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Top 10 Chevy Designs

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

General Motors global vice president of design has named what might be the definitive list of the top 10 Chevys of all time. As if Ed's job responsibilities and 40 years of experience in GM design weren't enough credentials, his dad co-owned a body shop, so Ed has been eyeing sheetmetal since he was a kid.

While new models must be forward-looking, as a company with a century of heritage Chevrolet has cultivated designs that can be referenced in contemporary models. "I'm always thinking of the future but you have a great heritage with Chevrolet," Welburn said. "You need to build on that."

Ed's list, in chronological order, sensibly includes the very first Chevrolet, the 1912 Classic Six. This premium-priced car listed for $2,150 and boasted the largest displacement engine Chevy offered until the big block V8 debuted in 1958. By 1915 the company decided that there was more opportunity as a mainstream carmaker, so the company switched to lower-priced models.

A generation later Chevy rose to the challenge of matching mainstream affordability with racy style in the 1932 Deluxe Sport Coupe. This hardtop coupe carried only two people inside, but the external rumble seat left room for two more in a pinch. "It had spirit, was affordable and contemporary," Welburn summarized.

Just a few years later Chevy launched a vehicle that would prove to be the first of a new segment, the SUV. The 1936 Suburban Carryall mounted a station wagon body on a tough truck frame, providing the utility that eventually made the Suburban a favorite with suburban families. As remains the case today, the original Suburban was available with either rear cargo doors or a tailgate, depending on customer preference. "And it's got a cool interior too, a real neat one," Welburn added.

World War II interrupted car design for a while, but Chevy came back with an all-new pickup truck in 1948, and Welburn regards it as a benchmark because it was not only the company's first post-war design, but because it became Chevrolet's benchmark commercial vehicle during the post-war economic boom. "You just have to smile when you look at one," Welburn concluded.

Finally, in 1953, that post-war economic optimism spawned America's first sports car, the '53 Corvette, which naturally earns a spot on Welburn's list. The Corvette was created by Welburn's legendary predecessor Harley Earl. From the very beginning, Chevrolet's 'plastic fantastic' wore fiberglass bodywork wrapped around two seats, with the goal of challenging the European sports cars that servicemen were discovering overseas. "It was a design that for years I didn't care for that much," conceded Welburn, "but now I absolutely love it." Apparently even design bosses can wrestle with such decisions.

The call gets easier for the next two, probably the company's most iconic designs of all time, the '55 Chevrolet Bel Air and the '63 Corvette Sting Ray. The only question here is which one is the number one and which is number two in order of design significance for the company.

The introduction of the equally legendary smallblock V8 engine made the '55 Chevy's flamboyant "Motoramic" styling all the more memorable. "It was a car that looked more expensive than it actually was," Welburn recalled.

In 1963 the Corvette gained independent rear suspension, pop-up headlights and a Bill Mitchell design that looks fast while standing still. "I've lectured on this car many times," said Welburn. "Every Corvette since then has been influenced by it, even the current model."

Perhaps reflecting the rise in significance of trucks in American culture, as well as the automotive doldrums suffered in the 1970s, Welburn's next two picks are the 1967 and 1989 Chevrolet pickup trucks. Something about the design of that '67 truck appealed to the mass market, he observed. "It is a very iconic American design. You see that truck and you also see a guy with blue jeans and a tool box in the back!"

The '89 truck's square-edged design underscored its not-a-car position. "It is a very clean design and still looks contemporary today," Welburn observed. "We're working on future Chevrolet pickups and guys have photos of this one on the wall for inspiration."

Finally, Welburn, who owns a '69 Camaro, concludes his list with the 2010 Camaro. "I decided to put the 2010 Camaro on this list before the '69," he said. "It connected with people around the world. Though Welburn brought his own car into the studio as a target for its designers, the new car is not intended as a retro design, he insists. "I wouldn't want to build a retro Camaro," he said.

That's the definitive list from the guy who has the credibility to say so, but as with any list, it is only the beginning of the debate among enthusiasts. Line up your favorites and let the discussion begin!

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Top 10 Chevy Designs - Autotrader