Here’s How We Made The Kelly Corvette Come Alive
Photography by Jeremy Heslup
It’s early December, and another early morning before sunrise. We’re just to the northeast of Scottsdale, AZ, and meet up with John Breslow, who’s waiting for us with a very strange-looking 1-of-1 car: the 1961 Kelly Corvette by Vignale. It’s a Chevrolet Corvette chassis, with coachwork built by Italian design company, Vignale, on top.
Although hard to believe, its styling isn’t Italian. Gordon Kelly was American, and he penned the design for the car, only employing Vignale to produce the car, not to design it. So is it American? Italian? Who cares: it looks special, and certainly is in my book.
We started with static shots off to the side of the road. Thankfully, Bartlett Dam Rd was not very traveled at that time of day, on account of it dead-ending at the reservoir. This has remained key for good static shots, since the reflection of passing headlights can really put a cramp on getting good coverage of the car all the way around. At any rate, there’s almost always a curveball—and on this shoot it was the headlights of the Vignale itself. The right front didn’t want come on all the way, and we had to work around the angles so as not to emphasize the issue. These are old machines and aren’t going to work like a new car, thankfully, it was easy to frame out with such a bulbous front nose.
We moved to the drone footage. Having filmed so much in SoCal and NorCal, the desert presented a fresh canvas on which to paint. A welcome landscape due to its vastness and apparent lack of the drone’s mortal enemy, telephone wires. The runs are brief, but the red on the Corvette sticks out nicely against the backdrop. A common request (I’m guilty of making, too) is to get closer to the car. But for however much I enjoy those shots, they are very technical, and although they might not be jeopardizing anyone’s life, when working with a car this rare they might as well be. It’s our responsibility not to crash-and-burn into the million-dollar flavor of the week.
Right from the start, it’s obvious that John is very passionate about the story behind this car. He is eager to share how incredible the car is, and how unlikely it was that Gordon was able to do what he did. He had heard about this car many years before he acquired it from Gordon’s family, and had made sure they knew it was going to someone who really cared about the story, instead of flipping it immediately. With the car came boxes of memorabilia detailing just what a stir this car made when it was announced to the world.
After breakfast at a “ma” and “pa” place closer into town and a thorough interview, we checked out just a glimpse of the other members of John’s collection. Feeling honored to even see inside (there’s a “No Cameras, Don’t Even Ask” sign firmly planted at the entrance), we are greeted with a collection that would take days to document. Not to go into too much detail, we film just a few cars that detail the eclectic nature of his stable, including a stunning Jaguar XKSS.
Back out on the road, we wrap the day at the same place we started. When filming out of town, it’s a struggle to see the locations beforehand—and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The road to the reservoir was quiet enough and scenic enough to use a second time around, and especially with the sun a different place in the sky it is a different enough look to keep it fresh. In many of the films, we try to get to a different spot in the second part of the day, but especially when working with cars as valuable as this, it’s best not to push your luck when there’s only one day to shoot it all.
To me, the Vignale Corvette is blisteringly photogenic from the front, and if I’m honest, not so much from the back. It’s presence and grill size give it an almost sea-creature-like look that I’ve not seen on many other cars. I loved shooting it from the front, and spent little time on the back.
The most remarkable thing about this car, though, is that it was one man’s dream, and he wasn’t necessarily anyone from a position of privilege, just someone who had a great design and was given a shot. What Gordon Kelly did in 1961 would be next-to impossible for someone to do today, and I admire both him and John for keeping his story alive: sometimes, all you need is a dream and a chance to turn a design on paper into reality.
A special thanks to Patrick and Chuck for setting things up and making it much easier on us that it could have been.