How the ‘Vette Was Won
This Week in Motorhead History: The Chevrolet ‘Vette is a staple of American life. It symbolizes the ultimate Route 66 driver, the two-seater sports car that has withstood the test of time, full of power, panache, and a just dash of attitude. The Chevrolet Corvette is, arguably, one of the most important cars in the history of, not just the United States, but the world, a car that would light fuses in design, engineering, and forward-thinking even up until today. The Chevrolet Corvette has won races and hearts, carving out a spot for itself in the history of the automotive industry, rock ‘n roll, and that amorphous, ubiquitous specter of the Good Ol’ Days.
The Chevrolet Corvette almost wasn’t born.
On January 17, in the year 1953, General Motors unveiled the Chevrolet Corvette at the Motorama Auto Show in New York City and the world had no idea the impact that one such strange little car was going to have.
Because, of course, the 1953 Corvette was not the Corvette of today, nor even the beloved Corvette to follow just a few years after. Where GM, specifically Harley Earl, recognized the gaping hole in the market for an American sports car, to properly welcome their boys back from the war fronts where they had seen such sleek, two-seater vehicles, they didn’t quite get the first one right.
Buoyed by the success of their concept Corvette, or rather, custom Corvette, as the booming announcer introduces it in the 1953 GM Motorama promotional film, after an industry-themed onstage performance by a ballet troupe, GM pushed production too fast, completing the first Corvette just six months after the prototype had graced the stage.
They built her to handle like an angel, the voiceover announces, though in true marketing speak, that means nothing at all.
Clean and sleek and efficient-looking, and light and strong. As clean and sleek as a bulging, porcelain bathtub on the road.
Sports car tradition, he booms, a reminder that this oddity has not sprung from the minds of babes, alone.
They call her Corvette and she belongs to the highway, just for the sheer and simple joy of driving. A precursor of times to come, perhaps.
For Mr. and Mrs. America, in a carefree mood, because, of course, if the Brits and Germans can make sports cars, we can make them better.
Unsurprisingly, that first Corvette didn’t sell well. It dragged, not quite getting its footing, even more embarrassing when the 1955 Ford Thunderbird came onto the market to huge success. GM didn’t want to chop the model, but neither did they want to drag it, limping along, underwhelming and a little too bulbous for the transitional era into sleek, straight lines.
Were it not for the creative and trouble-making Zora Arkus-Duntov, who wrote himself a job at GM, after seeing the Corvette at that serendipitous Motorama event, the Corvette would have been cast away as a failed experiment, the sports car that couldn’t for an America that didn’t want it. But Arkus-Duntov was a man who could capitalize on change, and through a series of debates, demands, and determined moves that upstaged any and all authority in the area, he not only pulled the Corvette back from the brink of certain death, but he determined how to market it too.
The fuel-injection option was first engineered by John Dolza, but it was Arkus-Duntov who pushed it through to the powers that be. He, too, who battled the buying demographic, explaining, rightfully, that if a consumer purchases a Ford at a young age, they will continue to buy Fords for the rest of their life. The car – and the sales– got faster.
Many, many years have passed since that Neanderthal ancestor of the modern Corvette rotated around the stage at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, barely more than a marketing prop, a way of flexing GM’s artistic muscles with few plans of follow-through. The Corvette has survived wars, oil shortages, government regulations, recessions, shutdowns, and bailouts. It has undergone an evolution that would make Darwin proud, growing sleeker, stronger, faster at every turn, grabbing onto hearts all over America and holding them tight.
And truly, it has. The 1953 Corvette may be a unique and wild work of art all its own, but that little car would never have survived without changing to fit the times and the needs of the people, and without the brute force and Lone Ranger tendencies of Zora Arkus-Duntov. That little car barely survived its infancy.
But no matter. Zora Arkus-Duntov would not have carved a place in history, for himself or one of the most famous sports cars to ever drive this earth, if it hadn’t been on that stage in New York City all those years ago. If he’d attended the 1952 Motorama, if he’d slipped out during GM’s presentation for a cup of coffee, the automotive world would have been a very different place.
No, that 1953 Corvette on its fancy revolving stage wouldn’t have been enough all on its own. But on January 17th, so many years ago, that same Corvette set events into motion that would change the car world and, fundamentally, American history forever.
Top image selected from the GM Media Archives