cole, who had joined forces with Arkus-Duntov, had their small-block ready for production.

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