Automobiles may seem like they have a life of their own – but they are all creations of human beings. Sometimes the people who create a car are simply copying what has been done before, but every so often true visionaries come along to create something no one expected.
That has happened several times in the history of the Corvette. From its genesis through the modern era, the Corvette has been reinvented several times – always by men who had a passion for great cars. This article looks at a few of the men who guided the Corvette to greatness. There are many more not profiled - please feel free to suggest additional names!
Harley J. Earl
Harley Earl is more than just the man who came up with the original concept for the Corvette – he’s the man who brought the notion of design to the American auto industry in the 1920s. In an age when your choice of styling and color in an automobile was limited to a black shoebox, Earl became the first leader of GM’s newly-created “Art and Color” department – which ultimately grew to become GM’s design studio in 1937.
Harley Earl is best known as the original leader of the Corvette project – but he also designed the wonderful 1950s Chevy Nomad station wagon, and the upscale Cadillac Eldorado Brougham (as a side note, a Brougham was originally a luxury carriage).
When the Corvette project began in 1951, Earl was impressed with the current crop of postwar sports cars from Europe and wanted a vehicle to compete with the Allards, Jaguars, and so on. The project was code-named “Opel” and ultimately, the decision to name the Corvette after a small, fast warship came from the same design studio.
Ed Cole was the President of GM when the Corvette was in its massive muscle period of the late 1960s, but his history with the vehicle goes back to 1952, when he was the new Chief Engineer of Chevrolet. As the story goes, Cole wasn’t the man who dreamed up the Corvette, but he did lead the development of the Small Block V8, which powered the Corvette (and everything else at GM) to greatness, and which lives on to this day.
Cole’s ear was caught by the young Zora Arkus-Duntov, and he was the man who made the decision to let Duntov, Mitchell, and Shinoda develop the Corvette into the great performance sports car that it ultimately became.
Bill Mitchell was one of Harley Earl’s protégés – he was hired by Earl in 1935 and shortly became the Chief Designer for GM’s Cadillac division. Like Earl himself, Mitchell was enamored of the graceful design aesthetics of the postwar European sports cars, and wanted to come up with a GM car that could match those cars in both looks and performance.
Mitchell was involved in the early prototype “skunk works” that produced the original Corvette, and he graduated to become GM’s Director of Styling. His passion for the Corvette as a performance car led to the styling and power increases that took place in 1956.
By 1958, Harley Earl had retired and Bill Mitchell took over as Vice President of GM’s Styling division, where he was the moving force behind the redesign that led to the C2 Sting Ray era of Corvettes. Mitchell’s notable designs also include the second-generation Camaro and the original Buick Riviera.
Mitchell, together with Larry Shinoda, drove the design of the split window Corvette coupe in 1963, and was also responsible for removing the center bar from the rear window in 1964 and later. He remained in charge of styling until his retirement in 1970.
Larry Kiyoshi Shinoda was a talented designer who came to work for GM in 1956. Working with Bill Mitchell, Shinoda was the primary designer of the C2-era Corvette Sting Ray, and also the C3 Corvette that was introduced in 1968.
Perhaps the most famous of Shinoda's creations was the Mako Shark prototype for the 1963 Corvette, but he also designed the Boss 302 Mustang for Ford, produced in 1969-1970. Racers will be pleased to know that Shinoda won the very first NHRA National races held in Kansas in 1955 with his own hot rod.
No name is more associated with the transition of the Corvette from a sleepy boulevard cruiser to a performance car than Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov was a dashing figure – a Russian born in Belgium, who grew up in Berlin and became a fighter pilot in the French air force in the early days of World War II, and then escaped to America and drove race cars after the war. Duntov was the perfect face of the new idea for Corvette in the mid-1950s.
Duntov became interested in the Corvette when it first appeared in the Motorama show of 1953. His correspondence with GM executives led them to hire the young engineer, and his influence continued to grow. Like Larry Shinoda, Duntov was plugged in to the hot rod and sports car racing scene in the 1950s, and he promoted performance and styling within GM. The result was the increase in power and performance starting with the 1956 redesign of the C1-era Corvette.
Duntov became Chief Engineer of Corvette in time for the 1963 introduction of the C2 Sting Ray Corvettes. We have Duntov to thank for the Corvette’s unique rear suspension that dates from this time, and many other performance enhancements as well.
Duntov is well-known for his secret work (aided and abetted by Bill Mitchell and Larry Shinoda) on racing Corvettes such as the 5 legendary 1963 Grand Sport cars. Zora Arkus-Duntov retired from GM in 1975, but remained active in the Corvette community until his death in 1996.
Dave McClellan succeeded Zora Arkus-Duntov as Corvette's Chief Engineer in 1975, and stayed in the position until his retirement in 1992.
McClellan was the engineer responsible for the transition to the C4 Corvette - which despite its initial quality problems and relatively low popularity among collectors was a tremendous improvement in engineering from its predecessors. The C4 era saw the Corvette return to performance levels not seen since the 1960s and early 1970s. McClellan was responsible for the C4-era "King of the Hill" ZR1 Corvette.
Dave Hill started his career at Cadillac in 1965 and stayed with the brand until Dave McClellan retired in 1992, whereupon Hill became Chief Engineer of Corvette. Hill was responsible for designing the all-new C5-era Corvette - moving the transmission to the rear of the car for better weight balance and establishing the modern Corvette as a world-class supercar.
Before his retirement in 2006, Hill also oversaw the C6-era redesign and can rightly take credit for the current Corvette's technical excellence.