by “Corvair Lady” (Eva McGuire)
Meet Mr. Ken Genest, former General Motors Senior Designer who worked at GM Styling from 1951 to 1998. He worked on the first and second generation of Corvairs and contributed to the Corvair truck design. Mr. Genest happened to be the one who coined the phrase “Corvan” and the name stuck. What you are about to read is a speech given by Mr. Genest at my “Meet the Makers of the Chevrolet Corvair” event held at the Yankee Air Museum in Belleville, Michigan, on May 14, 2015. He spoke about his employment at General Motors and his work on the Corvair project. Since the event, Ken and his wife have become very good friends of mine. I'm privileged to say that Ken autographed my Corvan, the first Corvair truck he ever signed.
Ken Genest: “After I was honorably discharged from the army in February of 1957, I resumed the career that I had already started at General Motors Styling in 1954. I was assigned to Advanced Design Studio Number One this time, along with Russ Russinoff. We were a couple of rookies with tons of design training and no experience at that time. At least I was.
Ned Nickles was the Chief Designer in charge of our studio. He was the guy famous for designing the portholes and bombsight hood ornaments on the Buicks of the 1950's.
We also had a technical stylist there who had previously worked directly for Henry Ford senior. His name was Bill Block. He told us about Mr. Ford pulling a soybean cookie out of his pocket, lint and all, and handing it to somebody, saying, “Here, eat this, it's good for ya!” That was Mr. Ford.
Shortly after we started out in that studio, the Corvair design project was given to us with the statement that it was a “Holden” for General Motors of Australia. I was even commissioned to do a 20 foot long illustration of our so-called Holden, which was a Corvair, parked in an Australian gas station with road signs pointing to Adaminaby and Wollongong...no kangaroos or koala bears. GM didn't want it leaked out that they were working on a compact car at that time.
I can't point to any particular thing on the Corvair and say “I designed that”. But I surely worked on plenty of designs for it during the months it was in our studio. All the sketches have been trashed.
I didn't work on anything else during that time period, but how much influence on the Corvair design that I had is hard to say. It's certainly not the kind of a car you can hang things on, clean and simple as that design is. The front end is pretty much from the same people who did the front end of the 1959 Oldsmobile that dipped down between the headlights. Probably Mr. Earl brought that into our studio. The rest of it was, I think, pretty much directed by Design management.
At one point, the full size clay model split into two complete full size clay models because Mr. Earl, our Design Vice President, wanted a rounded bullet-shaped design that I think Russinoff referred to. But Mr. Ed Cole, GM Vice President and head of Chevrolet Division, wanted a crisper and more stylish look. So we modeled both of them, two full size clay models, side by side. We called one the “Cole” car and the other the “Earl” car. Those of you that are my age get it. The final Corvair looked more like Mr. Cole's version.
At one point, we were asked to contribute ideas for a Corvair van. I made a sketch in a front three-quarter view showing a protruding peak beneath the windshield that went across the front, over the headlights, dipped down and wrapped around the headlights, and then went straight back to the rear of the vehicle. It was related to the Corvair car front end, but different. That sketch disappeared one day, and three years later the van came out with that design on the front end.
Design management would pick ideas, usually at night, from whatever studios they found them in, probably going through the studios after work hours and bringing them into the grist mill where they were applied.
That Corvair 95, in its Corvan and Greenbrier versions, was developed in a full size clay model somewhere else in the Design building, I don't know where, probably Truck Studio. I never saw the clay model.
That wraps up my involvement with the design of the first Corvair. Thank you for listening.”
Copyright 2015 Eva McGuire