By: Gary Fisher
President - Genesee County Historical Society
One of the most iconic automobiles in history has FLINT stamped all over it. The Corvette was born in Flint when it came rolling off the line at Chevrolet in Flint Township on June 30, 1953. This year we celebrate the 70th birthday of this magnificent machine and the men who invented her, and the men and women who built her and continue to add to her legacy today.
The vision starts with Harley Earl, the founder and head of General Motors Art and Color Section, the American auto industry’s first in-house styling department, designed the Buick Y-Job in 1938. Earl had a serious flair for the dramatic, the experimental and the cutting edge. Coming to auto design from Hollywood he was an exceptional and unique artist. He took his considerable talents to the limit on numerous occasions working on General Motors 1949 and 1950 models, which included the Buick Roadmaster Riviera and Cadillac Coupe Deville.
Earl long had a vision for a sports car that could compete with the best that European automakers had started cranking out after World War Two. So it was that in the fall of 1951 he conceived the secretive Project Opel Program. Earl was motivated by a car he had viewed in the General Motors Styling auditorium. It was called the Alembic 1. What made it particularly memorable was that its chassis and engine were wrapped in a fiberglass body. Glasspar was the manufacturer, and it was well known at mid-century for its kit-car bodies that were made of this unique glass-reinforced plastic, also known as fiberglass, which was lighter than the steel used in many cars at that time.
Earl came up with the moniker of “Project Opel” to throw snoopers off the trail. Opel was a GM German subsidiary and therefore folks would think the work had to do with something happening overseas. Key initial personnel were hand-picked and sworn to secrecy.
This is right about the time that Edward Cole got involved with “Project Opel.” Cole was educated at General Motors Institute (GMI) in Flint and was such a whiz kid that before he even graduated, he was plucked out of class and given a full-time job at GM in charge of special engineering projects for Cadillac. During the Second World War he oversaw light tanks and combat vehicles. By 1952 he was promoted to Chief Engineer for Chevrolet, and soon after named General Manager of the entire brand. He would ultimately become the President and CEO of GM, another in a long line of GM top leaders with Flint roots that include William C. “Billy” Durant, Charles Nash, and Harlow Curtice.
The next person to join the team was Robert Mclean, a superstar young engineer with degrees from the California Institute of Technology in both engineering and industrial design. He was singled out and tapped by Earl to design the car. The Corvette’s body would be made of 46 pieces of fiberglass, glued together to form nine major subassemblies. The car would defy sports car convention in another way too- it would include a manual transmission.
That was virtually sacrilege to sports car purists. But this was a pragmatic step because the engineers didn’t think that the Corvette’s engine could mesh with an automatic transmission, and that had everything to do with the special engine created for the Corvette.
The engine was called the engine the Blue Flame, and it created some heat. It was a 235.5-cubic-inch (3.9 L) six-cylinder engine with overhead valves (a long time GM specialty going back to the very first Buicks), which wasn’t exactly a fast runner. To pump it up and increase the power, a variety of innovations were added including:
- A high-lift, long-duration camshaft like the one found in Chevrolet’s 261-cubic-inch (4.3 L) truck engine.
- Solid valve lifters to replace the hydraulic ones,
- Dual valve springs to cope with the revved-up engine speeds.
- Cast-iron pistons instead of aluminum
- The head’s casting was adjusted to produce an 8.0:1 compression ratio.
- The water pumps' flow capacity was increased, with the pump itself being lowered at the front of the block so the massive four-blade fan could clear the low hood line.
- Then to generate more strength, the induction system was replaced with triple Carter “YH” side draft carburetors mounted on an aluminum intake manifold.
- Then a new rocker-arm cover was invented to allow the engine to clear the low hood line.
- Next the oil filler was re-positioned toward the rear.
- Along with this, a special dual-exhaust system was utilized to reduce back pressure for more power and a sweeter sounding and mesmerizing exhaust.
With all this innovative engineering in place an entirely new and groundbreaking engine was created called the “Blue Flame Special” and it could crank out 150 horsepower at a walloping 4,500 RPM. It would mesh perfectly with a Powerglide transmission.
Earl and Cole wanted the car to make its debut at the 1953 car show, the GM Motorama. But it did not yet have top brass approval, and it didn’t even have a name. Earl and Cole had to convince GM President Harlow Curtice that the project made sense. Without his approval, “Project Opel” was just another experimental and whimsical exercise in artistic and innovative futility.
Cole had direct access to his fellow Flintstone and set up a time to take Curtice on a tour of the project and an in depth look at the car. Curtice instantly fell in love with it. He especially loved Earl and Cole’s descriptions of it as a highly profitable vehicle, and one that could change Chevrolet’s image from a stodgy mid-market, family vehicle to a sexy, and cool futuristic and forward-thinking firm overnight.
All that was left now was to name it. Over 300 names were proposed and debated until finally Chevrolet’s Assistant Advertising Manager Myron Scott came up with “Corvette” while sifting through a dictionary. The definition of a “small and agile, 19th century warship” resonated with the advertising team. It implied all the things they wanted associated with the car: Maneuverability, speed, power, and nimble movement. Corvette it was!
The Chevrolet factory in Flint was tapped to build it and they did so with great skill, the local 599 UAW workers crafting it piece by piece on a special assembly line created just for the Corvette. The miniature assembly line was only six chassis long, it could accommodate a 50 ‘Vette’s a month schedule of production which was microscopic compared to the 7700 cars a day quota for ordinary Chevrolet’s of the time.
It hit the Motorama on January 17th of 1953 painted Polo White, with a Sportsman Red interior and was an instant sensation. Production was eventually sadly moved away from Flint. However, the legacy of the Corvette was firmly established in The Vehicle City, and that history remains among the most storied cars in all of world automobile manufacturing history. Along with baseball, rock and roll, and hot dogs, it is also an American cultural icon.
Gary L. Fisher
Genesee County Historical Society