Peter Brock Column: Without Bill Mitchell, the Chevrolet C2 Corvette May Never Have Happened

I had the rare opportunity as a young designer to work at GM Styling in the mid ’50s. I wasn’t aware at the time just how crucial that era would be in terms of the future of the American automobile industry and Chevrolet in particular, but time has a way of clarifying history that’s impossible to ascertain at the moment it’s happening. That period demonstrated just how close the sometimes divisive nature of creativity pitted against the practical (read: “financial”) constraints of top management can come to hobbling, if not destroying, a great automobile. 

Those who rise to the pinnacle of control in large corporations don’t get there by being dreamers. Their record of constantly and steadily improving the bottom line is what eventually places them in positions of power. As a GM CEO at that time, Frederic Donner, once said, “We don’t make automobiles here at General Motors; we make money.” 

As a young, naive designer focused on creating a better, more appealing product, it was impossible for me to know that there were several layers of management approval above me that had nothing to do with the quality or validity of anything being created for production. These all had to be agreed upon by others with little interest in good taste or design. They were concerned primarily with profit. 

Those at the top in 1957, namely Harlow Curtice, president of GM, decided privately to improve corporate profits by eliminating all reference and support to “performance”–including all corporately funded “racing programs” and, most importantly, the manufacture of any “high performance” vehicles, including the Corvette. 

Knowing that success of such a broadly sweeping mandate wouldn’t exactly be popular with the powerful divisional heads of Chevrolet and Pontiac (whose sales were heavily influenced by recognizing the public’s interest in performance), they had to enlist other manufacturers to go along with their idea. Curtice led an effort within the Automobile Manufacturers Association, going individually to the top executives at Ford and Chrysler and convinced them it was in the industry’s “best interest” to align with GM’s thinking. 

This wasn’t too difficult a proposal, as the ever-increasing costs of development and advanced engineering (mostly in trying to match GM’s racing budgets for NASCAR and NHRA drag racing) were noticeably affecting profits. Conveniently ignored in these top-level conversations were the sales numbers for the Big Three proving that “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” easily justified the expense of such programs. 

Also overlooked, unfortunately, was the most important–but unseen and little understood–benefit of competitive engineering within the various layers of design and engineering. What better way to motivate a team of creative designers and engineers than by providing the tangible target of the opposition?

 In June of 1957 the “AMA ban” on all performance activity within the industry was introduced. This essentially completely killed off the Corvette program! There was little dissension at the top. Chevrolet’s controversial Corvette program had been in the red since its inception in ’53, while Ford’s all-steel “personal car,” the Thunderbird, was outselling the plastic-bodied sportster in a very convincing manner.

Only one dissenting voice decided that the Corvette was worth keeping. Bill Mitchell, then about to take over GM Styling from Harley Earle (who had led GM’s design center since 1927), quietly decided that he’d go against management’s directive and create, in secret, a completely new Corvette! 

He did it, at great personal risk to his career and with a small, dedicated team. It took them some six years from inception to reach production in 1963, but Bill Mitchell’s now iconic split-window Sting Ray changed the course of GM history, being the first Corvette to sell more than 10,000 units in its first year and putting the program solidly in the black. Mitchell’s success with this singular design gave him great credibility and power within GM. It enabled him to go on and create some of the most remarkably beautiful cars in GM’s history.

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300zxfreak
300zxfreak Reader
11/13/20 8:56 p.m.

So, what was the rationale for the C4 ??

noddaz
noddaz UltraDork
11/16/20 2:10 p.m.
300zxfreak said:

So, what was the rationale for the C4 ??

Bean counters will be bean counters.

MadScientistMatt
MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
11/16/20 3:22 p.m.
300zxfreak said:

So, what was the rationale for the C4 ??

Drive a 1982 C3.

OK, that may have been a cheap shot, but smog and CAFE requirements were ensuring the brutally powered big block approach was now a non-starter, and the C3 chassis was seriously dated. While the interior was a pretty bad case of cost-cutting, the chassis was much lighter, with a far more modern suspension, both of which the Corvette lineup badly needed.

Bardan
Bardan New Reader
4/2/21 12:41 p.m.

In reply to 300zxfreak :

They almost whacked the Corvette in 83 (only a handfull were built in 83). GM was being overrun by Japanese cars, 911 Turbo was the darling of the day and the automotive press basicly said Corvettes were a joke. It was either total revamp or shut it down.

vwcorvette (Forum Supporter)
vwcorvette (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
4/4/21 4:54 p.m.
Bardan said:

In reply to 300zxfreak :

They almost whacked the Corvette in 83 (only a handfull were built in 83). GM was being overrun by Japanese cars, 911 Turbo was the darling of the day and the automotive press basicly said Corvettes were a joke. It was either total revamp or shut it down.

There are no 83s. Some prototypes and mules were built, but the 84 model year began earlier than normal.

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