It was a simpler time back in 1954. The price of gas was 27 cents, Armistice Day was renamed Veteran’s Day, Elvis Presley rocked the world, and General Motors produced it’s 50-millionth vehicle.
The worlds largest automaker also had a traveling road show back then called the Motorama. It showcased the company’s future product ideas via “concept” cars, effectively inventing the idea now used by automakers the world over. The production Corvette of 1953, (originally a Motorama concept itself,) was still new, so to keep interest going the following year, Chevrolet created a fastback concept called “Corvair” for the 1954 Motorama.
New York Debut And Ultimate Demise
Painted ruby red for its unveiling at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, the car dazzled show goers with its sleek, fastback styling. Some 1.9 million visitors saw this concept as it went on display as part of the Motorama traveling road show visiting major metropolitan cities across the U.S.
With the frame and drivetrain from a standard Corvette, the Corvair used production front end fiberglass and added styling tweaks like hood and fender vents. It also borrowed styling cues from airplane design,which GM Styling honcho Harley Earl was a big fan. The Corvair’s streamlined roofline plunged into a hooded chrome-trimmed licensed plate housing that was designed to resemble an jet-engine exhaust port.
Despite the Corvair’s svelte good looks, the lethargic sales of the production Corvette led management at GM to ground the Corvair concept. This one-of-a-kind car was then painted mint green, and then allegedly was destroyed. Boooo.
The Corvair nameplate resurfaced in 1960 as a rear engine, compact car. Chevrolet eventually incorporated the fastback design with into the second generation Corvette.
Building The Dream
Fast forward to 2012 and seasoned Corvette guy Michael Terry of Greenwood, Indiana decided to resurrect the Corvair Motorama concept car, enlisting help from friends Brett Henderson and Steve Kline.
“I first got started with ‘Vettes when I went for a ride in my uncle’s ’63 split-window, but he traded it in after five weeks because the seats hurt his back,” Michael said. “Since then, I’ve played in the Corvette hobby for some 25 years. I am a person who likes things that are out of the ordinary and I fell in love with the 1954 Corvair GM Motorama car when I first saw a picture of it.”
“As we were coming home from Corvettes at Carlisle, I told Brett about my love for the 1954 Corvair, “Brett then asked if I could afford to pay for one if we built it. I replied yes, but I wasn’t sure how much the labor would cost,” Ultimately, the build spanned 3 1/2 yrs and had a build cost of more than $40,000, excluding labor.
Brett agreed to help Michael through the build, no matter the time frame, so the hunt for a proper donor car began. The 1954 Corvette that would become the base for this astonishing build was found parked at a home in New Jersey and was buried under a massive amount of snow due to a blizzard that ravaged the area two days prior. A portion of the car’s parts were stored in the owner’s garage and basement, and were loaded up as well. Once the ‘Vette was delivered to Michael’s home, grandson Giles Terry prepared the car for its transformation by stripping it of all unwanted parts.
Michael and Brett religiously worked on the car every Sunday, hand-laying fiberglass and making custom parts to recreate the iconic car. Some components had to be re-made and tweaked to achieve the finish of the original Corvair. The roof and rear quarters were molded completely together as one piece and graphed to the ’54. The only portion of the body that did not receive fiberglass attention were the front fenders. To ease the change of the fuel pump, the frame was notched before the body was lowered onto the frame.
The reconstituted Corvair also received components from Corvette’s from other years, including an original 1956 rear end and a set of AC Delco shocks. The sway bars were modified for clearance by cutting out the center, then flipping them backwards before welding them back together. The car also retained a majority of its original ’54 front suspension and steering parts, but received a set of front disc brakes, thanks to Steve. Gauges from a ’56 were laid into the factory ’54 dash, and a set of custom-designed, Al Knock bucket seats were bolted in.
A 265 cubic inch V8 was also added to the new Corvair. In addition, the engine received a 1955 concept four-barrel Holley and a 700R 4-speed transmission linked to a two-speed Powerglide shifter. After receiving 15-inch production steel wheels and period correct set of Firestone whitewalls, the car received a fresh coat of paint courtesy of Rileys & Son, who laid down a 2009 Corvette Crystal Red Metallic layer of paint.
A Fairytale Ending
When completed, the car received a lot of attention and Michael was invited to enter the Corvair into the Amelia Island Concourse d’Elegance in March 2015. “The unveiling was the first time we had driven the car, and it ended up winning two awards,” Michael said. “I was thrilled all the hard work finally payed off. After the show, Brett and I reminisced on all the time and enjoyment we experienced making this dream a reality.”
The car was also named a personal favorite by legendary custom car builder George Barris, at the Corvette Funfest in 2015. Even the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky requested to display the car from October 2015 through May 2016.
“I have turned down offers of $300,000 for the car,” Michael said. “I can truly say that building a car like this was a true labor of love, and has been an amazing experience, but the greatest part of the entire build was the fact that two car guys became best friends.”