A look back 60 years ago to how the first Corvette came to be.
I call the Corvette the “The American Automotive Horatio Alger Story.” It’s the ultimate automotive rags-to-riches story. You could also call it an automotive Cinderella story. While the C6 has taken more flack than it deserves, it’s good to look back to the very beginning to get a really clear picture of how far the Corvette has come in 60 years.
Since we’re rolling into the C6’s final year and looking forward to the new 7th generation Vette, the next several installments of my VETTE Magazine monthly column looks back at the “first” of each generation Corvette. So, let’s go back to the beginning. - Scott
In September 1951, GM’s chief of design, Harley Earl took his Le Sabre dream car to Watkins Glen for a little GM-style show’n tell. Earl was impressed with the “sports cars” he saw there and went back to work with a new car concept for General Motors – an American sports car.
Post WW II saw the birth of plastics and glass-reinforced plastic, or “fiberglass” and Earl saw a new way to build prototypes and production cars. In February ‘52, Life Magazine presented the new space age material in a story titled “Plastic Bodies For Autos.” By March, GM was reviewing the Alembic I, a fiberglass bodied Jeep. Impressed with the new material, Earl decided to start moving on his sports car idea. Engineer Robert McLean designed a chassis layout and by April a full-size plaster model was shown to GM’s management. The following month, Ed Cole was promoted to Chief of Engineering for Chevrolet and was onboard with Earl’s project. Earl pitched his concept to GM’s president, Charles Wilson and Chevrolet general manager, Thomas Keating in June and got the approval to build a functional prototype for the GM Motorama in January 1953. The car’s working name was… “the Opel Sports Car.” Continue reading
Hot rodder Shinoda teams up with Bill Mitchell and defined the “Corvette look.”
Perhaps it was “in the stars” that Larry Shinoda was in the right place at the right time. If you strictly look at Shinoda’s resume in 1956, you might ask, “How did this guy get in the front door?” As a young man, the only thing Larry ever graduated from was high school, Army boot camp, and the School of Hard Knocks. Twelve-year-old Larry had his life turned inside out when along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, he and his family were sent to interment camps for the duration of WW II. The experience had a profound effect on his personality. A self-professed “malcontent” Shinoda could be a little difficult to work with.
After his Army tour of duty in Korea, Shinoda attended Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles, but truly hated being there. He could see no purpose in taking the classes in design and the various art mediums, such as watercolor painting. He was a car guy/hot rodder and he wanted to draw and design cars! So he left Art Center without graduating and based strictly on his car illustrations, landed a job at Ford, then Studebaker/Packard. Just a year after starting his career, he landed a job as a designer at General Motors.
The rest is the stuff of legend. Street racing and blowing the doors off of Bill Mitchell’s souped up Buick and quickly being taken under Mitchell’s wing. Things like that happens, but rarely. There was obviously some chemistry between the two men, perhaps it was because both men could be brash and had strong opinions.
Shinoda got his first big break when Mitchell tapped the 28-year-old to translate the body design of the ‘57 Q-Corvette on to the mule chassis from Duntov’s aborted Corvette SS project. The finished car became Mitchell’s 1959 Stingray Racer, which formed the styling theme for the ‘63 Corvette. From there, Shinoda got one peach project after another. It’s worth noting that the design of the Stingray Racer is held in such high esteem that current Corvette chief designer, Tom Peters (C6 Corvette and late model Camaro designer) is on record stating that his ‘09 Corvette Stingray Concept (aka Transformers Corvette) was influenced by the ‘59 Stingray. Continue reading
The 1954 “Could-Have-Been” Motorama Dream Corvettes
Back in ‘09 when General Motors was getting more negative publicity than they ever dreamed, I received a few emails from car pals with images of the 1954 Motorama Corvette variants – the Pontiac Bonneville, the Olds F-88, and the Buick Wildcat II. The gist of the emails was this, “Look at how GM screwed up! The 6-banger Corvette “could have been” a powerful V8, classic ‘50s beauty.” Bla, bla, bla.
While it is true that the above mentioned cars were beauties, there’s no way they would have made it into production. The ‘53 and ‘54 Corvette already had Cadillac prices. The Pontiac, Buick, and Olds versions would have cost even more. But it was an interesting look back, as it turned out that the ‘54 Motorama had numerous delicious concept cars.
In my Illustrated Corvette Series No. 178, I covered the “Chevy/Corvette” concept cars, the Corvette Coupe, the Corvair Fastback, and the Nomad. (The Pontiac, Olds, and Buick concept cars were covered in a later column) Keeping in mind that “concept cars” are three dimensional canvases for designers to try out new ideas, it’s always fun to look back to see what ideas made it into production and where they were used.
Cigar salesman, to Wall Street tycoon, to bowling alley manager?
The name “William Crapo Durant” has been making somewhat of a comeback as of late, thanks to the 100th anniversary celebration of Chevrolet. Durant came of age as a young man in early days of the American Industrial Revolution. It was the time of the railroad robber barons, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Standard Oil, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, and others. Electricity and electric light was utterly fantastic to people, and men were building motorized carriages to replace horse drawn transportation. It was an amazing time lead by tough and ruthless businessmen.
Born in 1861 in Boston, Massachusetts, William started his working career as a cigar salesman. He obviously had a keen mind for business and started his first company in 1886 at the age of 25, building horse carriages. Starting with $2,000, the Flint Road Cart Company quickly became a $2 million dollar business with sales from around the world. Companies came, merged, and were gone quickly throughout Durant’s career. By 1890 his Durant-Dort Carriage Company was the number one carriage company in the world!
An interesting side note about Durant is that he was a horse and carriage man first. The earliest horseless carriages were very dangerous and Durant did not like them. So much so that he wouldn’t let his daughter ride in one! By 1900 there was a significant public outcry against the new fangled dangerous buggies. There were no rules of the road, most roads were rutty, dirt horse paths not at all capable of withstanding machines with speeds double and more of that of horses. Durant saw a problem and offered a solution – build safer cars.
Starting with a local car company called Buick, William entered a Buick automobile in a New York auto show in 1904 (yes, they had car shows a hundred years ago!) and came home with orders for 1,108 Buicks. At that point, Buick had only built 37 cars! From 1904 forward, William Durant would become one of a handful of movers and shakers in the new fledgling automobile industry.
Here’s a list of the car companies that passed through Durant’s hands: Continue reading
All three Chevrolet brothers raced at the Indy 500, but only Gaston Chevrolet won the big race!
Auto racing has come a very long way in the last 100 years, but it always has been, and probably always will be, a very brutal sport. How could it not be? Part of every race involves tremendous forces at high speeds, so within that context, it’s understandable how sometimes, things can go terribly wrong.
Louis Chevrolet arrived in America in 1901. After working a few years and earning enough money, Louis sent for his younger brothers, Arthur and Gaston. All three Chevrolet brothers were mechanics and has a passion for automobile racing. Middle brother, Arthur, was not only the first of the Chevrolet brothers to race at the Indy 500, but he raced at the very first Indy 500 race in 1911. Although he only completed 30 laps and did not finish the race, Arthur was “there” for the first Indy 500, and would compete in one more Indy 500 race in 1916.
Louis was the next Chevrolet brother to race at the brickyard in 1915 and would compete again in 1916, 1919, and 1920. His best finish was 7th place in 1919 and was the only of his four Indy 500 races that he finished. But it was kid brother Gaston that would ultimately add the name “Chevrolet” to the list of Indy 500 winners. Gaston’s first Indy 500 race was in 1919, finishing the race in 10th place. But it was 1920 when Gaston qualified in 6th place with a speed of 91.550-MPH, held the lead for 14 laps, and won the race.
The Chevrolet brothers were serious racers. The story of Louis’ Chevrolet Motor Company and William Crappo Durant’s buyout is now legendary. Louis started his car company in 1911 and sold out to Durant by 1915. The following year, Louis, Arthur, and Gaston started the Frontenac Motor Corporation, specifically to design, build, and develop race cars. When Gaston entered his first Indy 500 race in 1919, he was behind the wheel of one of the family business race cars. The following year, the Chevrolet kid brother brought home the Indy 500 gold, driving the latest of the Chevrolet brothers designed race cars.
1920 must have seemed like the Chevrolet brother’s year. Much like modern race car builders, such as Greenwood, Pratt & Miller, and others, the Frontenac built customer cars. After his Indy 500 win, Gaston won a 100-mile match race against top racers Tommy Milton, who just happened to be driving a Chevrolet car, and Ralph Mulford. (Milton competed in 8 Indy 500 races and won the event in 1921 and 1923. Mulford competed in the first Indy 500, coming in 2nd place and raced in a total of 10 Indy 500 races)
But it was six months later, on November 25, 1920 in Beverly Hills, California, at a notoriously dangerous board track, that tragedy struck a fatal blow at the Chevrolet family. On the 146th lap of a 200 lap race, Gaston’s car crashed and he was killed. Continue reading
Chevrolet goes straight for the heart strings! Before you watch this, get some tissues…
Okay, this isn’t a Corvette video, but it’s close enough! What a sweet story. Dad gave up his 1965 SS-396 Impala Fastback so that his children could go to college. Years later, his youngsters got Dad’s car back! (Hey kids! I had a ‘65 Vette back in ‘75, how about… oh, never mind.)
Never before or since did the big Impala have so much Corvette in its styling. The rear fender humps are straight off the mid-year Sting Ray and the two sets of triple round tail lights is what many felt the Corvette should have had, so they added their own. Chevrolet could have done something special for the hood and the Corvette knock-off wheels would have looked “boss.”
So, what became of the three Chevrolet brothers, Louis, Gaston, and Arthur?
We might be learning more about Chevrolet than their public relations department would like us to know. One of my favorite car blogs is from Hemmings Motor News. Every day they serve up a heap’n, help’n of automotive history and fun. Today they posted an interesting story about the final resting place of the three Chevrolet brothers – Louis, Gaston, and Arthur. As Chevrolet rolls into their centennial celebration year, I’m sure there’ll be all sorts of special features, articles, videos, and books. So, let the fun begin!
Regardless of what your favorite auto maker happens to be, there’s no argument that “Chevrolet” is one of the all-time top iconic brands in American popular culture. Although the name may well have originated in France, it turns out that Louis Chevrolet emigrated from Switzerland. But first, he went through Paris, then Montreal, before arriving in Brooklyn in 1901. Louis had two younger brothers, Arthur and Gaston.
The Chevrolet car company story is fairly well known. Louis teamed up with William Crapo Durant to form the Chevrolet Company in 1911. Louis and Willy had a falling out in 1915 and Willy sold his shares in the company. With some interesting money machinations, Durant used his funds to eventually buy the controlling shares of General Motors, the company he had lost a few years before. Then in 1917 Durant bought out Chevrolet and folded the name into his General Motors company. (This is starting to sound like a Gordon Gekko story!) Louis took his money and got into the auto racing business, but went broke by the time of the 1929 stock market crash. Needing a job, Louis ended up as a line mechanic in a Chevrolet factory. Although he was a mechanic first, it must have been a humiliating experience.
What became of the other two brothers whose name became a cultural icon? Gaston Chevrolet first raced in the 1919 Indy 500 and came in 10th place. But it turned out that 1920 was Gaston’s year – sort of. He won the 1920 Indy 500 with an average speed of 86.63-mph – a very fast speed for the day. Later that year, Gaston was killed in a race at the very dangerous, one-mile board track in Beverly Hills, California. Ironically, because of the points structure at the time, Gaston posthumously won the AAA National Championship. He was only 28-years old. Continue reading
William Durant once got approval from GM’s board of directors to buy Ford!
2012 is Chevrolet’s 100th birthday year and unless you’ve been in a coma, you could not have missed the celebration. Last summer we told you about the most popular Chevrolet of all time contest. Sorry plastic fantastic fans, the Corvette fell in the 3rd round of competition and the ‘69 SS/RS Camaro was the eventual winner. Then on November 3, 2011 media outlets celebrated Chevrolet’s 100th birthday with feature stories and slide shows. (see special slide show link at the bottom of this post) Chevrolet commercials have been featuring the 100th birthday celebration, as well as car magazines. And GM’s performance flagship car, the Corvette, will offer buyers the Centennial Edition option for 2012. Yes, it’s a heady time for Chevrolet.
But on page 14 of the December 2011 issue, Motor Trend magazine dished up what I thought was a tasty trivia tidbit of seldom talked about General Motors history. Referencing Lawrence R. Gustin’s book, “Billy Durant, Creator of General Motors,” MT dropped this fascinating factoid.
In the early days of the American car industry, there were hundreds of car companies, most of which have been long forgotten. Many of the brand names that are still with us were once shabby little enterprises. Even though it wasn’t the computer age, “business is business” and a feeding frenzy was going on. Car companies were buying up other car companies that were then bought up by bigger or more aggressive car companies. There’s always a bigger fish, right?
William Crapo Durant (yes, that was his middle name) worked out a deal to buy the Ford Motor Company for $2 Million in cash, plus an additional $4 Million paid out over three years, at 5-percent interest. Billy pitched the deal to his company’s board of directors on October 26, 1909 and they approved, IF he could get the financing. But the banks said, “NO!” It probably seemed way too risky with possible cost overruns, etc. Continue reading