"Corvette was a little thing that I started" said HJE
The National Corvette Museum promotes, "Harley Earl is the father of the Corvette. The Corvette was his idea pure and simple." With over 60-plus years in the making, the Corvette has grown into a phenomenal brand and has a unique and amazing history all its own.
What we do below is present some new historical documentation (facts from the 50s) on the rise of the Corvette and two of its prime players.
After all, the Corvette has become a shinning success story over the last half-century and provides countless positive examples coming out of America's automotive capital. Since the heritage is such a big winner, it's natural to want to build on the legacy and share newly discovered material. Tom Keating and Harley Earl were two giants behind the rise of the Corvette and were also known in Motordom's heyday for kicking butt when it came to sales leadership and gaining new market share for GM's greatest brand, Chevrolet.
The First All-American Sports Car To Go Into Production
Their names (especially the synergy of Keating and Earl working together) often remains illusive in today's auto world, but their business relationship and playbook tactics are timeless. Key ingredients behind their "heightened cooperation" in business leadership can be duplicated, leveraged and re-spun by auto execs inside Chevrolet and GM today who are naturally taking a stab at being auto-victorious once again. It's not some complicated system either, just a simple means to an end. We spotlight these dynamic leader's techniques knowing first-hand that the process is inspirational, and, the leaders from Detroit's winning auto world past can be reused as role models for auto industry leaders, especially in America, moving forward.
Regardless of what most tried and true Corvette enthusiasts and auto execs have read up to this point on the early years of Corvette, Tom Keating may very well be the second most important hero behind this sports car's creation. Back then, Keating was like many of GM's finest leaders, the strong and silent type. He was softhearted, but hard-nosed when he had to be. For example, prototypical of GM's great leaders back then, Keating never made a habit of tooting his own horn or seeking out a photo op of him with sexy new Chevy product designs (which there were plenty) coming to market. At this time, self aggrandizement by top GM leaders was verboten.
Saying this, and knowing how GM's leaders went on to change going into the 1960s, it is no surprise Keating's name is not well-known in Corvette history these days. In any event, boil down on the facts presented here and you'll see Keating was Harley's right-hand man in Chevrolet. Dated newspaper articles, below, show him being the top champion in Chevrolet nurturing the infant Corvette baby to life during its most tender phase.
Creating new offspring, Keating and Earl collaborated on fostering the rise of brand new different kinds of Corvettes, too. As reported above, there were the sister Corvette cars known as the Motorama's Nomad and Corvair. Earl and Keating are the unsung leaders (the decision makers) who built up the early weaker-performing Corvettes and steered the brand they'd brought to life to quickly become America's first high-performance race car. Other second tier Chevy engineers coming up inside the division, before Keating stepped down in late 1956, were not making important decisions regarding Corvette's future. Fast forward to 1980, and Keating's role had been greatly diminished in the history of Corvette. Why? Because a new corporate culture had risen up in General Motor from 1965 to '79 when the leaders during this period were repeatedly shocked year-after-year by the stats proving a significant new market share direction. Every division of GM, especially the prized one, Chevrolet, were trending lower. So, misinformation on any recent winning history, particularly the coveted Corvette brand, was in short supply. As went the new downward direction of GM (and it was still the largest company of the twentieth century), an all-new bias gained traction: GM's leaders telling corporate history differently to suit their own agendas. It's not like this is some rare event in the world of big business and politics, it happens all the time.
At this time in GM's history, everything "concept" and "experimental car" related, came to life in Earl's GM Styling fortress. Don't take our word for it, there's a trove of historical news articles from the '50s, like the ones shown here, on GM's first modern high performance sports cars (all were hand-built inside GM Styling) that debuted at the Motoramas. As many car historians recognize, these famous new smaller car offerings were often ahead of their time. Although Tom Keating left Chevrolet in '56, he stayed on in GM as a VP who also sat on the company's board of directors. He and Harley introduced engineering and design advancements that went on to define the top selling performance and strength of all Chevrolet cars and trucks moving into the late 1950s and early '60s.
What's Good for Corvette is Good for the American Auto Industry
Of course there were secondary team members, many of which were "new-hires," from both Chevy's engineering world and GM Styling, but let's not forget that this unique time period preceded a 5-year window (1957 to 1962) that produced Mr. Earl's very last designs, that coincide with Chevrolet's market share peaking out at an all-time high of 32 percent in 1962! New historical insight (newspaper stories here support the claim) that these leaders were able to make big behind-the-scenes decisions to get the job done; all the while other rivaling divisions in GM along with leading auto journalists often didn't have a clue what was going on until the product designs were about to be launched. And in the end, maverick leaders like Earl and Keating shared the credit with their up-and-coming subordinates.
After Harley Earl's death in 1969, it became the norm for GM's leaders to strike out this man's "Engineer” title from GM's historic record moving forward. Ultimately, this new corporate vernacular rising up inside GM went on to decisively change and marginalize Mr. Earl’s career milestones and legacy in the history books. From the 1970s all the way into the new century, most historians, media members and the general public just took GM's word for it when it came to telling their company's history correctly. Pigeonholing Harley Earl's name in the history books as being just, "a Designer" or "a Stylist" during this time period has proven to be very harmful to GM and the American auto business. But, we'll save this story for another time.
Going into the mid-1960s, Chevrolet's sales statistics started waning. Did this have to do with the new mantle of leadership inside Chevy and GM? That's for you to decide, but what's critical right now is the current market share of Chevrolet (near 15 percent). More importantly, what direction is it going to head in the future? We believe at this website that providing inspiration behind the greatest leaders of Chevrolet's modern history, like auto execs from the 1950s who were legendary at gaining market share, can only assist this company's current leaders to go out there and, "kick some butt" gaining new market share! Having the right role models is everything. So, in order to reverse the market share curse (of a decade's long downtrend) auto execs might want to rediscover GM's most prolific winning streak, every year from the late 1920s into the early 1960s).
Putting together an action plan which includes drawing a line in the sand declaring, "no more losing market share" is a necessary part of this process. It's imperative for GM's largest brand, hell anyone in the auto business today knows that, "Chevrolet is GM" to start regaining market share. Only great leadership and posting proven positive results can pull something like this off again.
Harley's first logo style, above, shows his American and checkered flag symbol. But GM Legal balked (it was still a couple of decades before it became okay and cool in marketing and advertising to use a U.S. flag). So, Harley Earl took the legal eagle's cautious cue and instead cleverly fused in a metaphorical "red flag" with the same decorative fluer-de-lis design he used on styling his very first car for GM in '27, the Cadillac La Salle. For the most part, Harley's timeless Corvette emblem endured on all the different Chevy Corvette generations leading up to current C-7 model. Having learned many great show-business tactics during his years making autos in California for Hollywood bigwigs, long before having moved to Detroit, this unique car architect not only knew how to create a great brand, but the necessary mystique to stand behind it!