lan B. Shepard (center) with GM Styling President William L. Mitchell (left) and Chevrolet General Manager Edward N. Cole (right) with Shepard’s 1962 Corvette.
Shortly after returning from his historic flight to space in 1961, Alan Shepard got a surprise gift from General Motors — a dazzling white 1962 Chevrolet Corvette.
The gift would spark a budding relationship between NASA astronauts and the automaker, and experts say the association helped to define the Corvette as the iconic American sports car.
“In the 1960s, astronauts were the American heroes that every child idolized and every adult respected,” Corvette historian Jerry Burton told GM in a 2011 interview. “That so many of them drove Corvettes really helped establish the Corvette as America’s sports car.”
But the astronauts might not have settled on the Corvette had it not been for Florida Chevrolet dealer Jim Rathmann, who also won the Indianapolis 500 in 1960.
According to General Motors, Rathmann saw the astronauts as the perfect pitchmen for the sports car. He worked out an arrangement with Chevrolet that put six of the Mercury astronauts behind the wheel of a Vette for a single dollar.
Danny Reed, who owns one of the astronaut’s Vettes, said it made sense that they would be behind the wheel of one of America’s most iconic models.
“It just fit their image,” Reed said. “What other car would they drive?”