Tirebuyer.com would like to thank the National Corvette Museum for allowing us to publish this article in our blog. The article initially appeared in the April/May/June 2020 issue of America’s Sports Car, the official magazine of the Corvette Museum.
Jaguar Cars Ltd. stunned the automotive world in 1948 with the introduction of the XK120 at the Earls Court Motor Show. It had an incredibly beautiful roadster body, an immensely strong chassis, and a sophisticated and powerful six-cylinder engine. The XK120 caught the eyes of car designers around the world, including the chief designer of the world’s largest automobile company, General Motors’ Harley Earl. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Earl was then in the formative stages of creating America’s most successful sports car, the Corvette.
The Jaguar XK120
Having planned only limited sports car production, the sensational public reaction to the XK120 persuaded Jaguar founder and Chairman William Lyons to put the car into immediate production. From what was essentially handmade production of alloy roadsters in 1948, by the early 1950s the XK120 range had expanded to include a drop-head coupe and a fixed-head coupe in addition to the roadster. The open roadster came with a lightweight canvas top and detachable side curtains, both of which could be removed and stowed behind the seats. The drop-head coupe had a padded, lined canvas top which folded onto the rear deck behind the seats when not in use. The drop-head coupe and fixed-head coupes had roll-up windows instead of removable side curtains.
Beginning with the 1950 model year, all XK120s had pressed steel bodies with aluminum doors, bonnet, and boot lid. Passion for the XK120 spread far and wide. U.S. movie star Clark Gable was bitten by the passion bug when he first saw photos of the XK120 and in 1949 he became the proud owner of the first production XK120 in America.
But the XK120 wasn’t just a car that looked good. It was a seriously quick sports car that made an impression in the budding sports car racing scenes throughout America. Powered by an inline six-cylinder, double overhead cam engine producing 160 horsepower, the car could run with and beat many other racing sports cars of the day. Indeed, speed was part of the Jaguar’s DNA – the car’s name was based on its one hundred and twenty miles per hour top speed.
Harley Earl and his Corvette Inspiration
Harley Earl is generally recognized as the father of the Corvette. Earl’s incredible talent is attested to by the many successful designs his GM teams created between the time he joined General Motors in 1927 and his retirement in 1958. Like many great artists, Harley Earl was acutely aware of the world around him and his mind seemed to always be looking for something new that he could apply to his designs. Throughout his career, Earl regularly journeyed to Europe to attend major car shows in search of new ideas. His design ideas also came from listening to others, including family members, other designers, and those outside the auto industry.
Where did Earl get his inspiration for the Corvette? The answer depends upon whom you ask. Auto historian Mike Mueller believes that conversations with General Curtis LeMay, who oversaw air force bases that hosted sports car racing in the ‘50s, planted the seeds for the Corvette. LeMay, who owned an Allard, reportedly told Earl that an American automaker should produce a car to compete against those that many World War II veterans brought home from Europe. Historians Michael Lamm and Dave Holls believe that Earl’s sons, Jim and Jerry, who were big racing fans, helped convince their father to build a sports car suitable for racing. Author David Temple submits that a conversation sportsman/racer Briggs Cunningham had with Earl at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1951 led to the Corvette. Reportedly, Cunningham chided Earl that while his Le Sabre concept car could lead the race parade laps, it wasn’t capable of participating in the actual race. Others say that Earl brought home the idea from his European tours after seeing the new European models.
The truth is probably some combination of all of these suggestions. We know that Earl toured the European car shows on a regular basis and that he used sports car races at Watkins Glen, New York, and Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, as places to visit with race fans and demonstrate his latest concept cars. At the races, Earl was impressed by the passion Jaguar and Ferrari owners had for their cars. It would not be surprising that Earl’s active mind, combining what he observed at the race tracks with what he heard from others he respected led him to the conclusion that GM should have a sports car that would generate a similar passionate response from its owners.
The Corvette Becomes a Reality
Upon Earl’s return to Detroit from Watkins Glen in 1951, he launched “Project Opel” in a small clandestine design studio that was closed to GM upper management. Earl chose young designer Bob McLean as the “Project Opel” stylist and for the project benchmark, Earl selected the Jaguar XK120. As the project progressed, General Motors purchased at least one XK 120 to closely study its design and construction.
In his book, The Cars of Harley Earl, author David Temple describes Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole’s exuberant first review of the completed full-scale plaster model of “Project Opel” in April, 1952: “Ed Cole is said to have ‘literally jumped up and down’ and gave it his full support.” Cole thought it was the perfect car to give the Chevrolet brand a new image.
Ed Cole and Chevrolet general manager Thomas Keating liked the design so much that they wasted no time in showing the new car to GM president Harlow Curtice. Curtice, Keating and Cole approved the project as EX-122, a show car to be unveiled at the GM Motorama Exhibit in the New York City Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on January 17, 1953.
The public reception of the Corvette’s debut was beyond GM’s wildest dreams. On the Motorama Tour over four million people saw the Corvette and the response was so overwhelming General Motors put the car into production for the 1953 model year.
XK120 Influence on the Corvette
Put an XK120 and a 1953 Corvette side-by-side and outside of four wheels and two seats, it’s difficult to see any similarity. Harley Earl didn’t choose the XK120 as his project benchmark for its styling cues – he had great confidence in his designers and believed they would come up with a body style that was distinctly American. But he wanted his new sports car to be comparable in size and performance to the successful Jaguar. The XK120’s influence on the Corvette lies mainly under the skin, in the chassis and engine.
The similarities between the chassis, engines and resulting performance are shown in the table below:
The XK120 was so far ahead of the field in looks, performance, and engineering, that it really had no competition. More than specific individual features of the car, it was the very existence of the advanced XK120 that inspired Harley Earl and his team to create the Corvette. The XK120 was all about passion. Earl’s XK120-inspired design team imbued the Corvette with the same spark of passion. Thanks to the dedication of engineering and design teams over Corvette’s lifetime, today’s Corvette continues to achieve perhaps the most important of Harley Earl’s design objectives – that of inspiring passion among its owners
National Corvette Museum Seeks to Add XK120 to Collection
One of the important missions of the National Corvette Museum is to publicize the origins of the Corvette. In order to recognize the importance of the Jaguar XK120 in Corvette’s history, the NCM is very interested in having a Jaguar XK120 in their collection, or being able to borrow one for future displays. Should you have one in your stable and are interested in either donating the car to the Museum, or loaning the car to the Museum for public display in one of their exhibits, please contact NCM Director of Collections/Curator Derek Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Cars of Harley Earl, © 2016 by David W. Temple
- Automobile Catalog – Jaguar 1952 XK-120 specifications https://www.automobile-catalog.com/make/jaguar/xk_120/xk_120_otc/1952.html
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XK120
- The Corvette Story https://corvettestory.com/ex122-Corvette.php
- Automobile Catalog – 1953 Chevrolet Corvette https://www.automobile-catalog.com/make/chevrolet_usa/corvette_c1/corvette_c1/1953.html
- Carfolio https://www.carfolio.com/specifications/models/car/?car=58498
- Corv Sport https://www.corvsport.com/1953-c1-corvette/
Bruce Troxell Bio
“There’s no shortage today of enthusiast automotive writers and bloggers. Bruce Troxell, however, is unique. He writes with an understanding of what truly makes cars and car people tick. Bruce is a storyteller, not just a writer. Once you start reading his lead, you can’t stop.” Martyn Schorr – Editor, CarGuyChronicles.com
Bruce Troxell is a professional freelance writer who has been contributing articles on automotive and aviation topics to a variety of websites and print publications since 2009. Following careers as an engineer with a major automobile manufacturer and as a lawyer in private practice, Bruce discovered the joys of writing and has never looked back. He brings a unique perspective and an engaging conversational style to all his writings.
Bruce is a creative automotive storyteller always looking for the stories of the people behind the automobiles. His expertise in storytelling has been recognized by the Automotive Heritage Foundation in their annual journalism competition. In 2020, his story The Day Corvette Became a World Class Sports Car was awarded a Silver medal in the Best Heritage Motorsports Story category. In 2018, his blog Cars We Love came home with a Bronze Medal in the Best Blog or Column category.
An avid sports car fan since he saw his first professional race at Watkins Glen, New York, Bruce’s car interests have blossomed to include vintage cars, hot rods, and custom cars. He has participated in numerous vintage car rallies and is a concours veteran.
Born and raised in New Jersey, he and his wife Cindy now live in bucolic central Virginia with Max, a prescient stray cat who wandered into their lives several years ago and decided to stay.