Francis Scott’s one-of-one ’58 Corvette retractable wasn’t exactly a factory prototype, but it was an inside job. Here’s the story behind the story.
For years, stories about an unusual retractable hardtop circulated through the Corvette collector world like urban folklore. There were tales of a production 1958 Corvette, but with a hardtop that retracted into the trunk like a Ford Skyliner. Experts who had seen the oddball Vette reported that from the factory-like workmanship, it must be some rare prototype that had somehow escaped into the wild. Sightings were random and conflicting: The retractable was seen around Detroit, then Florida. It was white. No, black. No, it was white with red coves. Some versions of the legend claimed there was not one, but three Corvette retractables.
As it turns out, there was such a car—just one. Though it wasn’t a factory project, we can forgive the experts for being fooled. The car was built by a General Motors stylist, but not in GM’s studios. Francis H. Scott created the Corvette retractable in his living room.
Scott couldn’t afford the new Corvette he wanted on his GM salary—base price at the time was around $3600. But he had plenty of experience with clay modeling and with fiberglass layup (“dirty, nasty work,” as he remembered it) working as a sculptor in the GM Styling Section. In late 1958, Scott purchased a wrecked and written-off ’58 Corvette from an insurance company for $900. With the windshield removed, the shattered body shell fit sideways through the front door of his home and into his living room, where he set to work rebuilding it.
Scott’s original plan was simply to repair the Corvette. The idea for the retractable roof came once he got started—pure serendipity, the result of his cramped work area. With the entire rear body area laid open for repair, he discovered that the Corvette’s lift-off hardtop stowed neatly in the trunk. Eureka!
For his retracting mechanism, Scott borrowed from the much more complicated Skyliner, adapting the latches, one of the lock motors and two drive cables, parts he picked up at the local Ford dealer. The top itself traveled back and then down on hinged fiberglass tracks of his own design.
Nearly all the fabrication work, including the rear window frame, was done in fiberglass, working from clay patterns and molds. Scott explained, “I didn’t have the facilities or experience to make it out of metal, so the clay-fiberglass method was used.” Scott made no plan drawings, simply engineered the design as he went along, and the result is simple, elegant and exceedingly clever.
The same might not be said for the awkward trunk blisters required to provide clearance for the top in the stowed position: They oddly recall the 1958 Thunderbird. In his defense Scott would later say, “I wish I had done something different in that area. GM spends thousands of man-hours moving clay around because they don’t hit the target the first time either.” Ironically, Scott’s retractable top may have been a perfect fit under the square deck of the 1961-62 Corvettes.
Scott was awarded patent No. 3,180,677 for his hinged track design, which he assigned to General Motors for one dollar, per corporate policy. But management expressed no interest in Scott’s concept whatsoever. One day Styling VP Bill Mitchell encountered the retractable in the Tech Center parking lot, circled it once, said “I’ll be damned,” and walked away.
Scott used the Corvette as daily transportation to and from the Tech Center for almost six years, then traded it for a full-sized Chevrolet. A man of many talents, Scott was playing in a local band and needed room for his ax. “If you’ve ever carried as bass fiddle in a Corvette you can imagine the problem,” he said.
The Corvette then disappeared from view, except for the occasional sightings that fed the rumors. It spent some time in Florida, was repainted at least once, from black to a flashy white-and-red two-tone, and eluded capture until 1989. The retractable was then purchased by Corvette guru Terry Michaelis, who treated it to a 1400-hour, frame-off restoration in 1994.
Scotty, as the retractable is known in honor of its creator, then went on display in Michaelis’ showroom at Pro Team Corvette Sales in Napoleon, Ohio. While the retractable is for sale like the 200 other Corvettes on hand, company spokesperson Beth Landis said, “Scotty is really more like part of the family here.”
Another version of this story by MCG originally appeared in the May 22, 2000 issue of AutoWeek magazine. In 2005, the Corvette retractable went on the auction block at Barrett-Jackson, where it sold for $340,200. MCG has lost track of the car since then, but he presumes the car still resides in a private collection.