BOOK REVIEW BY: Wallace Wyss
Corvette: America’s Star Spangled Sports Car by Karl Ludvigsen
There are lots of car history books written by writers who come across the cars they write about decades later and write their histories based on old PR releases, magazine stories and the like.
But this particular book Corvette America’s Star Spangled Sports Car, is written by someone uniquely qualified to write a history of the Corvette because he worked at GM as a designer and later as a PR man. He also was editor of several different magazines and intermittently, was invited to drive various Corvette prototypes.
In short, he knows where all the bodies are buried.
The book was first published by Automobile Quarterly way back in the early ‘70s (second edition was 1973) , but this new edition, a true coffee table book in number of pages (784 pg.) the number of pictures (989 including drawings and diagrams) and weight (must be 8 lbs.!) is a real tour de force.
Even its price is mind-boggling–$149.95! You would have to say it is the ultimate Corvette history book in size, weight and coverage.
Ludvigsen strikes a good balance between the engineering facts, and the design gestation of each era of the Corvette, the C1, C2, C3, etc.
The book ends with the model year 1982 and presumably Ludvigsen will pen another book picking up the story from there. At first I thought a book so large would go to the 2014 model but am glad it didn’t because then the book would just be too heavy to lift and look at. No 1,000 pager would be feasible!
And if truth be told, the earlier Corvettes are the hot numbers on the auction stages and concours and vintage races so those are the ones people want to read about.
I enjoyed the early chapters on the beginning of the Corvette, though one wishes earlier design shots were available of clay models prior to the ‘63. It’s OK by me that he occasionally deviates into other American would be sports cars like the Woodhill Wildfire because we have to know what the GM engineers and designers were influenced by to see why each generation of Corvette turned out like it does.
In the past I didn’t think Ludvigsen liked talking about people as much as engineering but he has changed a bit in this regard—with excellent profiles of people like Harley Earl, and Bill Mitchell—the two designers that influenced the Corvette most in the ‘Fifties and Sixties.
He also gives credit to engineers including two with racing backgrounds, Mauri Rose and Zora Arkus-Duntov. In fact, Duntov comes off as the perennial “bad boy” of the book, from the ‘50s through the ‘60s, always seeking ways to build race cars even when GM management was espousing a “no support for racing” philosophy.
Ludvigsen had a famous photographic archive built up over a half century so this book is worth buying for the rare photos alone, such as Prince Bertil of Sweden’s Corvette with ’58 chrome decklid trim on an earlier model (when you are a Royal, I reckon your car has to be special).
Racing mechanics are given considerable mention too, it’s always fun to read about Smokey Yunick who was the “inside man” helping develop many GM race cars. He doesn’t go into Smokey’s unique penchant for creative cheating but just to find out Smokey was involved, you know you’re going to read something fun.
Even though I have been writing about Corvettes for 48 years (and even wrote several Corvette books) I learned new things from this book like seeing pictures of the SR-2 show cars being raced. I knew one had been raced originally but not more than one.
Ludvigsen does a good job of showing how Chevrolet brass—at least the ones who liked racing—worked “under the table” to get support to race teams preparing Corvettes, from the Cunningham team at LeMans in 1960 to the Chaparral team, which though not racing Corvettes, used GM-designed experimental transmissions. I think he neglected to mention Larry Shinoda might have even designed a Chaparral body or two—labeled as Corvettes at GM so they could justify the time spent.
With the internet now available, it is all too easy to check like how many Corvettes were painted such and such a color in 1960 or whatever year so I appreciate Ludvigsen doesn’t slow down the narrative too much to delve into those now easy-to-find details. I prefer reading the political behind the scenes battles for instance saying “Duntov was unwelcome in styling” and how Duntov and Frank Winchell, out at the Milford test track were rivals in developing experimental cars. Each had its own kingdom and loyal warriors.
Duntov is by far the most colorful character in the book (Ludvigsen even mentions Duntov’s gold smuggling in France) but deserving of equal space in the next edition is more on John DeLorean who comes across as an engineering genius who stepped on the wrong toes too many times (like proposing a Camaro-based Corvette that would be cheaper to build).
LOOKING BACK, WHO DID WHAT?
Ludvigsen gives Pete Brock, later a Cobra designer, proper credit for working on an early Corvette design that later influenced the Stingray race car but is careful not to say Brock designed the production ’63-to-’67 Corvette. The trouble with writing histories going back 4 or 5 decades is that many of the people involved have died with the result that some of the survivors are telling the tale today of what they did, giving themselves an outsize role compared to their contribution at the time.
One tiny area I wished he would have commented on is the fake side vents and fake hood vents on the ’63-67 Corvette. Exotic foreign cars at the time, Ferraris and such, didn’t have fake this-and-that. If they had a scoop, it scooped (exception was faux convertible tops though those were mostly prewar). I can’t see why GM would bother to design in a hood vent or side vent on the Corvette and not make it functional—it was insulting to the buyer. Ironically they did try to offer genuine knock-off wheels as an option in ’63 but they withdrew them when they leaked air so they went to fake knock-off hub caps.
Ludvigsen does mention on occasion foreign car design influence, saying for instance the roof of the ’68 Corvette was from the Porsche 904GTS. I would’ve mentioned the Ferrari 250LM as well. Another new thing I learned from this book was that the ’68 styling originally was going to be a fastback—that the “sugar scoop roof” came later in development.
One tiny fact left out of the ’68 L88 discussion is the big hump hood. Ludvigsen says it had an air cleaner mounted in the underside of the hood but I remember seeing many Mako Shark-inspired Corvettes with a hood hump open at the back, about 2” tall, and though he shows a ZL1 with that same hood, he never says if that was a factory option.
I suspect some fiberglass guy at the time saw it on the ZL1 and quickly made it available.
Ludvigsen also goes deep into the reasons why the mid-engined Corvettes never got to production, mostly because tooling up for a manual shift transaxle was just too expensive and not everyone would buy it with an automatic. Though he paints DeLorean as somewhat of a marketing and engineering genius it is surprising to find out from Ludvigsen that DeLorean who was the one who backed off on pushing a mid-engined design—he just didn’t think the market would be that good for a car that GM couldn’t find enough room enough in to put in a luggage compartment. Of course later on DeLorean left GM (you might say he was edged out) and tried to design a mid-engined car that eventually came out rear-engined). Ludvigsen mentions that DeLorean was exposed to European cars like the Lamborghini Miura, the DeTomaso Mangusta and the ATS, so he shows by mentioning that how provincial GM brass was, that so few of the top execs knew first hand about what the other automakers were building in Europe.
Ludvigsen also discusses a very promising mid-engined Corvette prototype, the Two Rotor Corvette, which was banished from the US when GM killed off their rotary program. He also mentions the Four Rotor Corvette, Duntov’s last significant project.
One really interesting thing in his update of his original book is that, on occasion Ludvigsen has a footnote telling what happened to a particular car such as what it sold for at a modern day auction. This is appreciated, a little like those movie star books where you wonder “Whatever happened to old-so-and-so.”
I hope if there is a new edition that Ludvigsen will circulate the book around to other ex-GM staffers who were there at the time-the ‘50s and ‘60s—and get more material for footnotes. Kind of reminds me of my copy of The Annotated Alice” an edition of Alice in Wonderland that has insightful footnotes explaining what’s really going on for those not familiar with the real people in Edwardian England that were being parodied in the book…
I also like the one line subject headings at the beginning of chapters off to the side, giving you a preview of what’s coming in that chapter.
As a former ad writer for the Corvette (author of th 1970 brochure for instance) I would have appreciated more credit to the way the ad agency was shaping the Corvette’s public perception of the Corvette but then there’s the problem of room in Ludvigsen’s book, and there is already a book entirely devoted to Corvette ads!
CUSTOMS A NO-NO
Now I like custom cars as much as the next guy but I would have saved the space devoted to them for real GM clay model shots instead of running any pictures of George Barris-modified customs. To me, customs are only a passing fancy, whereas I accord much more respect to a prototype built by a design house (such as the Rondine by Pininfarina). Leave the customs to Hot Rod magazine.
For me–a frustrated car designer whose closest reaching out to that profession is design commentary– there can never be enough clay model shots. Each one reveals the automaker’s thinking at the time, why they zigged instead of zagged. With his vast archive, Ludvigsen delivers there, but I of course can never get enough of these shots.
Overall, this book is a magnificent achievement. A book you can sit on your coffee table and enjoy reading many a winter’s night. It took me two days to read it and that’s skimming over some of the less scintillating models (as you get into the late ’70s and early ’80s..)
As I say it’s a well balanced history, equally weighted between design, engineering and year-by-year model year facts. I hope other authors use this tome as a model for histories of other marques, and remember that the pervasiveness of the dreaded internet has been a game changer. You no longer need to list colors available in ’58 for instance, all that arcane trivia can be found in seconds on Google.
What I think readers want to read about is the people whose careers were made with the right decisions or the wrong ones and how we got the car we love…
THE CRITIC: Wallace Wyss is the author of Incredible Barn Finds (Enthusiast Books) which he promises has more than one Corvette in its pages…