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A flash of red catches the eye before the hum of a powerful engine reaches the ear. Far down a straightaway on General Motors' vast proving ground near Detroit a sports car streaks onward in the pale afternoon sunlight. The hum becomes a roar as the steel guts of the car yield more speed: 115...120...125. Going flat out as it passes, the car is a red blur against the snow-carpeted earth, and the speed soars to 133 mph....
Fifty miles northwest of Detroit a network of test roads scars the pine-studded hills and dales of General Motors' 3,000-acre proving ground. Snow was on the ground one day last week, but the neatly scraped roads were abuzz with the usual scores of cars under test. Not so usual was the car we had come to see and drive. It was a sports car, and that is a term which was only recently added to Detroit's lexicon.
New as the new year, the car was Chevrolet's jaunty 1956 Corvette, which was announced to the public this week and which will make its public bow at the GM Motorama next week in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. As the little two-seater whipped nimbly through a series of acceleration tests and high-speed runs, it became apparent that this is a significant car.
The significance lies not so much in its brisk acceleration and a top speed of more than 130 mph as in the fact that Detroit, in the throes of the industry's hottest production and sales war ever, is aggressively broadening its commitment to sports cars. The giants of Detroit have slumbered while smaller European manufacturers have monopolized the laurels of sports car racing. Like the Ford Thunderbird, the hot new Corvette is a signal that the giants are stirring.
The significant figure behind the Corvette is GM President Harlow Curtice himself. Curtice's philosophy of competition was illuminated earlier in his career when the question involved GM's then-floundering Allison aircraft subsidiary. GM could "continue as is," he was advised, or get out of the aircraft engine business entirely, or make the moves necessary to leadership. Curtice's dictum: he would "only be satisfied with leadership." It was in the same spirit that Harlow Curtice ordered his engineers to overtake Ford's Thunderbird (SI, Dec. 12). The immediate result is the 1956 Corvette featuring a restyled fiber-glass body, a powerful V-8 engine with horsepower boosted from 195 to 225, a choice for the first time between automatic transmission and the manually operated gearshift which the racing enthusiast needs and demands.
That America is seeing a Corvette- Thunderbird tussle at all is a tribute to the postwar sports car boom to which Detroit was so long indifferent. When the first small, lively, highly maneuverable European cars began to arrive, many an American discovered a way of motoring that Detroit did not provide. It was a discovery coupled with a sense of fun and adventure—in a way a return to earlier times when the art of driving was a challenge and a pleasure. Chevrolet made the first move with its 1953 Corvette, only to watch Ford come along in 1954 with a more powerful car, with more passenger car comforts. Moreover, Ford discovered that even with nonbuyers the Thunderbird look was astonishingly popular. It brought people into the showrooms, and it made possible one of the shrewdest standard car sales promotions in recent years ("Kissin' cousin to a Thunderbird").
Except for brief and unhappy ventures like the fiber-glass Kaiser Darrin and Nash's Italian-English-American Nash-Healey, the rest of the industry declined to join the chase. It did, however, reflect the sports car influence to the extent of building sporting-type cars—higher performance machines, usually with the same wheelbase as standard models. Examples are the new Studebaker Golden Hawk and cars in each of the Chrysler Corporation's production lines: the Plymouth Fury, the Dodge 500, the DeSoto Adventurer and the Chrysler 300B. With 340 horsepower, the 300B has the most powerful production engine in the U.S.
TOURING NOW, RACING LATER
Sports cars are usually classified either as all-out racing, touring or dual-purpose cars. Chevrolet's new Corvette demonstrated last week that it was a highly suitable sports-touring car with at least modest usefulness right now as a racing machine and with bright promise for the future.
The Corvette is so new that the only car available for test last week was a factory model complete with the new chassis and engine but fitted with a 1955 body shell. Bodies old and new weigh almost the same (of racing significance is the plastic body's lightness).