General Motors likely would have dropped the slow-selling Corvette in 1955. Fortunately, Ford's introduction of its successful 1955 Thunderbird two-seater shamed GM into keeping the Vette and dramatically improving it with the help of gifted auto engineer and sports car racer Zora Arkus-Duntov.
The 1953-54 Corvettes only came with a 6-cylinder engine, automatic transmission instead of a manual gearbox found in most sports cars and side curtains instead of roll-down windows. You could buy a Cadillac for just a few dollars more than the Vette cost. .
The 1955 Corvette received Chevy's hot new V8, but the car still was considered too uncomfortable and by then was getting a reputation for being a loser.
Sports cars were new to this country in the early 1950s, and most Americans associated such autos with foreign countries—especially England, which exported the popular MG, Triumph, Austin-Healey and Jaguar. Those British sports cars got away with using side curtains, but not Chevrolet; it had a bland family car image until it introduced that V8 and stylish bodies for all 1955 models.
Corvette sales rose from merely 674 cars in 1955 to 3,467 in 1956—and to 9,168 in 1958. After that, Chevy never looked back and consistently improved the Vette, which by then was winning races against exotic foreign sports cars. It also was finally becoming profitable for Chevrolet.
The 2003 Corvette costs as much as a Cadillac, but is a bargain because most sports cars with its performance cost at least twice its price. The base hatchback version with removable roof panel lists at $43,225, while the convertible costs $49,700. Those trims have a 5.7-liter 350-horsepower V8.
The $50,485 Z06 fixed roof coupe is the Corvette's answer to the $80,000 Dodge Viper, which has 500 horsepower. The Z06's 5.7-liter V8 has 405-horsepower and comes only with a 6-speed manual gearbox. Other Corvette trims are offered with both the manual transmission and a 4-speed automatic.
The lighter, more potent Z06 is faster (0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds) than the 350-horsepower Corvette hatchback and convertible and is the most fun of the trio. But those trims still are extremely fast, hitting 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and topping out at 160 mph.
All 2003 Corvettes have a 50th anniversary emblem on the front and rear. The lower-priced trims are offered with the $5,000 50th Anniversary Edition package. But the package adds a little performance-sapping weight, so the very serious Z06 can't be ordered with it.
It's disappointing that, as with all previous Anniversary or "Collector Edition" Corvettes, there are no performance-enhancing features—only appearance items.
The Anniversary Edition package features "50th Anniversary Red" paint, although it's actually a lustrous burgundy with aluminum-oxide flakes to give sparkle and depth to the color under a special tinted clear coat.
The 1953 Corvette came only with "Polo White" paint and a red interior, but Chevrolet felt white would be too plain for the 50th anniversary model.
The Anniversary Edition package doesn't stop with only special paint—it has special badging and an unique shale interior with a color-coordinated instrument panel and console. It also contains champagne-painted "anniversary" wheels with special emblems, embroidered badges on seats and for the convertible, a Shale soft-top.
Major Technical Advance
The Anniversary Edition package contains a major technical advance, which is offered at $1,695 for Corvettes without the package. Called Magnetic Selective Ride Control, it works with a computer and uses a unique damper design that controls wheel and body motion with special shock absorber fluid.
The result? A quieter, flatter ride and more precise, responsive handling—especially over large bumps and dips. And also during sudden high-speed maneuvers. The system works with the standard traction control system to assure maximum stability on bumpy or slick surfaces.
While the Corvette handles well without Magnetic Ride Control, this futuristic feature really works well and will be used in other GM models.
More Standard Equipment
The 2003 Corvette also has more standard equipment, including sport seats with a power passenger seat, dual-zone automatic climate control for driver and passenger, parcel net and a luggage shade for the coupe.
Again, Chevy is attempting to expand the Corvette's general appeal. The Viper was redesigned for 2003, but still falls short of the Vette in terms of comfort and user-friendliness.
The manual transmission really isn't needed for the 350-horsepower Corvette trims because they have so much power and torque. In fact, it's even a $915 option. But, what the heck, the Vette is a sports car and Chevy feels that a manual transmission thus must be offered.
Those ordering the manual gearbox should be prepared for a gear shifter that is notchy when rushed and a long-throw clutch with a stiff action.
On the other hand, a driver who feels lazy can take off in second gear and almost immediately shift to fourth gear without hurting the car. In sixth gear, the Corvette loafs at 1500 rpm at 70 mph. That's why highway fuel economy is good for such a rather big, heavy, high-performance two-seater.
Good Highway Fuel Economy
Fuel economy is an estimated 19 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway with the 350-horsepower V8 and manual transmission and 18 and 25 with the automatic. The Z06 delivers a respectable 19 and 28.
The Corvette provides quick steering and race-car-style handling. Anti-skid and traction control systems help keep it stable, especially on slippery roads. Until those systems arrived, most Corvette owners parked their car for the winter in northern snow-belt areas of the country.
The brake pedal doesn't depress much, but has a smooth action and allows short stops with the standard anti-lock system.
Long, Heavy Doors
The coupe has a quiet interior, although the convertible is a bit noisier. It's generally easy to get in and out, as long as you're not caught in a tight parking situation with the Vette's long, heavy doors.
The Corvette is wide, so there's decent room for two tall persons despite a large console. The bucket seats are appropriately supportive, and gauges can be quickly read. Still, the cockpit needs higher-quality materials.
Major controls are easily reached and most are nicely sized, but both sides of the steering wheel rim block some secondary controls. A driver shouldn't have to take eyes from the road in situations calling for a quick horn blow, but the horn button is hard to find without glancing at the steering wheel center area.
High Cargo Opening
The decent cargo area has a high opening, and the hardtop versions have no partition between the cargo hold and passenger compartment. Also, there is little storage space in the cockpit.
Corvette sales have been high for decades, and that has allowed Chevrolet to continually develop and improve the car without charging Ferrari prices.