The sleek, mighty Chevrolet Corvette is an American icon. Other vehicles vie for that honor, with certain models of the Ford Mustang coming in a close second, but in terms of sheer power, elegance of design, and storied pedigree, the Corvette is America’s sports car, the domestic answer to the likes of Ferrari or Porsche. And if you don’t think a Corvette can match a Ferrari, think again: the Corvette ZR1 boasts 755 horsepower and a zero to 60 of just under three seconds, while a Ferrari 488 Pista has 710 horses under the hood and takes 3.1 seconds to pass 60 mph.
Minor differences, to be sure, but then consider the price tag: Corvette’s most expensive model is yours for about $120,000 (until you start the upgrades). A New 488 Pista will set you back about $300,000.
But rather than spending all day comparing engine stats, price, and speed records with other cars of today, let’s take a look back well over half a century to the early days of the Corvette. Before this world-famous car was ever recognized as one of the best American-made models, it wasn’t even called the Corvette. And it wasn’t a sports car, either.
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When Chevrolet’s design team first conceived of a new luxury two-seater, they planned to go with the name Cougar. However, it didn’t sit quite right with the crew involved in developing the car, so as legend has it, Myron Scott — artist, photographer, father of the Soap Box Derby, and longtime Chevrolet employee — pulled out his dictionary. He knew the name had to start with a C — it just made sense for the Chevy brand. Pouring over C-word after C-word, he alighted upon “corvette,” a word Merriam-Webster describes in part as “a highly maneuverable armed escort ship.” It was the corvette’s job to zip around among larger destroyers, battleships, and even aircraft carriers, blasting away while cruising too quickly and nimbly to be destroyed itself.
And thus the Chevrolet Corvette was christened. But for the first two years of its production, 1953 and 1954, it wasn’t capable of cruising all that quickly or nimbly. Luxurious and stylish to be sure, the first two models of the Corvette were underpowered with a V6 engine. Then, in 1955, the Corvette got its V8. The 265cc engine wouldn’t win many drag races today, but it provided the power the Corvette needed to earn some respect out on the roadway.
Then, in 1959, GM Design Chief Bill Mitchell and a small team working under his guidance developed the Sting Ray concept car. The team worked offsite, as the Sting Ray was undeniably a race car and GM was officially out of auto racing at the time. The sleek, futuristic design of that one-off 1959 Sting Ray would inform a total redesign of the Corvette a few years later. In 1963, Chevrolet released the second generation of the Corvette. It was sleek, low-profile, and decidedly modern-looking. And in 1965, the Corvette would get a 425-horsepower engine, too.
In 1968, the Corvette underwent yet another re-design, entering what many consider the golden era for this storied vehicle. The muscular new body, with a long, sloping hood, a low-slung cockpit, aggressive lines around the wheels, and instantly recognizable circular lights along the back. would inform Corvette design for nearly a decade and a half.
In 1981, Corvette shifted much of its production to Bowling Greene, Kentucky, now the sole place in which Corvettes are produced. And if you want to see the rarest Corvette in the world, it’s to Bowling Greene’s National Corvette Museum you’ll have to go.
Not until 1983 would a new model of Corvette be conceived, but due to myriad issues with the new design, the 1983 Corvette was never released. In fact, of the few dozen models constructed, only one remains. The story goes that, after the decision was made to kill off the entire 1983 Corvette model, a man charged with crushing the 43 vehicles produced was forced to stop the demolition when a large storm rolled in, leaving just one car intact. The next day, a Chevy employee stumbled upon the car, realized what was happening, and stashed the vehicle off behind an undersized building, covering it with tarps and pallets. Several years later, the car was discovered and restored, and today the only 1983 Corvette in the world is proudly displayed in the museum just down the road from the plant where all new Corvettes are built.
After the year without a model, the 1984 Corvette set a new record for the brand: a top speed measured past 150 miles per hour. The body of the Corvette stayed much the same between 1984 and 1996, with the notable milestone of the millions Corvette sold passing in 1992. It was a white convertible with a red leather interior, the exact same arrangement as the first Corvettes sold back in 1953 when just 300 vehicles were handmade in a Flint, Michigan factory.
The Corvettes produced between 1997 and 2004 lost some of the muscular look of past models, though a 2001 Corvette proved that were plenty capable, boasting a 170-plus mph top speed. And in 2003, the marque celebrated 50 years.
The sixth generation of Corvette lasted from 2005 to 2013, with a step back toward the angles of the 1960s and including a 2009 ZR1 that topped out at 205 miles per hour courtesy of a super-charged 6.2L V8 engine. The match for the foreign sports car had very much arrived, courtesy of a plant in Kentucky.
Today, now in the seventh generation of design, which began in 2014, the Corvettes in production look more like models from the 1970s, albeit with decidedly contemporary flourishes, and drive like absolute banshees. Evidence? A stock 2019 ZR1 can outpace a Lamborghini Huracan in a drag race.
And today, well over 65 years after the first Corvette was produced, the vehicle has more claim to fame than speed alone. It also holds the world record as the passenger car longest in continual production. Good thing that one 1983 Corvette didn’t get crushed, right?
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