How User-Centric Design Saved the Chevrolet Corvette

On a recent road trip I finally got to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to see the National Corvette Museum. In addition to a boyhood fascination with America’s longest-running production sports car, the adult user experience practitioner in me was intrigued at the iterations the car has gone through. And the implications for product design we might learn from those iterations.

The first model Corvette, known as C1, began production in 1953. Below is a two-tone 1956 model, one of my favorite early examples.

 

As beautiful as it was, the rush to production between the concept car of January 1953 and finished product six months later, created a less-than-sporty sports car.

Enter Zora Anton Duntov, an automotive engineer who happened to attend the January 1953 Motorama car show and fall in love with the prototype Corvette’s exterior, but not its underpinnings. After his letter praising the potential of the car impressed Chevrolet enough to hire this colorful character as an assistant staff engineer, Duntov wrote another letter that may have saved the Corvette from cancellation several years later.

Out of everything I saw at the National Corvette Museum, this letter—typewritten on period Chevrolet stationery and hanging on the wall under glass—was the most fascinating. On pages yellowed with 57 years of time, we see an employee of Chevrolet communicate his observations of the performance car culture of the time, report what he had observed in the field with actual customers in the Corvette demographic, and urge Chevy to design aftermarket performance parts for the diehard car enthusiasts and pull customers from Ford, the undisputed performance car leader at the time. Duntov was doing user experience research before the field as we know it today existed!

The entire memo is well worth reading:

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Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet

The Hot Rod movement and interest in things connected with hop-up and speed is still growing. As an indication: the publications devoted to hot rodding and hop-upping, of which some half-dozen have a very large circulation and are distributed nationally, did not exist some six years ago.

From cover to cover, they are full of Fords. This is not surprising that the majority of hot rodders are eating, sleeping, and dreaming modified Fords. They know Ford parts from stern to stern better than Ford people themselves.

A young man buying a magazine for the first time immediately becomes introduced to Ford. It is reasonable to assume that when hot rodders or hot rod-influenced persons buy transportation, they buy Fords. As they progress in age and income, they graduate from jalopies to second-hand Fords, then to new Fords.

Should we consider that it would be desirable to make these youths Chevrolet-minded? I think that we are in a position to carry out a successful attempt. However, there are many factors against us:

1. Loyalty and experience with Ford.

2. Hop-up industry is geared with Ford.

3. Law of numbers: thousands are and will be working on Fords for active competition.

4. Appearance of Ford’s overhead V-8, now one year ahead of us.

When a superior line of GM V-8s appeared, there where remarkably few attempts to develop these, and none too successful. Also, the appearance of the V-8 Chrysler was met with reluctance even though the success of Ardun-Fords conditioned them to the acceptance of Firepower.

This year is the first one in which isolated Chrysler development met with successes. The Bonneville records are divided between Ardun-Fords and Chryslers.

Like all people, hot rodders are attracted by novelty. However, bitter experience has taught them that new development is costly and long, and therefore they are extremely conservative. From my observation, it takes an advanced hot rodder some three years to stumble toward the successful development of a new design. Overhead Fords will be in this stable between 1956 and 1957.

The slide rule potential of our RPO V-8 engine is extremely high, but to let things run their natural course will put us one year behind – and then not too many hot rodders will pick Chevrolet for development. One factor which can largely overcome this handicap would be the availability of ready-engineered parts for higher output:

If the use of the Chevrolet engine would be made easy and the very first attempts would be crowned with success, the appeal of the new RPO V-8 engine will take hold and not have the stigma of expensiveness like the Cadillac or Chrysler, and a swing to Chevrolet may be anticipated. This means the development of a range of special parts – camshafts, valves, springs, manifolds, pistons, and such – should be made available to the public.

To make good in this field, the RPO parts must pertain not only to the engine but to the chassis components as well. In fact, the use of light alloys and brake development, such as composite drums and discs, are already on the agenda of the Research and Development group.

These thoughts are offered for what they are worth: one man’s thinking aloud on the subject.

Signed,

Zora Arkus-Duntov

December 16, 1953

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How did things work out? The small block V8 engine did become an option on Corvettes in 1955, along with a manual transmission. The car, almost canceled due to poor sales, did start selling well and survive to become the profit center for Chevrolet that it is to this day. All it took was a bright employee who frequently got up from his desk full of engineering drawings and slide rules to go out among the car culture of the day to see what was going on. Being a good writer also helped him.

It’s amazing what knowing one’s customers can lead to.

written by Tim Keirnan, creator of Design Critique: Products for People, https://designcritique.net/

Brian Matt

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Brian Matt

Founder & Chairman