Styling Proposal Prototype: 1954 Chevrolet Corvette

UPDATE 10/25/2023: Some classics will cross the auction blocks, exceeding the seller’s and the market’s expectations. Others simply don’t make the grade. Judging by the reader’s feedback from when this article initially went live, I suspect many will be surprised to learn that this beautiful 1954 Chevrolet Corvette failed to sell when it recently went to auction via Gooding & Company at Pebble Beach. There is no indication of what the bidding reached, but it seems it fell short of the $1.5 – $2 million auction estimate. The owner isn’t deterred, listing it here on eBay in New Palestine, Indiana. Their auction opened at $300,000 but has received no bids. I must say a big thank you to Barn Finder Spencer D for spotting this repeat visitor that deserves a second look.

07/30/2023: The life of a Harley Earl 1950s-era Motorama show car or prototype was all glitz and glamour and spotlights for a while, but once the curtain closed, they were yesterday’s news. Most were sent to the crusher or repurposed and modified for another project. Waste not, want not. That’s why so precious few of these original show cars and prototypes exist today. Well, here’s one that miraculously slipped through the cracks and somehow got away. Many cars featured here on Barn Finds are described as “rare,” but this Corvette takes the term “rare” to a whole different level. And, it’s ironic that this special ‘Vette is painted green because the next owner will need plenty of it before the gavel goes down.

So, here’s the story. Before Corvette production started in 1953, Chevrolet built and set aside approximately 15 hand-laid fiberglass bodies to be used for the Motorama show car circuit or for styling experiments. Instead of VIN numbers, these 15 special Corvette bodies were given internal codes, and the first one, EX-52, was the first Corvette prototype unveiled at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January 1953. Apparently, two pale yellow prototypes made their show car debut in early 1954, but this particular car (originally coded EX-129) was retired early, given a new project code of S.O. 2151, and returned to Harley Earl’s talented GM styling team to serve as the proposal car for the 1955 Corvette.

Once back in the studio, the original pale yellow paint was changed to a beautiful metallic Bermuda Green (which was also used on the 1955 Chevrolet Biscayne concept car). New styling recommendations for the ’55 Corvette’s front end included a decorative hood scoop and an attractive egg crate grille (that would appear on the ’55 Chevrolet).

The biggest styling addition on the sides was the introduction of slanted front fender vents. And, as was typical with prototype cars, the driver and passenger sides vary so that the GM decision-makers had two versions to choose from. The driver side’s vents are trimmed in gleaming chrome, while the passenger side shows a more subtle approach with body side color and a thin chrome outline.

And, instead of a Chevrolet script on the front fenders above the side stainless trim, there’s a new Corvette script on the doors with a large gold “V” to let folks know that the ’55 Corvette would be available with a V8 engine for the first time. The Corvette script was positioned low on the driver’s side and higher on the passenger side.

Besides the slanted front fender vents, the next noticeable styling change is the trunk. Borrowing heavily from the fastback Corvette Corvair prototype shown at the 1954 Motorama, the S.O. 2051 has a cove-type design that, in addition to the small-finned taillights, gives the ‘Vette even more of a jet plane look. (Obviously, an attempt to please their jet enthusiast boss, Mr. Earl.) The repeating bowtie metal work is especially clever and cool, and another styling addition was bumper-exit exhaust tips.

The S.O. 2151 was completed on July 30, 1954, but all that time and effort was for naught. Between the slow sales of the ’54 Corvette and the recently announced Ford Thunderbird from chief rival Ford, GM executives huddled and decided to focus their attention on an all-new Corvette for 1956. As a result, the styling recommendations of the S.O. 2151 weren’t implemented, and the 1955 model was virtually identical to the 1954 except for the new V8 engine option.

Miraculously, the S.O. 2151 wasn’t destroyed or repurposed for a new show car and somehow made its way to a Dealer in San Jose, California, in 1963. Eleven years later, in 1974, it was acquired by a Corvette collector in very rough “basket case” condition, who sold it the following year for $3,000 to its next owner, George Campbell. Mr. Campbell kept the rare Corvette for 40 years with hopes of restoring it and put a lot of time into researching the car’s history and obtaining studio photos that GM took of the prototype in March of 1954. The car was never restored, and following Mr. Campbell’s death, it was acquired by the next owner on the promise that he would restore it. The car was dropped off at Billy Jay’s Custom Painting in Indiana in 2015 for a complete restoration. It was eventually abandoned, and Billy Jay Espich ended up with the car.

Thank goodness for Corvette and car history geeks like me that S.O. 2151 ended up with Billy Jay. The stunning Corvette prototype you see here is the result of more than three years and 1,800 hours of Billy Jay painstakingly researching the S.O. 2151’s history and existing photos to ensure that the restoration was as accurate as possible to the original. This included recreating the unique rear trunk and some missing trim pieces. The tasteful green and beige interior is impressive and perfectly complements the Bermuda Green paint. (Here’s a video of the S.O. 2151 being restored. The before and after results are unbelievable.)

Under the hood is a 235-cubic inch inline Blue Flame Six that’s painted red, not blue. When GM made an engineering change (in this case, a new cam and 5-10 more horsepower), engines painted red indicated they were a test or prototype. It has three Carter Sidedraft Carbs, was rated at 155 horsepower at 4,2000 rpm, and is mated to a 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The odometer reads 6100 miles, and Billy Jay believes that’s the original mileage based on the condition of the engine when it was rebuilt and other mechanical components. This ultra-rare Corvette has only been shown once, winning the prestigious Founders Award at the Amelia Concours d’Elegance in March 2023. I love reading about and sharing interesting car stories like this.

Comments

  1. Nevada1/2rack Nevadahalfrack Member

    Outstanding find, Adam and fantastic story. To see the life history of an iconic show car like this is incredible. As well, it speaks volumes of the attention to detail, amazing craftsmanship and dedication of Billy Jay. He was able to accomplish what others before him couldn’t. What a masterpiece!

    Thank you for not just preserving a wonderful piece of automotive history but for your ability to change a footnote to an important chapter in the history book.

    “History is written by the victors”.

    Like 50
  2. KC John Member

    Wow! What a fascinating piece of automotive history. Just too cool.

    Like 29
  3. CCFisher

    The auction house is treating this Corvette like a Motorama show car, but it’s even rarer than that. It’s amazing enough when a concept car escapes the crusher, but this is a never-shown-to-the-public styling proposal, and I can’t think of another that made it into private hands.

    Like 33
    • Bill McCoskey Bill McCoskey Member

      CCFisher,

      In the late 1980s I was running an old car shop and I also did vehicle appraisals. I was contacted by a local Cadillac dealer who said they had a very rare Cadillac Concept car; the 1954 LeMans roadster, and for insurance purposes they needed the car appraised.

      One of 4 built [each one was slightly different], The car was supposedly given to Floyd D. Akers, the founder of Capitol Cadillac in Washington, DC, by Harley Earl himself. The Akers Cadillac dealership moved to Greenbelt, MD in the early 1970s, and also opened 2 more locations, in Alexandria, VA and Bethesda, MD. That location ended up becoming Coleman Cadillac. That’s where I went to appraise the Cadillac Lemans roadster.

      The Sales Manager of the dealership met me and escorted me to see the car. I had already done research on the LeMans roadster [I happen to like and have owned several 1954 to ’56 Cadillacs], and he was surprised I knew more about the car than he did. I told him I had no problem doing an exhaustive and accurate appraisal that all the major insurers would accept, but I would need to have the car put on a lift so I could check the underside.

      As a final part of the appraisal, I would need to drive the car, at least around on the dealership property. At first he was apprehensive about me driving such a valuable car, but he relented after I showed him the vintage Rolls-Royce I had driven to the dealership. [Yeah, even guys like him think ALL Rolls-Royces are worth hundreds of thousands of Dollars!]

      So yes, there are other GM concept cars still in existence, and several are at the GM Heritage Museum in Detroit. But the LeMans is the only one I’ve had the privilege of driving!

      And a little piece of trivia: Floyd D. Akers middle name [usually listed just as the initial D] was DeSoto!

      Like 27
      • Angel_Cadillac_Diva Angel Cadillac Diva Member

        Bill,
        You are an extremely fortunate person to have not only seen the Cadillac LeMans in person but to actually drive it.
        I was under the impression that the Buick Y-Job, another of Harleys 2 starter “roadster” was still in existence. I could be wrong, I usually am, does anyone know anything about the Y-Job?

        Like 2
      • Barry

        The Buick Y was shown at the Cobble Beach Concurs D’elegance in 2018, I have many photos of it. An amazing car.

        Like 4
      • Bill McCoskey Bill McCoskey Member

        Angel,

        I’m pretty sure the Buick Y Job is still owned by the GM Heritage Museum. I don’t think it was ever sold out from under the GM organization’s umbrella, as GM realized early on of it’s historical significance as their first factory produced experimental show car.

        Like 1
  4. Grant

    Who drops off a valuable car for restoration just to walk away and give some dude named Billy a 1-2 million dollar windfall? A criminal on the run? An old guy who croaked and never told his wife about the car? If it was the later, I bet the wife someday hears of the sale and hires some shyster to speak for her. Moral of the story, don’t hide things from your wife.

    Like 12
    • CCFisher

      Perhaps someone who’s already run up a restoration bill he can’t afford?

      Like 24
    • Nevada1/2rack Nevadahalfrack Member

      So long as the shop did things by the number (records of call attempts, notices in the papers, lien against the car for storage and work performed) she’ll be wasting her time and money.
      This guy Billy Jay reads like he’s been to more than a few rodeos before and knows the ropes, so she’s SOL.

      Like 11
    • Steveo

      Well, it was a $3,000 basket case at that point. Once upon a time – not that long ago – folks didn’t pay nutty money for cars. And I’m thinking the title and ability to register it for the road might have been problematic.

      Like 11
    • Will Fox

      Better yet, given that scenario, why marry at all?

      Like 4
  5. MathieuB

    Wow, excellent text and description!

    Like 14
  6. Mike

    Watched the video. Looks like they’re going to enjoy a nice ride through the countryside. Nope! It’s straight into the trailer.

    https://youtu.be/ZAPu6AqX_7k?t=26

    Like 5
    • Boatman Member

      Wonder if he shipped her with it!

      Like 4
  7. UDTFROG

    WOW does not do thisd jwewl justice, OOOLLLOOORRDY MIGHT do it!

    Like 7
  8. Jack Quantrill

    A Lazarus car. Back from the dead ! good thing they didn’t continue with that gaping maw of a deck lid.

    Like 12
  9. Beauwayne5000

    Watched the Vid – outstanding restoration.
    That said it’s nothing more than a Factory kit car & that engine is so ridiculously LOUD its solid lifters clattering like Tin Cans.
    I can see why the Ford Thunderbird far out sold the early corvettes.
    Styling wise it’s a great example of early 50s custom work.
    The later CENTURION body kit – vettes being what they are is FAR SUPERIOR.
    the Frame work is definitely 50s original down to the rough Factory welds.
    We restored a 52 Chevrolet convertible deluxe that my Uncle Ray & Dad did & my cousin inherited.
    So I’m familiar with the Era’s GM nuts & bolts parts frames & Engines.
    Ol Billy lucked out it’s like a Giant Model Kit with all the parts included.
    The Body had many pieces broken off in shards & chunks which he had to reglass not highly technical in any way just tike consuming & that’s part of the fun making everything new again.
    The Post war Jet age Era of products up to the 1972 of everything from Cars to Refrigerators was the HIGH point of U.S. culture which will never be repeated or replicated ever again.
    Ultra rare this styling exercise & will be worth every penny at auction which i expect to be a Frenzy for those attempting to buy into what was PEAK U.S. Culture.

    Like 14
    • Dave Peterson

      Do you know why that era was the apex of our society? Because with 30 million trained killers in the population, our so-called “betters” were of the mindset that maybe sharing the pie was a good idea after all. Voila – the 50 million strong (40% of population) were enrolled into the middle class. Now, of course, they have convinced a full third of our fellow Americans to vote against their self-interest, and convinced them that every minority extant is out to get them. It is a genius plan as it has allowed the GOP to essentially perfect minority rule.

      Like 3
  10. CeeOne

    My grandfather used to take me to the motoramas at the Pan Pacific in Los Angeles. I seem to remember the Corvette Corvair fastback, but I don’t really remember this one.

    One thing that stands out was a giant yellow Euclid dump truck,with the bed sealed and filled with water and bathing beauties diving into it from a diving board.

    Like 10
  11. Jim Chepachet

    I bet it goes higher than that, in fact I’ll say $3.5MM now. Let’s see what happens…

    Like 9
  12. John

    Beautiful car which (unfortunately) I can remember seeing one in an auto show with my Dad (I saw the yellow one – and yes, I am that old). We couldn’t afford it back then. Now, after all these years, I still can’t afford one. Time sure flies.

    But, I’d truly rather have one that I could drive.

    BTW, just to be silly, two questions come to mind. Why is the fuel door open on the picture in front of the fence? And, what happened to the third carburettor? The text says it has three, the picture shows only two. Other than that, I love it.

    Like 6
    • Madlad

      You’re looking at the TWO air cleaners, the three carbs are horizonal below them in the feed tubes.

      Like 6
  13. BIMMERBILL

    Here I come. No one has mentioned the engine so I am going to jump in here, In the article it was mentioned that the cam was changed. Not sure what cam they changed to but all the six cylinder Corvettes had a cam change from the factory. This 150 HP engine used the factory 261 truck truck cam with the side draft carbs and a factory split exhaust manifold to give twin exhaust. The 261 was a high torque engine used in dump trucks and buses of that era. Chevrolet had taken the 235 and bored it out to 261 cu in. and added the hot cam. A few of our friends in California were not satisfied with the 150 HP so they had the 261 with the 235 intake and exhaust installed in their six cylinder Corvettes. Oh by the way one person mentioned the loud valves and he was right but they could be adjusted to be quieter. By the way my compliments to this builder, he has pulled off a miracle and I am so glad I lived long enough to see this work of art.
    As a kid making a few dollars I worked at Rickwood field in Birmingham parking cars and a brand new ’53 Corvette came in and the owner and his young son tipped me a half a dollar to keep a watch on his car, I would have done it for free. Everybody have a Great day.

    Like 16
  14. Larry

    John, do you know the difference between an air filter and a carburator?

    Like 3
  15. Greg

    What a stunning Corvette! Hard to believe the estimated value is only 1.5 to 2 million. Watched the video and it shows some great work at Billy Jay’s shop. Only one question that maybe someone can clear up for me. In the video he states the 54 or maybe 55 four door is a modified corvette body. Did I hear wrong or just don’t see the relationship.

    Like 3
  16. TheOldRanger

    Beautiful car…. I loved those 54 Vettes from back then….

    Like 6
  17. BIMMERBILL

    I did not see it mentioned above but the builder had no problems finding suspension parts since the frame on these early Vettes was the same frame as a ’49 – ’52 Chevy but it was shortened. I have a close friend that has a shop that he works on high end cars. He also has a ’54 Vette that he works on in his spare time and I hope that I live long enough to see it finished.

    Like 7
  18. MrBobbbb

    Sometime in the ’70’s, I remember an article on the (2) original ’52 Corvettes that were prototypes, but obviously never put into production. The pictures were of a body that was all-Vette in the front, but looked like a small station wagon/SUV behind the doors. I’ve tried to find any pre-internet photos with no luck. I believe one was located, the other lost to time. Anyone know?

    Like 4
    • CeeOne

      “Sometime in the ’70’s, I remember an article on the (2) original ’52 Corvettes that were prototypes, but obviously never put into production. The pictures were of a body that was all-Vette in the front, but looked like a small station wagon/SUV behind the doors.”

      That was probably the Nomad show car. But it was 54, not 52.

      Like 3
  19. MrBobbbb

    Nope, it was a ’52 Corvette. I’ve seen the Nomad prototype, a larger and different car. Similar taillights (never liked ’55 taillights).

    Like 3
  20. CeeOne

    Could it have been the prototype called the Corvair which was kind of a fastback 53ish Corvette?

    Like 3
  21. chrlsful

    love the YHs & Blue Flame, may B the thru body tail pipes but that’s it. Cant take ’em till ’56 – 60 (DA rear came in nxt yr) and that’s it on the vette for me. C-2 ‘mako shark’ just an affront to me. Well the 1 yr ’63 hrd top is great, but the rest, not o much (Signed: “mr. opinionated”).
    The ’56/0 is just so great Y improve on it? Like the ‘cove’ dashes (both sides), driver’s binnacle, Italianate rear deck, some of the grills are better than others, but all the details good (radio, shifter, door/window handles). I’ll put it on page one of my book w/300SL & 507 altho a different Driving Experience (‘looks”).

    Like 4
  22. JoeNYWF64

    I would have expected a V8 & a 4 speed manual here. & perhaps backup lights & tailpipes exiting out of the quarter panels.
    IMO, not the best color contrast inside the car.
    Imagine what it cost to restore the chopped up same green Biscayne concept car retrieved from the junkyard!

    Like 1
  23. UDTFROG

    In1954,I was back home from my UDT combat boot camp, Iwas visiting th OMEARA Ford dealership to see a friend when Al Omeara called the entire crew to the main showroom drive, There at a white 1954 Corvette , Mr. Omeara “boys this may be a problem coming but this 6 banger wont be it YET” .

    Like 2
  24. Chris

    You can find info here about the ’52 Vetter prototype and other related: https://www.corvettes.nl/gm_prototypes/ex122/index.html

    Like 0
  25. chrlsful

    buick wildcat here seems to have the MB continental head lghts. ………. https://www.hagerty.com/valuation-tools/mercedes~benz/220seb/1964/1964-mercedes~benz-220seb
    but that’s nex gen so “we beat ’em to it.”
    Still same comment on the vette. That rear seems grotesque compared to the ’56/60. Nice as ‘historical piece’~

    Like 0

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