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.