When the 1956 Chevy Corvette was unveiled, it was not just a tweaked 1955; it was an entirely new and vastly improved vehicle.
About the only items that remained unchanged were the big smiling chrome grille and the basic long-front/short rear deck outline. From there on out, the 1956 was a new vehicle.
The little “jet” wings and rounded taillights that were standard from 53 to 55 were history. Instead, the design team made the taillights integral parts of the classically sculpted rear quarters that curved down from the cockpit to the rear bumper.
Other improvements for 1956 included the use of more steel in the central body and frame, although the body panels themselves still remained fiberglass. And, gone were Harley Earl’s recessed, mesh screen-covered headlights. They were moved forward to the front of the fenders and helped the 56 Corvette establish a unique line that was carried through to the rear quarters. The quarters sloped away, while the front end actually sloped up from the grille to the rounded, one-piece windshield.
One of the key design changes that made the 56 unique was the use of a second color curved, reverse piece that featured an understated bright surround. This design device, which was also somewhat curved, looked great and made the slab-sided Corvette much more interesting. It became its trademark for about the next seven years.
The 1953 to 1955 were toys compared to the more serious 1956. This was the year the Corvette became a car. Not only was the body stiffened by the use of more steel, but the cockpit was all-new with seats that were becoming more like real buckets and a restyled instrument panel whose layout was better. The brakes and suspension were also improved.
Convertible and hardtop available
Still available as a convertible – with tighter-fitting top and two new colors (beige and white) and hardtop, the plastic side curtains were replaced by real rollup glass windows.
Under the hood, the small block V-8 (289) was given more muscle as a single 4-barrel helped to raise the output to 210 horsepower at 5200 rpm. The Blue Flame 6 was history.
If you played your cards right you could order a special high lift camshaft version that was said to put out 225 horsepower and was for racing only. It really cranked out more like 240.
The three-speed manual was still the regular transmission, while Chevy offered its two-speed Powerglide automatic for the first time. The manual was improved with closer gear ratios and a full 10-inch clutch with heat-treated springs. The brake improvements put 11-inch drums on all four wheels so it had more stopping power.
The most important improvement to the 1956 Corvette was not an option but a design engineer who joined the team and made the Corvette into a real sports car. Zora Arkus-Duntov, who remained on the Corvette design team almost his whole career, was Mr. Corvette. He made changes to the suspension that improved handling and paved the way for Corvettes to come.