The Definitive History of the CorvetteJan 23rd, 2017
The American muscle car is synonymous with the ideals of rebellion, power, speed and attitude. It’s never truly sought to compete with its European counterparts, the likes of Ferrari, Porsche and BMW; instead, the throaty rumble of an American V8 has always meant something different to car lovers because muscle cars have always dared to be different.
At the pinnacle of this movement of rebellion against the automobile establishment, is the Chevrolet Corvette.
In 1951 General Motors Chief Designer, Harley Earl, gets his first look at Britain’s scrappy new 2-seater at Watkins Glen in New York: the Jaguar XK120. It was this trip that forever cemented the Corvette as America’s undisputed muscle car king.
Soon after, the first Corvette’s – also named the EX-122 taking a cue from Jag – roll off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan. The car is dubbed ‘Corvette’ after the agile and powerful Navy escort ships used in WW2 and first features a (dare we say weak) 150 horsepower inline-six three-carb “Blue Flame” motor coupled to a two speed transmission. In its first year of production, 1954, the horsepower is moderately ramped up to 155 horsepower. Only 3,640 Vettes are built in its inaugural year.
Then in 1955, Chevy got impatient. They said goodbye to any mention of a six-cylinder and plopped a small block V8 engine in between the fibreglass fenders and paired with a 3-speed tranny. Hardtops are introduced in ‘56 with Head Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntrov begging his corporate superiors to undertake a racing program with the Corvette. His pleas fall on deaf ears for the time being, but the potential for a champion remains as the V8’s continually get bigger with a 283 cubic inch version and a new four-speed transmission reportedly able to achieve 132 MPH. In the last year to wear the inaugural Corvette body style, Chevy introduces the iconic 4 round taillights and the engine swells again to 327 cubic inches and 5.4L in ‘62.
A Legend Emerges
The prototypical ‘Stingray’ graces the world in 1963. It’s suddenly smaller, features independent rear suspension and fold-away headlights. Designed after design head-honcho Bill Mitchell, the Stingray becomes the first American car that chief engineer Duntrov says he “wouldn’t be ashamed to drive in Europe.”
1963 is also important because of the introduction of the archetypal Z06 performance package and the birth of the Grand Sport program, building lightweight race-ready rockets. The now big block V8’s blow up to a massive – even by today’s standards – 396 cubic inch L78 motor, and up to 427 cubic inches to compete in the racing circuit with the likes of Carol Shelby’s infamous Cobra 427 that came onto the scene in 1962.
The 70’s and 80’s
1969 saw the 250,000th Corvette sold, and in 1970 an even bigger V8 (we’re beginning to notice a pattern here) of 454 cubic inches rolls off the production line, bringing back the Stingray name from the early 60’s. New Vettes are designed to run off of new unleaded fuel and the last of the big blocks is fitted into the 1974 model year as per a new governmental requirement stating all cars must be equipped with a catalytic converter. The new stock 350 cubic inch V8 boasts a depressing 165 horsepower, down from the reputed 500 horsepower the cast iron big blocks of the late 60’s were producing.
1983 was a rebuilding year, with no production models built until ‘84, despite 43 prototypes being manufactured. The new car is fitted with forged aluminum control arms, rack and pinion steering, and a wedge-like, minimalist exterior that has remained a constant with the Corvette ever since. Developing an upped 205 horsepower and a removable roof, the C4 model reportedly records a 0.90-g skidpad grip and incredible braking – for the first time impressing drivers in a situation other than straight line, American-style drag race situations.
In 1987, the power again slowly increases to 240 horsepower thanks to improved engine components like roller valve lifters – and 345 horsepower in the Callaway twin turbo RPO B2K performance packages.
In 1990, engine developments saw Chevrolet collaborate with Lotus to develop a new 5.7L V8 that develops more environmentally friendly horsepower – rated at 375 horsepower. In 1992, the one-millionth Corvette rolls off the production line.
1994 sees the National Corvette Museum open in Bowling Green. And a Corvette ZR-1 paces the Indy 500 for a third time. Jump forward to 2001 and the Z06 package is reintroduced, packing a juicy 385 horsepower LS6 V8 and reaching a top speed of over 170 MPH. 2002 sees horsepower increase to a formidable 400.
2004 sees the first use of a carbon fibre body panel – a hood – used in North American automobile design and finishes out the C5 model with a Golden Anniversary Package.
The 2005-2013 C6 model sees design slim down the profile and size of the car, improving handling, braking, acceleration and top speed – all for $290 less for a base model. An aluminum frame and magnesium engine cradle in the Z06 package contribute to further weight savings and the package’s new 7.0L small block winds up making a ridiculous 505 horsepower and 470 ft-lb of torque, coupled to a 6-speed paddle shifted transmission.
In 2010, the Grandsport model makes it comeback, mimicking the performance of the deceased Z51 performance package from the late 90’s. 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Corvette division at Chevrolet and top speed exceeds 200MPH, able to sprint to 60 in 3.9 seconds.
The C7 Corvette Stingray is the culmination of more than a century of Corvette passion, engineering, and technology. Debuting at the Detroit Auto Show in 2014, the car wears a roof and hood constructed of carbon fibre, packing a naturally aspirated 455 horsepower 6.2L pushrod V8 coupled to a seven-speed manual gearbox. On a diet, the new Vette is more rigid, more poised, and more aggressive than it’s ever been before. It’s overhauled inside, making it plush, sporty and defined – making it one of the most sought after cars in the world.