Curbside Classic: 1962 Corvette – The Marilyn Monroe Of Cars (NSFW-USA only)

Seductive, voluptuous, hot, fast, flawed, sexy, modest beginnings, all-American, iconic, hits the big time in 1953, gone forever in the fall of ’62, immortal, unforgettable. The Corvette and Marilyn Monroe entered my life on the very same day in 1960, both unleashing waves of visceral desire that my seven-year old body had never known before. Fifty-some years later, looking at my pictures of this sexy Corvette, I suddenly made the obvious connection: the Corvette and Marilyn both represent that key moment in our personal and collective lives when innocence was lost.

Both were products of modest circumstances. Norma Jean Mortenson came from a dysfunctional blue-collar family in Southern California. The Corvette borrowed its frame, suspension, brakes, engine and Powerglide automatic from a 1953 Chevy sedan. Norma Jean  was probably conceived about the same time as the Corvette’s “Blue Flame” six cylinder engine’s progenitors. The Brunette pre-Marilyn did some modeling before finally scoring some small movie parts. Her future was anything but certain. The 1953 Corvette was a Motorama model before just barely getting the production green light, but received a tepid reception. Chevy almost pulled the plug.

They were both hampered by expedient but damaging early choices: the Corvette’s feeble six and Marilyn’s nude pictures; youthful making-do with their given assets; innocent of their latent potential. As is the American way, they were quickly forgiven for their youthful transgressions. In 1953, Marilyn finally found the right vehicle, as well as a new on-screen persona for success in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her first big hit. And in 1955, the Corvette finally found its ability to seduce gentlemen who prefer V8s, thanks to Chevy’s brilliant new small block. They both now found what it took to entertain their way into the hearts and pants of mid-fifties America.

I was completely innocent of the existence of either of them prior to that fateful day, just one day after our arrival in America. I first laid eyes on the Corvette while on a sightseeing tour of Manhattan. An Ermine White ’57 was tooling down Park Avenue with its top down, alluring and seductive, and for the first time I experienced feelings that a car had never induced before. Up to then, my passion for cars had been strictly platonic.

That very evening, Marilyn gave me an encore of that feeling, with that inimitable seductive look of hers emanating from the pages of a Look magazine. I felt myself being sucked into a vortex of a foreign world I didn’t yet understand, but wanted to, badly. While the rest of my family struggled with the strange surroundings, a foreign language and jet lag, I was already head over heels in love with all things American, thanks to those two. America’s unlimited possibilities grabbed me by the balls I barely knew I had.

The Corvette created its legend thanks to its most obvious assets: sexy looks and a red-hot V8. That engine’s full potential was unleashed by its new performance coach Zora Arkus Duntov and his magic camshaft. In 1957, when the 283 cubic inch (4.7 L) engine was blessed with fuel injection, its 283 horses feeding through a new four-speed transmission and the right rear axle numbers vaulted the fiberglasstic ‘Vette to untouchable performance. Zero to sixty in 5.7 seconds, and the quarter mile in 14.3 seconds at over 90 mph (Road & Track). Unbelievable numbers for a street-able and affordable production car, and it would be a decade and another hundred cubic inches before they were bettered. The Corvette went racing, racking up an impressive record against the exotic semi-production European sports-racing cars. Once the Corvette was given the right parts, it became a credible and world-class competitor.

Marilyn’s assets bloomed thanks to acting coach Paula Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio. They unleashed new levels in her performances, earning her a nomination for a Golden Globe that year for Bus Stop. Once dismissed as lightweights by Hollywood and the racing world, both were now firing on all their cylinders, thanks to the right parts and proper coaching.

Although darlings of the moment, they both couldn’t fully escape their intrinsic limitations. As stylish as the Corvette’s cockpit may have been on the Motorama stands in 1952, when it came to actually living with one daily its ergonomic shortcomings were all too obvious. That delicious big wheel was practically in your face, the instruments were more about looks than being intelligible, and the Corvette’s ride, braking and real-world handling were anything but effortless. Their shortcomings demanded unconditional love and devotion.

Marilyn’s temperament, insecurities and complexities were hardly the stuff of smooth rides and easy handling for the men in her life. Joe DiMaggio lasted a year before the bumps became unbearable; but he never quite got over her either. She got under men’s skin, in both definitions of those words.

Despite the Corvette’s abilities on the track with the right preparation, its primitive roots were impossible to hide, especially compared to the sophisticated Europeans. I ran into a guy who bought himself a new 1962 Corvette on a whim, in order to drive cross country to a waiting job in Los Angeles. He wanted to recreate the Route 66 tv show for himself, and it was an utterly unforgettable experience.

His 327 powered ’62 was faster than stink, but its hard ride, iffy drum brakes, crude handling and other shortcomings just didn’t cut it for the long haul, literally. As soon a he got to LA, he sold it and bought something…foreign, with a supple ride; a Peugeot maybe, but I can’t quite remember. But his eyes lit up as he remembered that wild trip in his plastic fantastic Corvette.

Marilyn moved on to the next hubby, playwright Arthur Miller. Her intense mood swings, fits and exhausting unpredictability didn’t exactly make their long ride together smooth. The Corvette and Marilyn extracted plenty of pain in exchange for their pleasures.

I was innocent of the Corvette’s crude underpinnings when I first fell for it in 1960. But just a few years later I had to face the painful facts as I became more knowledgeable about the actual parts hidden by a sports car’s skirt, especially the complex and supple independent rear suspensions of the Jag and Mercedes. Their disc brakes and OHC engines were more salt in the wound. The ‘Vette’s leaf-spring suspended live rear axle, drum brakes and aging body were hard to ignore, even if its engine was still world class. My eyes began to wander; innocence is so easily lost. By 1962, it was impossible to deny that the Corvette was past its prime.

Bill Mitchell, that master plastic surgeon, gave the Corvette’s drooping buttocks one of the finest lifts ever seen: a delightfully crisp new ass for 1961, borrowed from one of his shark-inspired concepts. It may have distracted the eyes from what was hidden beneath it, but that was the extent of it. Marilyn’s own rear was aging better, even without intervention.

That’s not say everything was hunky-dory with Marilyn, by any stretch. A troubled beginning is hard to shake off, and she was much more intelligent, complex, and idealistic than her cultivated public persona might suggest. She was praised by actors and directors alike for her talents and comic genius. Marilyn was not the blond bimbo she played so perfectly. But she was trapped by her creation and the public’s expectations.

Her last movie, The Misfits, is a true gem, and in it she finally breaks out of her typecast to a considerable degree, and embodies the forces of social change that were just starting to swirl about. Marilyn and the Corvette were now parting ways. Her Misfits co-star, Clarke Gable, also in his last role, embodies the dying era of the rugged cowboy individualist, not unlike the rough and ready C1 Corvette.

Marilyn only barely got through the film’s shooting. Drugs and alcohol didn’t help. A visitor to the set later described Monroe as “mortally injured in some way.” In her last interview, she said prophetically: “What the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, laborers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers … Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I really believe.” Might sound a touch trite today, but that was 1962. Comparisons with cars ultimately only go so far.

The C1 Corvette was nearing the end of its run, but at least it was injected with a burst of final-year energy, in the form of the brilliant new 327 small block. Now the Corvette had the best all-round performance engine in the world, and European exotic car manufacturers were lining up to buy it to power their Iso Grifos, Bizzarinis, and the like. But the original Corvette’s time had run out, and in the fall of 1962 the brilliant new 1963 Sting Ray inherited the ’62 Vette’s tidy tail and the 327 but little else, to finally take its place among the world-class sports cars of the day.

“Marilyn, sensing the end of her run, took another route. About the same time the last C1 Corvette ran off the line in St. Louis, Marilyn checked out for good. Some icons can be replaced; others not.”

[Note: Look familiar? Well, the text rights to the original version of this piece belong to TTAC, but this really ties into Part 2 of the Auto-Biography, so I just had to rewrite it, except for the first and and last sentences which are quotes used under the fair use provision of the copyright laws.  I couldn’t let it go that easily. PN]