Corvette Legends - Harley Earl

Father of the Corvette

Paul Zazarine Mar 30, 2007 0 Comment(s)

"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.

Vemp_0610_13_z Corvette_legend_earl_harley Chevy_small_block 1/13

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.

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