The resurgence of the sports car into American culture was an after effect of the second world war. The returning soldiers had their appetite whetted in Europe for this new style of transportation. General Motors was in a good financial place in the late 40s, due to generous government contracts awarded during WWII. Their motivation for innovative change was not pressing due to this success. This was especially true because of the new exciting designs introduced in 1948 heavily influenced by Harley Earl, GM's chief designer. Hence, GM left the fledgling sports car niche to the smaller companies. During the period from 1946 to 1952 many small companies introduced sportscars to the American public. Two of the most notable were the Kurtis Sportscar (later to become the Muntz Road Jet) and the Nash Healey introduced in 1950 which mated British suspension with an American engine. At that same time, development of GRP (glass reinforced plastic, “Fiber glass”) became sophisticated enough that the format was being used to more easily develop prototypes for fledgling sports car companies with eye catching curves. The pioneer of this was Bill Tritt who came out with one of the first successful GRP sports kits, the Glasspar G-2. Tritt along with promoter, Woody Woodill, later developed it into one of the first production GRP vehicles, the Woodill Wildfire. Larger companies like Kaiser Frazer followed in 1953 with their 2 passenger sports car, the Kaiser Darrin, designed by Howard Dutch Darrin. Having duly noted Tritt’s success, GM became interested in GRP. With a little help from technicians at U.S. Rubber, GM made their first GRP body, a 1952 Chevrolet convertible. The experiment survived many crash tests which persuaded them to move the product to advanced styling studies.
It was here that Harley Earl began to work his magic. Before long a Motorama styling study, named the Corvette, was unveiled to the public. The show car was such a hit that the company commissioned 300 to be built for public consumption. After a few trim changes, the Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in June of 1953. It would change the landscape of the American road forever. The first Corvettes were built by hand, and all were Polo White with red interiors as had been the show car. They were all powered by the existing Chevrolet 235 cu. in. 6-cylinder engine that was modified with a three-side draft carburetors and dual exhaust to give it more sportscar-like performance. Named the Blue Flame Special, this engine generated 150 horsepower. It was teamed with a 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. This powertrain, however, did not live up to the performance expectations of sports car buyers. The suspension on the car was nothing more than a 1953 Chevrolet passenger car, so the sports like ride was also missing. Closest to a real sports car was the absence of roll up windows and sun visors. Amusingly, the car sported a signal seeking radio as standard equipment that had technical challenges in a GRP vehicle.
Although sales climbed to 3640 units in 1954, they fell off dramatically to 700 in 1955, setting off rumors that Corvette might be a short-lived automotive experiment. But Zora Arkus-Duntov had different ideas. Arkus-Duntov, an engineer on the Corvette team since 1953 and a former European road racer, set out to give Corvette the two things it needed most -- better performance and better handling. Corvette's evolution into a true sports car began in 1955 when a 265 cu. in. V8 that generated 195 horsepower was offered; and by the end of the model year, a 3-speed manual transmission was also available. In 1955, driving a prototype V8-powered Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov set a new record in the Daytona measured mile at just over 150 miles per hour. Corvette received its first major styling update in 1956. Changes included an all-new body with "scooped out" sides, outside door handles, roll-up windows and an optional removable hardtop.
Corvette got a performance boost to go along with its styling in 1957. The 283 cu. in. V8 was modified with fuel injection to produce an unprecedented 283 horsepower. A new 4-speed manual transmission was offered as a $188 option - making Corvette one of the first cars in the world to mate a fuel-injected V8 engine with a 4-speed manual gearbox.
Corvette lit up the streets in 1958 in more ways than one. The fuel-injected 283 cu. in. V8 was now producing up to 290 horsepower, and Corvette's new body design featured four headlights.
In 1960, Corvette production topped the 10,000 mark for the first time. In each year between 1960 and 1962, performance and styling enhancements made it more and more appealing to a wide variety of buyers. 1961 was the first year for Corvette trademark quad tail lights. The C1 straight axle Corvette design came to an end in 1962 setting the table for the next generation of performance improvements.
In 1963, Chevrolet unveiled its all-new Corvette coupe and convertible models -- the Sting Rays. This was the first time Corvette was available as a hardtop coupe model, as well as the traditional convertible. Both cars featured an all-new body design that was significantly trimmer and more stylish than the previous generation. Most importantly, the chassis was all new as well, including an independent rear suspension. The changes in handling were dramatic -- a true sports car was finally born.
The 1963 Sting Ray Coupe featured a split rear window design, but it was replaced with a single-piece rear window in 1964 because owners complained about visibility. The Sting Rays were the automotive success story of the year. Chevrolet had to add a second shift to its St. Louis, Missouri assembly plant to keep up with demand, and dealers reported owners waiting months for their cars to be built. By the end of the model year, Corvette production would surpass the 20,000-unit milestone. In 1965, the 396 cu. in. "Big Block" V8 was available in the Corvette. It was rated at 425 horsepower. Four-wheel disc brakes were also made standard. In 1967, the limited-production L88 Corvette was officially rated at 430 horsepower. Only 20 of the L88 Corvettes were built.
The all-new 1968 Corvette was dramatically different in appearance from any other Corvette. Bearing a striking resemblance to Chevrolet's "Mako Shark II" concept vehicle, it literally changed the way people looked at cars. In 1968, Corvette production hit a new record of 28,566. This basic body design would continue to evolve for 15 years.
The 1970s were a time of great change for Corvette. Outside forces, such as the oil embargo and increasing government regulations, were having an impact on Corvette performance. The original high-performance LT1 engine, a 350 cu. in. Small Block was introduced in 1970. It generated 370 horsepower. That year, the Big Block displacement was increased to 454 cu. in., and was rated at 390 horsepower in the LS5 version. In 1971, a special-purpose "Big Block" V8 was available that produced 425 horsepower. The convertible model was dropped at the end of the 1975 model year.
In 1977, Corvette hit the 1/2-million milestone as the 500,000th car rolled off the assembly line. Production reached 49,213 units. Corvette celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1978 and, in recognition of this event, was selected to be the Official Pace Car of the Indianapolis 500. In 1979, Corvette production hit 53,807 units -- a record that still stands today.
Sales of Corvette remained strong in the early '80s There were no 1983 Corvettes produced for public sale, but 43 pilot models of the new-generation Corvette were built in 1983 for testing purposes. Today, one of those 1983 pilots is on display at the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The rest were scrapped.
1984 Chevrolet introduced the first all-new Corvette since 1968. It featured an all-new body design, a double-wishbone front suspension and five-link independent rear suspension. The introduction of this Corvette was one of the most eagerly awaited vehicle announcements in recent history. It was named Motor Trends "Car of the Year"
For 1986, the Corvette convertible was back! To celebrate the convertible's return, Corvette again paced the Indy 500 and all convertibles were designated Pace Car replicas. The evolution of Corvette as a world-class performance car also continued with the addition of new standard 4-wheel ABS and an increase in maximum horsepower to 230 along with continued suspension fine-tuning. A new 6-speed manual transmission was also offered.
The ZR-1 roared to life in 1990 with an all-new 375 horsepower LT5 engine under its hood. Designed in a cooperative effort between General Motors and Lotus, the LT5's dual overhead cam, 32-valve design made Corvette the talk of the automotive world. To help distinguish the appearance of the ZR-1 from standard Corvette coupes, it was given an all-new convex rear fascia and quad rectangular tail lights.
Corvette performance continued to grow in 1992 with the introduction of the second-generation LT1 putting a 300 horsepower engine back in the standard Corvette. The engine was designated LT1 because it was the first Chevy Small Block to surpass the horsepower of the original LT1 in 1970. The one-millionth Corvette was built on July 2, 1992, in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Corvette again served as the Official 1995 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. 1997 was the most changed Corvette in History. An all new LS-1 V8 sported a rear mounted transmission and a completely restyled body. The past seven years have seen Corvette continue to make advances in performance and handling. The car that started it all as a styling exercise in the back rooms of GM, grew to remain the only true American production sports car. In 2003, General Motors celebrated this historic milestone of Corvette with the introduction of their 50th anniversary edition, a highly sought after prize. The metallic maroon body exhibits badges that proudly state we have been here for 50 years and intend to be here another 50.
FREDERICK J. ROTH June 2003
Copyright June 2003