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60 Years of the Chevrolet Corvette

We celebrate 60 years of the Chevrolet Corvette as we count down to the seventh-generation's unveiling on January 13, 2013.

December 17, 2012
The Chevrolet Corvette has always been a product of its era. But what happens when that era crosses through three decades without a significant redesign? When you think about it, you wonder how the Corvette ever made it to a fourth generation. The third generation was largely the same car from its 1968 introduction to its 1982 demise, going from a $4,663 base price in its first year to $18,290 in its final year. Inflation's a killer. It started out a brutish muscle car with an available 427 cubic-inch V-8 engine that produced upwards of 435 horsepower, and ultimately whimpered into its last model year with just 200 horsepower before tagging out to the all-new fourth-generation Corvette. The third-generation car was largely carryover from the second-generation Corvette under the fiberglass, a car that had been around since 1963, with new styling said to be inspired by a mako shark instead of a sting ray. Its exaggerated fender flares and low-slung profile almost looked like a caricature of a car, with a hood that stretched far beyond its windshield. While not a significantly better handler than its predecessor, it didn't need to be. The Corvette was the car rocket men got during their tenure at NASA: the fastest in air and on the road. And even at that, Chevrolet still took it racing, realizing a focused effort could start to chip away at the European racing establishment from Jaguar, Ferrari, and Porsche, however slowly. In its first few years, the Corvette was offered with a 327 cubic-inch V-8 as its base engine, the more balanced Corvette. Its available automatic transmission gained a gear to become a three-speed, complementing the four-speed manual. The 427 cubic-inch engine gave up speed in the turns, but more than made it up in a straight line. But would be replaced within two years; the base engine grew from 327 to 350 cubic inches, and the bigger one topped out at 454 cubic inches--that's 7.4 liters, the largest engine ever put under the hood of the sports car. Yet, their power numbers continued to drop. Blame fuel crises and stricter emissions laws that were instituted in the 1970s. During that point 190 horsepower was a lot to expect from a V-8 engine, drowned under the weight of new-fangled technology like catalytic converters and smaller carburetors. Still, sales momentum picked up. Gone were the sports cars that roared; stricter air quality laws reduced even the slightest crackle of engine noise. The Corvette had to reinvent itself halfway through its life as something more than a sports car. Convertible sales dwindled until the body style's 1975 demise, but the Corvette's T-top proliferated. So did its automatic transmission as it became more refined. The Corvette became more of a stylish grand tourer instead of the sports car it had always been, but this also came during the same era when the Ford Mustang was offered in a special edition Cobra model with a powerful 135-horsepower V-8. It was a sad time for sports car enthusiasts, yet one that brought forth record sales numbers before foreign automakers really entered the picture in the U.S. In 1979, the C3 Corvette's fourth to last model year, the Corvette set its all-time sales record at 53,807 finding new homes. Mind you, this was during a year when customers were starting to forego manual transmissions for automatics in droves and both quality, and performance of the car suffered. But with softened styling a softened ride, the car was no longer about outright performance and thrills by the time it neared the end of its run. The third-generation Chevrolet Corvette ended its run in 1982 without an immediate successor; the C4 skipped the 1983 model year altogether. By 1982, the Corvette had aged gracelessly, no longer presenting itself as the pure sports care it once was. More so, competition from Japan had sprung into the picture in the form of the Japanese Datsun 280ZX and Toyota Supra. Porsche was readying a redux on its small 924 sports car, and a little British outfit called Lotus had released a mid-engine sports car called the Esprit that made the Vette look like it was standing in place. Chevrolet knew it had to respond. The fourth-generation Corvette would be a return to form.
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