1948 GM Corsair: Harley Earl’s Rear-Engine Experiment

Harley Earl with CorsairIn the late 1940s, the Motor City’s auto designers were working from a clean sheet of paper in their idea cars and prototypes. Here’s one intriguing example: the streamlined, rear-engine 1948 Corsair from Harley Earl and General Motors. 



The Chevrolet Corvair of 1960 was not the first adventure in rear-engine cars for General Motors, not by a long shot. In the mid-’30s, the automaker’s extensive experiments included a series of rear-engine, two-stroke compact cars. And after World War II, as the manufacturers searched for fresh designs to engage consumers, GM vice-president of styling Harley Earl (pictured above) spearheaded this interesting effort, the Corsair.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a huge amount of information about the Corsair. Much of it comes from a cover story in the April, 1949 issue of Mechanix Illustrated that features the Corsair along with a historical survey of rear-engine cars to that time, including the Tatra, Stout Scarab, and Tucker. The photos in the article show some renderings and a detailed scale model of the GM proposal, but the text also describes at least one full-sized running prototype that was on the road in 1946, using production Pontiac sedan sheet metal with a six-wheel chassis.


Corsair two views


Styling of the Corsair (above) followed the same general theme as other GM experimental cars of the period, including the Cadillac Interceptor. (See the Interceptor in action at the Milford Proving Ground here.) The scale model’s packaging and passenger layout indicates that the engine—its configuration and output unspecified—was placed behind the rear axle centerline, in the manner of Tatra and Tucker et alia. Meanwhile, the driver was placed well forward, between the front wheels in a sort of pilot-house configuration. The driver rode alone, as two-abreast seating in the far-forward position would have excessively limited steering angle and turning radius.

Other way-out features of the Corsair included a bubble-like greenhouse with generous glass area, hidden headlamps, skirted fenders front and rear, and a long dorsal fin that extended into the rear bumper. Obviously, none of these styling elements found their way into GM production models in a serious way. And despite the similarity in names, it can’t be said the Corvair owes much, if anything, to this 1940s experiment. Still, it’s fun to wonder how the car buying public of the time would have responded to the 1948 Corsair.



2 thoughts on “1948 GM Corsair: Harley Earl’s Rear-Engine Experiment

  1. Never saw or heard of it until now. Thanks again for the continuing education.

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