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Rare Photos and Remembrances from When I Designed Corvettes

Our automotive design editor on his time designing America's Sports Car.

Our automotive design editor, Robert Cumberford, worked at GM’s styling studios under Harley Earl from 1954 to 1957, working on Chevrolets, including the 1956–57 Corvette and the Corvette SS, SR, and SR-2 race cars. On the occasion of the eight-generation Corvette’s debut, he provided photos and notes on his time spent working on America’s Sports Car.

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This was taken in the GM Styling Dome; that’s me standing next to the Corvette, likely biting my nails. The two guys in the background were porters who pushed the cars around. That’s Bob McLean’s Porsche 356 with a split windshield, so it was probably a 1953. My ’54 had the three-bend single-piece windshield with no strut in the middle.

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This is also in the Styling Dome. The Austin-Healey 100 was stylist Wayne Yushi Takeushi’s; I think the Mercedes 300SL had been borrowed from a dealer. You can just see the cardboard and wood seating buck in front of a rolling drawing board on the right.

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Harley Earl had this full-width Corvette grille stuck on the C2 coupe study in place of my twin-oval grille, but scaled up so it held the regular Corvette’s 13 “teeth.” You can see a couple of things I was proud of. One was the flush badge, with a hemispherical shape beneath the surface. Another is the wheels, which incorporate a Buick Dynaflow torque-convertor flywheel as the hollow ring between the outer fins and the hub section. The little badges in the chrome strip were the suggestion I made that got Earl to relinquish the drag-producing visors over the headlights, as seen on ‘57 and ’58 Chevrolet sedans. That’s one of the studio ‘engineers’ (actually draftsmen) in the background, but I don’t know who.

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This photo of John Fitch in a prototype Corvette was taken in 1956 on Daytona Beach. The car has the Harley Earl windscreen and the Jaguar D-Type-inspired headrest fairing. Cast-iron-hard Firestone SS-170 tire is visible.

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This is at the GM proving grounds on the first day the SR-2 was run in June 1956. That’s me at the wheel and my boss, Chevrolet styling studio head Clare MacKichan, in the passenger seat. Behind from left to right are Don Hoag, a stylist in the Oldsmobile studio (no idea why he was there); Bob McLean, styling research studio head; I don’t remember the guy behind me; Bob Lauer, one of the Design Committee that followed Harley Earl around and agreed with him any time he said, “Donchu fels greeth me?’; and Ken Pickering, who was eventually a sort of general manager at GM Styling in the 1980s when Chuck Jordan was VP.

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The SR-2 at Elkhart Lake in 1956, and as originally raced by Jerry Earl. Dr. Dick Thompson is at the wheel here. He thought it was much too heavy, and I subsequently took a few hundred pounds out of it, including putting in my Porsche Speedster seats.

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This was a variant of the modified ’56 Corvette SR-2 with the fin added by Harley Earl, who also stuck it on the first iteration of his son’s SR-2. The nose was lengthened 10 inches and the stock grille moved forward, and false brake-cooling air scoops added to the backs of the cove. This car was ordered by GM president Harlow Curtice, I believe.

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The interesting thing about this 1958 prototype is that it is the actual 1953 Motorama Corvette, and is a non-runner. It weighed about 13,000 pounds, the fiberglass was about a half-inch thick, and those wheel covers are not production parts: They are cast brass, polished and chrome-plated. The styling model was initially revamped as the 1956-57 prototype, then once again cut up and modified to become what you see here. In this form, I was done with it. Harley Earl added fake louvers (simulating the real ones on his son’s car), decided to adapt the brake cooling scoops at the end of the cover to become fake air outlets just behind the front wheel opening, and added thick bands on the trunk that were taken off again for the 1959–60 cars, although the fake outlets in the cove stayed. For many years I had the brass shift lever for the Powerglide, but I gave it to a design student in the early ’70s. I wasn’t around GM after February 1957, but I’ll bet that when Shinoda stuck the Brock Stingray tail on the ’60 Corvette, the static styling model was the same good old, built-in-’52 original six-and-a half ton pushmobile with its underlying jack stands holding the weight off the whitewalls.

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This iteration was the best version of the design as far as I was concerned. The split bumpers were the only solution available for mounting them so they could do some good, and the inverse spear on the sides was modest. The cowl flaps on top and side of the fenders would have been functional, opening on thermostatically controlled need. I never liked the pointed rear fenders, nor the split-window backlight you cannot see here, but Earl had loved them on the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, so they were a given.

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