The Chevrolet Corvette was the first American sports car to see major production, and remains one of the most successful. Introduced in 1953, the Corvette is now an icon of the American automotive industry.
The Corvette was introduced in 1953 as an attempt to compete with major European manufacturers who started producing sports cars after the end of World War II. The original was a convertible with a fibreglass body, drum brakes, a six-cylinder engine, and a two-speed automatic transmission. Translation: it could hardly be compared to a European sports car. While an attractive vehicle, it had little to offer, the fibreglass body and the (slightly) modified six-cylinder being the only things that seemed to put its performance above that of an ordinary car. In 1955 the Corvette received a V-8 engine and a manual transmission, a large improvement over the original. The body was modified in 1956 and the six-cylinder engine was dropped. In 1957, fuel-injection1 was offered as an option, as well as a four-speed manual transmission. In 1958, it received quad headlights. The last major change to the C12 was in 1961 when the rear-end was redesigned, possibly laying the groundwork for the next generation.
Only 300 1953 Corvettes were produced, and only 225 remain. The earliest surviving one (ie, the first one made whose fate wasn't the car-crusher) belonged to Hollywood legend John Wayne.
The C2: the Sting Ray
The second generation of the Corvette was introduced in 1963 and this new version was called Sting Ray due to its design. It received new body styling, and independent rear suspension. It was also offered in a coupés for the first time (the convertible was still available). The vehicle has a similar appearance to the Jaguar E-type, only with a longer, sloping cabin and hideaway headlights (which would be a feature on almost all later Corvette models). The 1963 coupés had a split rear window, which was dropped the next model year. For this reason, '63 'split-window coupés' have become some of the more sought-after models. In 1965, four-wheel disc brakes were introduced and a 396 big-block was offered, as well as side exhaust pipes. In 1966, the fuel-injection option was dropped (the 396 offered more power at a lower price3), and a 427 big-block was offered; all big-block models of this year had a bulge in the middle of the hood. The 1967 big-block models had a hood scoop that replaced the bulge, and three two-barrel carburettors were offered on the 427; however, very few of these were made, making them the most sought-after Corvettes ever.
The C3: the Mako-Shark
The third generation Corvette, named after a Corvette concept called the Maco Shark II, appeared in 1968. This model was similar in appearance to the C2, so it kept the name the Sting Ray (though this was changed to 'Stingray' in the second model year). The major differences were that the rear of the cab was different (it no longer had a sloping back), the wings bulged out from the hood, and the front sloped down more. In 1973, the front chrome bumpers were removed. The next year, chrome bumpers were completely dropped from the design. In 1975, the big-block engine was no longer an option, and catalytic converters were added. It would be the last year that the car was available as a convertible. In 1978, the rear was redesigned, and in 1980, aerodynamic modifications were performed (though they had little effect on the car's appearance). The Stingray was discontinued in 1982.
The C4 Corvette was introduced in 19844. It was a clean-looking vehicle that had an aura of futuristic design. It had a glass hatchback, and was a real advance on the C3 in terms of capability. The new Corvette had very good handling for the time, but sadly the engine wasn't that great (205 horsepower). The next year, the engine was replaced with a more powerful one, but that still only produced 230 horsepower (this would be increased throughout its life-cycle). The 1986 model saw the reintroduction of the convertible and the introduction of anti-lock brakes. The 1992 model introduced the LT1 engine which would be standard for the rest of the C4's lifecycle. With it, the base C4 finally had a good engine.
The 1,000,000th Corvette to roll off the assembly line was a C4. Number 1,000,000 was a 1992 white convertible with a red interior, and black top; a nod to the colour scheme of the original.
The ZR-1: the King of the Hill
To compete with new Japanese and European sports cars in the late 1980s that had multiple overhead cams and four valves per cylinder (the Corvette always had a single cam in the engine block and two valves per cylinder), Chevy decided to apply this layout to the Corvette. Giving the task to Group Lotus (who had recently been bought out by GM), they created a new engine and added modified suspension (to help 'floor the beast' and give it good track performance). The new Corvette was dubbed the ZR-1 and was released in 1990. The problem with the ZR-1 is that the ZR-1 option5 cost almost as much as a Corvette. So when you started adding other options, the price started getting expensive. As such, when production ended in 1995, less than 7,000 had been made.
The C5, introduced in 1997, was better than the C4 in all aspects. The engine was new, the frame was stronger (and would be carried on to the C6), and the power was supplied to the rear wheels via a transaxle transmission assembly6. The appearance was similar to the C4, only with more curves. A convertible version was not available in the first year of production, but you could buy one in subsequent years.
The successor to the ZR-1 introduced in 2001 and was lighter and faster than the ZR-1 in every category except top speed. Visually, it was set apart from the standard model by black, brake-cooling ducts in front of the rear tyres. Performance-wise, the 0-60 acceleration is comparable to (if not better than) some high-end European sports cars (which are also more expensive).
The sixth generation of the Corvette was introduced in 2005. This model retained the frame of the C5 (and the body looked very similar), and featured a redesigned suspension system and a new engine which produces 400 horsepower. It was only the second Corvette generation with exposed headlights (the only other one being the C1), giving it a more modern look (though some prefer the look of the hideaway headlights on previous models).
The Z06 version of the C6 is a beast, to say the least. At a lighter weight than the normal model and with a 505 horsepower engine, the Z06 can rocket from a standstill to 60 MPH in 3.7 seconds (though this is the official ranking, Car and Driver got one to go 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds). It performs (statistically) better than a (Dodge) Viper SRT107 (of the same year) in almost every category. With a price at about $70,000 (officially, this doesn't mean that it will be sold for that), it was the most affordable 500 horsepower vehicle at the time of writing, and it probably will remain the most affordable.
The Corvette as an Icon
The Corvette was the first American sports car8 to achieve mass production, and has been in production ever since. Even the older models retain the 'wow' factor that they had when they were released. The Corvette has out-performed many of its American competitors for practically its entire history; the cars that can realistically compete with it have always been more expensive.