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Corvette concept cars: Room for the whole family

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Today the character of the Corvette is well defined as a two-seat, high performance sports car with enough bells and whistles to satisfy the most discriminating owner. In its early years, however, the designers at General Motors experimented with versions of the Corvette that could accommodate the whole family. Design exercises such as the Nomad, the Impala and the 2+2 Sting Ray were GM’s way of testing the waters to see if Corvette’s market could be expanded.

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Concept Cars
Legendary designer Harley Earl breathed life into the idea of making concept cars for public viewing to showcase GM’s great new designs and to obtain feedback from potential buyers. The heyday of the concept cars reached its zenith with GM’s Motorama exhibits traveling to five major cities across the country between 1953 and 1956, and again in 1959 and 1961. Over seven million visitors came through the turnstiles to get a look at the latest GM production and concept vehicles. And they weren’t disappointed as only the best of the dream cars made the big show.

Public reaction to particular concept cars or to specific design features often determined whether or not the car or the feature would make it into production. The public’s positive reaction to the Corvette concept car, the EX-122, shown in the January 1953 Motorama at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, was so strong that the production Corvette officially went on sale the following June.

Unfortunately for Chevrolet, early sales of the Corvette languished and there were rumblings within the GM hierarchy that the unprofitable car should be terminated. The car was not well defined with either the public or the GM design staff, so various Corvette dream cars were exhibited to gauge public reaction to new design concepts that could expand Corvette’s potential market.

The Corvette Nomad
The 1954 Motorama displayed three new Corvette concepts. The Corvette Nomad was the hit of the show outpacing the Corvair, a fastback coupe version of the Corvette, and a Corvette with a removable hardtop substituted for the folding convertible top. Although the Nomad had a Corvette body from the windshield pillar forward, it was, in fact, built on a modified Chevrolet chassis, not on a Corvette chassis.

The two-door fiberglass Nomad station wagon had room for six passengers and such features as an electrically powered glass tailgate window, a sporty roof design with a forward sloping B-pillar and wraparound rear side windows. Once again the public acclaim was overwhelming and the Nomad concept went into production for the 1955 model year, but as a standard Chevrolet model, not as a Corvette. The Chevrolet Nomad became a classic design and even today the 1955 to 1957 models are highly collectible.

Corvette Impala
The Corvette Impala made its debut in the 1956 Motorama exhibit along with other dream cars such as the Firebird II, the Pontiac Club de Mer, the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, the Buick Centurian and the Cadillac Brougham Town Car. The Impala was a two-door, five-passenger sport sedan featuring a Corvette grille and Corvette Impala badging. According to its brochure, the Impala featured a “Panoramic” windshield that “…sweeps over driver’s head forming part of the roof …” and has “…tinted glass in upper portion.” The roof was formed of brushed stainless steel.

The Corvette Impala was never produced, but the Impala name went on to become one of the most enduring car model names. The name was given to a top of the line, full-sized Chevrolet Bel Air model in 1958 and in 1959 became a series of its own, offering a sport coupe, a sport sedan, a four-door sedan, a convertible and a station wagon. Impala remained a Chevrolet model name until 1986 and was resurrected in 1994. It was again dropped after 1996, but rose from the ashes in 2000 and remains in the Chevrolet arsenal today.

XP-720 Sting Ray 2+2
Chevrolet also considered enlarging the Corvette Sting Ray into a 2+2 at the request of GM Group Vice President Ed Cole. Noted GM (and later Ford) designer Larry Shinoda penned a prototype based on the 1963 split-window coupe that included a small rear seat to accommodate two additional passengers. To make room for the seat and to provide adequate ingress/egress, the wheelbase was elongated, as were the doors, and the profile of the rear glass area was raised slightly to give the rear occupants more headroom. Overall, the 2+2 looks similar to the two-seat coupe, except in the side view in which the wheelbase and the doors are noticeably longer as can be seen in our slide show. It would be interesting to see the 2+2 photographed alongside the standard coupe, but all the pictures we could find show only the 2+2. If any reader has or knows of a photograph of the 2+2 and the two-seat coupe together, please leave us a comment.

Following public introduction of the 1963 Corvette, GM management concluded that a four-seat version would detract from the runaway success of the two-seat Sting Ray and would not sell in sufficient numbers to justify production. All further development work on the 2+2 was then stopped.

The Corvette is now so well defined as a two-seat sports car that a family sized version is not likely to happen any time soon, if ever. If you really want to take two or three of your friends along on your Corvette adventures there’s only one solution – you’ll just have to buy two Corvettes.

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© March 2012 by Bruce Troxell

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