By on February 25, 2010

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. My apologies if others have gone down this road before, but when I re-opened these Corvette pictures last night, that’s what came to mind. And I’ve learned to just go with it. Want to come along for the ride? If so, NSFW alert!

They both had modest beginnings. Norma Jean Mortenson was the product of a broken and dysfunctional family in working class Los Angeles. The Corvette sat on a shortened 1953 Chevrolet sedan frame, and shared its suspension, brakes, and Powerglide automatic. Its “Blue Flame” six cylinder engine was an evolution of Chevy’s first six that was probably conceived about the same time as Norma Jean was. The first Corvette sold in small numbers; Norma Jean modeled and eventually found her way into minor roles in obscure movies.

Both faced serious early challenges: an ancient six and nude photos. But Americans are a forgiving folk, and in 1953 Marilyn had her first big hit with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The Corvette lagged Marilyn a few years, but began to find its inner hotness in 1955, thanks to the new Chevy small block V8. One learned to act, the other to fly; both now hit their stride, right into the hearts and pants of mid-fifties America.

The Corvette and Marilyn both entered my life on the very same day: August 29, 1960. We arrived in NYC on the 27th from Austria, and I was a seven year old utterly innocent of the existence of either one of them. But then a relative took us for a tour of Manhattan two days later, and I saw my first Corvette. I wrote about that moment of my Corvette-induced instant automotive assimilation here. And my assimilation into the world of Marilyn occurred that very evening, thanks to a Life or Look magazine sitting on my grandmother’s cousin’s coffee table. I was now doubly and fully assimilated. And I promise not to use that word anymore.

The Corvette is memorable for two things only: its blistering hot V8 and its good looks. By 1957, thanks to its new-found performance coach Zora Arkus Duntov, it come into its full glory. A 283 hp fuel injected 283 cubic inch Mighty Mouse motor combined with the new four speed transmission and the right rear end could tear the fiberglasstic ’57 ‘Vette from zero to sixty in 5.7 seconds, and rip off the quarter mile in in 14.3 seconds at over 90 mph (Road & Track). Those were staggering numbers fifty three years ago, and made it untouchable in its time. It would be some ten years and a hemi head later before they were bettered.  And in 1957, the Corvette began to win trophies in SCCA racing. With the right parts, the Corvette was remade.

Marilyn discovered the Actor’s Studio the same year that the ‘Vette found its V8, and she broke through to new levels in her performances thanks to acting coach Paula Strasberg. Her performance in Bus Stop earned her a nomination for a Golden Globe that year. The Corvette and Marilyn had both been dismissed as lightweights by the sports car racing scene and Hollywood, but now they were showing their true capabilities.

That’s not to suggest that all was perfect with either of them. The Corvette’s cockpit may have been flamboyant and stylish when it was first conceived, but its lack of room for tall guys behind that delicious wheel was problematic, as were its instruments and controls. They might have been the cat’s meow on the Futurama stand in 1953, but by 1962 in the real world they were sorely outdated. It takes love and devotion to put up with the ‘Vettes ergonomic shortcomings. Ask the guys who try taking it for long drives. And Marilyn? Ask Joe DiMaggio what it was like to be married to Marilyn, for less than a year. “A comfortable fit” was probably not how he would describe it.

Although the Corvette was capable of winning races with the right parts and preparation, that’s not to suggest that it was a world class sports car. It’s crude underpinnings were hard to hide, even with that veneer of plastic fantastic. I spoke to a guy recently who bought a new Corvette in 1962, like this one, on a whim. He was heading to California from NY for a new job, and he figured he would treat himself for the drive cross the country. He said it was faster than stink, but he sold it as soon as he arrived in LA; the harsh ride, primitive handling, crappy brakes, and lack of creature comforts just didn’t wear well with him. It was a short, intense, but exhausting fling, and he traded it in on…damn; I can’t remember, but it was something from Europe, and it had a proper suspension, brakes and comfortable seats. Maybe even a Peugeot.

It didn’t take long for Marilyn to find a new hubby, Arthur Miller. Although it lasted longer, Marilyn’s exhausting unpredictability, fits and intense mood swings made their marriage anything but a smooth ride. The Corvette and Marilyn extracted plenty of pain in exchange for their pleasures.

As much as I fell for the Corvette as a seven year old in 1960, by 1962 I was having to confront its increasingly undeniable shortcomings. A cart-axle rear end suspended from a pair of leaf springs was looking mighty primitive compared to the complex IRS rear ends that Mercedes and Jaguar were showing off under their skirts. Never mind their disc brakes and OHC engines. My painful coming to terms with the ‘Vette’s Chevy sedan roots is documented here. Innocence is a fleeting phenomena. And by 1962, only ignorance could deny that the Corvette was long in tooth.

Chevrolet’s (predictable) solution to the Corvette’s rear end issues? A delightful new pointy ass for the 1961 model. But all it did was cover up the aging bones in a new pair of hot shorts. Marilyn’s was aging better.

That’s not say everything was hunky-dory with Marilyn, by any stretch. A troubled beginning is hard to shake off. Her last movie, The Misfits, is a gem,but she only barely got through it. Drugs and alcohol didn’t help. A visitor to the set later described Monroe as “mortally injured in some way.”

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 327 small block. Now the ‘Vette 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 Corvette’s time had run out, and in the fall of 1962 the brilliant new 1963 Sting Ray inherited the C1 ‘Vette’s tidy ass 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.

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32 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1962 Corvette – The Marilyn Monroe Of Cars [NSFW Alert]...”


  • avatar

    Thank you Paul, that was beautiful.

  • avatar
    william442

    That is a great tribute to both icons, but you you missed something. It was the big wedge, 440, that put the Corvettes on the trailer. I, and my L-76 were there.

  • avatar
    mcs

    “the last C1 Corvette ran off the line in Bowling Green” The last C1 was produced in St. Louis. Bowling Green didn’t happen until 81.

  • avatar
    BuzzDog

    Great work, Paul (as usual).

    Yeah, the C1 had pitiful ergonomics, but I’ve actually known collectors who love them for the seating position: They’re the last Corvettes in which the driver could comfortably sit upright, and drive with his or her elbow propped on the beltline.

    This was also the last year for the ‘Vette to be unashamedly offered without factory-installed comforts such as power steering, power brakes and air conditioning (although for some reason power windows were available). To be certain, it’s a “purer” driving experience, and it makes me wonder if we’ll someday see enough buyers who are once again willing to buy such a basic machine.

  • avatar

    Paul, you made the case beautifully.

    But now that I think about it, I get the feeling that had Marilyn lived, she wouldn’t have aged with the grace and innovation of the C2 or today’s C6…I’m thinking she’d have turned into more like a late-70′s C3 or Cross-Fire-era C4.

  • avatar
    gsw0

    Thanks for the memories of 2 great American Icons. This brings to mind my sole experience with a 1963 Vette back in 1995. I was in the Army Reserves at that time and had ridden 100 miles to my unit with a friend of mine who drove. We had just completed 2 weeks of intense training and we were both tired, worn out and in a hurry to get home. My buddy decides to see how fast we can go down I-4 in his late 1970′s Buick, we did hit 95 for a minute or so and backed it down somewhat to 85 when all of a sudden we heard a loud noise. Bam!! Luckily, he was able to maintain control and in a case of perfect timing he jumped off at a exit ramp which just appeared.

    The news was bad and getting worse as this was pre-cell phone days for both of us so we had no phone, we popped the hood and it was smoking and the engine would not crank. To top things off, we exited at the sole exit that had no businesses at the time, it was not a built up area yet. There was no phone in sight anywhere. It was just past dusk and getting darker and we were trying to figure out what our next move was — It was BFE, there was nothing around us so we were debating how far of a walk down I-4 to the next exit was it. 10 Miles, 15 Miles??? Did I mention we were bone tired? All of a sudden we won the lottery. A 63 Corvette Convertible exits the highway and we were yelling, running at it so the driver would stop and talk to us. He did. The Vette was red just like in CC.
    Turns out the older driver was coming from a party in Tampa as we could tell from the alcohol smell. He agreed to give me a ride to his house to phone for AAA. We rode about 10 miles or so and tried to talk above the roar of the engine while I just soaked up the ride and enjoyed as much of it as I could. He pulls up to his house, opens the garage door and another Vette a 64 Blue Hardtop Coupe was sitting in the garage. We come into the house, “honey I’m home we have company” He leaves me in the kitchen and the wife proceeds to tear into him, starts arguing thinking he brought someone home from the party he went to – he then finally tells her “honey he looks just like Joey in his uniform and I could not leave him there” The wife’s attitude did a 180, she comes around the corner and gives me a hug and starts treating me like I was a long -lost son. Their son was active duty army at the time.

    I had a couple of beers, a late snack, after I had called AAA, along with a discussion on both the Vettes and the military. Finally, it was time to go, I snuck a 1 last look at the hardtop 64 and was driven back to my buddy who by this time thought we got lost. I just kept teasing my friend by insisting that I had the owner continue to drive me around the countryside. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity AAA arrives in the form of 2 women who both have shorter hair than we did our car gets hooked up and the 4 of us ride in silence all the way back home. I will always remember the kindness showed to me by a stranger simply because I wore a military uniform. (Ok, so I looked like Joey). And a pair of hot Vettes that looked even better in person than on tv with the Red Vette Rescue.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Wow, wow, wow. No wonder I can’t get the Corvette (any year)out of my head. I know it would be totally impractical for 90% of my life, but I can’t shake the wanting to own one. Even a total basket case for a restoration.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      Every man should own a ‘Vette during his lifetime, however briefly. It will then become the benchmark for comparison for every other car he drives, for the rest of his life….

  • avatar
    ott

    Timeless classics, both. Well done.

  • avatar
    1996MEdition

    What car?

    Warn me about the nudity next time….some of us have day jobs!

  • avatar
    210delray

    I remember it well when Marilyn’s suicide was announced. We were with relatives on a family vacation in New York. It gave me the shudders. I was only a wee lad at the time.

    I love those C1 Corvettes. My favorite is the ’57 Fuelie — super clean lines with sufficient go-power. I also like the last 2 years, where the Sting Ray rear end was previewed and the gaudiness up front had been toned down.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    C1 and Marilyn Monroe, perfect.

    Both highly over-rated, not that impressive to look at (ok, that’s always highly subjective), performance marginal at best. Plain vanilla at it’s most mediocre.

    Give me a T-Bird and any one of a dozen little hotties in any Elvis flick.

    Or a 300SL and Catherine Deneuve.

  • avatar

    I was born 7.5 hrs before the first Corvette rolled off the line.

    I don’t know if you should have had the MM photos with the Corvette. Much as I love the “Vette, all I can see in this CC is Norma Jean. What a beautiful, tragic character she was (but see Porschespeed directly below for valuable context). I’m going to have to come back later to this CC for the Vette.

    The last four sentences: +10

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    @Juniper,

    In period context only. And, honestly, in period context, it’d be a Jag – smoke the ‘Vette or the T’Bird and way better looking – but I was trying to stick with domestic product. I really do like some American cars, but the 50s stuff is generally not my bag.

    I never understood all the fuss about MM. Watched many interviews with her and, well, the word ‘bimbo’ comes to mind. A lot. About the same intellectual prowess as, say, Pam Anderson. Maybe less.

    The looks part of that equation always up to the beholder – if we all wanted the same women, the world be a very nasty place indeed. So, if you dig it, nobody can tell you you’re wrong.

    (But damn, did you see Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour?)

    MM had a tragic story, just like hundreds of other models, actresses, and strippers before and since. Seemed like a basically nice person that got famous and couldn’t deal with the realities of the position – see also: Elvis.

    Tragic? Of course. Unique? Save for doing a Kennedy or two, hardly.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Her looks, and her way of talking in interviews can be deceiving:
      In his autobiography, Movie Stars, Real People and Me, director Logan wrote: “I found Marilyn to be one of the great talents of all time… she struck me as being a much brighter person than I had ever imagined, and I think that was the first time I learned that intelligence and, yes, brilliance have nothing to do with education.
      Laurence Olivier praised Monroe as “a brilliant comedienne, which to me means she is also an extremely skilled actress”.
      Billy Wilder, Director of Some Like It Hot:  Monroe’s “certain indefinable magic” and “absolute genius as a comic actress.”
      Complicated, but not exactly a bimbo.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      There is a light jazz CD, filled with songs from Monroe’s movies, by the David Klein Quartet called “My Marilyn” dedicated, by her musician friend, to her.

      The jacket notes and photos, and quotes, give an insight to MM through a quite different and appealing lense, those that worked with her, respected her, and loved her.

      “… she has remained in our minds and hearts for over 40-years now. In the Misfits, I danced and acted with her. She was a glowing, warm and beautiful woman … tortured somewhat – but her talent (often misunderstood) brought joy to millions … an elegant tribute to a wonderful woman.”
      - Eli Wallach

      “What the world really needs is a real feeling of kinship. Everybody: stars, labourers, Negroes, Jews, Arabs. We are all brothers … Please don’t make me a joke. End the interview with what I really believe.”
      - Marilyn Monroe in her last interview August 1962.

      Paul, thanks for another nice CC and contextual comparison.

      BTW, If anyone could document that JFK also squeezed himself into a Corvette, the symmetry in Paul’s piece would be absolute!

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Truly a classic.Can you issue this one as a wall chart maybe ?

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I can just see Tod and Buzz setting off for another adventure.

  • avatar
    Neb

    I’m trying to figure out who the 1976 corvette is. All show, no go, poorly made, coveted by people in leisure suits…

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    About 20 years ago musclecar review set up a match between a 413 plymouth and a 62 injected vette. The idea behind it was to settle once and for all whether a fuelie vette could take on a 413 mopar, like in the beach boys song “shut down.”
    They made 3 runs, that ugly 413 torqueflite equipped plymouth savoy wiped the floor with the vette on all 3 passes.

  • avatar
    segar925

    Both are very sexy and forever beautiful.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    @Neb: How about Suzanne Sommers?

  • avatar
    ButterflyJack

    How bout Elke Somers??? Now there’s a real sports car!
    dragonfly

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    @Butterfly Jack: Glad you brought up Elke Sommer. You have good taste. Last night I went to a screening of the rarely-seen WWII film “The Victors.” Not only was Elke luscious, but she was also a terrific actress in that one.

  • avatar
    David1

    I took delivery of a new 1962 Corvette in June 1962. A couple weeks later I met the love of my life. The Corvette left in December, as I went back to school and prepared for an upcoming marriage. Looking back … no regrets … great Vette memories.


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