By Tom Benford
The year was 1951 and Harley Earl, head of styling at General Motors, was impressed by the level of sports car competition he witnessed at a rally in Watkins Glen, NY. Sports cars were quite popular with returning GIs after World War II who had gotten acquainted with the low, nimble and fast two-seaters during their tours of duty in Europe. Earl was determined to create a new breed of American car that could compare favorably with Europe's Jaguars, MGs, Alfa Romeos and Ferraris. His goal was to have a stylish two-seat convertible design ready for the company's January, 1953 Motorama Exhibit at the prestigious Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. These Motoramas were show events that GM ran from 1949 through 1961. Open to the public, they were used to showcase new models and styling ideas, and they visited major cities around the country.
The EX-122 made its debut at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January, 1953, on a rotating turntable. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
There was a general feeling of optimism throughout the country with the American victory of World War II still fresh in everyone's mind. The United States was the best place in the world to live and life here was good. Baseball, mom's apple pie, a strong work ethic and a "can do" attitude prevailed. Americans were looking forward to new and better products, including automobiles, now that rationing and the war effort was behind them. Folks were ready to see exciting styling, things that would bring smiles to their faces. Harley Earl was already working on a car that would make hearts thump, pulses quicken and produce ear-to-ear grins.
The prototype roadster was secretly developed in Earl's private studio at GM under the code name "Project Opel". Inside GM the prototype vehicle received the official designation of EX-122, which denoted its Experimental vehicle status, and that was the serial number assigned to the car. Earl, however, wanted to have a name for the car that was catchier than EX-122. His preferences were for a name that began with "C", since it was going to be showcased as part of the Chevrolet lineup at the General Motors Motorama exhibit. But he was adamant that he didn't want it to be the name of an animal. Myron Scott, a photographer for GM's advertising agency, came up with the name "Corvette", which described a small, fast and maneuverable warship that frequently functioned as a destroyer escort during the war. Corvette was the moniker that stuck.
Throngs gathered around with excitement as Chevrolet's new two-seater sports car quickened pulses — it was unlike anything they had ever seen before. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
EX-122 - the Corvette "dream car" — was an immediate hit at the show and GM management gave its blessing along with the green light to start manufacturing the car at Chevrolet's Flint, MI plant. A scant 6 months later, on June 30, 1953, the first production Corvette rolled off the assembly line with a sticker price just over $3,000. The hand-assembled car had a molded fiberglass body and was powered by a modified version of Chevrolet's straight six-cylinder engine that had been used since 1941. Rechristened as the "Blue Flame Special", the engine generated 150hp and was coupled to a high-capacity two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission with floor-mounted shifter. Many of the car's other basic components were standard, off-the-shelf items from Chevrolet's inventory. And, you could get one of these spiffy new Corvettes in any color you wanted, as long as it was Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior — just like the EX-122 Motorama show car.
The production 1953 Corvettes were direct copies of the EX-122 Motorama car, with very few changes. The most notable exterior change was the position of the spear hash on the Corvette's front fender. On the EX-122 prototype the spear hash pointed downward, whereas it pointed upward on the production cars. Also, on EX-122 the spear itself started slightly behind the rear of the front fender well and ended well ahead of the door's leading edge; the script Chevrolet emblem was positioned below the spear. On the production cars, the spear began right at the rear edge of the front fender well and continued all the way to the front edge of the rear fender well. Also, the Chevrolet script on the production cars was positioned above the spear. The EX-122 also had external door locks, whereas the production cars had none.
As the 1953 Motorama made its stops at major cities, publicity and advertising photos were taken of the Corvette prototype along the way. Hoping to appeal to potential upscale buyers, photographing the car on a golf course was a natural choice. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
After Corvette production started in late June of 1953 in the Flint, MI plant, EX-122 was sent back to Detroit where it sat in the lobby of GM's design center for several months. Engineering then took custody of the car and used it as a test "mule" for the new 265cid V-8 engine. There are rumors that EX-122 was again shown at the 1955 Motoramas sporting its 265cid V-8, but this has not been confirmed. It is a fact, however, that EX-122 was used as a Chevrolet courtesy car for about 5,000 miles and then put up for sale. Russell Sanders, who was then in charge of the Experimental Division, purchased it on April 11, 1956 for an unknown price (there is some speculation, again unconfirmed, that it may have been the princely sum of $1.00).
Since the car had a Powerglide automatic transmission, appealing to the ladies was also a big part of the promotional strategy. The petite two-seater would make a perfect "second" car for the missus. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
The car was used extensively by Sanders' family for several years until Sanders sold the car to Jack Ingle for $1,000 on October 10, 1959.
The car stayed in Ingle's possession for many years and it was shown at Bloomington, Meadow Brook Hall and other high-profile shows. Ingle passed away in 2001.
The history of EX-122 was well documented in a letter that Russell Sanders sent to Jack Ingle shortly after Ingle purchased the car from him in October of 1959. Here's the verbatim text of the letter:
December 8, 1959
Mr. John W. Ingle
21 Creekside Lane
Rochester 18, New York
This letter will give you the information you desire concerning the red Corvette you purchased from me around the middle of October, 1959. This little car has quite a history and is certainly worth recording, particularly if you intend to keep the car for a considerable period of time.
It was built up originally in the Experimental Department of Chevrolet Engineering in Detroit around the latter part of 1952. Although all the pieces were made by hand at that time, they represented the intent of production drawings being released. It was extremely difficult to say how many thousands of dollars were spent in producing the vehicle. I would guess in the neighborhood of $55,000 or $60,000. Of course, you realize that most of this was spent to pay the very high skilled labor and technicians that swarmed over these parts during their inception and manufacture. When completed, it was white and equipped with a 6-cyinder Chevrolet engine with three Carter side-draft carburetors and a special high capacity Powerglide transmission. Workmanship and quality, of course, were the best possible at Chevrolet Engineering because it was to be used in the Motorama at the Waldorf in New York as a showpiece of the new 1953 model Chevrolet Corvette. This was in December, 1952.
It was carried, babied and handled very carefully through the various automobile shows in the United States and then it stood in the lobby of the General Motors Building for a considerable period of time where it is needless to say that it drew a great deal of interest and comment. As the 1953 model became more common because it was being produced in regular production manner, the Corvette was taken back to the Engineering Department and used as a test car.
About that time the new Chevrolet V-8 engine 265 cu. in. capacity was being developed by Engineering, and it was a natural move to see how this engine would perform in a Corvette in place of the 235 cu. in. valve in head 6-cylinder engine. The car became a plaything for the Engineering Department. The 6-cylinder engine was removed and an 8-cylinder engine installed, and it was used for various performance demonstrations. it gave such a good account of itself that immediately it was decided to abandon the 6-cylinder engine in regular Chevrolet Corvette production and supplement it with the new 8-cylinder as standard equipment.
The natural question was with this added power, what happens to the durability of the automobile? So the car was taken to the Proving Ground where it was run on a 25,000 mile durability test and then it was completely torn down and each part inspected and reports made for production reasons. After being displayed in this manner for several weeks, there was no further need for the vehicle, and it was reassembled using new production pieces wherever the experimental parts showed wear. I was in charge of the Experimental Department at that time and saw to it that the car was rebuilt in the very best of condition. It was repainted red, a new top and new seats installed, a new speedometer installed, transmission was completely overhauled, safety items were replaced and a new set of tires put on. It was used as a courtesy car for about 5,000 miles and then put up for sale. I purchased the car from Chevrolet on April 11, 1956. We were never able to put a production serial number on the car and this gave me considerable difficulty in getting it properly licensed both in the states of Michigan and New York. As you know, the serial number is EX-122, which denotes an experimentally built automobile.
I am enclosing the 1957 Michigan certificate of registration which may be of interest to you with your papers on this automobile. I cannot locate the certificates for previous years. The car was used considerably by various members of my family, particularly my wife and daughter. While my daughter attended the University of Rochester here, she was known as the girl with the little red sports car. She is now attending Michigan State University at East Lansing where she is not permitted to have an automobile, and therefore, the car was put up for sale. Our family misses the Corvette very much, however, I think we will probably buy another one in the future when my daughter returns from school.
I hope you will find this information interesting as much as we have. If there is any other information you need, I will be very happy to give it to you, if it is available.
I hope that I have not given the impression that this is the first Corvette ever built because that is not so. It is the first Corvette built for show. There were other test cars built for test that were far from good looking, in fact, they looked nothing like the Corvette at all, having some hand made bodies in place of the smooth plastic body which was finally released for production. The styling Department made up a mock-up model of the complete styling proposal which appeared to be the same as this car, however, it was of dummy construction and the body was made of clay. It was from this clay model that styling was finally approved, and this car was then built.
R. F. Sanders
So what ever happened to EX-122, the Motorama show Corvette, after Jack Ingle passed away? To Corvette aficionados, the EX-122 is like the Holy Grail; it's the one that started it all, and because of that fact it holds a very important place in automotive history in general and Corvette history in particular. George Kerbeck and his two brothers, Frank and Charles, of Kerbeck Chevrolet in Atlantic City, NJ, the world's largest Corvette dealer for the last 15 years consecutively, acquired EX-122 in July of 2002 from the Ingle estate and it underwent a meticulous restoration to make it as pristine as it was on the stage of the Waldorf more than a half-century ago.
The little car certainly earned its keep at the center of photo shoots with all sorts of exotic backdrops. Having a tall woman standing next to the sporty roadster emphasized how low and sleek it was. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
Like just about anything else of historic significance that doesn't have a living eye witness to verify its authenticity, EX-122 has its doubters, too. The doubters claim there is some basis for this, however. For example, they cite the original Motorama car was equipped with the Blue Flame Special 6-cylinder engine; the car now in Kerbeck's possession has a 265cid V-8 power plant under its hood, just as it did when Kerbeck purchased the car. The car Kerbeck purchased also had the long production spear hash facing upward, no outside door buttons, non-hinged headlight guards and it was red in color. The Motorama car had a short spear hash pointing downward, it had external door locks, its headlight grilles were hinged and it was Polo White in color. Kerbeck restored the car to reflect the Motorama appearance, but he kept the V-8 engine. I asked George Kerbeck why he didn't revert back to the Blue Flame Special, and he answered that they had given thought to putting the six-banger back in the car and displaying the V-8 on a stand with appropriate signage and they also considered keeping the V-8 in it and displaying a Blue Flame Special on a stand, but the final decision, at least as of this writing, was that the car left GM with the V-8 in it, so that's how it should stay. While not everyone agrees with this point of view, it is Kerbecks car so he can do whatever he wants to with it.
Because of these engine, color and styling changes the little car has undergone some folks are highly skeptical that the car is the real McCoy. A noted Corvette pundit, who asked to remain anonymous, commented, "EX-122 is a lot like the hatchet Washington used to chop down the cherry tree. The handle's been changed three times, the head's been changed twice, but it's still Washington's hatchet."
This could have been the first speeding ticket ever issued to a Corvette, had it not been a staged promotional shot. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
As the author of three books on Corvettes myself, I decided to ask a few colleagues for their views on EX-122. The first person I solicited comments from was Dave McLellan, the Corvette's second chief engineer, now retired.
McLellan said, "Tom, I will tell you what I know. I first heard of the car from John (?) who was restoring it for Russ Sanders. Russ was Chief Engineer of Rochester Products Division when I knew him. As I recall his name appears as a co-author with Zora [Arkus-Duntov, Corvette's first chief engineer] and John Dolza on the SAE paper written on the mechanical fuel injection developed for the Corvette by GM Engineering Staff and RPD. So, Russ had a close connection with the Corvette program and with Duntov.
The body panel molds started with smoothly-finished positive wooden patterns, called "bucks", like this one. The fiberglass and resin was laid over this pattern to produce a negative fiberglass pattern. Repeating the process with the negative pattern resulted in positive fiberglass panels from which the body was assembled. — General Motors Media Archives. Used with permission.
The EX-122, sporting red paint, a 265cid V-8 and the full length spear/hash again got a ride on a turntable when former owner Jack Ingle loaned the car to the National Corvette Museum. Photo courtesy National Corvette Museum.
The EX-122 serial number plate denoting it as an experimental vehicle is mounted on the driver's door jamb, laying credence to the claim that it is, indeed, the real McCoy. Photo courtesy National Corvette Museum.
"I recall John (?) being excited as he disassembled EX-122, finding numerous hand-made model shop parts still carrying the blue layout dye. I vaguely recall he found EX-122 stamped or scribed on some of these parts. So the car was definitely an experimental car used by Chevrolet Engineering.
"I recall seeing the car recently at Carlisle and I'm sure it had its door opening buttons on the outside as did the Motorama show car. —This is a good clue that EX-122 was a preproduction body.
"As I recall the car was finally sold to Russ Sanders with a V8 engine installed. —It had obviously been reused as a test bed for V8 engine development. It was not unusual for engineering to cannibalize a test car they had no intention of selling. Though, selling an experimental car was still possible as there were no government rules or certifications.
Here's another shot of the car while Ingle owned it outside the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green. Photo courtesy National Corvette Museum.
Jack Ingle, the second owner, lived in New York and registered the car with personalized vanity plates. Photo courtesy National Corvette Museum.
Kerbeck exhibited the car at several high-profile shows including the 2002 Meadow Brook Hall Concours d'Elegance while it was still in its 1955 dress. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
"I don't know what the skeptics are saying or what evidence they have uncovered as to any other identity for the car. —You will have to fill me in.
"I don't know how many preproduction cars Chevrolet built. Has Nolan Adams researched this? Did anyone ever ask Zora about the car?"
McLellan's inquiry as to whether anyone had ever asked Zora about the car intrigued me, so Jerry Burton was the next person I spoke with about EX-122. If anyone would know about Zora with respect to EX-122, it would be Burton, since he wrote the biography of Zora Arkus-Duntov. Burton was also the fellow who coined the Chevrolet catch-phrase, "The Heartbeat of America."
Here's the check for $1,000.00 Jack Ingle gave to Russell Sanders to purchase EX-122 on October 10, 1959. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
Ingle campaigned the car while he owned it as well, and it was selected to be in the Bloomington Gold Special Collection in 1985. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
The car was also granted Special Selection X - Motorama Gold Status by Bloomington Gold in 1993. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
While Burton stated that he had never asked Arkus-Duntov about EX-122, he did offer this about the car: "The Motorama Corvette is arguably the most successful concept car of all time. Just two days after it was shown to the press, GM President Harlow Curtice announced the Corvette was going into production. Of course, it went on to become the best-selling sports car in the world. How ironic that a two-seat sports car is now the oldest automotive nameplate in the Chevrolet stable, having outlasted high-volume nameplates like Bel Air, Biscayne, Chevelle, and Caprice. Yet, it was EX-122 that started it all — which makes it a priceless automobile."
Automotive historian Jonathan Stein was next on my list of people to ask about EX-122, and he stated, "I think the EX-122 is important because it is essentially the Corvette barometer. It was used to gauge public response. Had that response been lukewarm or negative, the Corvette wouldn't have happened." And, referring to the fact that the car still has the 1955 V-8 engine in it, he continued, "If everything you've told me about the car is accurate, I wouldn't question that Kerbeck indeed has the Motorama show car — I'd question the way he chose to restore it."
In 1997 the car was selected for the Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame - the highest honor awarded to a Corvette. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
In 2002, under Kerbeck's ownership, the car made an excellent showing at several events. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
It took a red ribbon at Meadow Brook Hall and it has garnered numerous other awards since its restoration back to its 1953 form has been completed. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
Here's what the production 1953 Corvette looked like. Contrast this with the EX-122 photos and you'll see the subtle differences such as the length of the side spear, position of the hash and the exterior door buttons that were all changed on the production cars. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
Noland Adams, noted Corvette historian and author, certainly knows about early Corvettes; his 1953 Corvette is the car used for the model on the commemorative U.S. Postage Stamp. Said Adams of Kerbecks car, "The original car was experimented with. The original frame was kept and a V-8 was installed in it, and a body was installed on it. So it was the original frame, but the engine and body were different, and so everything that went with it was different, too. Kerbeck has taken the most parts that anybody has and he's changed it back to look like what the original car did. So that analogy of saying that the hatchet head was changed twice and the handle changed three times or whatever it was is kind of correct. But, since the car doesn't exist in any other form, I was glad to see him do it. But there are some people who don't like it. But using all the information he could find, Kerbeck made a non-prototype body back into a prototype body as best as he could - he really followed it closely. So I think it's as close as we're going to get and I'm very happy to see it because it represents a special time in Corvette history."
The restored EX-122 on display at Corvettes at Carlisle in 2004. Tom Benford photo.
Here's a shot of EX-122 in the paint booth receiving it's Polo White paint job during the Kerbeck restoration. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
George Kerbeck affixing the Chevrolet script on EX-122 during the restoration. The production 1953 Corvettes had the script over the spear rather than under it. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
EX-122 had hinged headlight grilles, whereas the production cars did not. As with numerous other "one-off" parts, Kerbeck had to have these hand-fabricated from the original blueprints. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
There's no question that Kerbeck has spent an enormous amount of money on the car, not only for its initial purchase, but on the restoration as well. Since many of the original EX-122 parts were one-off prototype components that never saw the light of production, Kerbeck had to have these parts hand-made using the original EX-122 blueprints and photographs. When I spoke with George Kerbeck about the historical significance of the car he commented, "Saying the EX-122 is just another car is like saying the Liberty Bell is just another bell. You can't put a price on it. But it was never about the money anyway. It was about preserving an important piece of American automotive history."
The original Blue Flame Special 6-cylinder engine that EX-122 had in it for the 1953 Motorama was replaced with the 265cid V-8 while the car was being used as a test "mule" by the Experimental Division. The V-8 became standard equipment for the Corvette beginning with the 1955 model year. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
The Sportsman Red interior was standard along with the Polo White exterior color scheme for all 1953 Corvettes, just as it was for the Motorama show car. Tom Benford photo.
The VIN plate in the engine compartment also bears the EX-122 designation as an experimental vehicle. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
EX-122 gets transported in its own custom-made enclosed trailer and makes appearances at all the important Corvette shows throughout the country. The car is really something to see in person, especially if you're into automotive history or a Corvette buff. Photo courtesy of Kerbeck Chevrolet.
My personal thoughts on the authenticity of EX-122 in its current form sitting on the showroom floor of Kerbeck Chevrolet in Atlantic City, NJ can be summed up quite simply: it's still the closest thing we have to the little white sports car that sat on the Waldorf Astoria turntable more than a half century ago. And since no other existing Corvette is laying claim to the title of EX-122, for all intents and purposes I think it's the real deal.
Perhaps Dave McLellan said it best. "EX-122 is probably what it purports to be. Certainly it is one of the earliest cars built, still containing numerous experimental shop built parts and parts that never made it to production (door buttons). Beyond this, the car is shrouded in the fog of history as the guys who made it are long gone."
And so, the mystery remains. But who doesn't love a good mystery, right?
General Motors EX122 Born 1952
Sold to Russell Sanders: April 11th, 1956
Sold to Jack Ingle: October 10th, 1959
Sold to Kerbeck Chevrolet: July 12th, 2002