Several years ago, Buick ran a series of commercials that starred a ghostly apparition named Harley Earl. In the ads, the benevolent Earl whispered inspirational notions into the ears of Buick's engineers and designers. Millions of viewers learned the name of Harley Earl for the first time, but few had a real appreciation for his achievements at General Motors.
Earl is widely considered to be the father of modern automotive design. Under his guidance, GM was the first American carmaker to open an Art and Color Section. Earl not only influenced the corporation's design language in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, but he also structured a formal process of design that would eventually be adapted by every American and many foreign carmakers.
If the term "longer, lower, wider!" is familiar, you can thank Harley Earl. His most famous touch was the tailfin, a look that became an icon of the '50s. But he created far more than fins. Earl's styling genius touched every GM car. His first dream car was the '38 "Y-Job," and it set the automotive world on its ear.
Earl repeated the magic 13 years later when he created the '51 Buick LeSabre. The LeSabre looked like a futuristic jet fighter and was loaded with technology. Under the hood was an all-aluminum, 335hp supercharged V-8 that burned a mixture of methanol and gasoline. Rubberized 20-gallon fuel tanks were located in each tail fin-one for gasoline, the other for the methyl alcohol that was used during wide-open-throttle bursts.
In September 1951, Earl took the LeSabre to the Watkins Glen sports-car race. Earl was impressed not only with the Jaguars, Ferraris, and Alfas, but also with the passion these marques' enthusiasts had for their cars.
Earl had always appreciated European sports cars. Each year he traveled to Europe to attend the major car salons, and he was continuously impressed with what he saw there, especially from Italian designer Pinin Farina. Earl was also very aware of the growing popularity of European sports cars in America. American GIs had gotten a taste of something different when they were stationed in England during World War II and flirted with open-top touring in the sporty MG TC. When the war was over, ex-GI gearheads began importing these sports cars and others like them into the United States.
Soon, more modern roadsters, such as Jaguar's XK120, the MG-TD, the Triumph TR2, and the Austin-Healy, began appearing on American roads. The styling and pure fun of these early roadsters heavily influenced a generation of sports-car lovers, including the founding fathers of the Corvette.
It was at Watkins Glen that Earl got the inspiration to begin developing an American sports car to vie with Jaguar and Triumph. He knew that to be competitive, the car had to be affordable for college-age buyers, so he targeted a price of about $2,000, 15 percent less than the MG-TD.
Earl went back to Detroit and launched "Project Opel" in a small, clandestine studio closed even to GM brass. Earl selected Bob McLean, a young designer who had just joined GM after graduating from the California Institute of Technology, as the car's stylist. For their benchmarks, Earl and McLean chose two cars-the Jaguar XK-120 and the Cisitalia 202 Nuvolari roadster.
The Opel's wheelbase was the same as the XK-120's, at 102 inches. Its overall length was a compact 167 inches. With an overall height of just 48.5 inches and a broad stance of 72.24 inches, the car looked low and mean. Much of the Opel's shape was borrowed from the Cisitalia. (Compare the lines of the '53 Corvette to those of the Nuvolari, and you'll notice more than a passing similarity.) In fact, Earl was never apologetic when it came to borrowing an idea, a gimmick, or a design theme, especially if it happened to be one that appealed to him personally.
At first, the strategy was for the Opel to be constructed of steel, like all other GM cars. But a series of events transpired to shift the focus to a relatively new and futuristic material: fiberglass.
GM had toyed with several fiberglass engineering projects in the years after the war, including a 'glass-bodied Chevrolet convertible. Supporters of fiberglass claimed it was easier to shape and form and more resistant to minor impacts. When the convertible was accidentally rolled in a test and emerged basically undamaged, fiberglass proved itself to Chevrolet engineering as a legitimate body material. Problem was, no one had ever mass-produced a fiberglass-bodied car before.
One of the companies that was promoting fiberglass as a body material was Naugatuck Chemical. Naugatuck built and exhibited its version of a fiberglass-bodied sports car, called the Alembic I, in Philadelphia in the spring of 1952. Right after that, the car was brought to GM for a month of evaluation.
Harley Earl took one look at the Alembic I and decided his Project Opel would be built of fiberglass. Tooling for the material was easier to create, and designers had more freedom to create rounded shapes, which Earl favored. Not long after this, the first fullsize model of Earl's sports car was completed.
Initially, Earl wasn't sure which GM division should sell the Corvette. Since the initial concept was to keep the price low, Earl felt Chevrolet Division should have first shot. Ed Cole, Chevy's new chief engineer, knew the first time he saw the prototype that it was just what Chevrolet needed to give the brand a new image.
Cole had only one engine to slip into the car, and that was the 235-cid "Stovebolt Six" that had been introduced along with the Powerglide automatic transmission in 1950. Cole chose to take the 135hp hydraulic-lifter version, change camshafts, and increase compression to 8.0:1. To clear the low hood, a trio of Carter one-barrel sidedraft carburetors was chosen. Dubbed the "Blue Flame Six," the engine produced 150 hp and 223 lb-ft of torque. Chevrolet didn't have a manual gearbox stout enough to handle the engine's torque, so the Powerglide was used. In keeping with the car's sporty image, the shifter was mounted on the floor, rather than on the column as in other Chevy models. A 3.55:1 rear axle was the only gearing choice.
Earl never had too much trouble pushing his designs past GM management, and his clay model of a two-seat sports-car concept met with little resistance. In June 1952,GM approved construction of a running prototype to be shown at the first GM Motorama, just six months away. The Opel was given a new name-XP-122-and construction began.
The molds for the body were formed right off the fullsize model, and Chevrolet Engineering and Styling worked together to prepare the car for opening night at the 1953 Motorama in New York City. This was not going to be the usual "pushmobile" show car that couldn't run under its own power. The XP-122 was a complete running car and virtually ready for production.
On January 17, 1953, the world was introduced to the XP-122 concept at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The name "Corvair" had originally been chosen for the finished vehicle, but that changed after Myron Scott, a photographer at Chevrolet's PR agency, suggested naming the car "Corvette," after a small, highly maneuverable escort ship.
The Corvette was the smash hit of the 1953 Motorama. After wowing the throngs in New York, the show moved on to cities across America. Over four million people saw the Corvette, and the response was so favorable GM chose to put Harley Earl's vision into production.
One of the people who viewed the Corvette at the Waldorf-Astoria was a gifted, Belgian-born engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov. He was so impressed by the car that he wrote a letter to Ed Cole, sharing his belief that while the Corvette was visually stunning, it lacked the powertrain necessary to qualify it as a true sports car.
"He looked at the Corvette with the trained eye of a European enthusiast," Dave McLellan, the Corvette's second chief engineer noted, "having thought long and hard about how to successfully market a sports car." Duntov saw the potential in the Corvette and wanted to be involved in the car's engineering evolution. As a result of his letter to Cole, Chevrolet offered Duntov a position in the engineering department.
Less than six months after the Corvette debuted in New York, Chevrolet built a makeshift assembly line in Flint, Michigan, manned it with workers from the St. Louis plant, and began building Corvettes. Or, more correctly, began learning how to build fiberglass sports cars.
Chevrolet quickly discovered that the new process of assembling fiberglass-bodied cars was unlike building steel-bodied ones. The mold quality was inconsistent, requiring considerable hand sanding and shaping to fit the soft bodies to the rigid chassis. It was slow and tedious work, and assembly of the first few Corvettes took three 16-hour workdays. From June 30, when the first Corvette rolled off the line, until the end of July, only one car was produced daily. Between August and the end of the production year, Chevrolet never produced more than three Corvettes a day.
A total of 300 Corvettes were built in 1953, all Polo White with red interiors. Chevrolet Public Relations made sure the new car received plenty of publicity by placing it in the hands of celebrities like John Wayne.
But at $3,500, the Corvette was expensive-almost twice as much as the under-$2,000 price tag Earl had targeted. (For context, consider that a new Chevy 150 sold for less than $1,700 at the time.) The idea of building an affordable, youth-oriented sports car evaporated, and with its six-cylinder engine and two-speed transmission, the car developed a well-deserved reputation as a flaccid boulevard cruiser.
Corvette sales started out slow. Chevrolet optimistically projected 1954 sales of 10,000 units, but only 3,640 were produced. The outlook for the Corvette got even bleaker in 1955, when only 700 were sold. The Corvette was close to extinction. What saved the car was the 265-cid small-block engine-and Ford Motor Company.
Few could argue that Earl's Corvette wasn't beautiful, but the car's underwhelming performance was a potentially fatal flaw. That changed in 1955, thanks to the introduction of the Chevy small-block. The combination of a 265-cube V-8 and a three-speed manual gearbox transformed the Corvette from curb cruiser to boulevard bruiser. At the same time, Ford introduced the two-seat '55 Thunderbird. The T-bird was a strong seller in its first year, and GM was forced to keep the Corvette in production. Killing it would have been an admission the Corvette was a failure, and GM never admitted to failure.
While he hadn't been part of the original Corvette development team, Zora Duntov left his mark on the car by turning it into a performance legend. Duntov worked together with Ed Cole to boost the Corvette's performance through engine, chassis, and suspension enhancements. These improvements transformed the '56 Corvette into a contender for production stock racing.
When Earl's son, Jerry, wanted to go racing in a Ferrari in 1956, Earl commissioned the construction of the SR-2 racer for him instead. The SR-2 had a rear fin like the D-type Jaguar racer, two small racing windshields, side air scoops, and a special racing front end. It ran on the beach at Daytona Speedweeks, setting a standing-mile mark of 93.047 mph in the modified class and turning 152.866 mph in the flying mile. This car also ran the '57 Sebring race, where it placed 16th. Three were built-two true race cars and a street version for GM president Harlow Curtice.
One of Earl's last Corvette projects was the Sebring SS. Earl had purchased the D-Type Jaguar that placed Third in the 1956 Sebring race. The Jag had no engine, which suited Earl, since he wanted to install one of Chevy's new fuel-injected small-blocks. His plan was to disguise the body and race it at the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring.
Duntov had his own ideas about racing a tube-framed Corvette at Sebring in 1957, so when he caught wind of what Earl was doing, he proposed building the car for Earl and scrapping the Jaguar-based project. Earl agreed, and the magnificent SS Sebring racer was born. Unfortunately, Duntov didn't have time to properly sort the car before Sebring, and the SS was plagued with problems that put it out of the running early on. Some say that if the SS Corvette had won at Sebring, it may have gone to LeMans and won there, changing the course of racing history.
By the time Earl retired in 1958, he had handed the Corvette's styling off to Bill Mitchell, who would go on to produce the '63 Sting Ray and the '68 shark. By then, the car was well on its way to becoming an icon, and Earl's status as the Father of the Corvette was secure.