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Petersen turns to crowdfunding for restoration of Cliff Hall’s one-off Corwin

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum.

With tiny Beetles proliferating across America, Cliff Hall wanted to build a true “people’s car”: one designed not only for economically disadvantaged to buy, but also for them to build in their own communities. Appropriately enough, the Petersen Automotive Museum has turned to the people — via crowdfunding — for the restoration of the one car that Hall built.

“We wanted to first get the word out about it,” Petersen Curator Leslie Kendall said of the decision to crowdfund the restoration of Hall’s 1965 Corwin Getaway prototype. “But we also wanted to give people the opportunity to be a part of the restoration.”

Hall, a fixture in Los Angeles’ black community during the Sixties, made a name for himself as a photographer for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a gig that gave him access to some of the city’s most prominent celebrities, politicians, and businessmen. Hall didn’t limit his pursuits to photography, however: Pretty much any description of him paints him as an energetic and industrious ideator, whose mind keeps spinning out solutions to problems he encounters.

Thus in 1965, in the wake of the Watts riots and the racial injustices that spurred them, Hall decided that what Los Angeles’ black communities needed were industry and gainful employment. The Los Angeles area had plenty of car factories for the Big Three and American Motors, but none of them turned out cars like Hall envisioned: small, fiberglass-bodied, mid-engined, and sporty.

“I was going to be the Martin Luther King Jr. of industry,” Hall told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.

His initial ideas borrowed heavily from the go-karts he built for his son, according to a in-period interview. “The type of vehicle that I envisioned in essence was a lightweight, four-wheel vehicle powered with a motorcycle-type engine with a reverse gear, seating two people, having motorcycle-type wheels and a beautifully-designed, sculptured, fiberglass canopy that looked similar to a sports car, with the extremely-exotic, chrome motorcycle engine partially or completely exposed,” he said. “My thinking was that the younger generation would accept this vehicle because of its uniqueness, inexpensive price, and because it was more practical in foul weather than a motorcycle — yet, it had the sound of a motorcycle and the beauty of our modern-day motorcycles.”

Finding a motorcycle engine with a reverse gear and dealing with the side-load stresses of motorcycle wheels, however, proved difficult, so his ideas evolved into something more substantial and less motorcycle-like.

Hall needed backing to develop a prototype, so he approached Beverly Hills-based Panasonic electronics importer Louis Corwin, who decided to float Hall $100,000. By 1969, he had finished the prototype, which he powered with a Subaru four-cylinder engine and which he named for the car’s investor. Though he managed to photograph it with Muhammad Ali, Marvin Gaye, and Sydney Poitier, his efforts to secure funding to build the factories and start production petered out over the next few decades.

When Robert E. Petersen founded the museum that bears his name with the intent of focusing on the automotive culture of Southern California, Hall felt it only natural to first loan the Corwin — sporting square headlamps and a repaint in black — to the museum, then later donate it outright.

“(The Corwin) means so much to Los Angeles history, to the African-American community, and to Cliff personally,” Kendall said. “It’s really important — if you get right down to it — not just for the design but because of what it could have meant for the community.”

While the restoration, trusted to Bodie Stroud Industries, began about six months ago and is scheduled to wrap up next month, the museum recently launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise $32,000 for the Corwin’s restoration to its original round-headlamp configuration and silver paint. Kendall said the museum had previously tried crowdfunding for the restoration of its Davis three-wheeler, and the approach worked out well for the museum. To date, the crowdfunding campaign has raised $130.

Once the restoration is complete, Kendall said the museum will have some sort of celebration, though the details will revolve around Hall’s schedule.