After World War II, a new automotive phenomenon began taking shape in the United States – Americans became fascinated with sports cars and sports car racing. At General Motors, Harley Earl created a new sports car unlike anything done before made of an entirely new material. But Earl knew if it could not be manufactured, it did not matter how good the design was. So when his top secret Corvette sports car was an enormous hit at the 1953 Motorama, General Motors discovered it had a production tiger by the tail.
In the early 1950s,the vibrant new sports car market erupted in the United States in no small part because World War II had ended and throngs of still enlisted servicemen suddenly found themselves with time on their hands. One commander, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, was not the kind of leader to see his people stand idle. He was a man of action. After starting his flying career as a pursuit pilot, his many accomplishments included coordinating the Berlin airlift, commanding the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957, and in 1951 at 41 years old becoming the youngest four star general in American history since Ulysses S. Grant. By the way, LeMay also loved fast cars and competition!
One of the ways General LeMay kept his people busy was by encouraging sports car clubs and racing on Air Force bases. To compete in these races his airmen bought and drove the cars they had been exposed to in Europe including Jaguars, MGs, Ferraris, Maseratis, Porsches, and many others. LeMay himself joined in the fast car fun by having a Jeep built with a high powered Cadillac engine for his personal enjoyment on and off the base. LeMay also happened to be a good friend of Harley Earl, General Motors’ head of design. Wanting a car to represent America in these races, he asked Earl “Why don’t you make the American sports car?” The seed was planted.
As the servicemen were discharged and went home, the sports car craze blossomed all across the USA. Demand for fast, agile cars exploded, but Europe was the only place they were being manufactured. Ever creative, American designers had been developing and building dream cars featuring advanced designs and ground-breaking materials, but had not had the opportunity to apply these innovations to a mass-produced car. Now there was a new market for special vehicles, and the designers would soon get their chance.
In September of 1951, Earl showed one of these dream cars, the LeSabre, at the sports car races at Watkins Glen, New York. The racers were not much impressed by Earl’s creation, but Earl was very impressed by the sports cars he saw and all of the excitement surrounding them. With typical understatement, he later admitted “I went to a sports car race at Watkins Glen. That’s where I got the idea for the Corvette.” Late in 1951 he got serious about the idea, and began to take action.
In order for a ground breaking production car design to be created, Earl knew the project would have to be hidden from the fiscally conservative top GM management to avoid cancellation. In short order he set up a secret design studio and assigned staff to the project on a top secret basis. The design was to be cutting edge. Because rockets were the most advanced technology of the time, rockets were the rage with the general public. Why, people were even dreaming of travelling in rockets to visit other planets! Earl decided rocket inspired design elements were to be included in the sleek new car.
Also, Earl wanted to produce it using materials that would give his designers more freedom to express their forward looking ideas. Fiberglass, invented in 1932, was first used to build a car – the Stout Scarab Experimental – in 1946. Harley Earl had used the new material fiberglass to build several show cars, so he decided it would also be used for this pioneering vehicle. Fiberglass would free up many design possibilities that could not be realized in steel. The resulting car, the Chevrolet Corvette, shook General Motors and the entire auto industry.
Everyone who saw the Corvette was stunned. Chuck Jordan, later to become the VP of Design, sneaked into the secret studio one night and said “I…absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes! I just about fell over!” Ed Cole, Chief Engineer for Chevrolet, saw the final plaster model in May of 1952 and couldn’t contain himself – he literally jumped up and down with excitement. When the final mockup was presented to top executives that June, they quickly decided to show the car at GM’s Motorama in January 1953. The Corvette was presented to the public, and it knocked their socks off! Based on the general public’s overwhelmingly positive reaction, GM President Harlow Curtis announced that the Corvette would be produced in fiberglass and sold starting that June! Initial production would begin with just 300 cars during the first year to be used for promotion purposes. Harley Earl had his beautiful design and approval to proceed, but could it be mass produced? And brought into production with a new material and all-new manufacturing processes in less than 6 months? It seemed impossible! Who could tame this tiger?
Although GM’s Plastics Department had been experimenting with the material for several years, GM just did not have enough experience to commit to building the initial 300 car run of the Corvette. They looked at hand laid fiberglass and as well as using molds with vacuum bags to form the material, but they instead chose a third process using a male/female molding technique called the “matched metal-die” method. This process could deliver the high surface quality they needed for painting. The GM engineers found an excellent candidate using this process – the Molded Fiber Glass Company (MFG) in Ashtabula, Ohio run by Robert S. Morrison. It was Bob Morrison who made mass production of the fiberglass Corvette all happen.
Bob Morrison was a doer; an achiever. Born and raised in Ashtabula, Ohio, Morrison began his business career running a car dealership but he was always on the lookout for opportunities. When a company who bought a fleet of trucks from him went bankrupt, Morrison forgave the debt in exchange for ownership of the company’s manufacturing plant. Morrison was a visionary and began developing manufacturing processes for the new wonder material fiberglass. By 1952 his company was the largest producer of molded fiberglass parts in America. But even though his company was the largest, GM still considered it too tiny to produce their quotas for the Corvette. This was because after the first 300 Corvettes were built, GM had decided to do a second year’s production of 12,000 cars!
Morrison liked to win, and was incredibly focused on his businesses. He liked to play golf, but had a nine hole course constructed in his back yard so that he didn’t have to waste time waiting to play at the country club. When he and his employees traveled for business, they always took their lunches so they didn’t have to wait to be served in a restaurant. He had the ability to pick up a conversation days later at exactly the point where the conversation had previously ended. He got things done, and would not take “no” for an answer. Morrison’s focus and ability was exactly what was required to convince the GM hierarchy that his company could do what he said it could.
GM had decided that only MFG Co. had the know-how to build the parts in fiberglass, but Morrison had to go through the bidding process anyway. He had already begun negotiations to buy a larger factory building, buy bigger equipment, and line up subcontractors to meet the larger volumes now required by GM. He ran out of space for additional engineers and wound up creating an engineering office in the basement of his home after removing the family’s model train set! He imposed his personal drive on his suppliers, too. Early in the process of setting up his business relationship with GM, he drove all night to Detroit for a meeting and on the way visited one supplier to discuss details – at 2:00 AM. He then continued at 4:00AM to attend a meeting with GM at 8:00AM after a quick shower and a shave. It was looking good. GM committed to building the Corvette out of fiberglass with MFG. Yet Morrison’s determination would be put to the test as never before.
On a follow up visit in the bidding process, he discovered that GM had reversed itself and had decided to build the Corvette in steel! They were still not quite convinced that MFG Co. could produce the car parts in high volumes. In fact, on the day of his visit, all of the purchasing people he was to meet were out visiting steel body panel suppliers! By a stroke of luck, he ran into Purchasing Director Elmer Gormesen on the elevator. Morrison spent several hours in Gormesen’s office on the phone confirming arrangements then and there to buy the bigger factory and equipment for his factory’s expansion. He also committed to giving up all of his other business interests to devote his time exclusively to bringing the Corvette into production. Suitably impressed, Gormesen offered to present his proposal to GM’s executive management that afternoon. Morrison drove back to Ashtabula exhausted but knowing he had done everything he could to win the business.
When he arrived back home at 1:30 AM, Mrs. Morrison informed him that he was to call Gormesen as soon as he got in, no matter what time it was. When he dialed the phone he knew everything was on the line. We can only imagine his excitement when Gormesen informed him that his proposal was accepted, and he had been selected to produce the Corvette in fiberglass! But for that chance meeting in Detroit he would have been out, and the Corvette would be a much more conventional car – built with steel.
MFG Company has continuously produced fiberglass composite parts for the Corvette since the very beginning. And what a beginning it was. Industrial processes were developed and parts were designed by MFG and GM engineers working side by side in the Morrison family’s basement on drawing boards and a ping pong table. Their motto was “We work Saturdays!” These heroic efforts resulted in the Corvette being brought into production in a little more than 6 months. Morrison had done the impossible – he had tamed the tiger!
This devotion to supporting his customer made Morrison and MFG Co. indispensable to the continuing success of Corvette throughout its history. In 2003, Robert Morrison was posthumously inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame. Robert Morrison also had a long history of civic leadership and commitment to his city and its people. In fact, the Robert S. Morrison Foundation carries on this work today. Its Mission Statement includes the goal: “to improve the lives of the people in the Ashtabula area.”