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Heart Like a Wheel: notes on the Fancy Free Corvette

America in the late 1950s must have been an incredible time and place to be.

It was an historical sweet spot between two world wars and Vietnam, after rock n’ roll but before the British Invasion, still Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan and not quite The Beatles. You could go for burgers and malted milk at the drive-in, twist your bobby socks off at the hop, and if you had the means, you might even be able to afford one of the finest and most beautiful automobiles ever produced, an upstart little sports coupe called the Chevrolet Corvette.

In 1958, General Motors produced 9,168 of these babies. But only one was known as the “Fancy Free” — a stunning metallic olive coloured prototype, all curves and chrome, upon which Ruth Glennie literally cut footloose. Glennie’s one-of-a-kind Corvette is part of an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts entitled Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design, celebrating the contributions that women have made to the world of design, industrial and otherwise.

Glennie was among nine women working for GM, part of a unit known as the “Damsels in Design.” The corporate thinking at the time was that women drove most of a nuclear family’s expenditures, consumer durables like automobiles, furniture, musical instruments, and home appliances.

A number of the Damsels were allocated to Frigidaire, a GM subsidiary, to imagine the Kitchen of the Future. But Glennie worked on the ‘Vette, conceiving of features such as seasonal seat covers, retractable seatbelts, and of course a strategically placed ashtray. Glennie mightn’t have made the fenders nor the motor, but she designed an interior fit for a life of leisure, a pleasurable place to travel, sat comfortably in America’s second home — the passenger seat.

Everyone knows that the fossil fuel industry is rapidly destroying the planet. Our world has a significant oil problem that’s responsible in large part for deadly international conflicts and climate change among other catastrophes. Nonetheless, I have a cheesy bone in my body for classic American cars, those engines of internal combustion. It’s like alcoholics say about booze — we’ve got a problem with this stuff, let’s just finish it up.

I drove a Corvette only once. It was the plaything of an ex-girlfriend’s father, an unremarkable 1990s model, sadly, made of plastic and fiberglass and as unlike the Fancy Free as possible. But the first and only car that I ever owned was a 1968 Chevy Camaro, white with blue interior, the kind of automobile you might imagine the baddie driving in a Steve McQueen movie, definitely designed by dudes, as fast as the Devil himself, and yet with a trunk spacious enough to hold several dead bodies.

The Corvette and the Camaro had a common option: the Powerglide transmission. This was a racing gearbox with two speeds: go, and go faster. Although there was actually a secret “low” gear as well that I only discovered when a golden yellow 1970s model Chevy Nova Super Sport pulled up alongside me, its driver shouting out the window, “kick ‘er down, buddy!” I had no idea what “kick ‘er down” meant, until I shifted the centre console into “low” and felt the chassis shudder like an airplane in takeoff mode.

I blew off a Porsche in that car. Granted it was only a 928, but still. And I can attest that ladies loved the interior, too, especially the backseat, a crucial omission of Corvettes. The Camaro had a 327 cubic inch engine. The Corvette possessed a more modest 289, because no one man should have all that power. It’s only right that at least half of it should belong to the fairer sex.

Corvettes were classier, not driven by deviants and film villains. Glennie’s Fancy Free harkens back to a simpler time, when American modernity fostered optimism rather than cynicism. There was a sense in the ‘50s that the future was bright and full of possibility. In those halcyon days, the Mad Men might have appeared in control, but women were in charge by design.◼︎

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design runs 18 February – 28 May 2023 at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.