While the 1969 Corwin Getaway is just a footnote in automotive history, it represents something of a landmark in African-American history, being the only instance on record that a Black visionary created a vehicle planned not just for himself but for his community.
Cliff Hall was chief photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black-owned weekly newspaper, when he hit on the idea of producing a small, maneuverable car for LA commuting that would be built right in the city, thus providing jobs and design opportunities for people in the poorer sections of LA.
“Although Cliff lacked much experience in building cars, he was a prolific tinkerer who always had the energy to develop new ideas,” according to a DriveHistory Profile presented by the Historic Vehicle Association. “Cliff had built small cars for his children before and had some experience working with fiberglass, so he knew enough to get the ball rolling.
“After roughly two years of experimenting and $150,000 invested ($700,000+ in 2021 dollars), the Corwin Getaway was born. Named for the project’s chief financial backer, Louis Corwin, the car was a mid-engine coupe built upon a custom chassis, with a strong fiberglass body, and a 78hp Subaru engine connected to a 4-speed manual transmission.
“The Corwin sat at 11 feet long and 43 inches tall, with a design that predates the Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2 by (about) 15 years.”
Hall completed a prototype of the Corwin, which he showed around the city, even presenting it at the 1970 Los Angeles Auto Show. It received an enthusiastic response from a number of Black celebrities, the HVA article says, including Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier and Marvin Gaye.
“Despite this positive response, Cliff was unable to capitalize on this attention and failed to secure financing for large-scale production, leaving the prototype as the sole Corwin Getaway ever built,” the article says.
That single Corwin wound up in Hall’s garage in Blair Hills for several decades as he moved on to other projects. In the early 1990s, Hall contacted the Petersen Automotive Museum about his car, having heard that the LA museum was looking for cars with ties to the local community for display during the opening of the museum.
The Corwin prototype was show at the Petersen’s Coachbuilt & Customs display and remained at the museum for several months before being returned to Hall. A few years later, he donated the car to the museum, which had promised to restore it once the funding became available.
The little car was in a poor state of disrepair when the museum received it, but it was complete and original, the HVA reported.
“Bodie Stroud Industries were tapped to take on the project of restoring the Corwin which was no easy task (restoring a one-off prototype is rarely is),” the article says. “After countless hours of research, restoration and even a crowdfunding campaign, the Corwin was brought back to its former glory and put back on permanent display at The Petersen Automotive Museum in mid-2019.”
Hall died in early 2020 at the age of 94, but he did get the chance to see his unique prototype fully restored.
“We were so happy that the car was restored to near perfection and that Cliff got to see it one last time,” Leslie Kendall, chief historian for the Petersen, said in the article. “We held a private viewing of the car in the museum after its restoration and Cliff brought his family, friends, business associates and more to show them the car on display. It was an emotional time for everyone.”
The HVA, which has been inducting significant vehicles into the National Historic Vehicle Register for permanent inclusion in the Library of Congress, noted that Hall’s story of innovation and perseverance is one that is repeated throughout automotive history. Although, his spirit of altruism is something not often seen.
“There are many people with stories similar to Cliff Hall’s where a motivated individual wanted to become the next big player in the American automotive marketplace,” the HVA article notes. “In fact, one of the cars we’ve inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register (the Tucker 48) is centered around a very similar story.
“However, Cliff’s benevolent vision and work within his marginalized community is what sets himself and the Corwin apart. Although his dream never reached the level of success he had aspired to, we hope that the telling of his story and the history of this unique car can be an inspiration towards the next great move in American automotive history.”