The Corvette versus F-88 Battle
Looking at the two cars as proposed in 1954, there is little doubt that the F-88 was sharper-edged and more modern.
Much of the F-88’s features found their way into the 1956 Corvette.
Let’s set the stage a bit further . . . The Corvette started out in 1953 as a curious experiment – that a US manufacturer would decide to build a sports car. To get close to the thinking of 70 years ago, we have to understand that the automotive world back then was quite different from today. Unlike the global nature of the industry today, the US, Europe, and even the far east, were distinct markets, with different needs, economic impacts and viewpoints.
The US market had developed based on vast travel distances, a post WW II resurgent economy and the desire for bigger, more powerful, more luxurious cars. To consider building a spartan and more sporting vehicle went against all that was touted in our society at the time. The decision to go against the grain and build a car of this nature was not only monumental, but very, very risky.
In the early 50s, GM, and Chevrolet in particular, was the winner, by far, in total vehicle production – vehicles built to meet the acceptance of the American buying public. The Corporation’s reputation stood as the leader in innovation, styling, and anticipation of the marketplace direction. A flub in the introduction of a new model could have Ford and Chrysler snapping up market share and exposing GM’s weaknesses.
It’s almost inconceivable that GM would step into a fledgling market such as sports cars, where no one knew where it would or could go from an acceptance and sales point of view. While we now understand that market, there was no information available at the time to gauge product or its success. Frankly, the Corvette was a huge gamble on GM’s and Chevrolet’s part.
Let’s step back to 1951 where the idea for a sports car at GM gestated. Harley Earl, head of GM’s Styling Section, was a big fan of sports cars and he saw that soldiers returning after World War II were bringing home European versions of these vehicles. He was first to point out that in 1951, Nash Motors had success selling the Nash-Healey sport roadster, made in partnership with the Italian Pininfarina and British auto engineer Donald Healey. But he also noted that the car was quite expensive and out of reach of most US buyers. Earl convinced GM that they needed to build an all-American two-seat sports car to capture what he saw as the next market niche.
But what that market might be was truly a guess. At the time, the idea of where the sports car would go from a design and market acceptance was based upon the Nash-Healy’s acceptance and cars being sold here like the MG and Jaguar. If Chevrolet wanted to enter the market, it had to do so at a price point acceptable to a larger audience than the Nash-Healey and Jaguar, and with the MG being more popular. The MG was spartan, with side curtains instead of windows, a heater was optional, and a radio was a dealer installed option. No power anything, and just seats a dash and some spritely (not quick) performance. Thus, if the target was to make a better MG, it seemed to GM that this was an easy mark to hit.
Harley received approval for a working concept and his Special Projects crew began working on the new car in late 1951. Rather than being allowed to create a completely new car, he was required to use existing components, and so the car took shape on a shortened Chevrolet chassis, with mostly Chevy running gear. The body was to be fiberglass, then in vogue for low-volume cars of this type. Earl also hoped that weight could be saved and that running body changes could be easily incorporated using this method.
By the time the car was taking shape, a few things happened that made Harley take a longer look at the project. The first was that Americans were moving away from no-frills cars, and this included sports cars. Second, the V-8 was the horsepower king, and it didn’t take a genius to see that a relatively heavy US car was going to need some big-time power under the hood to be even a moderate performer.
Harley’s second thoughts on the Corvette’s direction caused him to ask the other divisions, Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile to submit their own proposals. They were lent a few of the proposed shorty Chevrolet chassis and samples of the proposed general body layout – but only Oldsmobile took the gambit seriously.
Click on the images to see more detail –
In the years 1951-54 Oldsmobile was the performance division, competing in NASCAR and USAC circle track with good success. It was a no-brainer that Olds would develop not just a sporty car like the MG, but build one to take on Jaguar, at that point the hottest selling performance sports car. Olds went much further than just sticking a 303 CID Olds V-8 in the Chevy chassis – Olds went revolutionary – roll up electric windows, leather bucket seats, electric folding hideaway top, console with shifter managing the hot 4-speed Hydra-Matic in regular or manual shifting modes. The dash was what we now call “center stack” allowing right- or left-hand drive, and the tachometer and speedometer were large and easily readable. And the engine – it was the new 324 CID Olds V-8 making 270 HP with two 4-barrel carbs! Where the Corvette was spartan and more like a MG, the Olds, now called “F-88”, was like a Ferrari.
As the Olds F-88 took shape, in early 1953, Harley started to see two markets with the Chevrolet version as the “entry” sports car and the F-88 as the step-up version. This lined up with the guiding principles of then GM President Alfred P. Sloan. While still a bit unsure, Harley began to recognize that the Olds version was the future, and that the Corvette would not satisfy the US consumers’ taste in automobiles.
When introduced, in 1953, there was an appreciative audience for the Corvette, but the audience didn’t get to drive it. it seemed to have promise, but by its third year, it looked like a dud. Total production for those three years was 4,640 – and in ’55 it was a paltry 700 cars. Worse, when the competition arrived in the form of the Ford Thunderbird in the Corvette’s third year of production, the Thunderbird sold 16,155 units. With Corvette’s sales at 4% of that Thunderbird, it looked like curtains for the Chevrolet’s Corvette.
GM had a quandary: do we dump the Corvette entirely, do we follow Ford’s lead and make it a sports tourer – not a sports car – or do we go all in – and make it 90% racer and move away from the space Thunderbird occupied? Already the space for the F-88 had been cleared, without many of GM brass even knowing it. Whether there would be a 1956 or 1957 Corvette was in serious question – or would the Oldsmobile entry be put into motion and go head-to-head with Thunderbird? This was was being debated even as the 1956 Corvette was going to be announced.
Meanwhile, back at Oldsmobile, four cars were produced: one for the pending GM Motorama road show, one for further evaluation and modification, and two for road testing. The two F-88 “mules” logged 20,000 miles of road testing and were even lent to Olds engineers for personal use.
And the battle began – Harley campaigning for the F-88 as the major offering and Chevrolet claiming that Corvette could be saved “with a few upgrades”. Harley argued that even with the upgrades, it would be a very tight niche market car – perhaps prestigious for Chevrolet, who would be touting their new V-8, but not a market leader.
While the argument raged, Olds displayed their F-88 at auto shows and the Motorama in 1954, even offering option and color sheets. Over 500 orders were supposedly taken (that documentation has gone missing) and demands for test drives outpaced the orders. It looked like the F-88 would be the opponent of the Thunderbird and the Corvette would be a tight niche car – if at all.
Harley never wanted the Corvette to die, but his campaign gave that impression. At this time GM management was already moving away from “car guys” to “financial guys”, and now the battle became one of cost vs. benefit, not market penetration. The financial guys had trouble discerning how the two cars fit in the sales spectrum. Their thought was “This is a niche car, why should we put so much emphasis on it?”. And the new production facilities in Bowling Green, KY, would be required to produce both cars, clogging the supply chain. With the upgrades projected for Corvette, the financial people decided that there would be no reason for two “identical” cars to be produced, and since the production facility was Chevrolet’s, waved off the F-88.
But not so fast. Harley, frustrated, asked Olds to prepare a car for Daytona Speed weeks in Jan 1955. He wanted to prove that if it was performance you wanted, then it should be Olds who made the car. Remember, in 1955, the Chevy V-8 was in its infancy and considered “perky”, but not overwhelming. Olds and Harley’s design team modified one of the F-88 mules – opening the fender wells for more air flow and better braking and installing a 400+ HP 324 CID supercharged Olds V-8. Before the car could be sent to Florida, GM brass stopped the attempt.
The decision had been made, the F-88 would not be built, and Chevrolet promised the new Corvette would go head to head in sales with the T-bird. We all know how that turned out – and but for Henry Ford’s decree that the 2-seat T-bird would only be a three-year car, who knows what would have happened beyond 1957.
Harley did not give up. Once Thunderbird ceded the 2-seat field to Corvette, Harley again asked that GM consider attacking the “personal car” vacuum with the F-88. He had one car, his personal driver, redesigned in 1957-58 and redone again in 1959, aimed at the former T-Bird’s niche. GM would not bite. (BTW, the 1963 Riviera was designed and proposed by Harley back in 1958-59 as an answer to the new 4-seat T-Bird, but there were no takers until Buick brought it out in 1963).
Frustrated, Harley drove the F-88 as his personal car and continued to park it in the executive parking lot next to GM brass. He was ceded the car when he retired from GM Design in ’59. Surprisingly, when he received the modified 1963 Corvette as a present, the deal was that he turn in the F-88. Subsequently, the car was crushed by GM management – a statement, we feel.
Luckily, Harley had anticipated that this might happen in 1956, and had the evaluation car disassembled, packed, and sent to his friend E.L. Cord, of the Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg fame. The idea was that EL would produce the car if GM cancelled it. EL feared GM legal action, so the car remained unassembled until his heirs put it back together. Later, the F-88 was sold to John and Maureen Hendricks for over three million dollars. Today it is on display in its own showroom at the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum, and will soon be auctioned off again.
Had Harley won the argument, we would have had the F-88 produced alongside the Corvette – and who knows what would have happened to the personal car market. Judging from the F-88’s specs, we think GM and the Oldsmobile F-88 would have won the T-bird/Corvette battle and we would have had another icon to talk about today.