The Corvette engineering corps wanted more power. Corvette advertisers wanted more power. Corvette aficionados wanted more power. The Ford Thunderbird team…well, they probably would have preferred that the Corvette stick to its Blue Flame Six engine for another few years at least.
But more power is exactly what the Corvette got. For the 1955 model year, Chevrolet’s two-seater finally gained the muscle to fulfill the promise of its catch-me-if-you-can exterior. V-8 power had arrived. And the Corvette would never be without it again.
Ed Cole, his eventual successor Harry Barr, and their engineering team had spent a good chunk of 1954 developing the new V-8. Though a 231-cubic-inch version had been proposed, Cole wanted a more robust and adaptable design. He insisted on a 265-cubic-inch engine. Less than four months later, after extensively modifying an existing Chevy passenger-car powerplant, Cole’s crew completed a working prototype. The engine featured a single Carter four-barrel carburetor, a high-lift camshaft, and an 8:1 compression ratio. Testing began immediately, and the new engine ran flawlessly. Management gave the green light for production.
The new 1955 “Turbo-Fire” V-8 did wondrous things for the Corvette’s performance. Developing 195 horsepower, a 40-hp improvement over the Blue Flame Six, the V-8 helped the Vette sprint from 0 to 60 mph in roughly 8.5 seconds — more than two seconds quicker than the six-cylinder car. (A new three-speed manual transmission, unveiled in late ’55, helped improve acceleration even more.) Top speed climbed from 107 mph to 120. Remarkably, even fuel economy improved. The Corvette was fast becoming a true no-excuses sports machine.
Chevrolet marketed the V-8 not as an engine option but as a separate Corvette model. Though the two cars looked almost exactly the same, V-8-powered Corvettes were readily identifiable, thanks to special “CheVrolet” lettering on their sides. Corvettes equipped with the Blue Flame Six started at $2774. The V-8 versions carried a base sticker price of $2909. Other model changes included a host of new colors — in addition to the previous Polo White and Pennant Blue, the ’55 Vette was available in Corvette Copper, Gypsy Red, and Harvest Gold. Interiors could now be ordered in red, dark beige, light beige, and yellow. Tops now came in white, beige, and dark green — and they were now made of vinyl, not canvas.
But it wasn’t color that stole the show in ’55. It was speed. Despite the arrival of the V-8, the Corvette had had a shaky year. Chevrolet produced just 700 ’55 Corvettes, largely because of existing public dissatisfaction with the Blue Flame’s lack of brawn. Fortunately, the V-8 arrived just in time. In fact, it kick-started interest in the Corvette-a surge that would carry the car to fabulous sales successes in the years ahead. More important, the Corvette was now well down the performance-car path. From now on, the words “performance” and “Corvette’ would become synonymous.
Zora Arkus-Duntov saw that the Corvette had turned the corner, and he was determined to solidify its growing high-adrenaline image. In the fall of 1955, he entered a V-8-powered Corvette in the Pikes Peak Hill climb, where he set a stock-car record. Several months later, with a prototype V-8 under its hood, another Duntov-driven Corvette became the first car to achieve 150 mph at the Daytona Flying Mile Speed Trials, at an average of 150.583 mph.
Pure showmanship? Hardly. Duntov was getting the message out. And that message was coming through loud and clear: the Corvette was rapidly developing the capability to take on — and even beat — many of the best sports cars on earth.
In just three model years, the Corvette had come full circle. The style and beauty had been there in the 1953 original. Now the Corvette was gaining the moxie to match. Most important of all, Chevrolet now had the car’s future clearly in focus. The division’s dreamy two-seater was going to be a take-no-prisoners kicker-of-asphalt, a daring, innovative, high-performance machine with a jaw-dropping bod and a fondness for kicking dust in the grilles of its challengers.
Which is to say, the Corvette was about to change the sports-car world forever.