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 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.
1. Removing the fake air scoops on the front fenders required delicate maneuvering, as Harley Earl loved them on the ’56 model and thought they should stay.
2. Happily, these SR-2-style louvers – but without an opening into the engine bay – disappeared for 1959.
3. This chrome strip between the twin headlights saved the world from sedan-style visors over the headlights and the loss of perhaps 15 mph in top speed.
4. I was proud of the flush badge but would have preferred something simply painted on the surface, as on the SR-2 racer. That was too subtle for Earl, and it was definitely his car.
5. A nine-tooth version of the original thirteen-blade grille kept the Corvette identity. “You wouldn’t change your name just because you changed your job, wouldja?” asked Earl. “Depends on what kind of job I did, sir.” He gave a slight smile, but the grille detail was preserved.
6. These outer grilles are really useless on production cars, but they served nicely for brake cooling on racing cars.
7. More Earl decoration, these side panels, fake outlets, and extra chrome strips simply added unnecessary weight and complexity, but they fit the zeitgeist of the late ’50s perfectly and are much-loved today.
8. Harley Earl had me add these totally superfluous chrome bands to the rear, along with a fatter, heavier rear bumper. The bands lasted only one year, although the lumpy bumper stayed.
9. My favorite element on the baroque bolide was the flush, red covers over the tunneled ’56 lamps, taken from the SR-2 Corvette and very inexpensive to implement, at the cost of four chromed screws showing.
A. Earl really liked the spindly steering-wheel rim, although he allowed a much thicker one on his son’s SR-2, on the advice of Chevrolet engineering’s Mauri Rose, three-time Indy winner.
B. Lap belts weren’t thought to be as dangerous as they really were in the ’50s, but they were at least better than nothing.
C. The zoomy concentric instrument panel was a big improvement over the original used for five years, but the tach was too small and minor gauges too low.
D. This steel grab bar could be extremely dangerous in a crash, crushing the chest or smashing teeth, depending on the size of the passenger.
This late-1955 clay model, which was the putative 1958 split-window Corvette C2, inspired the outer grilles on the planned 1957 face-lift, with running lights between the headlamp lenses and no fake outlet on the side. Both projects featured faired, indented badges and no-visor quad headlamps for improved aerodynamics.