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
World War II brought about the Baby Boom, as G.I.s returning from combat came home en masse following the defeat of the Axis powers. Many didn't come home empty-handed, however, importing their favorite Jaguar, MG, and Triumph sports cars with them, cars rarely seen in the U.S. at the time. They were small, sleek, and low-slung, drawn from the imagination and brought to the road by automakers whose visions kept them narrowly focused on racing. Chevrolet's executives began noticing these European sports car proliferating on American roads. Why couldn't America make a sports car just as harrowing in the spirit of the Europe's best? The idea for the Corvette was born, entering production for the 1953 model year, using lightweight construction (initially from fiberglass) and an inline six-cylinder engine that was quickly replaced by what we know the Corvette for today: A big American V-8. Sixty years now on, the Chevrolet Corvette has gone through six iterations, and its seventh is coming at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. With the exception of the 1983 model year, the Corvette has been in continuous production, going up against the best in the world--and often winning.
Through success and setback--surviving fuel crises, economic meltdowns, engineering malaise, and company-sanctioned moratoriums on racing--the Corvette has endured. And through stunning design and reinvention, yet staying true to its roots, the Corvette has thrived. In the lead-up to the introduction of the all-new, 450-horsepower 2014 Chevrolet Corvette that we'll see soon enough, we're going to take you through a series chronicling the first 60 years of the Corvette in a celebration of America's premier sports car.
Chevrolet first introduced the Corvette C1 (for Corvette, generation 1)back in 1953 with production of the first-generation sports car running through 1962. The Chevrolet Corvette C1 was rushed into production after the concept vehicle received such high praise from the public. Unfortunately for Chevy, the public's praise didn't translate into sales and consequently, only 300 units were produced. When the Corvette first became available, you could only get it with a polo white exterior, a red interior, and a black soft-top. In fact, the first-generation of Corvettes were only offered as convertibles; coupe fans would have to wait until the fastback-bodied C2 in 1963. Besides only being available as a convertible, the Corvette C1 was also known for its solid axle as independent rear suspension wasn't available until the 1963 String Ray debuted. In 1955, Chevy introduced its small-block V-8 engine rated at 195 horsepower, and mated it to the Powerglide automatic transmission. An all-new three-speed manual transmission came along later on in the year, giving 'Vette owners two choices for a gearbox. For the 1957 model year, the Corvette went through its first round of restyling, but many still considered it a twin to the 1956 model. A four-speed manual transmission also became available in mid-1957, as well. Chevy did away with the abundance of chrome and four headlights for the 1958 model year in favor of a two headlight configuration. The interior was also gently updated, and an 8,000 RPM tachometer made its one-time only debut in the Corvette. Chevy did away with it the following year and had another different instrument cluster configuration and added a glovebox on the passenger's side. By 1962, Corvette had two different engine choices, making it the quickest at that current time. The 1962 model year cars were literally a hodgepodge of styling; an all-new Corvette was slated to debut, but was delayed. This meant the 1962 models previewed the 1963 rear end styling, making it the first Corvette to have the car's now-signature four-taillight design. The front end, however, still had the face of the previous-year's model. But the changes to come for the second-generation Corvette were substantial, and extended far beyond just revolutionary styling.
In just a few short weeks, we'll witness the global debut of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette C7, set to unveil January 13, 2013, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The C7 will reflect the latest, seventh generation of the Chevy Corvette--the sports car that originally debuted in 1953--and the nameplate that has long since become both an American and global icon. Doubtless the C7 will be the most talked about new car debuting early next year, and as a lead up to that debut, we're revisiting previous generations, to better understand the pedigree and heritage of the Corvette. We've already introduced the storied model, and taken a look at the very first Chevrolet Corvette, the C1. Here, we're concerned with the second generation, C2. During its five years of production beginning in 1963, the Chevrolet Corvette C2 elevated the awareness and furthered the appeal of America's favorite sports car. If the C1 was the birth of the Corvette, the C2 represented the developmental years. For starters, the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe introduced the first hard-top model, as the C1 was exclusively a convertible. The C2 Sting Ray took its inspiration from two cars: one was an earlier concept, the Q-Corvette; the other was a racing version, the Stingray Special. Elements of these two models were tailored to create what became the production version of the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray. The C2 featured a more provocative design, and a divided rear window that made the coupe instantly recognizable. And while retaining the quad-headlight design, the C2 cleverly "hid" the lights. Horsepower figures were the same, as the four available small block V-8 engines were carried over from the C1, but the C2 was smaller and lighter, meaning it got more out of its horsepower. Most importantly, the C2 featured a new agility, and far improved handling and maneuverability. And two years after the 1963 Sting Ray, the 1965 model introduced a newer, more powerful engine. The previously largest powertrain offered was a 360-hp V-8 engine, that instantly took a backseat to the optional big block 425-hp V-8. Other variations would arrive, and could be mated to the two-speed automatic transmission, or both manual transmission options—a three-speed or four-speed row-your-own gearbox. For its legendary style, and for furthering the Corvette with added technology, drive-feel, and the sports car's biggest engine yet, the C2 has etched itself in Chevrolet Corvette lore.
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.
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.
The Chevrolet Corvette C5 originally debuted in 1997, and was a thorough reimagining of the entire car. The Chevrolet Corvette C5 holds a special place among enthusiasts for its new aesthetic, lighter weight and near even weight distribution, and for the high-performance Z06 version. The interior was reimagined, and surprisingly, the exterior kept its pop-up headlights, even though modern lighting technology allowed for a sleek profile without the needlessly complicated mechanism. But most importantly, the new car was designed as a convertible from the outset, even though the coupe was the first to go on sale in 1997. There were several advantages to designing the C5 Corvette as a convertible from the outset. Convertibles are generally weaker, structurally, than closed-roof cars. That's because the roof of a car not only keeps rain off your head, but it also stiffens the entire vehicle by providing an arch between the front and rear wheels; no arch, and the car inherently wants to fold in half. By designing a much stiffer structure from the beginning, Chevrolet not only made a convertible that was structurally stiffer than most coupes, but the coupe itself was that much stronger. A stiff underlying structure pays huge dividends when it comes to handling and how comfortable a vehicle is on the road. There were other technological advancements as well. Special emphasis was placed on an even front-rear weight displacement. To achieve the sought after 50-50 ratio and further refine handling, Chevy moved the transmission to the rear to help distribute the weight. Other measures were taken to shed excess pounds as well, such as eliminating the spare tire, and instead outfitting the C5 with run-flat tires. A lighter Corvette would not only help the C5 get more out of its V-8 engine, but also resulted in a fairly fuel-efficient sports car. So much so, that the C5 was able to avoid a gas-guzzler tax, often levied on sports cars with similar performance prowess. The C5 also debuted curvier styling. Although aerodynamically sound, many thought the fat, sharply cut-off rear end and extremely low nose gave the C5 odd proportions. The C5 also saw the introduction of the Z06 high-performance model, available only as a fixed-roof coupe, not as a hatchback or convertible. Black rear brake ducts and distinctive Z06 badges visually set it apart from other Corvettes, but it was the high-performance suspension and 385-hp V-8 engine that truly set the Z06 apart when introduced in 2001; that same year, all Corvettes got Chevrolet's magnetic ride control, helping smooth out the day-to-day driving characteristics, but allowing drivers to switch to a high-performance mode for when a stiffer suspension was needed. The Z06's horsepower eventually was bumped to 405 hp, although some claimed the number was closer to 425. By the end of its run, the C5 had helped to repair the Corvette's image among enthusiasts, and established the car as one of the best bang-for-the-buck bargains ever made. But time wasn't standing still, and the car's interior was still laughably cheap compared to other cars costing in the $50,000 range. GM needed to step up its game, and in 2005, it would have its chance with the sixth-generation C6 Corvette.
Since the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette "C7" hasn't yet been introduced, the current, sixth-generation--or C6 Corvette--is arguably the best model to date. First introduced back in 2005, the C6 Corvette carried on with the front engine and rear transmission configuration used in the previous-generation C5. Everything else on the C6 was all-new, and featured exposed headlights for the first time since the 1962 model year. A new 6.0-liter LS2 V-8 engine was also introduced along with the C6 with base horsepower getting a bump up to 400, up from 345 hp produced by the former LS1 mill. The C6 also welcomed in a new navigation system as well. In 2006, the C6 Corvette found 34,021 new homes; 16,598 of which were coupes, 11,151 were convertibles, and the remaining 6,272 were Z06 hardtops. When it came to engine choices, you had two options; the standard-issue 6.0-liter V-8, or the humungous 505-hp 7.0-liter V-8 that came as part of the Z06 package. The Z06 returned in the 2006 model year, bringing with it 0-60 mph times of 3.8 seconds, and a top speed of 198 mph, all in a car that cost about $70,000. Not fast enough for you? In 2009, Chevrolet introduced the most powerful production Corvette ever--and the first one supercharged from the factory. The ZR1 made a colossal 637 horsepower, had a top speed in excess of 200 mph, and is still the king of the hill of American sportscars. In 2007, the C6 Corvette experienced its best year of sales for its generation with a total of 40,561 units sold for the year. That same year ushered in quicker shifts from the paddles mounted on the side of the steering wheel of automatic transmission models, a problem that dogged the C6 the previous year. A year later, in 2008, the LS3 engine was introduced along with the option of an all-leather interior on the 4LT and LZ3 trims. Yet, despite the leather-trimmed interior, and despite the incredible performance of every available Corvette model--from base to the ZR1--the C6 was still not the car it could be. The seats still felt wonky, flopping forward under hard stops. The interior still felt cheap in many places, and even the leather-covered dash didn't quite feel like real leather. While few could credibly question its performance, it was too easy to pick on the Corvette's aesthetics once again, despite being markedly improved over its predecessor. In fact, if the C7 did nothing but improve the refinement, it would be a huge hit. But rumor has it that Chevrolet did that, and much, much more. Come back soon to find out how much is different.
After 60 years of moving forward--and sometimes backward--we're now at the precipice of a new era of the Chevrolet Corvette. As we've seen the nameplate has endured through feast and famine, good times and bad, and been on the cusp of cancellation more than Corvette enthusiasts would really care to think. Now, after months of speculation, spy photos, and rumors, the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette is finally here. And it is, quite simply, the most forward-thinking, technolgically advanced, and maybe even most beautifully styled version of the Corvette to ever grace the highways. But don't just take our word for it. Go check out the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette's debut--and the rest of our 2013 North American Auto Show coverage--and see for yourself.
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