Have you noticed how new car introductions seemed to have lost their luster over the past few decades? With the recent introduction of the next-generation Corvette aside, it seems manufacturers aren’t really excited about introducing the latest creation to the world at large. That wasn’t the case in 1953 when the Corvette was first introduced. Back then, it was obvious the excitement was shared on both sides of the velvet rope.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, dealerships would whitewash their windows to keep prying eyes from prematurely seeing the newest offerings. It was a great way to build anticipation, as well as get potential customers across the dealership’s thresholds. In a world where information didn’t travel at the speed of light, enthusiasts had plenty of time to pour over a new car’s surface and see what was new. With today’s cell phones and the Internet, automakers have given up on soapstone and whitewash, favoring spy photos and information leaks to whet the buyer’s appetites.
In 1949, GM created its own venue for highlighting its newest offerings to the buying public. What became known as the “Motorama” – a title that was first used for the 1953 event – these expositions would travel around the nation, giving the world its first glimpse at the cars that would move them into tomorrow.
A Star Is Born
When Chevrolet sought to show its sports car to the world, it did it in grand fashion at the General Motors Motorama held at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel on Jan. 17, 1953. Production began a frantic six-months later.
The cars were destined to be an American answer to the small, nimble European sports cars many G.I.s experienced while visiting Europe on Uncle Sam’s payroll. In an attempt to make Corvette unmistakably American, Chevrolet devised a unique emblem for its new sports car, featuring an American flag crossing a checkered flag.
There was only one problem. Just a decade earlier, folks in the white, domed building passed the National Flag Code, which made it illegal for the flag to be used for advertising purposes. There was no way Chevy would be able to trademark the crossed flags with an American flag in the mix. The faux pas was realized just hours before the car’s debut, and a different emblem featuring two different crossed-flags — one wearing a Chevrolet Bow Tie emblem and the other, a French fleur-de-lis symbol — was flown-in to replace the illegal logo. The original logo has survived the ages and now resides at the National Corvette Museum.
Once the curtains were pulled back, the world was all too happy to take in Chevrolet’s latest creation. The Corvette’s first showing proved to be an overwhelming success. The world seemed to flow through the turnstiles, and the word “Corvette” was now a permanent part of their vocabulary. What began as a simple question to gauge the public’s interest in an American two-seater raised the larger convern of how Chevrolet was going to satiate the buyer’s apparent hunger.
The first complete Corvettes rolled out of Chevrolet’s converted Customer Delivery Garage off of Van Slyke Road in Flint, Michigan, on June 30, 1953. Each one of the cars was hand-assembled on the assembly line, and only 300 Corvettes were made for the 1953 model year — all Polo White with red interiors and black convertible tops. The first 1953 Corvette took three, 16-hour days to assemble, but production eventually ramped up with three cars rolling off the line each day.
A Bigger Inspiration
Corvette’s impact on society from its first showing in New York goes far deeper than merely stoking the appetites of American drivers. Among those power-hungry people was a Belgian-born American engineer by the name of Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Zora managed to bootleg more things through Chevrolet than any other engineer I’ve ever known. – Ed Cole, Chevrolet Chief Engineer
Zora was both enamored and underwhelmed with the new sports car. He couldn’t take his eyes off of the sexy lines of this new design, but he also couldn’t believe his eyes. How could Chevrolet infuse this car with the Blue Flame six-cylinder engine?
From his prior experience, Zora was quite familiar with performance driving, having learned from the likes of Sidney Allard in the development of the Allard J2 race car. He penned a letter to Ed Cole, who was Chief Engineer at Chevrolet at the time and suggested several improvements. He also stated, “It would be a pleasure to work on such a beautiful car.” Zora was hired at Chevrolet shortly thereafter.
Corvette’s biggest fan was now working on the inside, but not always with company approval. Ed Cole reportedly once stated, “Zora managed to bootleg more things through Chevrolet than any other engineer I’ve ever known.” His ability to get things done under the radar is still legendary within the halls of GM.
Zora was able to somehow keep Corvette alive until it could sustain itself, thanks to Chevrolet’s new V8 engine and Corvette’s four-speed transmission. Fuel injection soon followed, along with various other performance concoctions that were either deemed too costly or too far ahead of their time.
Zora continued being Chevrolet’s ace-in-the-hole on race day. His conviction that racing improves the breed stood true and kept Chevy in the race with other manufacturers through the muscle-car years. He continually butted heads with bean counters and upper management whenever his endeavors would come to light.
Even then, Zora continued to read the rule-book from the back-side of every page. In the midst of the 1957 Automobile Manufacturer’s Association (AMA) ban, when upper management doubled-down, withdrawing all financial support for racing in 1963, Zora was putting the finishing touches on what would become the Grand Sport Corvette. Intending to build at least 125 cars to meet homologation rules — and known as “lightweights” — these cars were race-bred track monsters. While corporate managers were expecting a still-birth of the car, Zora was busy ferreting parts and complete cars throughout GM’s vast facilities to select racers. Only five cars were ever built, and they enjoy extreme rarity and collectability. They also stand as a testament to Zora’s ability to get things done — no matter what.
Ahead Of His Time
One thing Zora never saw to completion was convincing GM of the benefits surrounding a mid-engine Corvette. He made several attempts — some of which were quite stunning in appearance — while others were exercises in a proof-of-concept. Until his retirement in 1975, Zora kept chipping away at the front-engine ceiling, but never felt the warmth from the sun that rose on the other side.
One of the traits of a true visionary is they are typically so far ahead of those around them, it usually takes time for everyone else to catch up. In Zora’s case for the mid-engine Corvette, he was so far ahead that it took several generations before the idea could be realized. We are just now seeing the bloom of those seeds that were carefully planted by Zora’s hand.
The recent reveal of the next-generation C8 Corvette took the Internet by storm. Rather than clogging halls in various events around the nation, the mid-engine reveal pushed the limits of the Internet itself. The reveal set records for viewership and captured the gaze of millions, who were eager to see the new car for the first time.
We can’t help but wonder who might be looking upon this latest iteration of Corvette with the same passion and thought that Zora possessed. Not content with where we currently are, but thinking forward, REALLY far forward and asking themselves, “What if?”