The C8 was undoubtedly a massive leap forward for the Corvette, but Chevy’s sports car has never stopped evolving. Yet while the 2022 Corvette and upcoming Z06 are undoubtedly faster than their ancestors, the older ‘Vettes are still worth remembering and preserving. And not just the high-power models and split-window C2s, either. As Jay Leno just showed in his latest video, a well-restored 1954 C1 Corvette remains something to celebrate.
The C1 Corvette really started rolling in 1954, even if it didn’t have a V8 engine yet
|1954 Chevrolet Corvette|
|Engine||3.9-liter ‘Blue Flame Six’ inline-six with triple carburetors|
|Horsepower (SAE gross)||150 hp|
155 hp (mid-year update)
|Torque (SAE gross)||223 lb-ft|
|Curb weight||2886 lbs|
|0-60 mph time||11 seconds|
Officially, the Chevrolet Corvette celebrates its 70th birthday in 2023. However, the first C1 Corvettes were essentially handmade. Chevrolet didn’t start full-scale production, like on a factory assembly line, until 1954. As such, the first production ‘Vettes are the 1954 models.
Although the Corvette has changed a lot in its 70-ish years, the 1954 cars are noticeably different from their descendants. Firstly, there was no manual, not even as an option. Secondly, for a car that was billed as a Thunderbird rival, the 1954 C1 is a bit spartan. It doesn’t even have external door handles or roll-up windows, Hagerty notes.
But, more importantly, the 1954 Corvette wasn’t particularly quick, even in its day. Admittedly, six-cylinder British sports cars like the Jaguar XK140 were all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Plus, Chevrolet upgraded the Blue Flame Six for Corvette duty with a higher compression ratio, dual exhausts, triple carburetors, and a hotter camshaft. And Chevy upgraded the camshaft again midway through 1954.
However, though 155 hp was decent for an inline-six in 1954, the engine itself was from a Chevrolet Bel Air. Not exactly the best origin story for what’s supposed to be an ‘exotic’ sports car.
Yet the 1954 C1 Corvette still has its charms. For one, although its suspension is sedan-based, the C1 handles well for its age. In addition, the 1954 cars have better fiberglass than the 1953 cars, so they’re easier to work with. Also, their exhausts are longer, which means less soot on the bodywork. And as Jay Leno recently showed, these six-cylinder ‘Vettes are fun to drive in their own way.
Jay Leno on an award-winning master-restored first production Corvette: “It’s as good as it could ever be coming from the factory”
In addition to being one of the first to drive the C8 Z06, Jay Leno owns several Corvettes. One of them is a 1957 C1 Corvette restored by Master Corvette Restorer Mike McCluskey. And recently, McCluskey bought his 1954 C1 over to Jay Leno’s garage.
When McCluskey found his C1, it had sat outside in his late friend’s backyard for over 30 years. Yet today, after three years of work, it’s back to like-new condition. Or rather, like-factory-new condition, little foibles and all.
For example, the cover of the soft-top storage space doesn’t sit perfectly flush with the other panels, because that’s how it left the factory. Also, the trunk keyhole is in its 1954-correct position and the paintwork isn’t perfect. Furthermore, Chevrolet designed the rear springs to sag a bit to “make it look like it was taking off,” Jay Leno explains. McCluskey hasn’t swapped in one of the later V8s or even installed the factory-option supercharger.
But that’s why McCluskey’s 1954 Corvette received a 97/100 score from the National Corvette Restorers Society. It hasn’t been over-restored or ‘corrected’ to the point where you’re scared to drive it. This is just the platonic ideal of a six-cylinder C1 Corvette; “a nice cruising car,” Jay Leno says. It’s also roomier than the contemporary Thunderbird, Leno notes. Plus, you don’t have to go fast to look stylish in a C1.
1954 C1 Corvette prices are surprisingly reasonable today
Although McCluskey restored this 1954 C1 Corvette to honor his friend, he doesn’t plan on keeping it. As of this writing, it’s up for sale; the contact information is in the video above. But while 1954 ‘Vettes aren’t exactly common, they’re more affordable than you might think.
Although they’re functionally identical to the 1953 Corvettes, 1954 models tend to command lower prices. While a good-condition 1953 car costs $166K today, a good-condition 1954 one costs $70.5K, Hagerty says. Also, Chevrolet built over 10 times as many 1954 C1s as it did 1953 ones. So, not only are they cheaper, but they’re easier to find, too.
However, most likely won’t be as factory-fresh as McCluskey’s car.
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