1959 Fuelie Corvette – The One to Have
Today, someone with a decent stash of cash seeking to buy a high performance sports or muscle car has a sizeable selection to choose from. Those wishing to confine their choices to U.S. shores can consider Vipers, Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds, Corvettes, and a host of other vehicles. Then, of course, there’s the foreign machinery — Porsches, BMWs, and so on.
The same was not true in 1959, when someone itching to rule the stop light drag racing scene or his local road race activity only had one viable choice. To be the leader of the pack he had to make a beeline for his nearest Chevrolet dealership and order up a fuel injected Corvette.
Of course, there were some credible and even a few incredible foreign sports cars available back then, but they were far more expensive and troublesome to buy and own. Road & Track summed this sentiment up in the January 1959 issue when they said of the Corvette: “It probably has more performance per dollar than anything you could buy and parts are obtainable without sending to Italy, Germany, or England.”
Rochester Products’ mechanical fuel injection system first became available on Corvettes in 1957 and it immediately set new high water marks for performance. That first year it delivered a then-revolutionary one horsepower per cubic inch when bolted to a high compression, solid-lifter 283.
The fuel injection system was improved in some subtle ways in 1958 and then again in 1959, the year our feature car was built. Besides giving more power and better drivability, the improvements also reduced the risk of severe fuel leakage and resulting engine damage (and sometimes even fire) seen with the earliest setups.
In 1959, as in all years up through ‘62, fuel injection was offered in two different states of tune. For reduced maintenance and greater civility, the lower output version featured hydraulic lifters, a mild camshaft profile, and relatively low compression. This option, which found its way into only 175 cars, delivered 250 horsepower.
The high performance fuel injected engine, which is the one our feature car came with, has stout 11:1 compression, solid lifters, and a relatively aggressive camshaft profile. Together these performance enhancements boost output to 290 horsepower.
The higher horse fuelie engine was more popular than its mild mannered counterpart but with only 745 sold it was by no means common. Both versions of fuel injection cost $484.20, quite a substantial amount when you consider that the base price of the entire car was $3,875. The relatively high cost is undoubtedly why so few fuelies were sold.
What exactly did the handful of people willing to pony up the money for fuel injection get? A car that would sprint from zero to 60 mph in about six and a half seconds and turn the quarter-mile in 14 seconds. They also got a genuine sports car that would handle and brake as good or better than any other production vehicle in the world.
From a cosmetic point of view, 1959 Corvettes are almost identical to ‘60s but easily distinguished from ‘58s by virtue of several exterior changes. Gone were the 1958-only simulated hood vents and chrome plated trunk spears, resulting in a much cleaner look for ’59. Both the trunk trim and washboard-like hood ridges were superfluous adornment that sports car purists didn’t miss, as evidenced by the jump in sales figures from 9,168 the previous year to 9,670 in ’59.
Besides the smooth hood and unadorned trunk, another distinguishing characteristic new to 1959 was the wheel cover design. It is similar to the 1958’s but incorporates ten small, rectangular cutouts around the periphery to aid brake cooling.
As with the exterior, 1959 interiors benefited from a number of welcome improvements. Seats were slightly reshaped for increased support and the vinyl upholstery had a smoother texture. Door release handles were moved forward for easier access and door panel armrests were relocated to increase elbow room. The instruments were made a bit easier to see by virtue of glare-reducing concave lenses and a revised tachometer face.
The lack of interior storage space that was a common complaint among Corvette drivers prior to 1959 was addressed with the addition of an open tray beneath the passenger side grab bar. This welcome addition provided a place to toss a pair of gloves, a map, and the like.
Another interior change was made for 1959 in the interest of safety. To prevent the likelihood of accidentally going into reverse. the shifter was given a “T-handle” that served as a positive lockout. The transmission could not be put into reverse unless the spring-loaded T-handle was held in its upward position.
All 1959s made use of the same design chassis that the Corvette was born with in 1953. However, several effective changes were made to the underpinnings in order to improve handling. At the rear, two trailing radius rods were added, each anchored at one end to a bracket on the axle and at the other end to a bracket on the chassis. By anchoring the axle housing to the chassis, the trailing radius rods did a great deal to suppress axle hop under hard acceleration. In addition, shock absorbers were redesigned to reduce fluid foaming, another problem sometimes encountered under hard use.
As the photos illustrate, our feature car has undergone a thorough body-off-the frame restoration that returned it to factory new condition. Corvette Dreams, New York’s preeminent Corvette restoration and repair facility, completed the work several years ago. Since then the car has been shown on occasion, winning numerous first place and NCRS Top Flight awards.
In spite of its comprehensive restoration and showroom condition, the fuelie is still driven with some regularity. Though it is no longer the king of stop light drag racing or the leader of the pack at road race circuits, it is still the car to have!