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Pilot Line Memories

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Cecil Cole holding his Corvair Pilot Line name badge.

By “Corvair Lady” Eva McGuire

Cecil Cole is the Chevrolet worker who hand-assembled the very first Corvair in 1959 in what was dubbed the “Green Room” or "Pilot Line".  This was just before Corvairs went into mass production at the Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Cecil had a special Pilot Line name badge which gave him access to this secret area.  He was led by guards to a room and was locked inside with armed guards posted outside the door due to the confidentiality of the project.  Cecil was given blueprints for the Corvair and instructed to hand assemble the vehicle without the use of any power tools.  He said he was in there by himself, and for several days worked on hand assembling the car.  He did put the car together by himself and told me that he didn't even need to look at the blueprints stating that, being a southern boy, he knew how to tinker with cars.

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Cecil Cole at Willow Run in the 1960s.

Once finished, he was praised for completing the job and was then told to take the car apart and put it back together again.  This was repeated several times until they figured out when the vehicle was ready to be put to the assembly line.  Afterwards, other workers were brought in the Pilot Line to work with Cecil on the Corvair.  He also helped set up the assembly line and assisted with selecting and training the workers.

Mr. Cole was scheduled to appear at my “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event on May 14, 2015, however, illness prevented him from attending.  Instead, his daughter, Pam Cole, spoke about her dad's Corvair hand assembly stories at the event.  I wanted Cecil to be a part of the celebration so I had the idea to call and put him on speaker phone while his daughter was on stage.  We had everyone in the audience give him big get well cheers.

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Close up of Pilot Line name badge.

Prior to the event, I had interviewed Cecil by phone and he had mentioned that he still had his Pilot Line name badge, which I believe is the only one in existence at this time.  I asked him if he could try and locate it and take a photo of it.  Cecil didn't know where the name badge was and had his wife looking for it.  This became a running joke between us about him finding the elusive Pilot Line name badge.

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Cecil Cole wearing his Corvair Pilot Line name badge.

After the Meet the Makers event, Cecil's wife eventually found his name badge, and I asked her to take photos of it with Cecil holding it.  The badge was issued on May 20, 1959.  In one of the photos, and to my delight, Cecil is wearing it which is the first time he put it on since hand assembling that first Corvair in 1959!  Cecil had his daughter travel down south from Michigan in order to hand-deliver the badge to me because he was too afraid of trusting it in the mail.  The badge is currently in my possession.  I will be donating it to the Corvair Preservation Foundation.

Cecil began his employment at Willow Run in 1955 at the Truck Plant.  Prior to that, he worked on the very first Corvettes being made in Ohio as a finisher of the bodies.  He relayed a funny story about how they tested the Corvette doors.  They would drop the doors on the floor, and if they didn't separate, splinter, or break...they were fine.

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Cecil's daughter donating the badge to the Corvair Preservation Foundation.

I had also interviewed Cecil's wife, Pat, who was asked what it was like to have her husband come home from his job in 1959 with him being sworn to secrecy about the Corvair project.  She said he never said a word about what he was doing at the plant and kept the well guarded secrets about this air-cooled rear engine compact car being made at Willow Run.  I found Cecil to be a man of strong faith and high integrity about how he worked on the Corvair. The workers who worked for and with him also spoke very highly about him with respect.

This has been my experience with a lot of the Corvair workers, engineers, and GM designers I've interviewed.  They are truly a wonderful group of people who built a very special and unique vehicle.

Copyright 2016 Eva McGuire

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