Classic American Cars: The Corvette

Retro Staff |  3 Comments

Chevrolet Corvette, The First American Sports Car


In the 1950s General Motors was the largest car manufacturer in the world, manufacturing more than half of all cars that were sold. GM was also the single largest company in all the U.S., building Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, GMCs, Cadillacs and Chevrolets. They had a reputation for building reliable cars in many price ranges for a variety of budgets. But up to the 1950s, they had only offered automobiles in the sedan, station wagon or coupe styling, as well as trucks. The American consumer was ready for something new.

While traveling abroad during WWII, many members of the U.S. Armed Forces were introduced to European sports cars, such as the Jaguar and MG. There was nothing offered like it in the States, so many shipped these little 2-seaters home with them when they returned form the war. GM’s chief designer, Harley J. Earl, began to conceptualize an American-made convertible sports car that could be sold for about the same price as a family car. He enlisted an engineer, Robert F. McLean, to work on the chassis design. To keep the car affordable, he designed it with existing Chevrolet components, including the chassis and suspension. The drivetrain and passenger area were pushed back and the standard 6-cylinder Chevy engine was used, but with adjustments for a larger output. Also because of cost considerations, the body was constructed of fiberglass rather than steel.

The concept car was named the “Corvette” by Myron Scott, Chevrolet’s assistant advertising manager. The name made reference a small, but fast and highly maneuverable, armed escort ship. The Corvette was shown at the 1953 New York Auto Show where it was very well received by the public. Within six months, and with very few changes, GM made the Corvette available to buyers.

The 300 cars made in the ’53 model year were mainly hand-built and cost considerably more then hoped. An intended $2000 price tag was now $3498, making the Corvette Chevy’s second most expensive car in the 1953 model year and nearly as much as a Cadillac. The car was only available in Polo White, with a Sportsman Red interior and black canvas convertible top. Reviews stated the ’53 Corvette didn’t compare well with the overall performance of European sports cars, but cornered better.

The 1954 model Corvette didn’t have any major changes made to it, except that it was made available in Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red and Black, as well as Polo White. GM planned to build 10,000 Corvettes for the following model. But lackluster sales caused only 3,640 cars to be made in the 1954 model year. Some cars sat in lots and were not sold for years. Potential car buyers objected to the high sticker price and the car’s disappointing performance. It’s difficult to imagine today, but GM gave serious consideration to ending the Corvette line.

Of the 1955 Corvette, only 700 units sold. GM engineers saved the Corvette in 1955 with the development of the small-block V8 engine. Chevrolet had stopped making a V8 engine back in 1919 when they turned to making more economical cars. Corvette was also aided by the rivalry ignited between Chevrolet and Ford after Ford’s introduction of the 2-seater Thunderbird in 1955. Despite the competition and development of the new engine, only 700 Corvettes were produced for the 1955 model year because car lots were still filled with 1954 Corvettes that hadn’t sold.

The 1956 model Corvette had changes made it that made it a real performance car for the first time. The engineers made sure it had power, reliability, great handling and a changed appearance that gave it a real sports car look. The car’s image was further enhanced when GM raced the ’56 Corvette at the Daytona Speedweeks in February of 1956 and the Ford Thunderbird was unable to match its speed. The 1957 Corvette was almost identical to the ’56. Fuel injection became an option available on the Corvette mid-1957.

The 1958 Corvette had the most chrome of all the Corvettes Chevy built and was considered by some to be ostentatious. There were four headlights rather than the former two, the bumpers were larger and chrome strips were added down the length of the fenders. Simulated louvers were added to the hood. The instrument panel was completely changed, grouping gauges rather than extending them down the length of the dashboard and a grab bar was added in front of the passenger seat. Seatbelts were now standard and more paint colors were now available (Panama Yellow, Regal Turquoise, Silver Blue and Charcoal). The design of the car did not have any major changes in the 1959 and 1960 model years, except that much of the chrome and the hood louvers were removed. In 1961, the rear of the car was completely changed, to a “duck” tail rear with four round taillights. The front grille lost its vertical bars and ’61 was the last year that wide whitewall tires were an option. By 1962 there was very little chrome on the exterior of the car and had been removed completely from the grille.

The second generation Corvette was released for the 1963 model year and ended in 1967. Both the chassis and the body were redesigned and the 1963 model was given the name “Sting Ray”. There were dramatic changes to the body including a split rear window and nonfunctional hood and fender vents, not to mention an entirely new form. The wheelbase was shortened by 4 inches and the car was given a new independent rear suspension. The 1963 Corvette was available in two styles: Roadster and Fastback Coupe. There were not many changes to the 1964, with the exception of the removal of the bar between the rear windows and some extraneous design features, like the hood vents, making it a cleaner looking vehicle. In 1965 Corvettes were offered with an optional “big block” engine and now had four-wheel disc brakes. The look of the Corvette continued to get cleaner through the 1967 model, resulting in a car that many regard as the best looking of the Sting Rays.

1968 saw the introduction of the third generation Corvette that lasted until 1982. This car was based on a concept car (Mako Shark II) designed by Chevrolet’s Larry Shinoda under the supervision of GM design chief William Mitchell in 1961. It was shown at the NY International Auto Show in 1965. By the early 1980s, sales of Corvettes wound down as people no longer wanted to purchase the “shark style” car. Because of production issues, only 44 prototype 1983 Corvettes were built. None of them were sold to the public and only one of them is known to still exist.

The fourth generation of Corvette was built from 1984 to 1996. The car had once again been completely restyled. It was the most dramatic change since the introduction of the ’63 Sting Ray. It had hideaway headlights, a rear window hatch, all new brakes, larger interior and digital LCD gauges. The car had improved handling, but was known for a very stiff ride. Nonetheless, the car sold so well that GM extended production of the 1984 model year, selling 53,877 Corvettes. A smoother suspension was offered on the Corvette the following year. The 4+3 transmission  (4-speed manual paired with automatic overdrive) was used on the 1984 to 1988 Corvettes. Beginning in 1989 they had a 6-speed manual transmission. Special editions were released for both the 35th and 40th anniversary years for the Corvette (1988 and 1993).

The fifth-generation Corvettes were produced from 1997 to 2004 and featured improvements that resulted in more power, better handling and more room. The car was a hit with buyers, so Chevrolet stuck to the formula through the 2004 model year without any major changes. Minor changes were the addition of a power passenger seat and dual-climate control in 2003. A 50th anniversary model was made for the 2003 model year.

We are currently witnessing the sixth generation of the Corvette with new body styling and still more improvements. The headlights are exposed, the passenger compartment is larger and it reportedly gets decent gas mileage. It is a more refined Corvette, intended to compete with foreign sports cars that sell for a lot more.

Chevrolet has promised a totally redesigned, seventh-generation Corvette for the 2011-year model. It will have a central engine (like the Ferrari and Lamborghini), yet promises good fuel economy. Concept drawings of the car look more like a Batmobile, but we’ll have to wait for its arrival next year.

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Last updated: Jul 27, 2009
Filed under: Classic American Cars Tagged with: Chevrolet, Chevrolet Corvette, Chevy, Chevy Corvette, Vette