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 fourth-generation, or "C4," Corvette was not a great car by most standards. If you want to criticize it, there's plenty of material from which to choose: The silly digital dash, the creaky and limp frame, and the rock-hard suspension are all good places to start. But the C4 played a vital role in its too-long production by proving that the Corvette could be fast on and off the track, prompting Chevrolet to take a path for the Corvette away from being a cruiser--and potential oblivion--and back to being a serious sports car. It could've gone the other way. The 70s were rough on every automaker, and GM was no exception. Suddenly tight emissions controls, coupled with suddenly tight gas supplies, made cars that had been known for speed and fun better known for, well, being outdated and behind the times.
The Corvette was no exception, and by the end of the third-generation car's run, it had turned into a joke to sports car enthusiasts. Sure, it only had two seats, and it still had swoopy, daring styling. But the suspension was tuned for comfort, and the V-8 engine's anemic performance was just sad. Then came 1984. Gas was cheap again, and new computer-controlled engine management systems were unlocking horsepower once thought gone for good. The future was now, it seemed, and into this hotbed of innovation and go-go 80s culture, the fourth-generation Chevrolet Corvette debuted. The 1984 Chevrolet Corvette was still saddled with its predecessor's weak V-8 engine, which gave Chevy engineers only one choice if they wanted their sports car to be taken seriously: Make it handle. And they did. Working with tire engineers, and with countless hours on racetracks, the C4 Corvette's all-new chassis set a new standard for handling for the brand. When the new 230-horsepower version of the V-8 engine finally debuted, the Corvette was finally, legitimately, a real sports car capable of taking on Europe's finest, for half the price. The C4 Corvette also showed another side of General Motors, one that was conscious of its products faults, and willing to improve on them. The C4's chassis suffered from weakness from the outset, and while Chevy never fully fixed the problem until the fifth-generation car, it worked tirelessly to stiffen the structure with additional braces. The Z51 suspension that offered such excellent handling was punishingly stiff on the road; Chevy steadily softened it over the years, without sacrificing agility. While power wasn't much of an issue, output climbed steadily over the years anyhow; the LT1 V-8 that debuted for the 1992 model year put out a solid 300 horsepower, and in 1996, one more power bump came thanks to the LT4 V-8, which offered up 330-hp. Then, of course, there was the 375-horsepower (later bumped to 405) ZR-1, which put the Corvette head-to-head with exotics costing three times as much. Eventually, the "4+3" manual/overdrive transmission was replaced with a proper six-speed manual as well. The C4 also saw the return of the Corvette Convertible to the lineup in 1986, after an 11-year absence. The Corvette's styling was also steadily refined, and an all-new interior appeared for the 1990 model year, albeit still with a digital speedometer. Yet by 1996, after a full 12 years in production, Chevrolet had clearly gone as far as it could with the C4 Corvette. It was time for an all-new car, one with a chassis solid enough to stand the test of time, powerful V-8 engines that still offered credible fuel economy, and handling that would surpass the benchmark set by the C4. The fifth-generation Corvette was due for 1997, and with the success of the C4, the world waited with baited breath to see what Chevrolet had in store.
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