The Chevrolet Corvette is a sports car produced by General Motors (GM) since 1953. In its first generation from 1953 to 1962, the Corvette was a convertible, and since 1963 has been available also as a coupe.
The first generation Corvette, dubbed C1, debuted as the EX-122 at the GM Motorama in New York in January 1953. Chevrolet’s amateur reputation at the time gave them little guarantee that they would ever build an all-American sports car for cheap, as the sports car market in the 50’s was comprised of expensive high-end Alfas, Jaguars, and Healeys. However, the presence of 45,000 attendees at the GM Motorama and their fascination with the EX-122 prototype convinced GM that they should start production of the Corvette right away. The Corvette rolled off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan in June of 1953. Cosmetically, the production vehicle differed very little from the prototype; its wheelbase at 102 inches (2600 mm), and exterior length at 167 inches (4250 mm). Power came from a 235 CI (3.9L) Blue Flame inline-6, which produced 150 horsepower. Due to the Corvette’s rushed production and poor decisions on discount parts, only 300 units were built for 1953. In 1954, Corvette production moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with the hope that Corvette production would total at least 10,000 units annually. Unfortunately, only 3640 Corvettes were produced for the 1954 model year. Even more abysmal was the 700-unit turnout in 1955. These poor production figures almost killed the Corvette project.
It was the then chief engineer Ed Cole who revived the Corvette and kept the ideal image of the “sports car” in the public mind. In order to retain the flair it had when it debuted at the 1953 Motorama, it needed more finesse. The Belgian-born engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had the idea of installing the 265 CI (4.3L) Small-Block V8 into the 1955 Corvette. Low production numbers aside, the Corvette was an improvement from the two years before: not only did it have the original Blue Flame inline-6, but the new V8 was much more powerful. In fact, more Corvettes had the V8 rather than the inline-6. The Corvette was redesigned for 1956, and the six-cylinder was dropped from the engine lineup. The Small-Block V8 was upgraded to deliver 210 to 240 horsepower. Exterior length was increased to 168 inches (4300 mm). The Corvette was little changed for 1957, except for the updated 283 CI (4.6L) V8, which produced 283 horsepower. This made the Corvette to be the first vehicle to feature an engine with “one HP per cubic inch”.
The Corvette was given a dramatic facelift in 1958. It featured a wealth of chrome – all the rage that year – and a four-headlight design. This was a predominant design feature on GM’s 1958 passenger vehicles. Exterior length was increased to 177 inches (4500 mm). The 283 V8 was rated for 290 horsepower. The 1959 Corvette, although largely unchanged, featured less chrome. The chrome was removed from the louvers and the rear trunk. This gave the Corvette a smoother and sleeker look. This design was kept until 1960.
In 1961, the Corvette received a fine-mesh grille and a “boat-tail” rear end with quad-taillights. The 283 Small-Block was fuel injected to deliver up to 315 horsepower. In the C1 Corvette’s final year, the Small-Block V8 was enlarged to 327 cubic inches (5.4L), and rated between 250 and 360 horsepower. More than 69,000 Corvettes were produced in the first generation.
The second generation “C2” Corvette began production for 1963. Seemingly overnight, the Corvette received some radical changes, such as more rigid structural steel and independent rear suspension. The “Sting Ray” was designed as a sleek fastback with a split rear windshield; however, the split rear design proved controversial, and was changed to a singular piece in 1964.
The wheelbase was shorter, at 98 inches (2500 mm); and exterior length measured 179.3 inches (4554 mm). Power came from the carried-over 327 V8, which produced 250, 300, 340, or 360 horsepower, depending on the engine compression ratio. Chevy produced 199 race-oriented models called Z06, an option priced at $1818. These cars were nicknamed “Big Tanks” or “tankers” due to their enormous 36.5 gallon (138 liter) fuel capacity. For 1964, the Corvette was slightly restyled. The hood louvers and split rear windshield were deleted, and the engine produced 365 horsepower (up 5 horses) in stock form. The options price was jacked up to $538 for a fuel-injected version, which produced 375 horsepower. New for 1965 was a “Turbo Jet” 396 CI Big-Block V8. This unit was carbureted, and capable of 425 horsepower.
1966 saw a slight change yet again to the Corvette. The front grille gained an egg-crate design, and coupes gained simplified rear pillars. With 10.25:1 compression, the Big-Block could develop 390 horsepower; and 11:1 compression gave 425 horses. With more Big-Blocks selling, demand for the Small-Block 327 waned. The Small-Block in the 1966 Corvette developed either 300 or 350 horsepower. GM’s Corvette engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, held next-generation production at bay. The C3 Corvette was originally planned as a 1967 model, but the C2 stayed for a year longer. Although little changed from the year before, the wildest Corvette employed a “Tri-Power” Big-Block, which could throw out 435 horsepower with 11:1 compression. Throughout its entire production run, the C2 Corvette totaled 117,964 units.
The third generation “C3” Corvette was introduced for 1968, and it featured exterior styling much like the 1965 Mako Shark II concept. Other than that, the Corvette kept pretty much all else the same with the chassis, still sitting on a 98-inch wheelbase. The base engine to power the Corvette was a 327 (5.4L) Small-Block V8, distributing 300 to 350 horsepower. However, the big guns to really put down lots of power were the various forms of the 427 (7.0L) Big-Block: a 390 horsepower 4-barrel; a 400 horsepower Tri-Power; a 430 horsepower 4-barrel carb; and a 435 horsepower 3X2 barrel carb. For 1969, the Small-Block was bored out to 350 CI (5.7L). Although the displacement went up, power remained the same at 300 and 350 horsepower. The “Sting Ray” model had “Stingray” written as one word for the front fender emblems. It should be noted that the “Stingray” name would be limited to this generation before it went on hiatus for several generations. Also, 1969 saw the first sales ratio in favour of coupes: 22,129 coupes versus 16,633 convertibles.
“Four-barrel carburetor” was the name of the game in 1970, when the redesigned Corvette gained a 4-barrel-carb version of the 350 Small-Block, and two Big-Blocks (LS5 and LS7). A two-month labour strike in 1969 caused Corvette production to decrease by half: only 17,316 were produced for 1970. Also putting a damper into Corvette production was the recently passed “Clean Air Bill” which required all vehicles produced to meet emissions requirements. The new 4-barrel carb Small-Block was codenamed “LT-1“, and it developed 370 horsepower. The Big-Block was bored out to 454 CI (7.4L), and it produced 390 horsepower. Although a 460 horsepower LS7 Big-Block was rumoured to be in the lineup, it proved environmentally unfriendly; none are known to be produced for sale. Thus, the LS7 was not offered again. All engines were detuned in 1971. The 350 Small-Block dished out 270 horsepower for the base, and 330 for the LT-1. The 454 Big-Block came in two forms: the 365 horsepower LS5 and the LS6. The LS6 was a detuned LS7 which produced 425 horsepower. This helped Corvette sales to recover somewhat.
Power ratings for 1972 transitioned to the SAE net system. The LS6 was discontinued, leaving only the base Small-Block, the LT-1 and the LS5. With a “net” power rating, the LS5 was vastly detuned, now producing only 270 horsepower. The LS5 Corvette was not available in California. Despite all this, Corvette sales for 1972 saw a rise to 27,000 units. The Corvette gained a new “soft” fascia in 1973. Now equipped with body-color urethane bumpers, it adhered to federally mandated crash safety standards. Also a sign of the times, the Corvette’s engines were detuned to meet emissions and fuel economy standards in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo. For 1973, the 454 Big-Block threw out 275 horsepower, but detuned to 270 for 1974.
The Corvette was transformed into an “economy car” for 1975. Such updates included slightly newer fascia and further detuning of its engines. The 454 was dropped, leaving only two 350s. The base engine developed only 165 horsepower, and the L-82 option threw out 205 horsepower. Having worked at General Motors for over two decades, Zora Arkus-Duntov resigned from his position as chief engineer. Replacing him was Munising, Michigan born Dave McLellan. Despite his retirement from GM, Duntov was not indifferent towards the Corvette. In fact, for the rest of his life he was passionate about his project. The Corvette was altered again in 1976, this time gaining a steel floorpan in place of fiberglass. This achieved weight reduction and reduced interior road noise. Due to decreasing popularity and sales, the convertible was discontinued, leaving only the coupe. The engine lineup for ’76 and ’77 saw more healthy power output figures: The base L-48 developed 180 horsepower, and the L-82 developed 210 horsepower. The “Stingray” moniker was discontinued in 1977.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Corvette, a Silver Anniversary edition was produced for 1978. The Corvette benefited from an aerodynamic redesign including a fixed-glass fastback and an aircraft-inspired interior center console. The optional L-82 engine was tuned for 220 horsepower. The Corvette was slightly restyled again in 1979. Aesthetic enhancements included blacked-out rocker panels and window trim. Some models gained a front and rear aero kit much like from the 1978 Corvette pace car. Brand new hardware included halogen high-beam headlights, AM/FM radio, and an anti-theft alarm system. The L-82 engine developed 225 horsepower. 1979 was the year of highest sales figures of the Corvette: 53,807 units; a record that’s yet to be beat.
For 1980, the Corvette was radically transformed – in favor of gas mileage. It was aerodynamically redesigned and lightened in several parts, such as doors, hood and glass. A shocker when it comes to straight-line performance is the federally-mandated 85 mph (136 km/h) maximum speed speedometer. 1980 was the last year for the L-82, and this year it produced 230 horsepower. Corvette sales dropped to 40,614 units. In 1981, the lone engine option, the L-48, was renamed L81. This motor threw out 190 horsepower. The L81 had magnesium rocker covers and a stainless-steel exhaust manifold. This drivetrain was paired up to a Computer Command Control engine management system. Corvettes had always been produced in St. Louis, but in mid-1981 the production line moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky. By means of Cross-Fire Injection, the engine in the 1982 Corvette developed 10 more horsepower. GM built many “Collector Edition” models as well. The Collector Edition featured unique two-tone silver/beige exterior paint, bronze-tint glass T-top, and a lift-up rear glass hatchback. It also had turbine wheels like on 60’s Vettes. With a ludicrous base price of $22,357 resulting in a decade-low sales figure, the time was soon coming for a new generation of Corvette.