Out of all the memorable concept cars shown at the GM Motorama, none have had as much impact as the Corvette and its sport-wagon variant, the Corvette Nomad. The latter design, an odd yet compelling pairing of sports car and station wagon, is a unicorn of sorts for Chevy fans—elusive, alluring, mythological. It had a complete first-gen Corvette’s fiberglass front end, a hunkered-down profile and aggressive, muscular styling. Well ahead of its time, sadly, the Corvette Nomad was never put into production and the one and only original is now lost to mists of time.
Gone, but not forgotten, as many enthusiasts have built a number of clever reproductions. Before getting into the details of the one in particular shown here, some background on both the event and designer, along with another key supporter, is in order.
The Motorama was an auto show staged by GM from 1949 to 1961, where many famous concepts were rolled out as a marketing device to gauge the public’s response. Some of the better known designs included the ’51 Le Sabre, ’54 Buick Wildcat, and ’54 Chevrolet Corvette Corvair, among many others.
The show officially became known as Motorama when it began to travel around the country in 1953, the same year that the first Corvette debuted. The Motorama started the year in January in New York, and traveled to Miami in February, Los Angeles in March, San Francisco in April, and Boston in May.
At the 1954 GM Motorama, held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Corvette Nomad created such a sensation that it was dubbed “The Waldorf” for stealing the limelight at the show’s location. While early Corvettes could barely hold a candle to the performance of today’s Stingray, this sport wagon version nonetheless wowed the crowds as a sporty yet practical concept.
Despite this initial enthusiasm, sales of Corvette roadsters were initially so miniscule that a wagonized model could not be justified by GM execs, and the design died on the vine. Not only that, but also the ’55 Bel Air Nomad built on a Chevy sedan eclipsed hopes of any further Corvette versions.
While the Waldorf was merely a shimmering, evanescent vision, Ray Camacho was not one to let it disappear entirely. Drawing on his skills as a shop-school instructor, and his decades of experience in building and modifying Tri-Five Chevys (one of which won Best in Show title at the prestigious Grand National Roadster Show), he created his own hot-rodder interpretation of the Nomad.
Before providing further details on this “Vetterod,” let’s go back to the Corvette Nomad’s roots, and relate some intriguing details about the visionary behind the design, Harley Earl, who served as GM’s vice president of design from 1940 to 1958. Additionally, we should also include another pivotal player in the history of the Corvette, Ed Cole.
While attending Stanford University, Harley Earl left before graduating and began his automotive career in the 1920s working as chief designer for his father’s custom coachbuilding business near Hollywood, California. The senior Earl started out with horse-drawn vehicles in 1889, and eventually moved onto custom bodies and parts for the burgeoning automotive business.
Partly due to their proximity to the movie studios, Earl’s son began designing custom auto bodies for movie stars. He pioneered the use of freeform sketching and sculpted clay models, both as a tool for the design process and clever marketing approach, so customers could see what their future vehicles would look like.
During this time, Earl developed a friendship with Lawrence Fisher, who became president of the Cadillac Division of General Motors in 1925. Fisher asked Earl for some development help on the new LaSalle Cadillac. His design caught the attention of GM Chairman Alfred B. Sloan, and in 1927 Earl relocated to Detroit in order to style the LaSalle. His work was met with wide acceptance, and nearly 50,000 LaSalles were sold over the next couple years.
The success of the LaSalle convinced Sloan to create the Art and Color Section of General Motors, and to name Earl as its first director. This move was historically significant, since before that time, American automobile manufacturers did not put much emphasis on appearance, and were guided more by functionality and production costs. In fact, at the time GM didn’t even make bodies, but instead shipped chassis platforms to coachbuilders chosen by buyers.
For a time, Earl’s design concepts met with resistance within GM, as they were viewed by company execs as flamboyant and impractical. They derided him as one of the “pretty picture boys,” and his Design Studio as being the “Beauty Parlor.” But he prevailed, and in 1937, Earl’s Art and Color department was renamed General Motors Design Staff. Among Earl’s most memorable designs are the Chevy Nomad (the Bel Air sedan-based version), the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, all of the early 1950s Buicks, and of course, the Corvette.
As much as we are in Earl’s debt for creating the Corvette, his impact was even more far reaching in making automotive design not only an essential aspect of manufacturing, but also intrinsic to American car culture. He put flair and excitement into the auto business, and in so doing, defined an entire era. He was the first man to design a car with a wraparound windshield, cars without running boards, and the first to tantalize the motoring public with dream cars like the 1938 Y Job (the first concept car ever done), and the Buick LeSabre.
Introduced to a world audience in 1951, the LeSabre was loaded with a number of innovations that were all electrically powered, such as the windows, folding hide-away top, seats, thermostatically controlled seat warmers and door openers. The top and windows would automatically close if the car was parked and rain fell on the console-mounted sensor.
The engine heads and crankcase were made of aluminum, and a blower was fitted to the engine. When full power was needed a second carburetor would feed the combustion chambers with methanol.
Body features reflected his design culture of long and low, and included features influenced by aircraft designs of the period. His use of tail fins was influenced by the twin rudders on Lockheed’s P-38 Lightning fighter.
This approach of adding all sorts of unique elements would serve as the mode for all future GM concept cars. After showing them off, and seeing how the spectators reacted, features from concept cars would evolve to production cars.
The LeSabre would also play an unexpected role in the development of the first Corvette. In September 1951, Earl was asked to drive it as the pace car at an auto race in Watkins Glen, New York. There he saw a gathering of European racing cars—Jaguars, MGs, Ferraris—and decided right then that there needed to be one made in America.
It was this pivotal experience that led Earl to design the Corvette. He felt America needed its own sports car and he convinced GM to develop its own, inexpensive two-seater. It was all his idea (even though later on many others such as Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov, would take the design to a whole new level). Originally code-named “Project Opel,” Earl kept the Corvette program close to his vest. Only a special small studio with a handful of people worked on the innovative design.
At first, Earl was uncertain about which GM division should offer the car, but with close ties to Ed Cole, chief engineer at Chevrolet (and later GM president), he decided that the Bowtie Division would make the most sense. Smart choice, since Cole’s motto was, “Kick the hell out of the status quo.”
Which he did—and then some. Cole’s contemporaries described him as charismatic and brilliant, with both verve and a volcanic temper at times. He thought big, talked big, and was able to get people to do big things. Even more important, he was also a maverick, with a quick wit, quirky grin and uncanny automotive instincts. He thought cars and trucks should really get up and go with some dash and daring.
No surprise then, that Cole was sold on the Corvette from the moment he saw the prototype. It was just what the stodgy Chevrolet division needed—an ideal symbol of a soon-to-be reborn Chevrolet marque. While the Corvette was exciting, what really fired up Cole was that such an unexpected, innovative design—a two-seater with a fiberglass body that could go from drawing board to the driveway in half a year—would come from GM’s conservative car division. The practical engineer in him certainly appreciated that the tooling cost for the Corvette was about 10 percent of what steel-bodied cars cost back then. No doubt he also realized this car would be the ideal platform to promote his then-new small-block Chevy V8 as well, which he and Zora made an option on the ’55 model.
So, what was the response to the Corvette when it debuted in 1953 at the GM Motorama? The crowds were wowed. Demand was so intense that a mere six months later the Corvette went into production, the first concept car ever to be produced essentially as shown. It was the start of a sports car legacy that continues to this day.
The fiberglass product was new, and new production facilities and methods were also part of the development process. While a number of technical hurdles had to be overcome quickly by Chevy engineers, Earl realized the great versatility of fiberglass in producing both concept and limited-production cars. Thus he directed Corvette styling design engineers to produce variants of the new Corvette for the 1954 Waldorf show. This versatility is what enabled the creation of the Corvette Nomad.
Before that occurred, however, during the 1953 year a Corvette Coupe was created featuring a changed windshield frame, a removable hardtop, and roll-up windows, whose mechanism was designed by Zora Arkus-Duntov. The Corvette Corvair (not to be confused with the ’60s car of the same name), with a fastback roofline, was also created. The Corvair name was derived from the combination of Corvette and Bel Air. The Corvette Nomad was then built using a modified and lengthened Corvette frame.
The impact of fiberglass technology on the number and range of concept cars was extremely significant. In addition to the Waldorf, on display for the 1954 touring Motorama show was a wide array of concept and experimental cars: the Oldsmobile F88 and Cutlass, Buick Wildcat II, Corvette Nomad, Corvair, Corvette Coupe, Firebird XP-21, Pontiac Bonneville Special, Cadillac El Camino, Cadillac La Espada and Cadillac Park Avenue—all of them with fiberglass bodies.
While the first Motorama Corvette was completed in December of 1952, the Corvette Nomad was ordered built in October 6, 1953 using a modified version of the first Motorama Corvette’s frame. Sans an engine, it was made of clay and balsa wood, for use as a promotional vehicle. After its promotional use in the 1954 Motorama show tour, it was scrapped on July 8, 1955. Norm Brown of Chevrolet assisted in its dismantling on that very date (but unsubstantiated rumors have circulated about other Nomad concepts that lasted several years beyond this date, since GM normally built three concepts at a time.)
Although now lost to history, the Waldorf was never forgotten, and many re-creations have been attempted over the years. The one shown here from Ray Camacho began with some help from Hot Rod Fabrications of Auburn, Washington. They began by hacking apart a full-size ’55 Nomad.
“About the only piece left of the original car was the roof,” he notes. The rest required fabricating a fiberglass and steel body to the proportions of the diminutive Corvette by channeling and sectioning the sedan body, two and three inches respectively.
While the nose is fiberglass, and mounted on a custom subframe, the rest of the body was pounded out by hand from flat steel, right down to the molded exhausts—a distinctive feature of the original concept car.
The chassis rides on a ’95 Corvette C4 suspension, and slightly enlarged wheel wells allow for bigger rims. It runs a Ram Jet 350 crate engine, which is fitted with old-school touches such as a side-draft intake and finned Corvette valve covers, and is backed by a 700-R4 transmission.
All of which makes this Waldorf-inspired rod a solid driver, an actual wanderer that the original Corvette Nomad concept never became.