The First ’55 Vette

The first 55 Corvette

For at least four decades, Steve McCain has had a one-track mind for Corvettes. He decided early on that Chevrolet’s fiberglass sports car was just his style, and he bought his first one—a 1965 model—while still in high school. While most of us would have been more than thrilled to impress our friends in the school parking lot with a (then) late-model Vette, McCain discovered his true automotive love.

“Back then, everyone who owned a Corvette automatically got a subscription to Corvette News,” McCain said. “In one of those issues, they did a search for the oldest 1953 Corvette in existence. I thought the car looked really neat and decided I wanted one.”

McCain lives in Summerfield, North Carolina, and the fifty five-year-old collector put the word out among his car friends in the nearby Greensboro area. He got a lead on a 1954 Corvette that was sitting behind a house, but the owner wouldn’t sell. “I was excited, but he wouldn’t sell; he was saving it for his son,” he said.

The 1953 and 1954 Corvettes were virtually identical cars. Both were powered by the Blue Flame six-cylinder engine and were equipped with a two-speed automatic transmission. And most were painted white. Both are rare; only three hundred 1953 models were manufactured and 3,640 1954 Corvettes were built. In 1955, despite the optional V-8, only seven hundred Corvettes were built, because they were hard to sell.

“When Ford introduced the Thunderbird in 1955, nobody wanted to buy a Corvette,” McCain said. “They were actually getting ready to discontinue the Corvette model.”

More than thirty years ago, McCain had unearthed another lead. “My friend Larry Melvin told me about a Corvette in Lexington, North Carolina.” He drove about an hour to see the car. It belonged to the brother of the owner of The Corvette Center, a specialty shop in Lexington. The ’55 was parked behind the owner’s parents’ home nearby.

Deteriorated fiberglass

“The car was in pretty sad shape,” McCain said. “My friend Bill Hampton went with me to check its credentials. “I was told that on 1955 Corvettes, the serial number was on the steering column, but it wasn’t,” McCain said. “The owner didn’t know either, and just walked away.

“We finally found the VIN tag on the driver’s side doorjamb. Imagine our surprise when we saw the numbers.”

VIN tag

The VIN read VE55S001001, which translates thusly:
V: V-8 Engine.
E: Corvette Series.
55: Model year.
S: St. Louis plant, where the car was produced.
001: All 1953–1955 Corvettes had the 001 designation.
001: The first car off the production line.

“I had always heard that Smokey Yunick got the first five Corvettes off the assembly line, but I guess not,” he said.

McCain paid $500 for the car in 1970 and feels he got a pretty good deal.

Two years later, McCain heard of another early Corvette that was available, another 1955, for $1,000. “It was in a junkyard in Wilkesboro [North Carolina], and was also in pretty sad shape,” he said. “It had a big headrest that was molded into the rear trunk, holes in the frame, and holes where a small windscreen had been mounted. But it was a thousand dollars, and I just thought it was a botched up car, and I didn’t want another ’55, so I didn’t buy it.”

To this day, McCain regrets this decision because eventually he found out the Corvette was built by Zora Arkus-Duntov, and he had used it extensively at GM’s Arizona test track. McCain was hardly left empty-handed, though; he still had car number 001. The restoration of the first 1955 Corvette took four years. In 1976, he sold it for $10,000 to a collector who also had the first 1956 and the first 1957 Corvettes ever built.

Does he regret selling number 001? Sure, but McCain has owned many Vettes in his life, including one 1953, four 1954s, and the one 1955.

“If I still owned this car today, I think it would be more historically significant than the last 1967 big block, which got so much attention going into the [2007] Barrett-Jackson auction—and that was bid to more than six hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “But these older cars just aren’t as popular, so I’d say it would probably be worth two hundred thousand dollars.”

An interesting side note, and a lesson on keeping in touch with people who own a car you’d like to acquire: Remember that first 1955 Corvette that McCain discovered behind a house in Lexington, but the guy was saving it for his son? Well in 1989, McCain received a call from the son who was looking to purchase his first home and wanted to sell the Corvette. He sold the car to McCain for $8,000. McCain used it as a parts car for a customized 1953 Vette he was restoring as a full custom (canted headlights, etc.).

Hot Rod Corvette

That’s not the end of the story yet. After the custom was completed, McCain turned his parts car into a hot rod. He widened the body and installed a late-model LT-1 drivetrain with a 700H automatic transmission. Then he painted it dark blue with scallops.

The moral? Corvettes are never scrapped—they are recycled!

 

the-hemi-in-the-barn-cover

This story originally appeared in Tom Cotter’s The Hemi in the Barn.

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Tom Cotter About Tom Cotter

Tom is a certified car nut who has been published in the New York Times and Road & Track. He has also authored many great books including his popular In the Barn series. More posts »

Comments

  1. scot

    ~ mark these words, ‘…a lesson on keeping in touch with people who own a car you’d like to acquire.’
    Sunday morning brings another episode of the stories of research and restoration. thumbs up. +1+

    • scot

      ~ btw, any clues as to the fate of the Duntov Corvette, Tom?

  2. Chip Lamb

    #1 55, 56 and 57 are still together in the collection. $3.2m buys them, at last report.
    Chip

  3. paul

    I thought these only came as a 6 cyl?

    • rancho bella

      P,
      ’55 was the start of the v8, but, I didn’t know it was an option.

    • Rick Rothermel

      The ’53 and ’54 were 6-bangers, but the ’55 used the new V8, just as the sedans did.

  4. jag

    In 55 you could get either but most were V8 cars.

  5. Kurt Spengler

    I agree! Great story! And Sweet job on your parts car Steve! As much as these early vettes are rolling history I can only look at so many originals before boredom sets in..I’m a Kustom lover by nature after all. There has been a certain ’69 convertable in my family’s hearts for decades now that has an interesting story, My Father bought a rather worn daily driver from a co-worker who’d gone to the local Chevy dealer upon his return from Vietnam in ’69. In keeping a promise to himself, drove away that day a proud owner of a green on green,350 hp LT-1 4spd with a white ragtop.
    Fast forward to 1973 or74,My Dads co-worker needed funds to start restoration of his ’58 Vette so, sold the ’69 to my Dad. I was 16 and just getting my license and was in heaven! Picture my Mom, all 95 lbs @ 4’10″ sitting on a phone book with a pillow behind her hammering this harder than my Dad did! Life was sweet! However, Having 2 younger brothers and the looming gas crisis, My Dad was forced to sell the car when my youngest brother got his license at the behest of our Insurance agent.
    As a result my Dad sold the car, luckily, to another enthusiastic co-worker who eventually swapped out the LT-1 and Muncie for of all things a warmed over 305 and TH350..He later said that if it weren’t for the second gas crisis of the seventies he wouldn’t have performed such sacrilege! Bill owned the car for a total of 22 years with the last 10-15 yrs spent stored in a garage with a bad waterpump.
    Fast forward again to the end of the century..My next younger brother becomes the title holder for a paltry 2500.00 and proceeds to start a restoration.Out comes the boatanchor and auto,I donate a Muncie to the cause and my brother starts a buildup of another 4bolt 350.Since this is no longer a #’s matching car and Bill had swapped out the original hood and non functional wiper door monstrocity for a 3″ cowl hood, certain liberties have been taken during the current build like removal of the rear bumpers,and full one pc molding of the rear valance including removal of the exhaust cutouts. Reinforcement of the fiberglass in the rear section followed and repair of the rear wheelwells due to incorrect wheel width was done. Current plans include offset rear swingarms, newer more comfortable seats,a body color match for the front bumper and conversion to Quad rectangular headlights so the doors don’t have to open as far.. Oh yeah, I’ll get my Muncie back..Chris has just scored a 4th gen Z-28 six speed for it!..Sorry this is so long..Just the first time I’ve been able to tell this in print! Tom! ya just can’t scrap an icon with this kind of history! Long live Kustoms!

  6. theautojunkie

    …. nice story, and what more a righteous thing than turn junk into art….

  7. Mitchell Gildea

    Sweet find! This particular Corvette was for sale not too long ago in an Autabuy in 2009! I remember seeing it being sold with the 1st 1956 and 1957 Corvettes at a dealership in Missouri. I then cross-referenced “The Hemi in the Barn” book and realized that who ever bought the Corvettes from McCain must’ve sold them to the dealership. A cool story! Keep up the finds!
    (P.S.): To Tom Cotter- I recently found a 1974 Buick Regal with 58,000 original miles. Stay tuned! I plan to email the story.

  8. jim

    another great find and story. thanks

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