- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

The whereabouts or even the existence of the other 299 is uncertain. However, number 94 is safely ensconced in northwest Washington, D.C.
The initial run of 300 Corvettes, all 1953 models, was built by Chevrolet in 1953 in Flint, Mich., before that facility was closed and the operation moved to St. Louis.
On Jan. 1, 1954, production resumed, but those Corvettes were 1954 models.
Allyn Kilsheimer, president of a structural engineering firm in the District of Columbia, has long been fascinated by these early cars with fiberglass bodies.
In 1998 he began searching for a 1954 Corvette to buy. Since 3,640 had been built, he thought the odds of finding a 1954 were far better than finding a rare 1953.
After several trips to the four corners of the country to check out 1954 Corvettes proved to be unsuccessful, Mr. Kilsheimer unexpectedly heard of a 1953 Corvette for sale near Philadelphia.
Like all of the 1953 Corvettes, it was polo white with a red interior and a black top. Each was exactly 13 feet, 11 inches long and rode on a 102-inch wheelbase.
After several letters and photographs were exchanged and long conversations between the owner and Mr. Kilsheimer, they struck a deal, contingent upon an inspection.
In August 1999 Mr. Kilsheimer sent a deposit to the owner. He explained he had business out of the country to tend to before he could examine the car personally.
Take your time, the owner told him.
When Mr. Kilsheimer returned home, an accident required surgery. He telephoned the owner of the Corvette to explain his dilemma and was greeted with graciousness.
The owner offered to truck the 1953 Corvette to Mr. Kilsheimer's home for inspection.
In October, Mr. Kilsheimer hobbled on crutches out to meet the truck at his home and gave the Corvette as good a once-over as he could.
The deal was consummated and Mr. Kilsheimer started working on the Corvette that first weekend.
While the seller had owned the Corvette about 20 years, it had not been touched in the last eight years, Mr. Kilsheimer said. Consequently, the 235-cubic-inch, L-head, six-cylinder Blue Flame Special engine was in great condition.
All the rubber parts, however, needed attention. Mr. Kilsheimer reports that the car was in such good condition that it didn't need to be taken completely apart.
He then focused his attention primarily on the electrical system and having the chrome trim replated. Replacing the door panels was completed, and he was pleased that someone half a century before decided to make all the 1953 Corvettes virtually identical, which made matching the colors easily accomplished.
All of the 1953 Corvettes were equipped with Powerglide transmissions. This sapped most of the extra horsepower provided to the juiced-up Blue Flame six, which is fitted with three side-draft Carter carburetors.
"Clearly the Powerglide transmission needs the bands adjusted," Mr. Kilsheimer said. From front to rear the floor-mounted Powerglide shift pattern is: ReverseLowDriveNeutralPark.
Since that pattern is different than Mr. Kilsheimer's modern car, he he always seems to be in the wrong gear. The transmission has to be in Neutral for the starter to work.
The shift lever separates the two red front seats, each with 13 rows of white stitching.
The windows and wing vents are removable as a unit, since roll-up windows didn't arrive in Corvettes until 1956.
Having difficulty getting his side windows to fit properly, Mr. Kilsheimer attended an all-Corvette national gathering to learn what he was doing wrong.
He discovered he wasn't doing anything wrong. The simple fact is the windows don't fit properly. They never did and never will.
Another part of the 1953 Corvette that seems like an afterthought is the black top. "I had to make a new mechanism for the top," Mr. Kilsheimer said. Having done so, he thought he hadn't made it correctly.
Instead, he had manufactured a top mechanism that was the duplicate of the original. It was the original that barely worked.
Even when the top is installed properly and the side windows fitted as tightly as possible, he reports that his Corvette is a far sight from weather tight.
From the front, the Corvette is dramatically different from other 1953 models. The 13 vertical teeth in the grille hide the horns. Probably the single most distinctive characteristic of the first Corvette is the gravel guards protecting the headlights. Nine vertical stainless steel wires create a mesh with 11 horizontal ones. No one has ever reported how many headlights were saved by these stainless protectors.
The engine hood was the only part of the fiberglass car that needed attention. On the fifth attempt Mr. Kilsheimer got the gel coat just right.
The hood is hinged at the front and is secured at the rear with a latch at each corner.
Mr. Kilsheimer was informed by several Corvette "experts" that the five-ply piece of wood forming the floor of the trunk was too black. With an eye toward national trophies, he spent hours scrubbing some of the stain off the wood.
The 6.7x15-inch tires are mounted on steel wheels. The earliest Corvettes had regular Chevrolet Bel Air wheel covers, with later cars featuring spinner wheel covers with the spinners perpendicular to the Chevrolet crest in the center. The last of the 1953 models features wheel covers with the spinners parallel to the Chevrolet crest.
The 18-gallon gas tank is filled through a gas port hidden by its own door just aft of the driver's door. Mileage must by good, even though Mr. Kilsheimer hasn't checked the figures. However, even a six-cylinder engine with three carburetors can't burn that much fuel propelling a 2,850-pound car. The optimistic speedometer registers a top speed of 140 mph. In the center of the dashboard is the 5,000 rpm tachometer.
In those days there were no rev limiters, so the driver was free to blow the engine.
The sporty little Chevrolet can be turned around in 38 feet and still operates on a six-volt electrical system.
With the top up and the windows in place, the cozy cockpit is claustrophobic and stifling. Fortunately, the wide cowl ventilator just ahead of the windshield can scoop much-needed fresh air into the cabin.
"I don't see how anybody could see to drive," an incredulous Mr. Kilsheimer said. "I have to bend over and hunch down to look out the windshield.
With the top down, however, Mr. Kilsheimer can sit erect and gaze over the wraparound windshield, which is 51.5 inches off the ground. Nobody ever claimed Chevrolet had the first Corvette right.
The rear of the Corvette is a symphony of curves, which, at the time, could only have been orchestrated in fiberglass. Each tiny taillight is crowned by two tiny fins.
The three-piece rear bumper makes a valiant effort at protecting the car. In the two gaps where there is no bumper, the two exhaust pipes protrude through the body.
By May of this year, Mr. Kilsheimer had his Corvette ready for the show circuit. He said he believes as the third owner that the 62,000 miles on the odometer is accurate.
"It's a cool car," he said. "I enjoy it."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide