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Failure. One word that just wasn’t in the vocabulary of those who were pushing for the early success of Chevrolet’s sports car, the Corvette. With their determination the Corvette avoided the bean counter's ax and set upon a path of continuous improvement that continues to today.
1958, however, brought pause to many devotees. To them, the new, bigger, heavier, somewhat garishly styled '58 seemed to have strayed from the pure sports car equation. But sales climbed dramatically with the new design, and today they take their rightful place in the Corvette's storied lineage.
Unlike the earlier models, the 1958 Corvette "boasted" most of the design gimmicks of the day. Quad headlights, something new on all GM passengers cars that year, adorned the front and the hood sported a dozen ripples to replicate air intake vents. On the rear deck two heavy, chrome-topped fins added more flash--and weight. One of the more attractive design features held over from the 1956-57 models were the side coves into which complementary two tone hues could be applied, and chrome was added here, too. One major improvement: a well thought out placement of all instruments in a central location directly in front of the driver. Previously, the Corvette’s fuel, oil pressure and other important gauges had been spread across the panel, making easy monitoring of the engine functions a difficult task at speed.
Eight basic exterior colors with limited two tone combinations were available, and only three all vinyl interior trims were available. All featured a pebble-like grain in a pleated pattern, and all interiors featured safety belts.
The first upgrade of Chevy’s fabled small-block V8, from 265cid to 283 cid bowed in 1957, and the ‘58 version enjoyed a horsepower boost. The basic Corvette, if any were actually basic, came equipped with a four-barrel carburetor that was rated at 230hp. Two different dual quad intake units were available in 245 and 270hp editions, and two fuel injected units were also available in two horsepower levels: 250 or 290. Introduced in mid-year 1957, the four-speed transmission was perfected and widely used by 1958, ending up in over 40% of that year’s production. One of the more popular options with collectors today is the fiberglass removable hardtop, which makes these open convertibles weather tight.
When the 1958 model year was over a total of 9,168 units had gone out the door, which was a an increase of nearly 45% over the previous year’s total. And this in a year when some automakers had declines of nearly 50% over their 1957 sales levels. The purists may not have liked the changes, but apparently the buying public did.
In 1959 the Corvette Design Studio cleaned up the looks in several areas. The hood was smoothed out and the decorative fins on the deck were deleted. From the front, the grille received a pressed aluminum facade and new bright stainless trim. Inside saw different pattern vinyl and other minor trim changes. Several exterior paint colors were also new, but buyers were now limited to just seven choices of solid or two tone combinations. Equipment on the ‘59 Corvettes remained basically the same as the previous year. That meant that the Corvette offered a heater and a radio, and even power windows, but power steering and power brake systems could not be found on the option list. Heavy duty brake and suspension packages were available for those needing extra performance, as was a larger 24-gallon gas tank. But checking the "big tank" meant that the soft-top was deleted, requiring the use of the optional hardtop. While the four-speed transmission was quite popular for 1959, the base price still included a manual shift three speed. The 2-speed Powerglide automatic was a popular option.
Changes to the Corvette were minimal in 1960. On the exterior, a couple of color choices were new, taking that number back to eight, while the interior remained largely unchanged. There were a few performance changes, too. Horsepower was boosted by 25 on both injected motors, and the four-speed manual transmission was now the only selection with fuel injection. Aluminum radiators were found on performance models.
In the fall of 1960, television viewers got to meet George Maharis and Martin Milner as they toured the mythical stretch of road known as “Route 66". In the pilot episode, a 1960 Corvette was their vehicle of choice, but when the show was picked up for regular production, these two intrepid travelers were equipped with a 1961 model. An interesting note is that by 1960 the multiple-carb set-up was more popular with performance fans of the day due to their dependability and ease of maintenance (and lower cost) vs. the injected motors. That year a total of 3,575 Corvettes were equipped with a dual quad set-up, while just 859 employed fuel injection.
1961 Corvettes continued the same basic design pattern first seen in 1958, but the new rear end styling was a preview of the next generation of these sports cars. Ending in a tapered point, the taillights were circular, and inset in the lower trim panel. The front lost the chrome headlight trim and the heavy chrome “toothed” grill gave way to a much more subdued fine mesh. Under the hood the base 283 was still rated at 230 horsepower, and both tri-power set-up were unchanged. However, fine tuning on the fuel-injected units did see some marked improvements as horsepower climbed to 275 or 315 in f.i. dress. The orders for these units increased by almost 84% over 1960 totals. Corvettes were limited to just seven different hues in 1961, with the rarest color by application for the year being Sateen Silver, while Jewel Blue was also limited in use, and not seen in any other season. Production continued to rise, growing to 10,939 for the year, a slight increase over 1960, and a stepping stone for the next year.
At a glance, the 1961 and 1962 Corvettes are quite similar in appearance. There were, however, several major changes. From the side profile, the bright trim that surrounded the side cove was deleted, and with it the ability to have your Chevy sports car two toned from the factory. The triple wind-splits used in the 1961 front cove vent were also replaced with a fine chrome appliqué, and bumpers were re-configured to reduce the width by over an inch-and-a-half. Under the hood saw some big developments. The small block V8 was enlarged to 327 cubic inches, with base horsepower now rated at 250. Two single four-barrel options churned out 300 and 340 hp, which far surpassed the former dual quad set-ups offered up 1961. Fuel injection returned for the 327 in one basic form, 360 hp. A manual three speed or optional four-speed transmission was required. This system cost the new owner an additional $484.20, and a healthy 1,918 were so equipped, about 13.2% of the 14,531 units produced. Color choices were all single tone this year, with just seven selections offered. Chevrolet is rumored to have produced about a half dozen 1962 Corvettes in a Cadillac color, Royal Heather Amethyst, for a select group of Shriners in Omaha, Nebraska. This would be the last year for a number of Corvette hallmarks: exposed headlights, the solid rear axle, and the final appearance of an enclosed trunk until the current generation of Corvette. It had been a great ride for the last version of the first generation Corvette, with a total production of 54,569 units.
On the collector front, these latter “straight axle” Corvettes for many years found favor with only a limited number of enthusiasts, primarily those interested in performance and fun. Those looking at historical preservation or image conscious collectors generally chose other years. In the early 1990s, more collectors started to recognize the potential and full value of these cars. Fuel injected models are the most popular for those looking for “rare”, but many collectors wanting hassle-free ownership prefer the multi-carb units or even base 4bbl units
What do you want to do with your Corvette? The most expensive models are those used strictly as “show cars”. These are restored to exacting specifications based on factory original examples and documentation. The National Corvette Restorers’ Society (NCRS) has developed restoration levels and skills that go to the “nth” degree. A “Top-Flite” NCRS car is very desirable (and expensive), and those with such accessories as fuel injection, special wheels, or limited and certified examples can add premiums of up to 300% over similar base models. For the straight axle Corvette enthusiast who wants a “go” car, workmanship, not authenticity is most important. The fiberglass body can be patched and smoothed to look good, but stress cracks, panel alignment and door sag will quickly return after a few miles of driving. And while rust is not a problem for the body, the chassis and suspension parts should be inspected as they can be affected by corrosion and road grime.
One problem with determining authenticity of these early Corvettes is that there are no markings or codes on these cars to give clues to their heritage. The ID numbers indicate only the model designation, the assembly plant, (all of these cars were built at the St. Louis plant), and the unit sequence starting at 100001 each year. With these cars original documentation such as the window sticker (available on 1959 and newer models), original sales slip, or any build information from the factory is a big plus. This is especially true for those models with special performance or option features, as all Corvettes are subject to "artistic license" when it comes to restorations.
As stated above, these early Corvettes did not contain any information in their ID numbers as to which engine was originally installed at the factory. In mid-1960 however, ID numbers that corresponded with the VIN were incorporated into production. For these cars, the term “matching numbers” has relevance. Honest sellers will be quick to reveal a car’s engine history, and authenticity of color and equipment. As you would expect, these all affect the full value of the car. Interestingly, a replacement block or motor will decrease value somewhat, but trends that we see indicate it is becoming less of a drag (but still significant) on value than in the past. But casting numbers, authenticity and research are still all important for the purist, and those looking for cars for that purpose need to find proper reference material on this information. Anyone looking to purchase one for investment should stick to original cars and if you're not comfortable with the process seek out a Corvette expert (put one up for sale and you’ll soon find that all Corvette enthusiasts are “experts”) to help you out.
The 1958 to 1962s Corvettes have found increasing favor with collectors over the past decade and prices have risen above the curve of most other collector cars. While still trailing the earlier cars, they have started to come up head-to-head with the 1963-67 Stingrays (2014 update: the '63-'67 models have mostly pulled away again). Pristine examples with fuel injection can hit the $45,000 to $50,000 range, with the early model 283 cubic inch engine holding it’s own with the later 327 mills. As an investment, like any most collector cars, the Corvette isn’t something you can buy, store away, and hope to see a steady increase in value unless you happen to time the maket just right. They need constant care and maintenance to retain or grow in value. Casual observers often overlook that the expense of storage, insurance, repair and maintenance can outpace any increase in value.
Fortunately, parts and maintenance are readily available on all Corvettes. Dozens of companies can provide any part, and mechanical work is relatively easy. They are, after all, still Chevys at the core. These cars represent an exciting and innocent time in American history, one where horsepower, flash and flamboyance was king. They are among collectors' favorites in today’s market, and for most their real value is the pride and joy of ownership, knowing that an enduring cultural icon of America resides in their garage.
P. Skinner and the editors at Collector Car Market Review
This profile first appeared in the February 2002 issue of Collector Car & Truck Market Guide. (C) Copyright 2002- VMR International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Some images (c) copyright GM Media Archives, used with permission.