Unrestored or Previously Restored: 1954 Chevrolet Corvette

I have to admit it.  I am, at times, not a good classic car owner.  Often, when life is in the way, I will leave my cars unattended for months at a time.  When I find my way back, I am often greeted by low or flat tires, stale gas, a dead battery, and leaking brake cylinders.  Time after time, it takes an injection of cash and a weekend or two to get everything back running again.  I swear on a stack of Special Interest Autos magazines that I will never sin again, but…  The former owner of this beautiful car gets a pass though.  He has died, and his estate is being liquidated.  Being sold by the same auction company that handled the yellow 1940 Ford pickup and 1968 Camaro convertible discussed in previous articles on Barn Finds, this 1954 Corvette is currently for sale on EBay in Waterville, Ohio with a $79,995 price tag.  There are a number of issues to tend to on this one, and it makes me wonder if the car merits its market setting price.

The story behind the early Corvettes is that of a car that struggled to establish itself in the American market.  Born as a Motorama show car, the Corvette was approved for production for the 1953 model year.  The first 300 were essentially hand built, and were reserved for movie stars, politicians, and local dignitaries in order to build a “desirable” reputation for the car.  The problem was that Chevrolet dealers turned away people with cash in hand that wanted one, and they lost customers who were put off by the refusal.  The car was also trying to appeal to both the upper end of the market and to the emerging sports car market.  It failed at both.  Upper class customers don’t like side curtains and unlockable doors, and the sports car people weren’t impressed by the heavy inline six cylinder engine backed up with a two speed automatic transmission.  Sales rose to 3,640 in 1954, aided in small part by Chevrolet offering the paint choices of black, Pennant Blue, and Sportsman Red to the standard color of Polo White.  However, that number eventually exceeded the number of buyers for the year.  Corvettes sat unsold on the lot, and 1955 production numbers fell to just 700.  Even though it could be equipped with the new V-8 engine, sales numbers all but assured that the model would be discontinued.  You know the rest of the story.

The auction house that is handling this car claims that this Corvette still sports its original paint job, and has a little under 42,000 miles on the odometer.  Documentation points to this maybe being the true mileage.  The car may have had damage on the passenger front fender, and there is some scaling on the frame.  Mice have also eaten the convertible top.  The Corvette expert they have says that it has the original engine, and that the original radio and heater still work.  He even claims that it runs, drives, and stops “excellent.”  In the picture above, you can see some cracking in the finish.  It looks like lacquer paint cracks, but some of them look pretty long to just be bad paint.  An inspection by your expert would be in order on any C-1 Corvette.

The interior looks great, especially for a car that mice have attacked.  The leather seats look to have all of their stitching unbroken and there doesn’t appear to be many signs of age.  The dash, door panels, and carpet also seem to be in tip top shape.  The gauges appear to be all there, and that little lever to the right of the driver’s seat is the lever for the two speed Powerglide automatic transmission.  See why enthusiasts weren’t in a froth in 1954?

Under the hood rests Chevrolet’s venerable Blue Flame Six engine.  Also called the “stovebolt,” this engine had a bank of three single barrel carburetors and a hotter cam added to it to make 150 horsepower when installed in the Corvette.  This one looks to have all the special Corvette bits still intact.  The only question I have is that I have seen both painted and chromed valve covers on these cars, so I am unsure as to what is correct.  Perhaps a reader can enlighten us.

Overall, it is an interesting car, but I am a little hesitant to call it all original by just looking at the pictures.  While today we consider a restoration a full frame off, replace every nut and bolt, and make it look better than it left the factory endeavor, back in the day it was different.  Many collectors “rattle canned” what needed to be covered under the car and under the hood, replaced the interior, sanded down the paint and re-sprayed it, and called it a day.  You could get away with it because there were a number of good cars out there, and the junkers we see many EBay flippers unloading with a few important parts missing were often parts cars for Corvettes like this one.  When you find a car like this, and there is nobody alive to tell the story of the car, it is easy to mistake it for an original car.  I am not claiming that this is the case here, but I wouldn’t call my banker until a NCRS judge went over the car with a microscope.  It is easy to get in trouble buying these early Corvettes.

The price may also tie into this.  If it is an original car, then it may merit the high price.  The less original the car is, the lower the price should go, with it at some point being a restoration project.  Bonhams auction company sold an excellent, well restored example for $71,500 at Scottsdale in January of 2016.  Gooding and Company sold a Pennant Blue example, with a fresh frame off restoration, for $68,750 at Scottsdale in 2017.  These cars are hard to price in any condition, but we do know where the ceiling is.

Do you think it is in original, unrestored condition?  Given your answer, is it fairly priced?

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Comments

  1. R.hernandez

    I’m with you dude.
    Looks like scary high price business!

  2. geomechs geomechs Member

    I’m no Corvette expert so I won’t speculate too much on how much it’s worth. I’ve seen ’53 models go for $100K, and ’54s for slightly less than that. Personally I’d like to have a ’53 model just because Corvette and I showed up that same year. However I’d need a large bank roll to accomplish owning one. Those cracks in the finish are maybe a little larger than what you’d usually find but they are NOT uncommon on a lacquer finish over fiberglass. Lacquer has a tendency to be brittle and will crack on steel so fiberglass would be much worse. Therefore I wouldn’t be surprised if this is an original paint job.

  3. Rustytech Member

    If it is a 100% original survivor that may bring a premium, but the minute you fix the paint or replace the top ( according to some people’s definition ) then it’s no longer original. Wherein lies the conundrum. At this asking price it’s a big gamble. Personally I’d rather have the restored on for $68k. Most of these I’ve seen had the painted valve covers, I think the finned aluminum ones were either an option or were aftermarket add on’s.

    • Metoo

      True about the repaint. But does anyone really want to drive around such a classic with “patina”? But you are right, it does affect the value of classics.

  4. Bob

    I also think it is over priced. Back in the early 60s, I saw a few of the 54 and 55 Corvettes up close, a guy wanted to trade me one for the car I had at the time, and all the ones I saw had the blue painted valve cover. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t offered, but that the 150hp engine didn’t necessarily have a chrome valve cover.

  5. Dolphin Member

    This car looks pretty good, and is probably original—but you would definitely want to check that out. But as Rusty said…if it’s an original survivor, as soon as you start to redo paint and interior it’s no longer an original survivor.

    But the SCM Guide has the median recent auction price paid for these ’54s at $82,500, only a little more than the price of this car.

    To redo the paint, interior, and mechanicals fully after paying the asking on this car would put you way underwater, so short of getting it way cheaper than the asking, going the survivor route is the only thing that makes sense….assuming you are OK with paying that much for a survivor instead of paying the same money for a restored car.

    • waynard

      The question is: Was that $82,500. a restored car or original? Also deduct 10% for the auction house fee. That brings that particular car to a real value of $74,250. Which is somewhat closer to the truth on this car, in my opinion.

  6. Chuck

    It’s a cool piece of history, but I’m sure it drives like an old truck, and it’s too nice to modify fer better usability. Basically a nice garage sculpture.

    • Dolphin Member

      In my experience they drive like a ’54 Chevy sedan with Powerglide that has had its frame shortened, which is exactly what they are underneath. But they do look good, especially back in ’54.

  7. Steve

    LS SWAP! Just kidding. The first gen vettes aren’t good for much other than to sit in the lobby of a car dealer or something. As mentioned above, they drive like a shortened 54 sedan…

  8. Chas

    Blue painted valve covers are correct. Chrome ribbed ones were aftermarket. Also, the air cleaners do not look correct to me. I seem to recall a single structure for all of the carburetors.
    This looks like a very nice example and if it is a truly original car, it is really quite remarkable, but still overpriced in my opinion. Properly restored 1954’s are typically in the $50K to $70K range unless you are in a coveted auction arena where all prices become seriously inflated.
    In my opinion, the value will always be limited because these early Corvettes were quite primitive (shortened 1954 sedan chassis) and quite slow with the stovebolt six, so they will never draw the premiums that faster, and more developed later cars will draw.

    • gbvette62

      53’s and 54’s through about VIN 2900, used the Boettger “bullet” air cleaners. Late 54’s, used a “dual pot” air cleaner, a one piece stamped steel manifold assembly, with 2 round chrome breathers mounted on top. Around the same time, a hotter cam was also added, raising the horsepower from 150 to a ground pounding 155!

      Early 54’s used a painted stamped steel valve cover. Sometime after VIN 3000, it was replaced by a chrome plated version of the painted valve cover, not a finned aluminum one. About the same time the chrome valve cover was added, the painted stamped steel ignition shield, was replaced by a chrome plated one.

      I too feel that the car is over priced. Correctly restored 53’s and 55’s regularly sell for $125,000 and up, while even perfectly restored 54’s often struggle to bring more than $80,000.

  9. Bob

    Saw this early one at Bonneville last year. I’d leave it just the way it is:

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