The Father Of The Corvette

The Man – The Legend

Harvey Earl - 1951 Buick Le Sabre

Harley Earl had been producing “Dream Cars” or at least dream designs since the late 30’s with his Buick Y-Job in ’37 and in 1951 designed the elegant Buick Le Sabre. The Le Sabre incorporated a number of styling details gleaned from aerospace design. It was his deep interest in aerospace design details that would characterize his work and thereby the look of the American automobile’s future. A bubble cockpit, a bullet-shaped nose and tapering twin tail booms with elegant fins were just a few of the aerospace goodies that Mr. Earl set his eye on. The Corvette is about to slowly take its shape!

The sensation of the fabulous Le Sabre was massive, a huge luxury cruiser and it gave Earl the idea for a much smaller but fast sports car. By early 1952, encouraged by some sharp minds around him, Earl made up his mind to build something light and quick-handling that would take on the smaller Brittish sports cars. Earl would have his challenges ahead of him as Chevrolet sales were significantly down in the early ’50s and sales of Brittish cars were on the rise. Also he would have to convince Chevrolet’s General Manager, Thomas H. Keeting, who was a arch conservative, and Harlow Curtice, one of GMs top executives, that his car could be produced cheaply using mostly stock Chevrolet mechanics. The car would need to be striking enough to draw people into the showrooms where someone might be able to sell them.

In The Beginning

1953 Chevrolet Corvette No. 1 Chevrolet Flint Assembly Division June 30, 1953

Earl began work with Ed Cole, an ex-Cadillac engineer, in 1952 on two experimental vehicles that were built. The first one was a convertible by Chevrolet which suffered a tragic accident at GM’s proving grounds. From there their focus became the second experimental two-seater sports car with a code name of Project Opel. By employing as many stock components as possible it was planned that the car could be sold for around $2,000 which was comparable to the average family sedan of this time. The first viewing of the plaster model of the Project Opel vehicle was in April ’52 where the decision was unanimous and favorable to move ahead. The engineers where shown the model by June and informed that the car was to be running for the next Motorama in January ’53.

The new car’s chassis would be designed from the back to the front, starting with the line of the back axle and then locating the passenger compartment, the front bulkhead and the front axle as close to the ground as possible in order to achieve the low-slung, ground-hugging profile that Earl desired. The driver and passenger would basically sit on the floor rather than on the sofa! The low, squat feel of the car was further enhanced by a wide front track of 57 inches and rear track of 59 inches. Not only did this package enable the car to look good, it also provided the basis for good handling. The motor was also placed 3 inches lower to the ground and moved back 7 inches toward the bulkhead giving the Project Opel vehicle near-perfect weight distribution.

1953 Chevrolet Straight Six Engine

Straight-Six Stovebolt

Many Chevrolet standard issue parts went into the Project Opel vehicle including drum brakes and enlarged master cylinder, steering system, and transmission (the two speed Powerglide). A beefed up Stovebolt straight-six would have to do for the power system in this vehicle largely due to it was the only motor that would fit the chassis. This was a pre-war motor used in truck which had low horsepower and torque. Earl managed to increase the horsepower output from 115 hp to 150 hp and torque climbed from 204 lb. ft. to 223 lb. ft. This was achieved by modifying the motor’s camshaft and valve springs. Also improved was the intake manifold and cylinder head as well as the cooling system. Best of all were the three Carter YH carburetors fitted using side drafts in order to fit below the low hood line. All this gave the Opel a top speed of 110 mph!

A Slight European FlavorHarvey Earl's Concept Corvette

The interior was fitted with a slight European flavor, utilizing design from the Jaguar XK 120 such as bucket seats and a central instrument binnacle. The exterior was totally original and distinctive. The car looked long and low accented with chrome rubbing strips. The headlights were slightly recessed with chrome wire stone guards placed over them. An new tail fin look, a flash of aeronautical inspiration, is where the back lights called home. The wrap-around windshield echoed fighter plain design along with the radiator grille, with its thirteen, gleaming chrome teeth!

Earl produced a suitable masculine look along with a muscular and almost predatory feel to the car. The Project Opel was a stunning automobile and the decision to go into full production was launched. The car was renamed after a small, fast, maneuverable warship that had distinguished itself from World War II.

Thus, the CORVETTE was born and Corvette Dreamers were not far behind!


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