Cue up the time machine and set the controls for 1953 – let’s go back and witness the introduction of GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic, also known under the Owens Corning trade name “Fiberglass,”) as a viable material in an automotive application. Not only is it fascinating to see where we’ve been, but how far we’ve come technologically in terms of manufacturing, workplace safety conditions and the current ongoing implementation of advanced materials at General Motors and its flagship sports car. YouTube brings us the film.
Aside from the backstory of how a business man won the contract to build 300 GRP bodies for General Motors, the real revelation here is the positively primitive process of laying up plastic panels by hand. Old Corvettes were assembled with numerous GRP panels joined together with adhesives, rivets and bonding strips.
Watch as the workmen create the panels laying out glass mat on mahogany dies and then applying resin by hand. This is slow manual labor with tolerances that would be scoffed at in modern manufacturing today. If you ever wondered why our auto industry landed in such dire shape, in wasn’t just foreign competition or bad management; it was jobs like this that were replaced by automation, never to return.
Upon closer inspection we also see workplace safety standards that are laughable they’re so bad. OSHA would have a heyday. Some workers are wearing masks, some aren’t. Most of the handling of the glass fibers and application of the resin is done with no hand protection. The workman are spraying a coating on the molds outside of a enclosed booth, in the open work area as other crew members inhale fumes, presumably for an 8 hour shift.
Finally, this was just the beginning of the Corvette’s pioneering use of composite materials. The old school hand lay-up system we see here was superseded in 1973 by Sheet Molded Compound, which automated most of the process. The new C7 takes all the breakthroughs of the C5 and C6 and employs lighter SMC, more carbon fiber components and a “nano composite” floor pan insert replacing the balsa wood of the outgoing model. Let’s not forget the numerous applications of aluminum and magnesium components as well. In fact, every racing and road going car with any composite material in their bodywork owes a nod to GM and Chevrolet.
By the time this evolution of America’s Sports Car is done, Corvette fans will have to come up with a new rhyme to replace “Wrap your ass in Fiberglass…”