60 years of Corvette
At the first major auto show of 2013, Chevrolet presented one of the biggest car debuts of the year: the long-awaited seventh-generation Corvette, a model that brings back the iconic Stingray label and draws on a design heritage stretching back 60 years.
"Chevrolet's Corvette ranks just one notch below immortality on America's list of mechanical achievements – and well it should," a 1968 Car and Driver article on the new C3 Corvette began. "Like barbed wire and the cotton gin, it borrows from no one. Every working aspect and every styling feature evolve from Chevrolet's plan to built the ultimate American car. The Corvette is exciting, it's lusty, it stimulates all of the base emotion lurking deep in modern man. It is the Barbarella of the car maker's art."
As GM describes, the "Corvette wasn’t born an icon" and it took some time and refinement for it to gain glowing descriptions like the one above. During that sometimes rocky journey, it underwent many changes, and only a few staples, like the commanding dash-to-axle proportion, composite body and two-seat configuration, stayed along for the entire ride. Everything else evolved, sometimes drastically, over the course of seven distinct generations, creating some of the most memorable sports cars in history along the way.
C1: The Original (C1 1953 to 1962)
"It's revolutionary!" exclaimed a 1953 Corvette ad. "The racy new Chevrolet Corvette sets a new style for a new field – the American sports car. As for performance ... it's thrilling! A 160 hp, extra-high-compression 'Blue-Flame' engine is teamed with the new Powerglide automatic transmission ... a combination that makes the Corvette an outstanding performer on any road, under any condition."
The debut Corvette marked the birth of what would become one of the most loved legends of American auto manufacturing and also the first large-scale, mass-produced car with an all-fiberglass body. That fiberglass build became a cemented cornerstone of the Corvette legacy – it started a tradition of composite construction, and its pliability allowed designers to create the luscious curves that have always defined the Corvette's look.
GM kicked 1953 off with a bang, presenting the Corvette EX-122 concept at its Motorama exhibition at New York's Waldorf Astoria. Named after a naval escort ship and billed as a "dream car," the Corvette went into production six months later on June 30. All 300 were the same white with red interior and each one came with a Powerglide automatic transmission. The curb weight was 2,886 pounds (1,309 kg), and the base price for what some consider the first American production sports car was US$3,498.
It may have been a "dream car," but not everyone shared the dream. The original Corvette's 150-hp Blue Flame inline-six and automatic transmission disappointed some in terms of raw performance and initial sales were poor. Even those that owned the Corvette had mixed feelings, as a 1954 Popular Mechanics article based on a survey of owners summed up in its title: "Corvette Is A Fine 'Fun' Car But It Has Its Limitations."
After a disappointing 1954, in which sales were about a third of what was expected, GM was tempted to cut the Corvette altogether. But, thanks to a little prodding by Ford's Thunderbird, it decided to upgrade the engine instead. It hit the 1955 model year with a 195-hp 4.3-liter small block V8 engine option and also offered a three-speed manual transmission by the time the model year ended. The 1955 model year was the last for the inline six-cylinder, and the Corvette began to build its legacy of muscle and performance.
The original-generation Corvette was available as a convertible only. In fact, GM didn't offer a factory installed removable hard-top until 1956, when it also implemented sculpted side coves and two-tone paint jobs. Other notable changes over the first generation included the addition of dual-round taillamps in 1961, a feature that persisted through the sixth generation, and the addition of fuel injection in 1957. The 1962 Corvette had a 5.4-liter engine worth up to 360 hp.
C2: The Sting Ray (1963 to 1967)
The Sting Ray represented a dramatic new nameplate and an equally dramatic overhaul. Chevy moved the Corvette off the modified, "solid-axle" sedan architecture the first-generation sat on and developed a unique architecture for the sports car. This change dropped the center of gravity and added a new independent rear suspension design that improved the car's road handling, making it a true performer.
"Hiding independent rear suspension under its sculptured tail, the Corvette is now second to no other production sports car in road-holding and is still the most powerful," Car & Driver said in an October 1962 review.
The Sting Ray name itself came from a 1959 concept race car that inspired the second-gen Corvette's design along with the 1961 Mako Shark concept. The car took a large generational styling leap and innovated some hallmarks that would be integral for generations to come. Chevy implemented the arched fenders that have been shared by every Corvette since and debuted concealed headlamps, which remained a key Corvette feature through the fifth generation. The 1963 Corvette was offered in a coupe version for the first time.
The most interesting feature of the debut Sting Ray was one that was not repeated, even in the C2's second model year. The 1963 Sting Ray had a split rear windshield, which was dropped in 1964 because it impeded driver vision. While it wasn't practical enough to warrant a second year of production, the split window did gain fame and legend in Corvette circles. As the Volkswagen T1 Splitty can attest to, something about a split windshield captures the public's heart and gives a vehicle an automatic place in auto lore.
Two years after its introduction, Car & Driver was still singing the Sting Ray's praises. In a tongue-and-cheek article comparing it to great European GT cars from the likes of Aston Martin and Ferrari, the magazine quipped, "You aren't suggesting that it's one of the best GT cars in the world. Or are you?"
The second generation welcomed in the short-lived but memorable days of the Big Block. In 1965, Chevy introduced the first big block engine for a Corvette, the 6.5-liter L78, which broke 400 hp with a rating of 425. A new hood was required to properly accommodate the big grumbler. Chevy also added standard four-wheel disc brakes that same year.
Engine size continued to bloat during the late 60s, offering buyers some of the biggest, most potent power plants that the Corvette would ever have. The cast iron L88 big block engine was introduced for the C2's final model year. Chevy officially rated the L88 at 430 hp but it tested to well over 500.
C3: The Stingray (1968 to 1982)
Chevy had given the world a glimpse at the future of the Corvette in 1965, when it rolled the Mako Shark II concept into the New York Auto Show. The new Stingray styling may have been more in-your-face than future Corvette generations would tolerate, but it introduced a greater look that remained very familiar decades later. The exaggeratedly arched "blistered" fenders coupled with the long dash-to-axle proportion created that bold, rolling hood that still conveys the very essence of "Corvette" today. At the time, though, the aggressive styling said something different to onlookers – "shark" was the nickname it received thanks to its Mako II inspiration.
When the aforementioned 1968 Car & Driver article turned its attention to the new Stingray, it said: "It's a brutal, masculine looking machine with a shape that suggests a slightly overweight Group 7 sports racer or one of the Le Mans Ferraris when they were winning. The shape doesn't whisper, it bellows power, and with the 400-horsepower 427 cu. in. engine, with which our test car was equipped, Barbarella's siren song is distinctly throaty."
The Stingray started out with that throaty swagger, and its early days included more of the same C2 mentality of bigger, bolder engines, including the 1969 all-aluminum ZL1 big block that nearly matched the base price of the Corvette. Small block engine size also increased, reaching 370-hp in the LT1, which debuted in 1970.
Things changed by the middle of the C3's life cycle, however, as it grew up in a tumultuous time. A move to unleaded fuel, tightened emissions standards and altering consumer tastes forced Corvette engines into an about-face. Options like the L88 and LT1 disappeared in the early years of the 70s, and 1974 was the last year of the big block. By 1975, the base 165-hp small block V8 was 20 percent less powerful than the original small block from 20 years earlier.
While engines were down, Chevy continued injecting advanced design and technology into its sports flagship. It transitioned into using sheet molding compound for body construction, which helped in the finishing process. Corvettes continue to use SMC today. The third-generation Corvette also gained equipment like cruise control, a standard AM/FM radio, halogen headlamps and hatchback design.
The third generation was as renowned for vernacular as vehicular additions. The ZR-1, the king of Corvettes, was introduced for the first time in 1970 and continued through 1972. Not quite the all-out power-wielding supercar of later generations, the original ZR-1 was a fairly modest performance package that included the 370-hp LT1 engine and upgrades to the suspension, brakes and other systems. Only 53 first generation ZR-1s were built between 1970 and 1972, making it one of the rarest Corvettes in history.
Despite the C3's power declines, and despite it being a bit long in the tooth by the time it retired, it set an all-time Corvette sales record of 58,307 in 1979. That record still stands today.
C4: Most Advanced Production Car on the Planet? (1983 to 1996)
The 1980s were a decade when sports cars took a big step into the future. European sports car makers like Porsche and Ferrari kept busy designing what were hailed as the most technologically advanced cars (the 959 and F40) of the era. Chevrolet didn't take it to that level, but it made a concerted effort to inject its fourth-generation Corvette with technology.
"It began as genius; and grew to be legend; and has become, at long last, the most advanced production car on the planet," a 1984 Corvette commercial narrator opined, gushing on with compliments like "a Corvette superb in its engineering and technology and defiant in its performance."
Starting from the base with a unitized "backbone" frame, Chevy overhauled the Corvette's design. The body lost some of the sheer aggression of the "shark"-like C3, gaining an aerodynamic boost that dropped its drag coefficient by nearly 25 percent. It included a computer-activated manual transmission, digital displays and a stereo system with four "never-before speakers." With its concealed headlamps, dual round tail lamps and familiar proportions, the C4 was definitely a Corvette, new gizmos or not.
While Chevy debuted the C4 in 1983, it didn't sell a 1983 model, choosing to leap directly to the 1984 model. It built less than four dozen 1983 prototypes, and only one lives on today at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
During the fourth generation, the Corvette gained tuned-port injection, airbags and a selective ride control system. The Corvette convertible returned in 1986, the first time it had been offered since 1975.
The Corvette ZR-1 made a roaring comeback at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show. With the help of Lotus, which GM had acquired a few years earlier, Chevy bulked the ZR-1 up with a new 5.7-liter V8 engine that came out breathing 375 hp. With its huge rear tires, convex rear-end and rectangular tail lamps, the 1990 ZR-1 looked as mean as it performed. The "King of the Hill" went on to set several world speed records at the test track in Fort Stockton, Texas, including a 24-hour endurance run averaging close to 176 mph (283 km/h) for more than 4,220 miles (6,791 km).
Chevy didn't mince words when it came to who the ZR-1 was targeted at, positioning its sights squarely at some of the biggest names of the day.
"In a way, the Corvette ZR-1 is the ultimate expression of the Chevrolet mission statement, which is to 'give more than expected,' " Dave McLellan, Corvette Chief Engineer, said at the time. "But instead of a $10,000 car you're talking about a $50,000 car that's giving you the attributes of a $60,000 to $300,000 car. You're going to find it's a higher performance car than any of the production-available Ferraris, including the Testarossa. It has higher performance than the Countach, as federalized. Ranking up there with the [Porsche] 959. Surely not at the level of the F40, which is just a thinly disguised race car."
This was the Corvette supercar and a return to the heyday of unapologetic brute power and performance, now packaged in a more technological, aerodynamic coupe.
Though it debuted to much acclaim, the C4 ZR-1 slipped in favor during its run because Chevy moved the styling of "common" Corvettes closely to that of the ZR-1 in 1991. The 1992 Corvette didn't help the ZR-1, either, benefiting from an engine overhaul to a 300-hp 5.7-liter V8 that brought back the LT1 name. The '92 redesign also added Acceleration Slip Regulation for traction in slippery conditions.
"State-of-the-art traction control and a healthy boost in horsepower transform the 1992 Corvette LT1 into a real world contender," a 1991 Autoweek article deck read.
The 1996 model year brought a few updates, including a 330-hp 5.7-liter LT4 small block engine and Collector's Edition and Grand Sport models.
C5: The Millenial (1997 to 2004)
The C5 was one of the less dramatic generational styling evolutions in Corvette history. It looked a lot like a swollen, rounded out C4. What the minor styling evolution concealed was a rather major performance overhaul. Despite the fact that it was larger than the C4 – and looked the part – it was the first new Corvette to weigh less than its predecessor, nearly 100 pounds (45 kg) less. Chevrolet trimmed weight from chassis to roof, using beefier rails and hydroforming on the former and a higher content of plastic in its SMC body panels. Further weight savings were realized with the balsa wood mix used for the floor panels.
Under the new hood, an all-new generation-3 LS1 small block engine helped in cutting weight, thanks to a lightweight aluminum cylinder block, aluminum heads and a composite intake manifold. That 5.7-liter V8 engine put out 345 hp, powering the slimmed Corvette to 60 mph (96.5 km/h) in 4.7 seconds.
"Since its introduction, in 1953, the Chevy Corvette has evolved into an American icon. It’s had at least a couple of movies and TV series built around it and its name has been used on everything from hair dryers to guitars. It is the quintessential American sports car and is as much a cultural symbol as Elvis or Babe Ruth.
But none of the previous versions can match the new 1997 ‘Vette for sheer power, handling, braking and all-around driveability. "This is the fifth generation of America’s sports car and is the best one yet," an Auto Channel article by Ted Laternus read.
Though the C5 was designed from the ground up to be both coupe and convertible, the 1997 Corvette was only offered as a coupe. Chevy added the convertible option a year later and a hardtop with permanently fixed roof panel in 1999. Fifth-generation technological introductions included Active Keyless Entry, standard Active Handling and Traction Control systems, and an available heads-up display.
The fifth generation didn't enjoy a ZR-1 flagship, but the Z06 served fifth-generation buyers looking for extra oomph. Introduced in 2001 with a 385-hp tune, the Z06 enjoyed a bump up to 405 hp a year later.
C6: Night Eyes (2005 to 2013)
Compared to the long-running C3 and C4 generations, the C5 Corvette retired quite quickly after a mere seven years. While GM's PR machine hollered and scribbled about all of the C6's new components and changes, journalists were reluctant to think of it as a pure, new generation and considered it more of an evolution of the C5.
"Forget about calling the new Corvette the C6. C6 is something you are afflicted with on a rough sea passage," Car & Driver wrote in 2004. "Besides, the 2005 Corvette that Chevy unveiled at the Detroit show last month, and which goes on sale in targa and convertible forms late this summer, is hardly the beginning of a new generation, as "C6" would imply. Like the '68 Vette, the 2005 is a profound evolution of the existing car. It's one long stride on the road of continual improvement."
Despite this point of contention, the sixth-generation Corvette did have one truly bold change that got heads turning: the concealed headlamps were gone after four decades, replaced by a set of fixed lights. The positives were good – reduced weight and drag – but not everyone was happy with the move to oh-so-ordinary transparent headlamps, including some voices inside GM. Chief designer Tom Peters told Motor Trend at the time that the decision was about as sure among executives as a coin flip.
Outside of that dramatic change, the car kept much the same design as the C5, sharing its chassis and architectural design. It lost 5 inches (12.7 cm) of length, and weight reduction efforts exemplified by the new headlamps kept the weight within about 20 pounds (9 kg) of the 1997 C5 benchmark.
The 2005 Corvette's forward motion came by way of a new 400-hp 6.0-liter small block V8. In 2008, Chevy traded up for the 430-hp LS3 6.2-liter small block.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the C6's run was in its special editions. In 2006, Chevrolet presented a new Z06 with an aluminum-based chassis structure, in place of the usual steel, and carbon fiber body panels. Those weight-reduction commitments cut the Z06's curb weight to 3,200 pounds (1,451 kg). With help from a 7.0-liter 505-hp V8, it screeched to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and didn't stop accelerating until 200 mph could feel it breathing on its back (198 mph/318 km/h).
The Corvette ZR1 returned to pick up the baton from the Z06 in 2009, using even more carbon fiber and more power, courtesy of a 638-hp supercharged V8. The ZR1 broke 200 mph, boasting a top speed of 205 mph (330 km/h). Sixty miles per hour was a mere 3.4 seconds away from the accelerator pedal.
Chevy continued to get special edition happy, introducing the Z06 Carbon Limited Edition in 2011 for a total of seven different available Corvette variants, the most ever offered at one time.
C7: The Stingray of the Future (2014 - )
In 2009, GM showed a new Stingray concept based on the original 1959 Sting Ray racer. GM called it a "vision concept," an "exercise in exploration" and a Transformer named SIDESWIPE, but as any schoolchild can tell you, history has a way of repeating itself (or at least that's what they tell schoolchildren to make them feel good about history class). Speculation that GM was plotting a Stingray return began running rampant, and indeed, the 2009 concept gave way to a production Stingray, just like the 1959 concept had done 50 years earlier.
The production Stingray doesn't share much of the Stingray concept's radical styling, and it doesn't bring the 1963 split window back around for a second year of production. However, a couple of general styling cues like the toothy grille and vertical headlamps were refined from the concept.
The story of the new C7 Stingray is but an introduction penned atop a journal of blank pages. We're comfortable guaranteeing it will be a far cry from the $3,500 that a Corvette fetched six decades ago, but we aren't even sure what its base price will be. Everything we do know can be found here.
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