During World War II, American GIs could be found all over Europe speeding down country roads in small, powerful, and agile cars that were not available back home: MGs, Allards, Austin Healys, and Triumphs. But it was not just average grunts who were enjoying these cars. Air Force General Curtis LeMay fell in love with sports cars during his time overseas, and after he helped defeat Hitler, he brought an Allard J2 back to the States. By the late 1940s, LeMay was in charge of the Strategic Air Command—the first line of defense against the looming Soviet threat—and encouraged his airmen to race cars on the bases he was stationed at in order to keep their senses, reflexes, and instincts sharp, since they were basically driving a road version of their bombers and fighters.
LeMay knew that America’s new superpower status meant it needed a sports car that could rival anything coming out of the Old World. He encouraged legendary auto designer Harley Earl to come up with what became America’s sensational sports car—the Chevrolet Corvette. Named after the highly maneuverable, powerful, and crafty military ship that gained fame in the war, helping to save Europe from fascism, this new car embodied the new post-war jet age with tail fins, bullet headlights, and wraparound windshield. Chevy capitalized on military imagery in their advertising. One ad claimed that Corvettes, come upon you “like a Stuka,” and another ad said the new V8 performs like a V2 rocket or missile (appropriate for the Cold War and the burgeoning space race). Other ads compared Corvette to Europe’s best sports cars—often goading Italy’s Ferrari, Germany’s Mercedes and Porsche, and England’s MGs and Jaguars—in essence “doing America proud” with a sports car that matched its ascendency in the post-war world.
This was also the era of the Space Race—a hotly contested theater in a now interstellar Cold War. Astronauts were courageous, daring, and talented men who lived life on the very edge. They needed machines that were speedy, responsive, and powerful to survive in the great unknown. What better car than the Corvette to serve these modern-day heroes and mimic the vehicles they took to space. They often raced at Cape Canaveral, pushing their bodies to the limit in preparation for launch. Indeed, from the Mercury missions on, the Corvette was the official car of astronauts. The Apollo 12 crew was so enamored that they each had matching gold ’69 Corvettes with black trim, and their mission roles written on the doors. The space imagery even carried over to the advertising for 1969, which touted its high performance and removable T-top with the catchphrase, “10 Seconds to Lift Off.”
Indeed, from the country roads of England in the waning days of World War II to the airstrips of the Strategic Air Command to the Final Frontier, the Corvette was not just a reflection of the Cold War era, but an active participant in the culture of the Cold War.
Join us for Winterthur After Hours, Friday, May 26, where you can see vintage Corvettes and hear Thomas give a brief talk on Corvettes and the Cold War. In addition, Thomas will give a full lecture on the topic on Saturday, May 27, during Historic Autos and on July 6. Winterthur.org/afterhours
Post by Thomas Guiler, Manager and Instructor, Academic Programs
Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library
Jeremy R. Kinney, “Racing on Runways: The Strategic Air Command and Sports Car Racing in the 1950s,” Icon 19, Special Issue Playing with Technology: Sports and Leisure (2013)
Jerry W. Passon, The Corvette in Literature and Culture: Symbolic Dimensions of America’s Sports Car (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011)
Karl Ludvigsen, Corvette: America’s Star-Spangled Sports Car, The Complete History (Cambridge, MA: Bentley Books, 2014)
Automobile Quarterly, Corvette: Thirty Years of Great Advertising (Princeton: Princeton Publishing, 1983)
Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance (Minneapolis, MN: Motorbooks, 2015)
Randy Leffingwell, Legendary Corvettes (Minneapolis, MN: Motorbooks, 2010)