Harley Earl and the 1953 Corvette Prototype
It was 58 years ago, at the 1953 GM Motorama show, that the public first saw Harley Earl’s Corvette ‘dream car’ in person. The two-seater convertible was GM’s response to the small, European sports cars that were showing up U.S. roads. Having been popular with Army and Air Force personnel after WWII, MGs, Triumphs and Morgans were landing on U.S. shores as surely as Allied Troops had hit the beaches of Normandy just a few years prior.
Earl had joined GM in 1927, coming from a successful career in his father’s coach building business. Despite that and his equally successful design of the 1927 LaSalle for Lawrence P. Fisher (general manager of the Cadillac division), he had a long fight to build the credibility of exterior styling as a valid design tool. First started as the ‘Art & Color’ division, the group was renamed GM’s Styling Division in 1937.
That division, run by Earl, built the first-ever concept car in 1939. It was the first custom car built by a manufacturer solely for the purpose of gauging public reaction to the design.
But, all of this was old hat for Earl. At his father’s business in Hollywood, California, it was customary for luxury car manufacturers to build only the chassis and powertrain, then ship the result to a coach builder for finishing. Earl had used free-form sketches and even small clay models to convince local celebrities to buy his designs.
Some of these designs were extensive (and expensive). In one instance, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle – Hollywood’s highest paid entertainer at the time – had Earl start with a $6,000 1919 Pierce-Arrow chassis and then paid an additional $25,000 for the coachwork.
Earl might have invented the phrase “Seeing is Believing” because the crowd’s reaction to the 1953 Corvette was one of unrestrained enthusiasm. This set in motion some ambitious plans to put the sports car in production by mid-year and to have three hundred of them on the road by year end.
The first Corvette was an inspiring departure from Chevrolet models of the day. Its advanced use of fiberglass for the body was a daring innovation and its convertible-only design aligned well with the country’s emerging post-war optimism.
There were hurdles ahead, particularly in the short term, but history would show that America’s sports car would take on the world’s best and eventually beat them at their own game.