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The second-year ‘Vette was stylish but underpowered. Today collectors prize them for their affordability and good looks
Then GM's Motorama was held in January 1953 at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Chevrolet unveiled its new Corvette.
Six months later, the first Corvette rolled off a makeshift assembly line in Flint, MI. The sleek and sporty Corvettes were built by hand using a body of lightweight fiberglass instead of steel. Exterior styling featured a rounded body, toothy grille, mesh stone guards over inset headlights, a trendy wraparound windshield and jet pod rear fenders with "rocket ship" taillights. With a soft top that folded out of sight beneath a lift-up panel and side curtains, it was an authentic roadster.
Using an upgraded version of the 235-ci Chevrolet six found in other Chevrolet cars, the Blue Flame Six offered 150 hp, thanks to a high-lift cam, dual carburetors, and dual exhausts. The only transmission available was Chevrolet's two-speed Powerglide, and the car relied on handling and road feel rather than straight-line performance.
With a remarkable 1,374 original miles on the odometer, this 1954 roadster is one of the most important Corvettes in existence. It has been extensively featured in numerous books and magazines. Since day one, the car has been extraordinarily documented.
The owner states: "The story begins on March 21, 1955, when Robert E. Schroeder of Chicago, IL, received a Western Union Telegram from Ed Pacdur, an editor at TV Guide, informing him he had won a Chevrolet Corvette in the Long Grey Line "Whoozzits" contest and they would like him to appear on the Tom Duggan Show to receive the key to the car. Mr. Schroeder obliged."
The chronicle continues with Mr. Schroeder driving the car for a mere 300 miles to conclude he didn't like it, at which point the car was passed to his sister. She logged about 1,000 miles before arriving at the same conclusion and in 1957, the car was parked in a shed behind their house, where it sat for 33 years. During that time, the shed's roof collapsed, exposing the car to the elements.
Resurrection of the entombed Corvette occurred in 1990 after it was removed by ProTeam Corvette of Ohio. It's believed that Buckeye State dealership acted as a broker for the new Pennsylvania owners, Joseph and Karen Kappel. Possession was short-lived and unrealized, as Mr. Kappel was sent to prison on racketeering charges and the car seized by the U.S. government.
The Corvette next came into the possession of the Vectura Group, which sold it to Duane Turnbull of West Virginia on September 16, 1999. It took Turnbull three years and thousands of letters, phone calls, and faxes to discover and document this long-lost car. His effort resulted in a staggering number of documents, including the original telegram from Western Union, the invoice in Schroeder's name from Merit Chevrolet, indicating "N/C" as a prize. There was an owner service policy, clock instructions, car papers, Wonderbar radio instructions, owner's manual, original build tag, and an odometer statement when the car was transferred from Mr. Schroeder to Mrs. Kappel at 1,368 miles in 1990.
A careful and meticulous restoration began in 2000 using the skill and knowledge of Corvette restorer Bill Kuhn of His Place Inc., in Maryland. The aim was to keep the car as original as possible and the car is remarkably complete, with its original mufflers, tailpipes, brake lines, clamps and hoses as far as possible. On removing the trim, the car's original Polo White color was revealed—it had been repainted red for the television show. After three years and over $100,000 invested, this 1954 Corvette was completed and is fully documented with records of the work.
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $269,500 at the Worldwide Group auction at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on November 4, 2006.
The 1953 Corvette was received with great fanfare, but Chevrolet only released the car to celebrities at the time. Sales were brisk at the beginning of 1954 as the production facility made the move from Flint to St. Louis, Missouri, and ramped up to build a better, more quality-assured product.
They planned to build 10,000 units but only produced 3,640. Molds were improved and the fit and finish were steps ahead of the 1953 model. Just take a look at an original 1953; you can actually see the fiber mat showing through the finish. Quality and color choice were big improvements in 1954, but something was missing—performance.
The Blue Flame Six was not the lit match underhood that enthusiasts were looking for. As we know, a sports car needs muscle to make the adventure complete. Sales fell, and GM offered employees deep discounts to clear the inventories of unsold cars. Dealers slashed the prices and the best buy on the lot was a new 1954 Corvette. So it's natural that a Corvette would be given away as a promotion. The talk around Motown was to discontinue the Corvette. But of course they didn't and the rest, as they say, is history—history that is still being made today.
Restore Or Preserve
I must draw a comparison between a restored car and a true original Corvette. The differences can be enlightening when studied. I own the lowest mileage, original unrestored 1954 Corvette in existence. It reflects the hand-construction and finish that only a true untouched example can. My car has 3,600 original miles and is finished in Pennant Blue; it shows the hand-work of St. Louis assembly and the Nitrocellulose Lacquer that was notorious for quick degeneration and color fade. My side curtains are still stored in their bag; I don't think they were ever used. And they probably never will be.
This particular sale sets the bar for other restored '54 Corvettes to follow. Prominent promotion is one factor that played heavily in this sale, and the reason the seller generated top dollar on his investment. And the documentation surely helped; I maintain a complete archive on my collection, and each car has its volume containing documents, manuals, brochures, letters, even the envelopes in which they were mailed.
All items referencing the original or former ownership, race history, and pertinent information on the model year of the vehicle are maintained. This is extremely important in today's collecting marketplace, and establishes the complete history for current and future ownership, not to mention adding value.
I suspect future values will be led by original, untouched examples, but the price for this 1954 is right in line for a restored low-mileage car. I'm glad to see the early cars holding a strong position in the marketplace. This sale could awaken the collector market for early Corvettes, so if you have your eye on a pristine low-mileage example, my advice is go get it.
My car is a joy to own, a centerpiece in my collection, and my few open-air drives have been exercises in time travel. Take a deep breath, grab that massive steering wheel and enjoy the purr of the Blue Flame Six. You're not going to break any speed records, but what a way to go.
Years Produced 1953–55
Number Produced 4,640 (300 in 1953; 3,640 in 1954; 700 in 1955)
Original List Price $3,498 (1953); $2,774 (1954); $2,909 (1955)
SCM Valuation $70,000–$100,000 (at time of print)
Tune-up Cost $500
Distributor Caps $9.13
Chassis # E54S004485
Chassis # Location Stamped on plate on driver’s door pillar
Engine # Location Right side of engine block
Club Info National Corvette Restorers Society, 6291 Day Road, Cincinnati, OH 45252-1334; 513.385.8526
Web Site http://www.ncrs.org
Alternatives 1949–54 Jaguar XK120, 1955–57 Ford Thunderbird, 1953–56 Austin-Healey 100
Investment Grade A