Alan B. Shepard (center) with GM Styling President William L. Mitchell (left) and Chevrolet General Manager Edward N. Cole (right) with Shepard's 1962 Corvette.Enlarge Photo
With the 50th anniversary celebrations of America's first manned space flight happening this week, the Chevrolet Corvette gets a starring role in the parade to be held in Cocoa Beach, Florida on Saturday, May 7th.
There has always been a symbiotic relationship between America's most notable sports car and her most elite adventurers. In the 1960's, as today—if you really want to turn some heads, when asked what you do, reply; "I'm an astronaut." Much conversation will ensue. Space fascinates today, just as did back in 1961, when Alan Shepard was the first American man to allow himself to be strapped in a can, perched on top of a very big-ass bottle rocket and flung out of the earth's atmosphere.
First thing he did when he got back?
Yeah, he kissed his wife.
But he got to her in his Corvette.
And before you cry marketing ploy, it was not. Shepard showed up for astronaut training with a '57 'Vette in '59. It is reported the spaceman owned 10 of the fiberglass wondercars in his lifetime.
Now, recognizing his Corvette proclivities, the General (that's GM) did arrange to hook Shepard up with a '62 once he survived the flight. Done up in white paint with a custom interior, it may well have gone a long way toward completely cementing the bond between America's highest fliers and her most extreme sports car of the day.
Of course, where there's money to be made, an entrepreneur will soon show up.
In this story, that entrepreneur is Florida Chevy dealer, Jim Rathmann. Rathmann was a Corvette-loving rocketeer's wet dream. He brokered a deal with Chevrolet corporate to break off some special lease action for the astronauts who came into his Melbourne, Fla. dealership to cop a 'Vette. Six of the Mercury pilots took Rathmann up on his offer, John Glenn, credited with being the first American to orbit the earth, opted for a Chevy wagon instead. (Hey, there's no accounting for taste).
Thanks to Rathmann, noted Apollo moon men like Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad, and Alan Bean all enjoyed special deals from Chevrolet. In fact, these three guys got all jiggy with it. They ordered a matched set of customized 'Vettes with a cool insignia and a black and gold color scheme.
On May 7, 2011, approximately 30 of America's surviving astronauts are expected to gather at Cocoa Beach, Florida, where they will participate in a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Shepard's historic sub-orbital flight. Fittingly, they will be driven in Corvettes representing all six design generations built since the famed sports car's 1953 debut.
(Images Courtesy of Chevrolet)