It was a cold day in New York on January 17th, 1953. The high for the day would barely make it above the freezing mark. Still, thousands of people waited outside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, to be there for the opening of the General Motors 1953 Motorama.
The Motorama was a grand production meant to show the world the latest offerings from Cadillac, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Chevrolet. Futuristic show cars were there too, that celebrated design ideas without limits along with displays that demonstrated the most cutting-edge technological advances of the time. Dancers, musical productions, lavish sets, and women modeling the latest fashions, made it a major event.
An estimated 1.4 million people would get to see these cars as the Motorama travelled to major cities around the country, with approximately 50,000 coming to see the show in New York on that opening day.
One of those who came was a 15-year-old named Donald DeFilippo. He had taken a train from Poughkeepsie, NY, all by himself to experience the Motorama. As a budding artist, he was mostly interested in the Oldsmobiles, the Buicks, and the show cars that inspired him to sketch out his own ideas for future automobiles. There he would see the Oldsmobile Starfire, the Buick XP-300 and the Wildcat, the Cadillac Orleans and Le Mans, and something totally new, the Chevrolet Corvette.
Just in time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that moment, he reached out to us and shared his story.
From an early age he enjoyed playing on the footboards of the big cars, and was particularly drawn to the 1935 Buick Victoria, a 1939 Packard, and the 1941 Cadillac, which coincidentally all had hood ornaments depicting the form of a woman, in forward motion, fiercely and confidently leading the way down whatever road that car would go.
“When the 1949-1950 Buicks, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs came out, I started sketching and drawing my impressions of what these cars may look like in the future. Like all kids, we have our dreams of what we would like to do as an adult. Mine was to be a GM styling designer.”
With that being Don’s mindset, he was determined to go to the Motorama, where he could take in the full dramatic effect of each car, in person, from every angle.
“I got on the train in Poughkeepsie New York and took a 75-mile trip to Grand Central Station in New York City. Someone gave me directions to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which wasn’t too far.
“When I got there, I remember walking up an elegant marble staircase to the second floor. It was a huge ballroom. I remember saying to myself ‘I made it!’”
The Grand Ballroom was filled with people, shoulder to shoulder, watching the two-level stage as the latest cars emerged from the curtains, flanked by dancers and models wearing dresses from famous designers such as Christian Dior.
“I was standing there, and it was packed. There were men with winter coats and hats on which made it difficult to move around. I finally found the Buick and Oldsmobile displays on elevated turntables with beautiful women opening and closing the doors. I said to myself, ‘This is what a drawing looks like when it comes to life.’”
As Don took in the spectacle of it all, he noticed a group of people huddled around another vehicle. While his view was obstructed, he could hear excitement in their voices. Curious, he began looking for seams to get through the crowd.
“I could not see until I squeezed through – and I mean squeezed through – because people did not want to move like they had at the other exhibits. I finally managed to gradually get between a little girl and a man in a business suit. It was then that I saw something I never knew existed.
“I was looking at a sleek two door, two seat convertible with hood and trunk open. It had a Chevy straight six with three small horizontal carburetors and wire mesh over the headlights. I instantly thought, ‘What if they put an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 engine in that?’”
As the crowd looked at the new Chevrolet Corvette, a picture was being taken that would find its way into magazines, history books and countless online posts. We’ll get back to that later.
Another person who would first see the Corvette at this Motorama, was a man named Zora Arkus-Duntov. Zora was a gifted engineer, and a race car driver who had competed and won his class in a Porsche at Le Mans. His impression of the Corvette was the same as Don’s regarding the underwhelming straight-six Blue Flame engine. Zora was even quoted as saying, “mechanically, it stunk, with its six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission, but visually, it was superb.”
Corvette’s appearance did indeed draw a crowd that day, as the photographs can attest. Seeing the Corvette at the 1953 Motorama prompted Zora to write a letter to then Chief Engineer of Chevrolet, Ed Cole, that would get him hired as an engineer, ultimately putting Corvette on the path to becoming the performance icon that it is today.
Don did not become a car designer, instead he joined the Air Force, and then got a job working for IBM. He also started a band (that released a single) and went to business school. His love for Corvette was always there though and in 1960, he purchased a 1954 Corvette. He would later buy a new 1966, and then a new 1970. For that car, he put his design skills to work on the body to transform it into what he calls “The Corvette Firefox” that he still owns today.
For Christmas in 2014, Don’s son Joe, gave him a copy of Mike Mueller’s book, Corvette Factories. While flipping through the pages, Don came across a photo of a crowd of people gathered around the Corvette at the 1953 Motorama. As the memories began flooding back to him, a face in the crowd caught his attention. After making a closer examination of the photo, he looked up at Joe and said, “This is me.”
This was a surprise to both Don and Joe. While the photograph had been in circulation for many years, Don always focused on the car, just as he did back then.
“At that time, I did not realize cameras in the upper deck were recording this once in a lifetime event.”
That historic photograph has always been just as much about the people as it is about the Corvette, as it captures the excitement that Corvette has generated from the very beginning. Perhaps that 15-year-old squeezing his way between that little girl and the man in the suit, is one of the best examples of the attraction that Corvette has had on so many. When you think about it, the camera not only caught the debut of the Corvette on film, but it also captured the moment when one of Corvette’s first enthusiasts was born.