Careful evaluation of automotive trends in the late 1940s indicated there was a small but growing niche market that no American manufacturer had a vehicle for; the sports car. Fueled by returning GI’s love for lithe, spirited, open European roadsters within five years registration for imported sports roadsters had leapt from a mere 100 to more than 11,000. From this and the desire of General Motors Design Chief Harley Earl’s desire to build a reasonable, go to college roadster for his kids an American legend was born.
Earl was acutely aware that roadsters had fallen from favor during the Great Depression and that Chevrolet had not built one since 1935. More than likely, he was also aware that since the days of the hoary Stutz Bearcat, America had not really had a sports car of its own. At a meeting with his styling staff in early 1952, all of this culminated with the issuance of an order to come up with an inexpensive, sporty roadster.
The resultant sketches so impressed Earl he gave the green light to the actual building of the car for display at the 1953 Motorama. To head the project he selected Bob McClean, a man well versed in the burgeoning sports car fever having received his degrees in engineering and industrial design at Cal Tech.
Initially the sporty roadster, dubbed Corvair, was to be built of steel and aluminum. However, a revolutionary new product known as GRP, glass reinforced plastic, commonly known today as fiberglass, was in the early stages of transforming the boat building industry. More importantly to Earl were several prototype and low production automobiles that used the material successfully for lightweight composite body construction.
One was the Alembic 1 roadster built by U.S. Rubber in late 1951 that was on display in the lobby of the General Motors Building at the time. This car would evolve into the Woodill Wildfire, a fiberglass kit car sold to go with the chassis of the buyers’ choice.
The second was the Kaiser Darrin, a limited production vehicle built by Kaiser in Jackson, Michigan during 1952. Legendary designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin had created the low silhouette, two-seat sports roadster with curvaceous lines. As if the car was not distinctive enough it was given a grill that was derisively described as a Buick sucking a lemon.
Literally, at the last minute the prototype for the Waldorf Astoria Motorama received two changes. The name was changed from Corvair to Corvette and the hood emblem of crossed checker and American flag was switched to a checkered flag and a red Chevrolet flag.
The management of General Motors and Harley Earl expected the prototype to draw a great deal of attention. However, the response, beyond all expectation, was so intense and so impassioned the order was given to commence production as soon as possible.
Incredibly, in little more than six months the first “production” model rolled from an impromptu assembly line in the old Customer Delivery Building in Flint. By mid-December of 1953, production had hit the three hundred mark; a production facility designed for a projected 10,000 units annually was complete and fifteen 1954 models were built.
Excitement over the Corvette at General Motors as well as with the public quickly waned. Sealing issues resulted in floors that filled with water during hard rains. Even though the cars used many mechanical components from the standard passenger car line, such as the Blue Flame Six and two-speed Powerglide transmission, they required costly production methods. As a result, the original idea of building an inexpensive sports car fell by the wayside and the sales price for a Corvette, $3490, placed it in direct competition with upper end European sports cars such as the Jaguar.
That in turn led to another major problem. The Corvette, especially in comparison to the Jaguar, was a sports car in name only.
By the final weeks of 1954, after almost two years of production, less than 4,000 Corvettes had been built, a far cry form the projected annual production of 10,000 units. Even worse 1,076 of these were sitting on loading docks and at dealerships. For obvious reasons the decision was made to pull the plug on what had once been a promising project. Salvation came from two very unexpected directions, Russia and Ford Motor Company.
In late 1954, the Ford Motor Company introduced its stylish, sporty two seat Thunderbird. General Motors had but one option if it was to compete, revamp the Corvette.
Enter Zora Duntov, Russian immigrant, engineer for Allard, designer of the Ardun racing conversion for Ford flat head V8 engines, and race driver. With a free hand, almost unlimited resources, a talented staff and the support of Ed Cole, in late 1955, the Corvette made its debut with the all-new, revolutionary small block 265-c.i.d. V8 engine and an American legend was pulled from the precipice.
Today the Chevrolet Corvette is an American icon that is inseparable from America’s love of speed. That the Corvette should rise to such heights despite initial shortcomings and its near demise is but another astounding chapter in the history of the American auto industry.
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