Cobra’s Daddy: The Story Behind The Corvette Italia
We tend to think of history as fixed and absolute, when in fact, it is dynamic. You may have learned about a piece of history at the surface level only to find out later, this is a simplified version that leaves the details. Such is the case with one of automotive history’s biggest “what-ifs”, the Corvette Italia.
Gary Laughlin was a oil-drilling contractor who earned enough to fund his participation in sports car racing. Throughout the ‘50s, Laughlin raced a numerous sports cars, but the cost of servicing the stable was causing him to hemorrhage money. In one instance, the crankshaft of a Ferrari broke, and although the price was $350, the final cost of the part from Italy was $1200 (roughly $11,000 today).
Laughlin admired the style of Italian cars but wanted reliability. With a vision of his dream GT car, Laughlin called his connections at Chevrolet for the engine and reached out to a friend, Pete Coltrin, in Modena to introduce him to Sergio Scaglietti.
As the project took shape, Laughlin approached Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby for investment. Shelby had his sights set on being a constructor and was interested in “hot rodding” existing engines in order to produce more horsepower. Both Laughlin and Shelby tried to persuade Chevrolet to make the “Italia” a Corvette option. Although their pleas did not convince management, Ed Cole, the general manager of Chevrolet, agreed to sell them 3 chassis from the factory.
Despite being born of humble means, Sergio Scaglietti was obsessed with cars. Scaglietti entered the workforce as an apprentice to a local coachbuilder. Two decades later, Sergio built a modified Ferrari 166, which earned him a contract to design the 500 Mondial. Years later, Pete Coltrin approached Scaglietti with the proposal for an Italian Corvette. Scaglietti accepted the offer, but having just signed a partnership with Ferrari, the Italia was not a priority. After 18 months of waiting, GM wanted to scrap the project. When the cars were delivered, the reception was unenthusiastic. Too much time and money were spent for what was delivered. Carroll Shelby refused delivery of the car and defected to Ford with his idea for a European styled racecar that became the Ford Cobra.
Italians on the Move
The Italia prototype moved around for several years before being bought by a British collector. Jim Hall had held onto his Italia for decades before selling to a French collector. The third chassis was modified with a newer engine and manual transmission before being sold to Mike McCafferty. Mike put the Italia up for auction in 2000, where it was purchased by Robert Petersen.
Behind The Wheel
The million dollar Scaglietti Corvette is a permanent part of the Petersen collection and is brought out periodically for shows. The car looks similar to the Ferrari 250 GT Tour De France and is often mistaken for one. The main giveaways are the wider rear end and the softer curvature of the hood and front fenders. The seating is intended for a “Texas-sized” driver and the interior is minimalistic, despite being ostentatiously Italian. Steering can be difficult at low speeds, yet surprisingly nimble when accelerating through chicanes. The bipolar handling is due to a combination of the low weight, ride height, and rock hard tires. Issues could be addressed with modifications, but Laughlin was disillusioned with the delivery and had moved to other ventures.
Had any number of factors changed during the conception of the Italia, the history of the Corvette could have been drastically different. If GM had lent its support, Scaglietti had not procrastinated, or Laughlin had not been so persistent, the Corvette as we know it would have been entirely different, and we would not have the Ford Cobra.