The Euro-look Corvette that could have been

1959 Chevrolet Corvette ItaliaThe Peterson Automotive Museum, located in Los Angeles, is reported to be one of the largest automotive museums in the world.

On a trip I made there several weeks back, I saw this incredibly rare 1959 Corvette Italia on display. It is one of only three that were made and represents an endeavor that could have resulted in an exotic, American-badged alternative to high performance European sports cars like Maserati, Aston Martin and Mercedes-Benz.



Coachwork Corvette
1959 Chevrolet Corvette Italia front end lowReeling from the astronomical cost to repair a broken crankshaft on his Ferrari, an American man by the name of Gary Laughlin set out on a mission to create a Ferrari-like car made with more reliable and affordable parts (e.g., the Chevrolet Corvette’s $58 crankshaft). To make it happen, he teamed up with two individuals that were well-known in automotive racing circles: Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby.

The coachwork was entirely hand-crafted. Its design was executed in an aluminum-paneled body and sculpted using rather old fashioned methods; that is to say, by beating the aluminum sheets with mallets, over sandbags and tree stumps–honestly. The old-world work was performed by Italian styling studio Scaglietti, in Modeno, Italy.

One of Mr. Laughlin’s requirements was that the grill appear like that of a 1956-57 Corvette’s. As seen in the picture above, I’d say Mr. Scaglietti nailed it (the familiar blade-like bumpers and Corvette race-flag emblem probably aid in that correlation).

1959 Chevrolet Corvette Italia interior pass sideAlthough simple in presentation, the Italia’s interior looked plush and well-finished, to me. However, Mr. Laughlin had a different opinion. Apparently, poor interior build quality was one of his few gripes with the car.

If the reports I read are correct, the other two Italias are automatics, meaning the manual gear changer you see in this picture makes this one unique.

The chassis under the three cars are the same as a standard 1959 Corvette’s, and were merely pulled from the assembly line before their standard Corvette fiberglass bodies were attached.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette Italia rear endMechanicals include a Rochester fuel injection system mated to a 283-cubic-inch V-8 that delivers 315 HP, through a 4-speed Borg-Warner T-10 transmission with a Hurst shifter.

With its new body, however, the Italia weighed 400 pounds less than a standard Corvette, giving it a decided performance advantage.

The Italia was intended to be produced in limited numbers for sale to affluent buyers but needed General Motors for the running gear. Unfortunately, GM didn’t like the idea of disruptions on the assembly line created by plucking the occasional body-less Corvette chassis out to be sent to Italy for conversion. They basically said no thanks.

Before the idea was completely abandoned, the three men that conceived of and created the Italia went to Ford in a bid for support. Ford also declined the proposal.

Thus, only three of these Italian-bodied, American-spirited sports cars exist.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette Italia front three-qtr driver side
Although I saw it in a couple of reports, I was unable to verify a Barrett-Jackson auction of one of the three cars in 2000. Those reports indicated the Italia sold for $164,300.

I subsequently came across a YouTube video of a Gooding & Co auction from 2009 that took place in Pebble Beach. At that auction one of the three cars (not the one in my photos above but stated as formerly being Mr. Laughlin’s) fetched an amazing $480,000. That video is provided in the gallery.


Continue below to the photo and video gallery.

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