1953 Corvette Photo Shoot : A Day with #18
A California road trip in one of the earliest Corvettes leads to stunning photos and an unforgettable experience for photographer Jim Donnelly.
It’s a foggy June morning as I drive to Hollister, California, for what is sure to be an adventure. I am going to meet up with Ki Hansen (also known as Corvette Forum member 18thvette) to discuss and photograph his 1953 Chevrolet Corvette VIN #18. When I arrive and the garage door rolls up, I can barely hold back my excitement. When it comes to how the Corvette became a global phenomenon, this car is literally one of the ones that started it all.
Ki and I set off up into the hills of Northern California in search of a location that will do this fantastic piece of automotive history justice. Not long into our drive, we find a great location. The fog has burned off and the sun is shining. As we are setting up for the photo shoot, I chat with Ki about the car that he and his father lovingly restored.
Corvette Forum: Give us a little history about the car.
Ki: My dad has owned this ’53 longer than I’ve been around. He found the car in his hometown of Salinas, California, back in 1963. It was sitting at the end of a cul-de-sac very dirty, and it was obvious that it hadn’t moved in a while. After knocking on a few nearby doors, he found the owner, a 16-year-old kid. Dad asked if he would be interested in selling any parts off of the car, as my dad owned another ’53 #207. The kid told him he would rather sell the whole car. He mentioned that the transmission slipped and he couldn’t afford to fix it. Plus, he still owed his mother money for the car. A deal was struck and dad hooked up a tow bar and took the car home.
‘A lot of the remaining ’53s out there are either in a museum or aren’t driven. This car was restored to enjoy and to let others enjoy looking at it.’
He fixed the transmission and drove the car for about a year, and then parked it. The ’53 moved from house to house over the years, even ending up in a barn for a few years and then into a self-storage unit for more than 20 years.
We don’t know who owned the Corvette originally, but it is known that the first Corvettes produced were offered to Hollywood celebrities and higher-ups in the business world. John Wayne was given one as well as the DuPont family and government officials.
How did the ’53 end up at L.A.’s famous Petersen Auto Museum for the Corvette’s 60th Anniversary event that coincided with the West Coast launch of the C7 Corvette?
In 2012, the car was brought out of storage for a complete nut-and-bolt, body-off restoration. I was posting about the restoration on Corvette Forum and we were contacted by the organizers of the event. They inquired about when the car might be done to have it for the event. The event was only five weeks away, but we assured them it would be ready for the show. We literally made the final touches to the car just days before the event, and then had to ship it to them. The car was in the museum for a month. After that, we were finally able to have fun with it.
After snapping a few different looks, we get everything we could out of the first location. Then, Ki suggests another spot.
We arrive at the next location and there are a few spots that I think will work great. As I walk around to check out the area, someone drives up and starts admiring the car, asking,“Is that a ’53?” The two chat as I begin setting up for stage two. We find ourselves there for awhile taking in the great location and getting a number of great looks. Time passes quickly and before long, it’s time to head back for a quick break before our shoot at the Monterey Airport.
This is my chance to finally take a ride through the rolling hills of Northern California and learn more about this beautiful machine. As we wind through the countryside, a slew of questions start rolling through my mind.
‘I was posting about the restoration on Corvette Forum and we were contacted by the Petersen Automotive Museum. The car was in the museum for a month.’
So, how much attention does this thing actually get out on the road?
My dad still likes to take it out. The car definitely gets a lot of attention whether it’s at a car show or just at the gas station. People are always asking to take pictures of it.
How much fun is it to drive this thing? It’s so different than how we think of the Corvette today.
It’s a great and fun drive but certainly not what you think of if you compare it to the new Corvettes that are focused on high performance. This has a Blue Flame inline-6 engine with a 2-speed transmission, so it has none of the beastly performance you usually imagine with a Corvette. That is something they would later address in 1955, introducing a V8 when deciding what to do with the Corvette line.
What is the most common thing people ask about the car?
The most commonly asked question is about the year. A lot of people don’t even know that Corvette made a 1953 model, or they assume that it’s a ‘54 or ‘55 model, which are identical to the naked eye, but subtle details in the first three years set them apart. With the folding top down and the hood closed it’s hard to tell the first three years apart. Now, 1953 was the only year with a black canvas top. With only 300 produced in 1953 and roughly 172 accounted for, it’s not every day you see a ’53 driving around Northern California — or anywhere else for that matter.
Is there anything on this car that is unique to the very early models?
The first 25 cars off of the assembly line left the plant with Chevrolet Bel Air hubcaps because the tooling for the Corvette hub caps wasn’t finished just yet. I have a set of both the Bel Air and Corvette hubcaps now. The first 20 cars also had chrome speaker grilles instead of the black.
Do you think the Corvette model has remained true to its spirit over the years?
Yes, for the most part. From time to time, the designs from one generation to the next, especially in the last 20 years, can get a little stale. In the early years of the Corvette, you had significant body changes more often — from ’53 to ’55, ’56 to ’62, ’63 to ’67. The ’68 model year body style stayed around until 1982, 14 years before a real change came along. In 1983, Chevrolet came out with the C4, a way overdue facelift, but then again that body style stuck around till ’96, with very little change in appearance. In 2014 when the new Corvette came out, it’s like the Corvette was reborn. The energy that this body style puts out stays true to the spirit of the original American sports car.
‘It’s a fun drive, but certainly not what you think of if you compare it to the new Corvettes.’
It was soon time for us to head to the airport for few more planned looks for the car. During the entire drive to Monterey it was awesome to see people craning their necks to take a look at this American classic. This thing really does steal the show no matter where it is, which was certainly no different when we arrived at the airport. Once again as we were setting up, from the opposite side of the airport a new Porsche 911 Carrera drove over and the owner asked, “Is that a ’53?” I was quickly beginning to believe Ki about all the attention this car commands. Our time was short at the airport, but we got what we needed, wrapped things up and got back to Hollister around sunset. I had one last, important question for him.
What’s your favorite part of owning a 1953 C1 Corvette?
My favorite aspect of owning a C1 is just owning one, especially a ’53. There are not a lot of them around anymore, so when we take ours out, it always gets attention everywhere we go. A lot of the remaining ’53s out there are either in a museum or aren’t driven. This car was restored to enjoy and to let others enjoy looking at it. This car is driven quite a bit around Northern California.
After a long day, I wanted to be mindful of Ki’s time and the many valuable miles (around 180 in total) that we put on the car. But it was the perfect light to take some final photos. “Are you up for one more spot?” I asked Ki. Without hesitation, he made a turn and said, “follow me.”
Next thing I know, we’d arrived at a fantastic winery where there was a wedding going. Ensuring we’d avoid interrupting the couple’s special day, we located a spot out of the way to attempt one last round of pictures. The operators of the winery kindly allowed us to shoot for a brief ten minutes. And ten minutes is all we needed to capture the best photos of the entire day, with a breathtaking sunset as our backdrop. Overall, the whole day was a life-affirming experience for this lifetime auto enthusiast. The photos, the experience, the history … I’ll truly never forget this opportunity.
Jim Donnelly is a freelance photographer based in Los Angeles. Check out more of his eclectic work — from hot rods to rock superstars — at JimDonnellyPhoto.