There are many motivations for why someone might try their hand at creating the next big car to hit the automotive marketplace. Whether it be riches, fame, notoriety, or more, there’s always a driving factor behind any visionary’s efforts. However, some motivations are more altruistic than others.
In the late 1960s, Cliff Hall, Chief Photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel at the time, wanted to uplift his community in the most American way possible: through the production of a new car for the masses. Cliff’s hope was to create a small, maneuverable car for commuting in Los Angeles, build it in Los Angeles, using Los Angeles talent, and give people jobs to get them off of the streets.
Photos by Ted7 Photography
Although Cliff lacked much experience in building cars, he was a prolific tinkerer who always had the energy to develop new ideas. 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 11ft long and 43 inches tall, with a design that predates the Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2 by ~15 years.
Once the Corwin prototype was complete, Cliff showcased his new car around the city and even the 1970 LA Auto Show. The Corwin garnered positive attention and was viewed favorably by black celebrities, 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.
Photos via The Petersen Automotive Museum
After Cliff was unable to secure financing for production, the Corwin was retired to his garage for several decades as Cliff’s constant energy for building new ideas drew his attention towards different projects. The car remained hidden until The Petersen Automotive Museum got a call from Cliff in the early 90s. Cliff had heard the museum was looking for cars with ties to the local community to put on display at the opening of the Museum and of course the Corwin was a perfect fit for the job.
The Corwin was initially shown for The Petersen’s “Coachbuilt & Customs” display at their opening and was once again met with a positive response from the public. The car stayed in the museum for several months, but eventually the exhibit ran its course, and the Corwin was returned back to Cliff. The Petersen kept in regular contact with Cliff, often with him offering to sell the Corwin to the museum or with pitches on new designs he wanted to construct. Leslie Kendall, Chief Historian for The Petersen, told us “I always remembered [the Corwin] as that real interesting car that could have changed an important aspect in automotive history.” […] “We never quite had the funds to buy the car, but I always told Cliff ‘Why don’t you donate it to the museum?’ and if it happens that the funds become available, we’ll restore the car.” After several years of back and forth, Cliff took Leslie up on his offer and handed his passion project over to The Petersen.
The Corwin prior to its restoration (Photos via The Petersen Automotive Museum)
At this point the Corwin had sat in a Blair Hills garage for several years and fallen into a state of disrepair. It was dusty, the windshield had fallen in, and it was a mess, but it was complete and original which is exactly where a restorer would want. 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). After countless hours of research, restoration, and even a crowdfunding campaign, the Corwin was brought back to its former glory and put back on display in The Petersen Automotive Museum in mid-2019.
Sadly, Cliff Hall would pass away in early 2020 at the age of 94, but not without seeing his lifelong project finally get the recognition it deserved. “We were so happy that the car was restored to near perfection and that Cliff got to see it one last time,” says Leslie. “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 Corwin on display at The Petersen Automotive Museum
When we asked Leslie about Cliff’s reputation, the Corwin, and its place in the famous LA auto museum he said “Some people are great at selling but have nothing to sell. Cliff had something great to sell but lacked the knowledge and ability to do so. It’s a shame that the circumstances weren’t there for him.” […] “What was interesting about Cliff was I don’t think he was out to make a name for himself. He just wanted to help his community in the most practical way possible. […] What’s interesting about the auto industry in LA is we lack everything you need for industrial growth (lumber, water, iron, etc.) but what California does have are intelligent, driven people with creativity to spare. That’s California’s natural resource.”
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. 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.