CHICAGO (July 1, 9:15 a.m. EDT) — 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 marked 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.
Each one started with wood
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.' ”
Morrison makes his move
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.”
Robert Morrison was untiring, enthusiastic and optimistic, with a sheer belief in the business and its potential that drew everyone in.
“First time I talked to Bob Morrison, he called me up one afternoon and said he and someone from Owens Corning were coming in at 2 o'clock the next day, and we were going to discuss the tooling for the first 300,” Weaver said. “I said, 'Well, why don't you come a couple of hours early and we'll go for lunch.' That's when he told me he didn't mean 2 in the afternoon — he meant 2 in the morning.
“So we met at 2 in the morning. There was a little greasy spoon that was open all night and the three of us went over there and discussed the tooling. I had never built a tool that large, and we did a lot of napkin scribbling.”
In the diner, talking with Morrison, Weaver could see the possibilities. But later, after he got the call confirming the order, he got really worried.
“I think I turned a little white,” he said. “I took a deep breath and said, 'Well, here's a challenge.' ”
Now the hard push was on. Weaver's shop oversaw the tooling, with Lunn Laminates responsible for the hand layup of the initial 300 vehicles. With a $4 million contract in hand, MFG launched an expansion.
With no room available at the shop, the ping-pong table and train set in the Morrison family's basement were removed and drafting tables for the mold makers set up in their place. Everybody was anxious to find out exactly what was happening in little Ashtabula.
Richard Morrison, then 9 years old, would keep engineers and executives company while they waited for a drink or a bite to eat. He tossed around a football with Chevrolet's chief engineer, Ed Cole.
Weaver was offered Corvette serial number nine. He turned it down. With young children at home, he could not see much need for a sports car.
But the Corvette gave him something new. A business.
The foundries that were the backbone of his tooling sales were losing ground. Plastics, on the other hand, was on the move.
“This was an early bird for us,” he said. “The Corvette really changed my whole marketing direction because we were exposed to the automobile industries.”
With the help of new investors, Modern Patterns became Modern Patterns and Plastics and later Modern Tools. The company grew from 65 people in 1953 to 175 in just a few years, becoming a pioneer toolmaker for composites. It built production molds for composite panels with the look of wood for station wagons and the tools for the first sheet molding compound Jeep hardtop. The company also made tools for heavy-truck and bus parts.
“I was exposed to both fiberglass and the auto industry through Corvette,” he said. “I saw a future in that.”
At Ashtabula, expansion was under way. Owens Corning came through with the promised financing, and new presses and other equipment were installed. Within 10 months, the company began making parts.
“He'd solve problems as they came up,” Richard Morrison said about his father's management style. “He just had a feeling that things would work out. He figured we could just jump in and learn how to swim. There wasn't a big business plan or charts or milestones to hit. It was just, 'OK, let's go.' ”
Through 1954, MFG turned out nearly all of the composites for 3,640 Corvettes, shipping body panels and structural underbody systems to GM's assembly plant in St. Louis. But there were problems — the Corvette simply was not selling. In 1955, MFG got a call to stop production. General Motors was considering canceling the vehicle. In all, it turned out only 700 that year.
“The 1954 Corvette was cute and it was novel, but it wasn't a very good car,” Morrison admitted. “It was more like a toy — an expensive toy.”
While GM considered its options, MFG turned to the boat business, putting its large-scale presses into operation to produce fiberglass hulls.
In the end, GM decided to overhaul the car, driven in part by competition with Ford's new Thunderbird, introduced in October 1954. GM gave the Corvette a larger engine and a manual transmission to help turn it into a true sports car available to a large segment of the U.S. population, not just the elite.
In 1956 production jumped to 3,476. The following year it hit 6,339. By the start of the 1960s, GM was selling about 10,000 annually. In 2002, GM made more than 35,000.
“It makes me very proud of what we've been able to do as a company and to be able to continue with it when it might not have seemed the prudent business thing to do,” Hill said.
The Corvette has changed, though.
The direct fiber preform processing MFG used through the Corvette's early years has shifted to sheet molding compound for exterior body systems.
Molded Fiber Glass broke away from Corvette in 1970 when MFG halted its automotive unit as part of a refinancing plan.
It agreed to stay out of the auto industry for five years.
Today the company works in a variety of industries, using a cross-section of processing techniques. It has made composite wood fascia for architectural customers and underground units used to protect electronics. It is a producer of sink and shower basins for recreational vehicles and firefighters' helmets.
In January it purchased Ratech Industries of Reno, Nev., a maker of composite dome systems used to house radar and communications equipment.
It was not until the late 1980s when Richard Morrison, who had taken the reins of the company, decided it was time to relaunch its work in the auto industry full-force.
In 1990 Corvette work returned to Ashtabula when Chevy turned to MFG to produce a direct fiber preform structural component, replacing one then made with SMC.
Now, while SMC remains the primary process used in Corvette's body panels, MFG does preform molding for 12 different components on the Corvette. It has 16 parts on Corvette's new high-class counterpart, the Cadillac XLR — including a composite flooring system using balsa wood for sound deadening.
“We really have a passion here for Corvette,” Morrison said.
And Corvette has continued its passion for composites.
Later this year Chevy will begin selling a 2004 Z06 commemorative edition Corvette with a carbon-fiber hood, the first use of the material in a Class A surface on a production vehicle.
Hill and his team also are making final adjustments to the sixth generation of the Corvette, set to bow at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.
“We are going to expand the envelope with more innovative plastics throughout the car,” Hill said. “This is going to be another breakthrough car.”