Corvette Advertising Evolution throughout the Generationsby Rick Tavel© February 8, 2013 All Rights Reserved
Thanks to the Advertising photo sources: GM - OldCarAdvertising.com – Oldcarandtruckads.com
“A great sports car is not made overnight. It is developed and refined through years of testing and competition until its handling becomes silky smooth, its roadability flawless, its cyclonic power tempered to absolute reliability under the harshest demands.” While the rest of the automobile industry spent time and resources on radical annual styling changes the engineers at Corvette spent time refining the car.
As we look at the Corvette’s marketing and advertising programs during each generation we have a much clearer perspective and a better understanding viewing the programs from the perspective of the major socio-economic factors and trends defining the era. Viewed from this perspective a more accurate depiction and understanding of the advertisement can be garnered.
When the concept of building and offering a two-seater “sports car” was conceived deep inside General Motors the corporation was by far the largest auto manufacturer in the world and was selling more cars than the rest of the American auto manufacturers combined. In fact GM was so dominant they had to be careful not to capture “too much” of the market for fear of being broken up under the anti-trust laws. Nevertheless, the new car designs and concepts already on the drawing boards and being readied for market at the time were poised to capture not only the needs but also the aspirations of America’s modern, post war society, a society radically different than that prior to the war. The changes to our lifestyle was more dramatic than any in our history. Tempered by a devastating world war and the life style changes which it prompted, from the growing ranks of women in the workplace to the more modern technology developed for the war effort now modified for domestic use, from an exposure to the lifestyles and cultures of other countries to the renewed commitment to home and family, the American people were ready to shed the 1940’s lifestyle and hungry to experience what the future promised. The country had begun to transition from rural to urban living during the war, but the urban lifestyle failed to meet the needs of many of the people and families who moved into the urban areas to support the war effort so the exodus to the promised land of the suburbs had begun with the troops returning from overseas.
And by the early 1950’s General Motors was ready to meet the needs of this new society with modern, new products. Not just mere facelifts to existing products but rather completely new designs taking advantage of the latest technology were developed, from appliances to automobiles.
In order to hype the modern designs, GM revived its fleet of Futureliners, customized buses designed by Harley Earl in the 1940’s used in GM's Parade of Progress, which traveled the United States exhibiting new cars and modern technology for consumers. The fleet was temporarily retired until 1953 when the Futureliners were pulled out of mothballs to exhibit the newest technology and innovations GM had engineered for the fifties everything from microwave ovens to robots were exhibited, whetting the public’s appetite for the products being developed. The innovative buses toured the country until 1956 when “TV”, one of the technical innovations displayed in the 1940’s, rendered the buses ineffective. One of the restored Futureliners sold at auction in 2006 for over $4 million.
During the early 1950’s some of the most beautiful, enduring automobile designs were introduced by General Motors. This is not so much a surprise as an expectation since the corporation arguably employed the best designers and engineers in the industry. Harley Earl, the most celebrated, talented American automobile designer penned not only the first concept of the Corvette but hundreds of other revolutionary automotive designs. Not surprisingly in addition to the Corvette, three other of Earl’s most modern and enduringly classic designs were introduced during the same time, the ’53 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, the ’53 Buick Skylark convertible and the ’53 Oldsmobile Fiesta Convertible.
Originally introduced as show cars, these cars were produced and sold to tempt and whet the appetites for other GM products. Due to General Motors’ sales success their corporate coffers were overflowing so finding the funds for the several new car designs on the drawing boards was a strategic move, positioning the company to take advantage of the profitable market ahead. GM recognized the huge opportunity for fresh, modern designs and products to meet the needs of the more affluent post war economy, fueled by upwardly mobile families with the goal of home ownership and all of home ownership’s associated accoutrements.
The years between 1953 and 1955 could have been labeled the birth date of the modern era of the automobile; it was marked with several revolutionary changes in not only design but also engineering that would carry forward and become the foundation of expanded offerings in the future. In 1953 twelve volt electrical systems were offered on several models to handle the expanded optional power accessories like air conditioning, power windows, power seats, and of course, power steering which had become standard on several upscale models. New engine designs were developed, introduced by mid-decade, and several early fifties “motorama” show car features made their first appearance in 1953 production cars. The curved wrap around windshield, the “coke bottle” body styling, and the increased use of chrome, fins and other aeronautic suggestions were initiated in 1953 and made it the pivotal year for car design.
Identifying the dreams and aspirations of the country, tying the car’s persona to that of the country as a whole has been a staple of marketing Chevrolets, especially Corvettes. The epitome of this advertising culminated in the “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” ads of the 1960’s and 70’s, which will be discussed when we look at the marketing of the C2 and C3. But when a 1950’s and early 1960’s Corvette ads are dissected they were no less of a reflection of America’s social and cultural trends focusing on successful lifestyles, whether it be tied to sports, family and leisure activities.For example, though the target market for the new sports car was men, many who had become fascinated with European sports cars during the war, family men who were successful in business, many of the 1953 through 1958 Corvette ads were careful to often include a woman in the ad recognizing the emerging voice of women in the decision making process on all issues. Among other trends marketing research companies, a new tool in the advertising agency’s arsenal, identified the importance of the woman’s (wife’s) input in the buying decision. No longer was the woman’s input confined to domestic issues, no longer was a major purchase the exclusive domain of the male, so advertisers were careful to recognize this partnership and used it in every ad where appropriate. This was not only a technique used by Campbell-Ewald but was used by all of the big three automobile manufacturers.
Not only was incorporating socio-economic trends important in creating the advertising and marketing programs for the new Corvette but accurately defining and reinforcing the car’s image, creating its “persona”, in advertisements was critical. What was this new car going to be? What was it designed to do? What was the target market and who was the target customer? Remember Campbell-Ewald’s description defining the evolution of a Corvette enthusiast, “develops slowly and requires the tempering influence of experience”. This appeared to be the guiding principal in regard to the Corvette’s evolution as well. GM was not too quick to hang a tag on the car even though Harley Earl, Ed Cole and Zora Arkus Duntov may have had their own specific aspirations for the Corvette. GM appeared to be content to allow the Corvette to “settle in” and give the buyers input into what they thought the car should be. This may have been due to the fact that GM wasn’t sure if the “sports car” category would become viable in the United States and how it would shake out.
Keep in mind that very few people in the United States understood the concept of “sports car” and aside from it being a small two seat car what were its other characteristics. Sports cars had been spiritedly navigating European roads for decades but in the early 1950’s few Americans understood exactly what comprised this concept in cars. Few understood that it was more than a scaled down version of the large American automobile with two rather than four seats. Harley Earl penned the car and even though he was considered to be the most accomplished of all American automobile designers aside from the outward appearance of the car little differentiation from other American cars lay under the highly styled “glass-fibre plastic” body. So when the Corvette was first introduced, though it was advertised as a “sports car” the term was nebulous and few people challenged the advertised terminology.
One of the first Corvette advertisements made a less than adequate effort attempting to describe some of the key points defining a sports car but in reality there was very little engineered into the car to back up the words.
Suspension, brakes and power were more suited to a regular production car than a “sports car”. Further illustrating the misunderstanding of the sports car concept was advertising the two speed Powerglide automatic, the only transmission available for the car. Zora Arkus Duntov thoroughly understood what a sports car entailed, especially from a performance perspective, but he did not join GM until 1953 so he had little impact on the performance underpinnings of the new car in its first years. Nevertheless, as soon as he arrived he began his life-long objective of making the Corvette the best performance, sports car in the world. Under his guidance the Corvette’s persona began taking shape as a car built to perform on the road and the track. In early 1954 he wrote a scathing letter describing several ride and suspension problems which needed immediate attention in the car.
Though the advertising gurus tried to market the inadequate 150 HP Blue Flame Six cylinder engine as powerful and performance based, Duntov knew it was completely inadequate in its current form and unable to get the overweight 2900 pound Corvette to the winners circle. He continually pushed for a larger more powerful engine that came to fruition in 1955 with the 265 cubic inch V8. More importantly it resulted in the vaunted fuel injected 283 cubic inch engine that when coupled with fuel injection produced one HP for each cubic inch of displacement in 1957, the engine that would serve as the foundation for GM engines for over a half century.
No one more than Duntov helped define the future for the Corvette as a true sports car. He knew in order to qualify as a true sports car there were several modifications that needed to be made. Not only did the suspension, handling, braking and engine need attention, in order to be considered a true sports car the car had to not only compete on the track against other sports cars it had to win.
But before that could happen the future of the car needed to be assured and it was anything but secure after the poor sales results in 1954. Because the 1953 small production sold out so quickly GM produced 3,640 1954 models which were difficult to sell. It appeared the car was doomed and the Corvette would be discontinued prior to the 1956 model year. After production of only 700 1955 Corvettes production was virtually stopped based on the poor 1954 results. It seemed so assured that the Corvette would be discontinued the sports car was not included in the 1956 Chevrolet model line up advertising.
Though several “official” reasons are given for reviving the doomed car at the last minute, most historians agree that it was Ford’s introduction of the Thunderbird that kept the car alive, GM not being “out done” by its biggest competitor. The Thunderbird was never marketed as a sports car but rather a “personal car” that offered not only performance but all the amenities of the finest luxury cars, including roll up windows, something the Corvette did not offer until 1956. GM realized that there were several changes necessary to keep the Corvette competitive in addition to the performance enhancements that Duntov had lobbied.
Realizing the necessity of competing with the Thunderbird, GM ramped up 1956 production with not only some of the performance changes Duntov had demanded but with several other amenities. The Corvette received a V8 engine with dual four barrel carburetors, roll up windows, external door handles, a transistorized radio and even a hard top was offered as an option. This was the first year for Corvette’s legendary “coves” to appear as a part of the design. As a result of the changes for 1956 the first Corvette “competition” ad appeared and the Corvette was on its way to solidifying its emerging image as a true sports car.
The next year saw the introduction of the legendary 283 cubic inch engine and coupled with fuel injection it was the first production engine to produce one horsepower for each cubic inch of displacement. This engine continued as the foundation for all GM engines for the next half century. The four speed transmission was also offered in 1957 helping to solidify the Corvette’s performance image and enhance both its road and track capabilities. For the balance of the C1 production years aside from improved cooling capabilities with the introduction of the aluminum radiators and improved braking the introduction of the 327 engine in 1962 most of the new engineering and performance enhancements were being designed into Larry Shinoda’s revolutionary design of the 1963 Corvette C2.