L.A.’s African-American-born mid-engine car that never was

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Did you know that Muhammad Ali’s official photographer once tried to build a mass-market mid-engine city car? Completed in 1969, the Corwin Getaway never made it to production, but the original prototype is in the collection of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The museum is hoping to raise money to restore the Getaway, a historically significant piece of African-American car culture which predated the mid-engine Fiat X-1/9 and Pontiac Fiero that would follow.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Cliff Hall was a fixture in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air high society, a mentor to noted photographer and future Ali biographer Howard Bingham, as well as the chief photographer for L.A.’s African-American weekly newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel. But apart from all that, he was also an avid tinkerer and amateur engineer. “My grandfather was a watchmaker and my grandmother's two brothers built race cars and an airplane for themselves back in the 1920s,” Hall told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. His vision was for a compact, mid-engine car designed for easy maneuvering through L.A. traffic—a kind of enclosed alternative to a motorcycle that would be appealing and affordable for young people.

When the idea came to a head in 1965, Hall hoped that a locally-produced mass-market car would be a positive economic force in black communities in Los Angeles. He secured $100,000 in funding from Panasonic electronics importer Louis Corwin, from whom the brand took its name.

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Stemming from his previous projects with battery-powered go-karts, Hall’s early notion of the Getaway involved a two-seat fiberglass sports-car body with an exposed chrome motorcycle engine. Hall was not a trained engineer, however, and the technical obstacles of this concept—along with not being able to find a motorcycle engine with a reverse gear—forced him to change course. His final prototype featured a fiberglass body that was 11 feet long and just 43 inches tall, with a 78-hp Subaru engine behind the passenger cabin. Project price—$4500.

Through his notoriety and connections in the L.A. black community’s upper echelons, Hall won support from Muhammad Ali, as well as Sidney Poitier and Marvin Gaye. Early in the process, Hall was in talks with Gaye about financing, and the legendary musician envisioned the car would be called the Corwin Panther.

The car was finished in 1969 and appeared at the 1970 Los Angeles Auto Show. It’s been in the Petersen’s collection for more than 25 years, and the museum is campaigning to raise $32,000 for a full restoration. If you want to help get it out of the cobwebs and back in the limelight, you can support the project on Indiegogo.

By: Eric Weiner, Hagerty