Just a few years after cinema made its public debut in 1893, the marketing of home projectors began. Though by 1912 the market was flooded with them, the appeal had been limited. That was about to change. Soon two of the biggest companies in the movie business—one French, one American—went head-to-head, marketing their own home projectors as well as offering films for rent by mail, making them available through pioneering delivery systems. Yet only one of these companies would succeed.
Thomas Edison is considered the father of motion pictures. He invented the original movie camera, the kinetograph, which was used to film movies shot at his movie studio, the Black Maria, the foremost of its kind. His lab developed the earliest films in motion picture history, and those movies were exhibited on a peep hole-like device, the kinetoscope—yet another Edison creation. On November 30th, 1897, Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope was used to show movies on a screen in a commercial setting for the first time. In December 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company released The Great Train Robbery, which would go on to be the initial motion picture blockbuster. The film industry would prove to be successful, yet rocky, for Edison over the next few years, but in 1912, the year his company launched the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, optimism was in the air.
Charles Pathé, previously a phonograph importer, established the French company Pathé Frères in 1896. In 1902, the company introduced an improved movie camera, and soon it would become the leading model used in filming movies across Europe and America. The same year, they began shooting their own productions—completing them at a very fast clip—and distributing them, as well. They would soon dominate the European industry, so much so that Pathé Frères had few serious rivals. The Pathé K-O-K home projector was launched in 1912 in Europe, and the following year they introduced the device in the United States under a different name: the Pathescope. It was in this environment that home projectors finally became a product that the public could get behind.
The Pathescope and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope (also known as the “Home P.K.”) were similar products in many ways, yet had distinct differences. Both Edison and Pathé produced their own unique film size, which meant the films they rented out could be played only on their respective projectors. The companies also introduced a non-flammable film stock—a positive development in the minds of the general public—thus playing a major role in the appeal of the projectors to homeowners. The cost of the machines differed significantly, with Edison’s Home P.K. selling in the $75-$100 range (roughly $1,770-$2,360 in 2013 dollars), while the budget-priced Pathescope would set one back set one back $150 (about $3,540 today). Pathe's premium offering was priced at $250 (a whopping $5,900 in today’s dollars), making it far and away the priciest home projector available.
Kinetoscope Film "Professor and the New Hat," Thomas A. Edison Co., 1913, object ID 63.85.3.
The fact that the companies offered movies for rent was also of considerable appeal to consumers, as was the system of home delivery by mail. In order to accomplish this, both Edison and Pathé established “exchange” hubs to ship and receive their films. Owners of the Home P.K. initially had to purchase a film, which ran in the $2.50 to $20 range ($59-$472 if priced today), and then pay an exchange fee of $0.30-$1 ($7-24 in 2013) when swapping one movie for another. Pathé’s method differed, as Pathescope owners instead paid a yearly subscription of $50-$100 ($1,180-$2,360 today), fees based on how many movies were rented at a time. Edison offered 50 films at launch, a number that grew to 160 by 1914; Pathé had 700 films by that time—a momentous disparity.
Due to a number of factors, including that it was notoriously difficult to operate, the Home P.K. never caught on. Edison’s company manufactured 4,600 projectors, but in the end sold just 500 (more than 8,000 Pathescopes had been sold at that point). Pathé Frères had a huge advantage not only in the number of titles available, but because their projectors were superior. It seems quality and quantity was just too much for Edison, and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope was retired in 1914.
Fast forward to the home video era: 1972 marked the year films became available on videocassette to rent, but it would take the arrival of the DVD format in 1997 before an entity had great success with home delivery of movie rentals. That same year, a new company called Netflix was founded. Their concept of offering films for rent by mail seemed revolutionary, and for modern America it most certainly was an innovative (and appealing) model. It was also an idea whose time had come—again.
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
The Henry Ford, dedicated in 1929 as The Edison Institute, has a long institutional history. Over the years, exhibits have come and gone, programs have evolved, and events both anticipated and unanticipated have changed the look and feel of Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. We’ve recently been digitizing some of our own history in the form of photos and documents from previous decades. For example, this activity sheet encouraged young visitors during the holidays in 1986 to find animals in our collections items—but today, you might be even more interested in the included map that shows how much the Museum’s footprint has changed in 27 years. To see the map and the quiz questions, visit this collections record in our online collections—or view additional historic photos and documents related to Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum.
A Scrapbook Documenting the Original Interiors of the Dearborn Inn
One of the great attractions in Dearborn, inextricably linked with Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, is the Dearborn Inn. A unique historic institution, the hotel was conceived by Edsel and Henry Ford as their vision of a “real New England Inn” welcoming travelers transiting through the Ford Airport, located adjacent to the Inn, across Oakwood Boulevard. Within several years of the inn’s opening in 1931, the airport closed as Ford exited the aviation business. The inn, however, has endured and prospered, as a first-class hostelry serving visitors to The Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company and the Dearborn community. The building, designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn, was created as his update of an 18th- or early 19th-century New England inn, complete with all of the conveniences necessary for the discriminating traveler in the 1930s. Henry and Edsel Ford viewed the inn very much as the “front door” of Dearborn to the rest of the world, and they gave Albert Kahn and his designers free rein to create a singular structure.
The management of the inn was contracted to the L. G. Treadway Service Company of New York City, which operated a chain of historic inns in New England. The Treadway Company was responsible for the interior arrangements, subcontracting the furnishings to a variety of sources, local and national. Most of the furnishings were reproductions of 18th- and 19th-century antiques according to Treadway’s advertisements. Today, the inn is operated by the Marriott Hotel Corporation, which maintains the high standards of décor, ambience and service set during the 1930s.
I was first introduced to the Dearborn Inn in the summer of 2008, when I interviewed for my current position at The Henry Ford. Having come from a similar curatorial position in New England, I was familiar with real 18th-century inns, including the first inn of the Treadway chain. I was charmed by the 1930s “Colonial Revival” ambiance of the Dearborn Inn and the conscientious service that the Marriott Corporation maintains. When you walk into the elegant lobby and are warmly greeted by the staff, it seems like time stands still. Now that I am a five-year resident of the community, I continue to visit the inn on special occasions and make it a point to bring out-of-town guests there.
One of the many joys of working at The Henry Ford is the opportunity to make new discoveries in our vast collections. This is a story of one of these discoveries.
In the late summer of 2012, the Museum’s Chief Registrar brought a large loose-leaf scrapbook containing a variety of photos, ledger pages, correspondence, fabric samples, design renderings, and floor plans. All of the individual samples were carefully identified as to their location in the building, the name of supplier, and item or model number. Several pages are accounting price lists for each room. The samples were meticulously arranged, most as overlays, and glued into the cardboard pages. Nearly all of the glue on the samples had dried out over the decades and the samples were loose
Even after a cursory examination it was clear that this was a careful documentation of every aspect of the furnishings to the smallest detail. Over time, the pages were shuffled out of order, making a clear examination nearly impossible. Nevertheless, our Registrar believed that this scrapbook documented the original furnishing plan of the Dearborn Inn.
Examining the scrapbook was at once a delight and a challenge – after carefully arranging and rearranging the loose items, concurrently shuffling through pages, we stumbled on the index page, which was the “Smoking Gun” identifying the Dearborn Inn. We can only surmise the original purpose of the scrapbook, perhaps as an aid to staff in reordering furniture and fixtures, carpets, wallpaper and draperies that had worn or broken through heavy use in a commercial environment The text on the index page states, “This collection of pictures, cuts, drawings, samples and swatches is to be used in connection with the complete itemized inventory of Dearborn Inn equipment and furnishings (bound separately), [sic] and file of Purchase Orders and Invoices." To date, we have not located those documents.
Once we located the index, we quickly reassembled the scrapbook into its original arrangement and began the process of evaluating this treasure.
Possibly the most interesting item included is found on the second page, following the index: A bound copy of the trade publication Hotel Monthly from August 1931, includes a feature article on constructing and furnishing the Dearborn Inn. The index describes that it “contains valuable reference material”. The article goes into great technical detail on the construction, emphasizing the modern features found in the inn.
My favorite pages are two-page spreads illustrating the original lobby in photographs and the blueprint of the furniture arrangement. What is truly amazing are the fabric and wallpaper swatches. When one compares them with the black and white photographs, one gains a true sense of the colors and textures of the lobby. On separate pages are photographs of individual pieces of furniture. This partner’s desk and the chest of drawers are still in the lobby.
The use of reproduction antiques is best seen in the guest rooms. This is described as the “Mahogany Bedroom” and contains a group of 18th-century high style pieces including a slant-front desk and tea table and wing chairs. These are mixed with vernacular Windsor and "Hitchcock" chairs. The botanical wallpaper is reminiscent of an 18th-century print.
In all, the scrapbook is a wonderful record of a truly remarkable structure. The images presented here are the highlights, intended to provide a glimpse into a genteel past. As I mentioned, the inn remains a bastion of 1930s service, décor and gentility.
For a detailed history of the Dearborn Inn throughout its history, the best source is Jennifer Czerwick Ganem’s Images of America: Dearborn Inn. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2011.
Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts. The Dearborn Inn scrapbook has opened up exciting new areas of research. While documenting the scrapbook, Charles discovered new stories of the Dearborn Inn's past. He continues telling these stories in future installments.
The American celebration of the holiday season (Christmas and New Year's) has evolved over several centuries and today offers us a wide range of customs and practices. Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village embraces many of these historical traditions and brings them to life 14 evenings in December each year.
One interesting custom, now most associated with New Year’s Eve, was the “shooting in of Christmas.” In the decades just prior to the Civil War, both urban and rural Americans took part in similar activities on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's. All these activities had the same goal in mind - making as much noise as possible. In rural areas, which made up much of what was the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s, guns were the noise makers of choice. Either as an individual, shooting to make their presence known, or as a gang roaming from farm to farm shooting a coordinated volley just outside an unfortunate’s occupant’s window, bringing in the holiday as loudly as possible was met with much enthusiasm.
In urban areas these activities were even more intensified. For instance, in 1848 it was noted that in Pittsburgh “the screams of alarmed ladies, as some young rogue discharges his fire crackers at their feet” augmented the din created by “juvenile artillerists” who have invaded that city at Christmas time. “Wretched is now the youngest who cannot raise powder; and proud, indeed, is the warlike owner of a pistol…”* All manner of home-made explosive devices, including crude rockets, flares, and roman candles were highly prized and used in great abundance to welcome the holiday.
The larger-scale firework displays we are more familiar with today have origins in the 18th century and “illuminations” involving large bonfires and aerial fireworks were popular in London for special celebrations throughout that century. They became popular in America even before the American Revolution and through the end of the 18th century and well into the mid-19th century, marking special occasions well beyond just the Fourth of July. Today, this tradition of making noise has been relegated to New Year’s Eve.
During Holiday Nights, we celebrate the finale of each evening with a fireworks display.
* Restad, Penne L., Christmas in America, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1995, pp.39-40.
Jim Johnson is Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.
Earlier this year in June, The Henry Ford acquired an original kiosk designed by Charles and Ray Eames for use in the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The kiosk, one of two known to survive, was designed to resemble a colorful tent-like structure, complete with pennants.
Constructed of iron, walnut and plastic laminate, it originally housed interactive exhibit elements that were part of a huge program created by the Eames office to explain the impact and uses of IBM’s computing technology. The kiosk was saved by the contractor who had been awarded the task of demolishing the pavilion at the fair’s end. Another example is known to have survived—used by the Eames Office to explore installation options but never used at the fair itself. It was acquired by Vitra in 2006.
The kiosk is currently with our conservation department being conserved and will be coming to the floor of Henry Ford Museum next year.
To get an idea of how the kiosks were used in the IBM Pavilion, take a look at this video from Eames Office. You'll miss it if you blink, but you can catch a very small glimpse of our kiosk at the 1:45 mark in the right corner of the video.
Make sure to check back to the blog and our Facebook page for kiosk updates.
I have always had a love for history— though, as an Anthropology major focused in Classics, my interests were initially focused on more ancient times. Interning at The Henry Ford, with its vast collections of objects relating to the American experience, has definitely broadened that love! Each day, I have the opportunity to “walk though” nearly 400 years of American history, whether represented in Greenfield Village, with all of its historic buildings, or Henry Ford Museum, with its historic objects. Here, history sits “side-by-side,” offering objects and stories from different eras. And all of the objects here have a story. As an intern working in the curatorial department, I am able to help bring these stories to the public and share my passion for history in a different way.
The Henry Ford’s collection is so vast that we can’t display all of our artifacts all at one time. Yet, with the advancements in digital technology, we can bring these objects and stories to the public through the use of the internet. Currently, we offer images and information for about 20,000 of The Henry Ford’s historic objects on our collections website. But there are additional opportunities to share our collections on the web. That’s what my work as an intern has focused on.
I have been preparing information about many of the quilts in our collection for The Quilt Index, an internationally-known online database of quilt construction and history. This database is comprised of information about hundreds of thousands of quilts owned by museums and individuals. It's the single largest source of information on quilt construction and quilt history resources on the web.
My internship project involves working with others on our staff to gather additional information about each of our quilts and its quilt maker, if known. Since I seem to have a flair for computer programs, my efforts were chiefly focused on learning The Quilt Index’s software system, and then adding information about The Henry Ford’s quilts to this database. Information on nearly 120 of our quilts can now be found on The Quilt Index.
Applique Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890 (Object ID: 72.140.1).
While The Henry Ford’s collections webpage has allowed people who come to our website learn about our quilts, The Quilt Index broadens our reach. Through The Quilt Index, people all over the world can readily find information on many of our quilts—even if they were unaware that we have a quilt collection. Too, The Quilt Index allows researchers to examine our quilts “side by side” with quilts from other sources—even though the quilts themselves may be thousands of miles apart.
We have so many great quilts in our collection. When I first started working with the quilts, I could tell you which one was my favorite. Yet now that I have spent a great amount of time learning each quilt’s story, I have a hard time choosing just one! But there are some that do stand out more for me. These include the 1880s Vine Quilt by Susan Noakes McCord and the 1980s Indianapolis 500 Quilt by Jeanetta Holder. These two quilts are quite different in feel and are almost 100 years apart in age. Yet both of these quilts interest me. Susan’s appliqué quilt is so intricately detailed with many thousands of pieces, all sewn by hand. And I love the story surrounding Jeanetta’s 1980s quilt, made to celebrate race car driver Bobby Unser’s three Indianapolis wins.
The thought that I am able to share the information I have learned about our quilt collection with people all over the world is a very humbling experience. It really hits home for me, though, because I had to use The Quilt Index to complete a class assignment during my undergraduate studies. Now, here I am adding information to the site for others to use just like I did just over a year ago!
When you look at wool, have you ever stopped to think about how it takes on its rich, vibrant colors? The practice of dyeing wool dates back centuries and was an important part of the work of Sam and Anna Daggett.
On the Daggett Farm in 1760 Connecticut, Sam and Anna raised sheep and owned a loom for the weaving of wool in their home. Dyeing was a big part of the process.
Today’s synthetic dyes hadn’t been invented when the Daggetts would have been dyeing wool. Instead, they used a natural process using the materials found in nature.
Various colors can be obtained through plants. For example, logwood, which is imported from the rainforest, produces beautiful purple colors, whereas madder root, which is actually grown in Greenfield Village, creates red and orange variations.
“Many of the dyes used back then are of ancient origin, some are imported; others can still be grown in the new world. Here, we use a combination of new and old world dye matter,” explains Cathy Cwiek, our Manager of Historic Foodways and Domestic Life programs.
What kind of materials can be used to create different colors?
Woad: an ancient plant dye that we use to create the color blue
Pokeberry: a weed that creates a pink dye
Osage Orange heartwood shavings: create a fluorescent yellow
Cochineal: a small insect that feeds on prickly pear cacti and gives off a red color. (A favorite of Cathy’s, it’s used as a natural dye in food products, too)
How do we dye wool in Greenfield Village?
First, we have to shear the sheep. This takes place once a year, usually in the spring.
Next, we pick and wash the fleece.
Then, the wool fibers are pulled in one direction by small hand cards (brushes) to help soften and untangle the wool. This process would take families months. Carding machines were later invented to mechanize the process.
The wool is then spun and turned into yarn on a spinning wheel.
Before dyeing, the yarn is wound into skeins.
Skeins are soaked in a mordant, a chemical that helps set colors to fabrics. We use vinegar and alum as a mordant for most plants, and spectralite for indigo plants. This can be done prior to dyeing or the mordant can be put in the dyeing pot.
To prepare the dye pot, put plant matter in a loose cloth and simmer until the color is extracted. Simmer wool in dye pot until the desired color is reached.
Rinse the wool.
The time required for this process varies depending on the kind of plant material being used and desired color. After that’s done, the wool is ready for a variety of uses.
“We knit hats, mittens, socks, scarves and anything else families would wear in that time period. It’s really a rewarding process,” Cathy said.
As you think about dyeing your own wool, look around you for inspiration.
“Experiment. Recently, I found a bright orange/yellow fungus growing on a tree. I dried it out and now I’m excited to see what color it will produce!” Cathy said.
Take a look at this video to see the dyeing process in action here at The Henry Ford.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
It lasted only nine years, from 1953 to 1961. Yet, many long-time Dearborn residents remember the Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy with nostalgia and a fierce sense of pride. After all, this great extravaganza of all things Christmas was staged in their own community by the company that Henry Ford—their favorite hometown-boy-made-good—had founded.
What was the Christmas Fantasy and why was it so memorable? The story starts back in 1934, at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
When Henry Ford decided that his company needed to have a showy building at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition, he turned to Albert Kahn, his favorite architect. Kahn had designed Ford’s Highland Park Plant, Rouge Plant, and the classically-styled Dearborn Inn. But, for this exposition building, Kahn broke completely from traditional architectural styles and designed an imposing cylindrical structure that simulated a graduated cluster of internally-meshed gears.
By the time the Century of Progress Exposition closed its doors in 1934, Henry Ford decided that the central gear-shaped structure would be perfect for displaying industrial exhibits back home in Dearborn. He intended to re-erect the structure in Greenfield Village, but his son Edsel persuaded him that it would serve a far better purpose as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours. The newly named Ford Rotunda found a suitable home near the Rouge Plant, across from the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road.
In 1953, as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Ford Motor Company executives decided to give the Rotunda and its exhibits a complete renovation. The new industrial exhibits and changing car displays were popular. But its biggest draw became the annual Christmas Fantasy.
A Walk through the Christmas Fantasy
Just inside the entrance to the Rotunda, the holiday mood was immediately set by an enormous live Christmas tree. This 35-foot-tall tree glistened with thousands of colored electric lights.
Stretching along one wall was the display of more than 2,000 dolls, dressed by members of the Ford Girls’ Club. These would later be distributed by the Goodfellows to underprivileged children.
The Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy became perhaps best known for its elaborate animated scenes. These were created by Silvestri Art Manufacturing Company of Chicago, who specialized in department store window displays. Santa’s Workshop—an early and ongoing display—featured a group of tiny elves working along a moving toy assembly line.
Over the years, these scenes became ever-more numerous and elaborate. Life-size storybook figures like Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood, Wee Willie Winkie, and Humpty Dumpty pivoted back and forth in atmospheric Christmas and winter settings. In 1957, two animated scenes were added to the doll display: a Beauty Shop, where two beauty-operator elves “glamorized” a pair of dolls and a Dress Salon in which mechanical elves operated a sewing machine and iron. More displays were added in 1958. In the Pixie Candy Kitchen, animated workers turned out large chocolate-covered delicacies. A Bake Shop featured animated bakers kneading dough, trimming pies, mixing cakes, and baking bread and cookies. An animated fiddler and banjo player accompanied a group of square-dancing elves in a barn dance scene. In 1960, jungle animals in cages with peppermint-stick bars joined the other animated scene
An “outstanding new attraction” in 1958 was the 15,000-piece miniature animated circus, created as a hobby over a 16-year period by John Zweifel, from Evanston, Illinois. This hand-carved circus came complete with performing animals, a circus train, sideshow attractions, carnival barkers, and bareback riders. Larger-size animated circus animals and a clown band provided the backdrop for this popular attraction.
In the Rotunda’s walled-off inner court, the mood became more reverent. At the entrance to this court, visitors passed through a cathedral façade, with carillon music ringing from 40-foot spires. Inside the court was a Nativity scene with life-size figures. During an era in which stores and other businesses were closed on Sundays, this scene was considered “so beautifully and reverently executed” that the Detroit Council of Churches allowed Ford Motor Company to keep the Christmas Fantasy open on Sundays during the Christmas season. An organ set alongside the Nativity scene provided Christmas music while Detroit-area choral groups gave concerts here periodically.
Of course, visiting Santa was a highly anticipated activity for children at the Rotunda. Santa awaited each eager child high up inside a colorful multi-story castle, accessible by a curved ramp.
Finally, a visit to the Christmas Fantasy was not complete without a viewing of Christmas cartoons in the Rotunda’s newly renovated auditorium and a stop to see Santa’s live reindeer.
Up in Flames
Tragically, the Ford Rotunda burned down on November 9, 1962, when a waterproofing sealant of hot tar accidentally caught the roof on fire. The intense heat caused the building to collapse and burn to the ground in less than an hour. Fortunately, a wing housing the Ford Motor Company Archives survived.
Most of the already-installed Christmas Fantasy became a charred ruin. The doll display and miniature circus had not arrived yet. To help local residents come to terms with this tragic loss, Ford Motor Company invited the public to a tree-lighting ceremony that year in front of its Central Office Building on Michigan Avenue (now Ford World Headquarters). A Press Release for the event announced that Santa would be on hand to turn on the 70,000 lights that decorated the 75-foot Christmas tree—the tallest tree they could find for the occasion.
The Ford Rotunda’s Christmas Fantasy was never revived. But it lives on in vivid memory to the many people who had seen it. In fact, to hear long-time Dearbornites talk about it, you’d think that it had happened only yesterday!
Check out this short film to catch a glimpse of the 1955 Rotunda Christmas Fantasy.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Reflecting upon Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, journalist and former news anchor Dan Rather remarked, “Mandela’s legacy is on a line with those of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King—both of whom inspired him...”
The Henry Ford owns important historical objects that convey meaning and provide relevance for this line of courageous freedom fighters.
Mahatma Gandhi—champion for Indian nationalism in British-ruled India—gave Henry Ford this spinning wheel in 1941. Gandhi’s gift represented a commitment to world peace that he and Ford shared. Mandela often called Gandhi a role model.
Mandela acknowledged others in the long struggle for human rights. He once said, “Before King there was Rosa Parks. She inspired us…to be fearless when facing oppressors.” Mandela claimed that Rosa Parks’ courageous act sustained him while in prison. He was overjoyed to meet her in 1990, soon after his release from prison. The bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 to a white man represents a decisive moment in the American Civil Rights movement.
In noting Mandela’s passing, President Obama recounted that his first experience in political activism was a protest against apartheid, and Mandela became a personal inspiration to him. Obama reflected, “Never discount the difference that one person can make.” Such perspective may have been present as he sat on the Rosa Parks bus during a 2012 visit to Henry Ford Museum.
With humility and respect for these extraordinary leaders, we hope that these objects and stories can both remind us of all that Mandela stood for and help contribute to ongoing conversations about social justice in our country and the world.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Photo by Ted Eytan.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water… er, dealership… Chevrolet’s iconic Corvette Stingray* is back. The seventh-generation Corvette just received Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year” award. It’s a great honor, and it affirms the car’s right to wear the hallowed “Stingray” name – not seen on a Corvette since 1976.
Given Corvette’s long-established status as America’s sports car, it’s easy to forget that the first models lacked a performance image. The 1953-54 cars featured inline six engines and two-speed automatic transmissions – not exactly scream machines. That began to change with the 1955 model year when a V-8 and a three-speed manual shift became options. Production figures climbed steadily thereafter, but the Corvette arguably didn’t come into its own until the 1963 model year when General Motors styling head Bill Mitchell shepherded the magnificent Sting Ray into production.
Mitchell’s car was a radical departure from previous Corvettes. The gentle curves of the earlier cars (readily seen on The Henry Ford’s 1955 example) were replaced with sharp edges. The toothy grille gave way to an aggressive nose with hidden headlights, and the roof transitioned into a racy fastback. The car was a smash in its day and continues to be perhaps the most desirable body style among collectors.
The 1963 Sting Ray was inspired by two of Mitchell’s personal project cars. The 1959 Stringray Special was built on the chassis of the 1957 Corvette SS race car. When American auto manufacturers officially ended their racing programs in the summer of 1957, the SS became surplus. Mitchell acquired the car, rebuilt it into a racer, and sidestepped the racing ban by sponsoring the car personally. The rebuilt Stingray Special’s unique front fenders, with bumps to accommodate the wheels, became a prominent part of the 1963 production car.
The second inspiration was the Mako Shark concept car introduced in 1961. While fishing in Bahamas that year, Mitchell caught an actual mako shark which he mounted and displayed in his office. The shark’s streamlined body and angular snout, combined with elements from the Stingray race car, produced a show car that turned heads wherever it was displayed.
Fifty years later, some believe that the mid-1960s Sting Rays are still the Corvette’s styling peak. Clearly, the 2014 model had much to live up to if it was to carry the Stingray name. The honors from Automobile Magazine suggest that the latest Corvette is worthy indeed.
UPDATE 01/13/14: The 2014 Corvette Stingray just took top honors as "North American Car of the Year" at the North American International Auto Show. It's further proof that the car has earned its legendary name!
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford
* Stingray nomenclature is a confusing business. Bill Mitchell’s 1959 race car was “Stringray” – one word. The 1963-1967 production cars were “Sting Ray” – two words. The 1968-1976 and 2014 cars reverted to “Stingray.” For what it’s worth, the fish itself is “stingray.”