The Evolution Of The Chevy Corvette
When Harley Earl, GM Design head, noticed that returning GIs were bringing home European sports cars to drive, he convinced the General Motors executives that America should be developing a similar two-seat sportscar. Making its debut in January of 1953 in New York, the Corvette moved into production about six months later.
Humble Beginnings - C1
The first C1 Corvettes were hand-built, with shoddy fiberglass body panels and a “Blue Flame” 235 ci (3.85L) inline-six-cylinder engine. Chevy tweaked the motor to 150 hp to give the car more power. Despite the effort, the sportscar was not fast, only able to do 0 - 60 mph in 11.5 seconds.
Chevy built 300 Corvettes the first year, but more than half didn’t sell. Sales were also anemic the following year (Chevy built 3.460 units), but nearly one-third were still sitting on dealer’s lots after months). GM execs began to question whether the best recourse might not be to kill the Corvette experiment completely.
GM Rolls The Dice, Builds A Plant (C1)
Fortunately, GM let the Corvette run, shifting the production to St. Louis at the end of 1953. But for the 1955 model, a new V8 engine (4.3L small-block) is offered with a capacity of producing 195 hp. When mated to a single 4 bbl Carter Carburetor, the Corvette perks up and begins to act like a sportscar. Chevy had developed a 3-speed manual to go with the new engine, but only 700 models were made in 1955.
The Vette Gets Stronger (C1)
Chevrolet redesigned the Corvette in 1956, dropping the inline-six and only offering the 4.3L V8. Chevy would continue making the C1 until 1962, tweaking the V8 engine to a 4.6L in 1957 and a 5.4L (327 ci) V8 in 1962. During the final year, Chevy offered several different horsepower-rated 327s, with the highest horsepower being the 360 hp engine with solid lifters, 11.25:1 compression, and Ramjet forced induction.
The Sting Ray Appears (C2)
The 1963 model year brought significant changes for the Corvette with a complete redesign. The Sting Ray offered an independent rear suspension, removable roof panels, an improved interior, four-wheel drum brakes, and a distinct curved body style. The C2 Corvette was lighter than the previous generation, which further improved the performance of the 327 V8s and their variants. Chevy began recognizing the ability to use the new Corvette as a race car. Chevy developed the Z06 as a special performance RPO package for the ‘63 model. The new Corvette sold over 18k units that year, with 199 being Z06.
The Corvette Gets Muscles (C2)
As the mid-sixties roll around, sales for the Corvette are trending upward. Over 23k units were sold in 1965, as Chevy again offered a new 396 Big Block V8 and then a 427 V8 the following year, with both engines producing an astounding 425 hp. When Motor Trend tested the Corvette, it posted a 5.4 second 0 - 60 mph run, which put it almost even with the 427 Shelby Cobra. A second 427 Big Block Tri-Power V8 (L88) was offered as an option in 1967, although few purchased it. In the five years of C2 production, 117k units are produced, and the Corvette takes its rightful place as an excellent example of American muscle.
Mako Shark Infested Waters (C3)
The third generation of Corvette (C3) took place in 1968, with a new body style based on Larry Shinoda’s Mako Shark Concept II car. The car's nose is extended, T-tops replace the convertible, the rear trunk area disappears, and the powertrains are primarily brought over from the previous generation.
Chevy dropped the Corvette Stingray name for the first year but returned it in 1969. The standard engine is the 5.7L V8 with 300 - 350 hp, and a 427 V8 (L-88) that customers could order, but the sales brochure told customers, “We even have a special engine (L-88) which we don’t recommend for street use.” In 1970, Chevy increased the size of the engine again. This time, the 7.0L is bored out to 7.4L, and the new 454 ci V8 makes 390 hp, known as the LS5. The C3 Corvette would last until 1982, through the malaise era, as power levels dropped and increasing government regulations for safety, fuel economy, and emissions became even tighter. Chevy moved the Corvette plant to Bowling Green, Ky 1981, in preparation for the new C4.
A Radical Departure - (C4)
Chevy skipped the ‘83 model year and introduced the new C4 Corvette 1984. The new Corvette represented a radical reconfiguration for the sportscar, as the convertible returned with higher performance engines and a sleeker body style. A 350 ci V8 is the only engine offered, and though the Corvette is quicker than those of the mid-late seventies, it doesn’t match the power and performance of the ‘60s Vettes.
Chevy introduced the ZR1 in 1989, although it would take over a year for them to reach dealerships. The ZR1 becomes the performance Corvette for the next five years. With a no-cost option for a manual transmission and a hefty 5.7L DOHC 32 valve V8, it scoots down the track with a 4.5 second 0 - 60 mph time and a 175 mph top speed. In July of 1991, the one-millionth Corvette was produced, a white convertible with a red interior.
A New Beast Emerges (C5)
The 1997 model year brought the fifth generation of the Corvette to light. The car carried similar design cues from the previous Corvettes but with sleeker, smoother lines. New engines were offered as the new LS1 engine replaced the LT1 and LT4. The new powerplant produced 345 hp, but the new transmission (four-speed manual or six-speed auto) was shifted to the rear of the Corvette to provide better weight balance for the car. Chevy offered a fixed-roof coupe during the 1999 and 2000 model years but abandoned it afterward.
The Z06 was brought back in 2001 (the name derived from the performance package in 1963).
Chevy tweaks the power to 405 horses and trims the weight down to help improve the speed, and the Z06 responds, clocking a 4.5 second 0 - 60 mph time.
Change Comes To Us All (C6)
The C6 Corvette debuts in 2005, with exposed headlights for the first time since the sixties. Chevy bores the LS1 to 6.0L (dubbed the LS2), pushing the power level to over 400 hp.
The new sports car is shorter but with a longer wheelbase, again designed to improve the car’s handling and performance.
The Z06 returns after a brief absence in 2006 with a carbon fiber hood. The Z06 was powered by Chevy’s new LS7 engine (505 hp), posting a 3.4 second 0 - 60 mph time. The 7.0L V8 engine is famous for Corvette enthusiasts, leading to the development of a high-performance variant, the ZR1, in 2009. Chevy put a supercharged 6.2L V8 in the ZR1, making 638 hp and a top speed of 205 mph.
The Corvette Goes Aluminum (C7)
The seventh generation of the Corvette was a completely new aluminum frame, with new engine offerings (LT1 V8 that produces 455 hp) and a new eight-speed automatic transmission. The Z06 reemerged for a third time in 2015 after a two-year absence, and the ZR1 was reintroduced in 2019. The top engine is a supercharged 6.2L V8 beast producing 755 hp.
The C8 Moves The Engine To The Rear
In 2020, Chevy introduced the eighth-generation Corvette with an all-new body design. The powerplant is moved behind the passenger compartment and ahead of the rear axle. The Corvette Z06 was introduced again in 2023 with a 5.5L V8 with 677 hp and a top speed of 195 mph. The design combines Ferrari and muscle car, pulling cues from European high-performance cars and the classic Corvette styling over the years. Chevrolet is electrifying the 2024 Corvette with a hybrid engine as a new car, so 2023 is the last year for the fully gas-powered internal combustion engine. Regardless of what happens in the future, the Corvette has a place as an iconic American sports car.