Lighting the Flame

Working with limited resources, racer Mauri Rose heats up a Chevy passenger-car engine to power the first Corvette

May 19, 2016
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It’s 1952, and the original Team Corvette is under the gun. Chevrolet’s R&D Department, under the leadership of British suspension expert Maurice Olley, has full responsibility for the design of the underpinnings of the new sports car that carries shop order (SO) 1737. As Olley later told the Society of Automotive Engineers, “On June 2, 1952, Chevrolet engineers were shown a plaster model of a proposed car of 102-inch wheelbase, for which a chassis was required.

“The need was to produce a sports car,” Olley continued, “using components of known reliability, with adequate performance, a comfortable ride and stable handling qualities, in something less than seven months before showing and 12 months before production. There was not much time,” he added, with authentic English understatement.

Though it was Olley’s project, Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole was really in charge—as was always the case when an unusual new car was taking shape somewhere within his orbit. “Cole was there in the shop in his shirtsleeves,” recalled one Chevy man, “every night, after his other day’s work was done.”

Sailing under the purposely obfuscatory “Project Opel” code name—a reasonable enough designation, since Chevrolet often designed cars and components for GM’s German subsidiary—a chassis concept for the car rapidly took shape. An Olley sketch dated only 10 days after he was handed the assignment showed the frame and suspension in virtually final form.

To a degree not recognized at the time, or even since, Cole and Olley created bespoke underpinnings for their sports car—its chassis was anything but warmed-over Chevrolet. They fell short of all that they might have done, especially with respect to the brakes, but then there was precious little time to do it, and none at all for false starts and major changes.

Overseeing the chassis’s physical creation was engineer and racer Mauri Rose, who had been at Allison Engineering in Indianapolis but was in California, contemplating a career wind-down, when contacted by Chevrolet’s Pat Collins. “He said, ‘We’ve got a new chief engineer named Ed Cole,’” Rose later recalled. “‘Would you come back and meet with him?’” He would and did.

Short, wiry, bespectacled and a pipe smoker, Rose was a deceptive figure. Although always employed as an engineer, he had won three Indianapolis 500-mile races, competing “for the fun of it.” Cole knew Rose was just the right man to oversee Project Opel, and awarded him the job.

Also from Issue 106

  • 1,000-HP Stingray
  • Z-Car Buyer's Guide
  • Superformance Grand Sport vs. Original '63
  • Duntov C3 Turbo
  • GT1 Championship Edition C6
  • DeLorean's Corvette Connection
  • C7.R Chief Mechanics Interviewed
  • Inside GM's Performance and Racing Center
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