1958 Chevy Corvette - By Design

Robert Genat
1958 Chevy Corvette - By Design

In the 1950s, most Detroit cars got an annual face-lift, with big sellers getting all-new body shells every two or three years. Low-volume cars like the Chevrolet Corvette didn't justify big investment, but since fiberglass was cheap to tool, General Motors intended to change Corvettes every year to demonstrate the potential for plastic body panels on mainstream cars. The original Corvette design lasted three years, but the 1956 face-lift was supposed to be good for only one. In 1955, it fell to me to stick four headlights on the C1 front end for 1957, while simultaneously working on the C2, due in '58 with its new shorter-wheelbase, V-8-only chassis.

The Corvette was very much Harley Earl's car. His deputy, Bill Mitchell, was not allowed to touch it. I was the only stylist doing sketches, closely monitored by Earl. With notions of aerodynamics in mind, I wanted to simply fair the two lamps into a wider front fender. "Well, Bhwab, that's gonna look like a baby's ass, donchu 'gree?" Earl wanted a visor, as on the sedan that the world knows now as the 1958 Chevy, and actually made a shaky sketch, the only one of his I've ever seen. You never argued with Earl, but he could sometimes be deflected: "What if I put a chrome strip between them, Mr. Earl? Maybe a badge there, too?"

I wanted to get rid of the toothy Corvette grille Earl loved, so I drew several iterations of a two-oval-intake front end with a license plate in the center for the 1958 C2. Earl thought that we could lead the public into that change by keeping the teeth in the center and using small versions of the twin ovals under the lamps for one year. We built a fiberglass prototype (see photo, left), but as it became clear that all planned 1957 Chevrolets were going to be late, Earl added more details, including (fake) hood louvers from his son's SR-2 [Automobile Magazine, February 2004], chrome bands up the deck lid, and fake outlets in the side coves. I dutifully drew all those features but thought that the car was too baroque and too fussy for a sports car. I never dreamed that the complicated front end would last five years, with only the teeth disappearing after Earl retired.

I didn't like the car as much as I did the '56, to which I contributed nothing, but last year at the Art Center Car Classic, "my" Corvette won the Designers' Choice Award for Post-1950. Go figure.

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