The Los Angeles-based car maker that never was
Back in the 1960s, one man tried to subvert the American auto industry's idea of what a car for the masses should be. Over half a century later, it's coming back
Detroit rightfully earned the nickname ‘Motor City’ for its position as the centre of American vehicle production. The ‘big three’ auto manufacturers congregated around the Midwest, setting up shop within only a few miles of each other and copying each other in a never-ending game of one-upmanship.
But in the mid-1960s, one man tried to turn the concept of what an everyday American city car should be on its head, while expanding the country's vehicle production footprint. His plan was a nimble city car built in, and for, Los Angeles. The 1965 Corwin Getaway – named after project backer Louis Corwin – was the West Coast’s answer to Michigan.
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Its creator Cliff Hall was no standard automotive entrepreneur. He wasn’t a long-standing engineer with GM, Ford or Chrysler, a background one might expect to consider embarking on such a challenge. He was a newspaper photographer.
Yet his lack of engineering background didn’t stop him from identifying the ideal car for LA traffic – small, quick to accelerate, fuel efficient and low on cost. Or, generally speaking, the opposite of what those over 2000 miles away in Detroit were building.
While the other side of the States was churning out V8-powered barges, Hall’s ideology was surprisingly similar to that of European sportscar builders. Rather than plonking a heavy gas-guzzler in front of the driver, a four-pot Mazda engine would be sited behind the driver, mated to a manual four-speed transmission and clothed in a fibreglass body.
At 43 inches tall (1.09 metres) and 63 inches wide (1.6 metres), diminutive almost seems an inadequate descriptor. Contrast that to the Dodge Custom 880, produced during the same period Hall was working on his Getaway prototype, which was a road-hogging 79 inches (2.0 metres). That compact floorplan combined with the mid-engined layout meant it had only two front seats but, given the American obsession with driving one’s own car alone to and from work, it was hardly a design flaw.
Hall’s ambitions lay beyond the engineering aspect of his design. It was as much about social mobility as physical mobility through LA’s streets. His hopes were to employ those with the required skills who lacked the opportunities to carve out a career from scratch, while building a vehicle more affordable for younger and lower-income communities in the United States. It was an admirable, if ultimately unsuccessful, aim.
In the end Hall’s vision hit the same stumbling block as most small-scale automotive ventures. A lack of resources meant a lack of development. Not even public endorsement from African-American cultural icons Mohammed Ali, Sidney Poitier and Marvin Gaye helped drum up enough interest in the project to launch a production version. Thus, the Corwin Getaway remained a sole prototype.
53 years after Hall’s dream collapsed, a Los Angeles motoring institution is hoping to revive his creation. The Petersen Automotive Museum has kicked off a crowdfunding campaign to begin a ‘nut and bolt’ restoration of the prototype, aiming to raise $32,000 by November 7.
As for Hall, he’s still involved after all these years and plans to be present at the car’s intended post-restoration debut at the Museum. Those who cough up enough backing will even get to ride around the city in his unique creation. Though it took over half a century, the Getaway is finally breaking out.