The history of the Corvette, according to General Motors Corp., began in January 1953 when legendary designer Harley Earl presented a concept dream car at the Motorama auto show in New York.
But observers at NPE less than a year earlier had a glimpse into a fiberglass-bodied world of sports cars the Detroit automaker was about to launch.
In 1952, the Naugatuck Chemical division of what was then U.S. Rubber Co. - later named Uniroyal, itself now part of Crompton Corp. - came to NPE's fifth show, at the time held in Philadelphia, with a car produced by a boat builder with a fiberglass body popped onto a Jeep's underpinnings.
The Brooks Boxer, produced by Glasspar Body Works, was intended as a custom prototype when some GM engineers caught sight of it. Within weeks the car, renamed the Alembic I, was called to Detroit where Earl had a chance to see it for himself. He already was familiar with the strength of composites, since GM drivers accidentally had flipped a fiberglass version of a convertible earlier on a test track, and had noted it sustained very little damage.
By the start of 1953, Earl and GM had a concept sports car that created a sensation in New York, and one that they knew could be put together with glass-reinforced resin.
While the Alembic is not a direct ancestor of the Corvette, a sports car marking its 50th anniversary this year, it certainly had an impact.
``It was one of those things preceding what became the Corvette,'' said Dave Hill, chief engineer for the Corvette and vehicle line executive for Detroit-based GM's performance cars. ``It did show what could be done with composites.
``Today, [fiberglass] is definitely a big part of the mystique and lore and technology that people expect of us. It's part of what we represent.''
Corvette marks its golden anniversary with a special celebration June 27-28 in Nashville, Tenn. In September, one of the men responsible for making the fiberglass body possible in large-scale production, Robert Morrison, will be inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in Bowling Green, Ky., joining 17 others who helped create and promote the icon.
The car launched the American sports car, created an auto market for composites and led to the rise of a new set of businesses to supply the resins, glass and components for that industry.
Bill Weaver's Modern Pattern tool shop in Toledo, Ohio, produced prototype molds for foundries. He had no exposure to plastics processors, and none to the auto industry, when he got a call in early 1953 saying that GM was looking for a specialized toolmaker.
His firm was one of only a handful in the Midwest capable of producing true-to-life prototype molds using phenolics. GM was anxious to build on the hype of the Corvette concept from the New York show while it was hot, and bring out real versions of its car before other automakers could roll out their own sports cars.
A hand layup version of a fiberglass car would help them get to market quickly.
``If GM had the knowledge of how to produce these tools themselves, they would have done it at their technical center because there was so much confidentiality surrounding it,'' Weaver said during a May 29 interview at a Temperance, Mich., shop housing his son Robert Weaver's Weaver Tool LLC and WesTool Corp.
The phenolic tooling involved a multistage process, starting with a wood model of each part. Modern Pattern made a plaster cast from the model, which it then specially shaped and treated to produce a smooth surface. The cast then was joined to a steel frame before pouring the phenolic resin into the cavity between the frame and the plaster cast to create the final prototype mold.
Weaver received the order to produce the body-panel molds, while Voss Plastics won the contract for underbody components.
Even as work began to get 300 Corvettes ready for launch by the end of 1953, the material future for the car still was in limbo. Traditionally, cars relied on steel, but to break even using metal bending, GM would have to sell more than 75,000 of the two-seat roadsters each year.
The opportunity was ripe for an entrepreneur like Morrison who was certain fiberglass had the right stuff.
Morrison was a one-time Ford Motor Co. salesman in Ashtabula, Ohio, who had created Molded Fiber Glass Co. in 1948. The composite industry was new and primitive, said his son Richard Morrison, who today is president and chief executive officer of the combined Molded Fiber Glass Cos.
The company was finding work through the late 1940s and early 1950s making bread trays for commercial bakeries, containers and refrigerator drip trays. But the former auto dealer was convinced the material was perfect for the auto industry, and traveled the nearly 250 miles between Ashtabula and Detroit regularly, touting fiberglass to carmakers.
As buzz for the Corvette concept grew, GM decided to check out the prospects for itself, sending two engineers to Ashtabula in a single-engine plane.
``They wanted to check out the plant, see what there was,'' Richard Morrison said. ``Back then, the plant was 10,000 square feet. It was a garage compared to an automotive plant.
``They took one look around and decided that, well, you can't build parts for 300,000 or 400,000 cars here.''
The engineers returned to Detroit, and soon after, Robert Morrison headed there himself, ready to meet with two top buyers. Once he arrived at GM headquarters, he discovered the men were out of the building.
Morrison, who died in 2002, wrote about his meeting in a 50th anniversary commemoration for MFG.
``I went back to the elevators on the second floor of the General Motors building and pushed the `down' button, not planning to call back that day. The elevator door opened and Elmer Gormsen, purchases director for Chevrolet, stepped out. He said to me, `Bob, have you got a little time?' I said, `I sure do.' ''
At Gormsen's office, Morrison learned the company had decided to use fiberglass for the first 300 cars, but would use steel for the full production. There simply was no company with the presses or capacity to make the Corvette.
``I was not about to let the biggest potential job in the fiberglass plastic business go down the drain,'' Morrison wrote.
He got on Gormsen's phone and called Harold Boeschenstein, the first president and general manager for Owens Corning in Toledo. He told him about the dilemma. On the spot, Boeschenstein told Morrison and Gormsen that if MFG got the contract to make the Corvette in fiberglass, Owens Corning would provide the financial backing.
By the time Morrison left, Gormsen had promised to consider the proposal. The entrepreneur was far from encouraged as he started the long drive back to Ashtabula.
He arrived home at 1:30 a.m. to a message informing him to call Gormsen as soon as possible, no matter the hour.
``They told him to go ahead and find the land and start building the plant - tomorrow,'' Richard Morrison said. ``They got all of us kids up and poured out some port wine and we all toasted the birth of the Corvette.''