Corvette Legends - Harley Earl

Father of the Corvette

Paul Zazarine Mar 30, 2007 0 Comment(s)
Vemp_0610_06_z Corvette_legend_earl_harley 1953_chevrolet_corvette 1/13

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.

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