By Darrel Burnett, Executive Director ~ The Automobile Gallery & Event Center
The Corvette, the car named after the U.S. Navy’s fastest and sleekest warship in World War II, nearly sank on dry land in 1955 due to poor sales. The American auto industry as we know it would look entirely different today without America’s purest sports cars.
The genesis of the Corvette traces back to 1951 when GM’s legendary Design Chief Harley Earl was inspired to create an American sports car that would double as a titan on the racetrack.
From my perspective, the Corvette owes its existence to something that happened long before 1951; a full two decades before, in 1932.
In 1932, a young chemical engineer named Games Slayter invented glass wool for use as thermal insulation for buildings. You know it by its patented name — fiberglass. It was a pairing of perfect timing and the perfect material.
Aside from a brief 435-car run by the Kaiser Darrin in 1954, the Corvette remains the only mass-produced American car in history manufactured with a fiberglass body.
Wrestling with fiberglass in the early days was like trying to pet a porcupine. There were sticking points everywhere. Refining the fit and finish of 1950s fiberglass coupled with America’s thirst for more than the weak-kneed Blue Flame 6-Cylinder engine threatened the Corvette’s very existence.
Crosstown rival Ford tried to throw the knockout punch with the introduction of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird and nearly succeeded as Corvette sales plummeted to just 700 in 1955.
Salvation arrived in the form of the flamboyant but combustible combo of Design Chief Bill Mitchell and Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. They famously fought “over” the Corvette while fighting “for” the Corvette. Mitchell and Duntov’s second generation split window Sting Ray revolutionized the auto industry and sales nearly doubled in 1963 to 21,414.
Reflecting on 70 years, fiberglass has aged out in favor of carbon fiber and fiber optics proving the Corvette is just as resilient as it is revolutionary. After staring down extinction on at least two other occasions, the 8th generation ranks among the finest sports cars in the world.
Motor Trend Magazine agreed, naming the mid-engine C-8 Corvette the Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2020.
The Automobile Gallery & Event Center is one of the only places in the U.S. where you can see all 8 generations of the Corvette together.
Harley Earl risked his reputation and his job on a dream of creating an American sportscar that would double as a titan on the racetrack.
Over the past quarter century, Corvette Racing has won 121 races around the world – the most of any professional sports car team in North America.
What I wouldn’t give to see Harley Earl come back for just one day to take his rightful place behind the wheel as the 2023 Corvette Z06 paces the 107th running of the Indy 500!