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September 07, 2008

1958 Corvette Stylist Tells All

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Robert Cumberford has been in the car styling game for more than half a century. He started out working for General Motors and then moved on to freelance design, design-school instruction and styling criticism/commentary for magazines.

The October issue of Automobile magazine carries his latest "By Design" column. Usually the column deals with a new show car or production model. Cumberford writes several paragraphs of general evaluation and then does short comments on styling features he considers noteworthy for their high quality, mediocrity or failings. I find this the best part of each issue, styling buff and one-time wannabe that I am.

What was unusual about the current column is that he comments on a car from 50 years ago. A car he had a hand in styling: the 1958 Corvette.


Corvette - 1955
This is an example of Corvette styling in the earliest years of the marque. Proportions were derived from the Jaguar XK120. The initial motor was a souped up "stovebolt six," but by 1955, Chevrolet's classic V-8 had replaced it.

Corvette - 1957
The 1956-57s are my all-time favorite Vettes, style-wise. It's a face-lift of the earlier design. Front and rear fenders were reshaped and a side indentation added to provide more visual interest.

Corvette - 1958
So, naturally, I hated the 1958 face-lift. Before the 1958 model year, sealed-beam headlamps combined low and high beams. For 1958, high and low beams each had their own lamp; this change happened only after all state headlamp laws were changed to permit this arrangement. The result, in my opinion, was a backward styling step. Four headlights never looked right to me because the front end of a car is its face, and just about every creature aside from insects has only two eyes; four eyes are unnatural. Today's integrated lamp assemblages allow face-like looks again.

In his general commentary, Cumberford reveals that

The Corvette was very much [longtime styling director] Harley Earl's car. His deputy, Bill Mitchell, was not allowed to touch it. I was the only stylist doing sketches, closely monitored by Earl. With notions of aerodynamics in mind, I wanted to simply fair the two lamps into a wider front fender.... Earl wanted a visor, as on the sedan that the world knows as the 1958 Chevy, and actually made a shaky sketch, the only one of his I've ever seen. You never argued with Earl, but he sometimes could be deflected: "What if I put a chrome strip between them, Mr. Earl? Maybe a badge there, too?" ...

I dutifully drew all those features [that Earl wanted] but thought that the car was too baroque and too fussy for a sports car. I never dreamed that the complicated front end would last five years, with only the teeth disappearing after Earl retired.

I didn't like the car as much as I did the '56, to which I contributed nothing, but last year at the Art Center Car Classic, "my" Corvette won the Designers' Choice Award for post-1950. Go figure.

To read his take on various styling details, buy the magazine; the article does not seem to be on its Web site.



posted by Donald at September 7, 2008


The mid-'50s Corvette -- forget painting, now that's a moment of real cultural significance! That side-scoop beginning in '57 seems like a stroke of genius, design-wise. Was the '50s Corvette the first modern attempt at an American sports car? It's all kinds of sexy.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 7, 2008 7:40 PM

The front end of the '57 looks rather like many MGs. And the remark about "too Baroque": is that a subtle dig at Baroque Obama?

Posted by: dearieme on September 8, 2008 2:12 PM

That's interesting that Harley Earl, one of the great names in industrial design, almost never drew. What did he do? Did he work with his designers like a witness with a police sketch artist?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on September 9, 2008 3:39 AM

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