Column: Wiley's Follies
Chasing The Great Corvette
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 22:02
On June 30, 1953, a small group of engineers saw to the completion of the first Chevrolet Corvette, working out of a modest garage in industrial Flint, MI. Although far from the cradle of civilization at face, the Midwest town of Flint did serve as the birthplace of both General Motors and the era of unionization, in 1908 and 1937 respectively.
Developed by GM industrial designer Harley J. Earl, the Corvette was one of the earliest “concept cars”—a vehicle serving an ideal. Curvy fiberglass contours and a jagged toothlike grill gave the early Corvette a heroic stature, and certain capacity for turning heads. But beneath the hood, the Corvette’s engine was weak, unrefined and could only producing a scrawny 105 horsepower, leaving the car a mere allusion to grandeur. Moreover, the introductory model was available only in white.
But as the decades passed, each successive generation of Corvette boasting a stronger engine, a sleeker profile, a remastered vision. Some changes worked. Others didn’t. The quality of the car fluctuated. So did its public perception. At times, the stylistic assertions of the car, formalized in 1963 by Corvette Sting Ray, were emboldening. Other times, they felt exhausting. But however besmeared, belabored, and questionably established the Corvette seemed at points, 60 years later, it stands as a sonorous, resilient, and altogether pervasive national icon. And in the crudeness of its beauty and the beauty of its crudeness, the Chevy Corvette is one of the most effectual and endearing representations of the American dream.
If Thomas Jefferson penned our political destiny with the Declaration of Independence, Henry Ford penned our social destiny with his declaration, “I will build a car for the great multitude.” And while most American art stems from our Eurocentricity, the art visions manifested in the automobile are distinctly American in this character.
There is magnificent correlation between the rise of the automobile and the expansion of our liberal democracy, as we follow them through the 20th century. I’m not entirely certain Ford could have anticipated “a car for the great multitude” meant the spread of ideas leading to the civil rights movement, or women leaving the domestic sphere to go to work. But I’m inclined to believe, in no small way, that’s precisely how it worked. Cars represent the social fluidity, geographic mobility, and power of the individual in a society. And although this argument in fullness demands more length than this column can provide, I need only point to the dreadful driving practices, inadequate safety regulations, and cryptic highway systems of the developing world to establish my case.
So why the Corvette? After all, every car’s design language is an important statement on the American lifestyle. Why not choose the minivan, for safely delivering children to soccer practice for six decades? Why not the Prius, for curtailing fuel emissions at only a nominal cost of dignity?
Well, we must differentiate the American lifestyle from the American dream. The Corvette is something we aspire to, rather than something we strictly need. It’s an intimate, visceral two-door coupe, not a clunky, sliding-door transportation bubble. It’s powerful, expensive, but notably not in the astronomical price range of European super cars. It came from humble beginnings, was established in a rich social context, and began as an idea of a car, rather than something stemming strictly from need. It’s bullet-like in form, and its tapered rear and curvaceous hood are strikingly artificial, a manipulation of earthly material into a heavenly form.
The funny thing about cars is, in essence, we model them after ourselves—we give them two headlights for eyes, four “limbs” to travel with, coverings for their intimate inner workings, and then we manipulate these characteristics, playing with shape and proportion, to give them a personality. And as time progresses, our cars become superhuman, taking on characteristics of God. The modern car can interact with us, keep us in lane, give us direction, listen to our prayers, take lives, and otherwise protect them.
The seventh generation of Corvette is expected in dealerships this fall. And it’s got 450 horsepower, too. This Corvette isn’t just a “concept car”, and it comes in many colors now, not just white. It’s not perfect, but it has come a long way over the past 60 years.