Richard Heseltine uncovers yet another American-Italian exotic that combines stout American engineering with glamorous Italian styling. Voila! The Kelly Corvette by Vignale…
Richard Heseltine From here to obscurity
Picture the scene: It’s the early Sixties and you are a professional designer, if not a name above the title star. You have talent, but you’re unsure how to realise your ambition of creating an exotic-looking super-GT. If your name was Gordon Kelly, you simply flew from Wisconsin to Turin and rocked up unannounced at every styling studio and carrozzerie until you found one willing to take you seriously. What’s more, you did so despite not being able to speak Italian.
That, in a nutshell, is how Kelly came to create his take on the C2-generation Chevrolet Corvette. An employee of legendary industrial designer and sometime car manufacturer Brooks Stevens, this remarkable man had been mapping out his dream car for several years before he created a 1:8-scale model. Kelly then acquired a Corvette directly from General Motors and began canvassing the various Latin coachbuilders to help realise his vision.
It should be pointed out that most of these now much-revered ‘names’ were located within a stone’s throw of each other, but it was still quite the task. He went from body shop to body shop armed with his scale model which he carried in a specially-designed holdall, and eventually arrived at Alfredo Vignale’s new premises in Strada del Port one, Grugliasco, on the outskirts of Turin. Vignale was responsive, a deal was thrashed out and the Corvette was dispatched to Italy.
Kelly was nothing if not precise, and had worked everything out to the finest detail. He travelled to Turin repeatedly to monitor progress, much of the build having been farmed out by Vignale to a much smaller coachbuilder, Simona & Basano. Kelly was somewhat nonplussed when he discovered that the donor car’s glassfibre body had been broken up as he had hoped to sell it in order to recoup part of his investment. Nevertheless, the Italian artisans stuck faithfully to his instructions, right down to the rake of the windscreen (a cut-down Lincoln item), the sharply-creased beltline, and distinctive, rounded tail complete with hatchback opening which was then considered unusual. Inside, the car featured much of the regular Corvette’s architecture, right down to the familiar semi-circular speedo, but with assorted locally-sourced secondary gauges.
The car – simply dubbed ‘Kelly’ ì broke cover on the Vignale stand at the 1961 Paris Motor Show, the end build price being around $14,000. It’s at this juncture that the story gets a little hazy. According to some sources, there was never any intention of creating replicas. This was strictly a one-off exercise; the fulfilment of one man’s dream. According to Road & Track’s report from the show, however, it would appear that there was every intention of making more. It stated: “More than before, the joint was crawling with American cars of various shapes and sizes which seemed to be drawing more favourable comment than they usually do... I didn’t see a Corvette around, but Gordon Kelly made up for this by bringing a Vignale-clad GT coupe of his own design on a standard Corvette chassis. Much better-looking than this sort of thing usually is, the car will be made to order for those who like a sports machine to look like one. And it’s one foot shorter than a standard Corvette”.
No further cars were made. Kelly retained the prototype until his death in 1995. In recent years, ownership has passed to an enthusiast who has shown it extensively in assorted blue-chip concours events. He has even commissioned a book to be written on the car and the man who shaped it.
Richard Heseltine’s weird and wonderful American cars from the past.