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A Look Back at the Chevrolet Corvette

The Chevrolet Corvette might be one of the best-known and most beloved automobiles ever to come out of Detroit. As America’s longest-running two-seat sports car, the Corvette has enjoyed over 65 years of steady production, with only one interruption occurring between the C3 and C4 changeover. Through good times and bad, the Corvette has continued to deliver a sense of style and performance all its own. Although some years are clearly better than others, there’s not a Corvette out there that doesn’t have a loyal fan base, something very few cars today can claim.

C1 1953-1962: The First Corvette Is Born

It’s said that the idea for a two-seat sports car took root in Chief Designer Harley Earl’s mind after he first laid eyes upon the Jaguar XK120. Shortly thereafter, the Corvette was shown to the public during the GM Motorama display at the 1953 New York Auto Show. Six months later, the first fiberglass body Corvette rolled off the production line and into the hearts of car lovers everywhere. Sold only as a convertible and only in Polo White, the first cars were powered by a 150-horsepower “Blue-Flame” 6-cylinder engine mated to a 2-speed automatic transmission.

In 1955, a small block V8 was introduced alongside a 3-speed manual transmission. Initial sales were slow, so in 1956 Chevrolet changed the body style by adding prominent side sculpting, roll-up side windows and a revised front end. A removable hardtop was offered for the first time, along with power windows, a power top and an AM radio that used both transistors and vacuum tubes. 1957 brought more performance upgrades including available fuel injection and a 4-speed manual transmission. The new 283 cu in. engine was also one of the first in the world to achieve one horsepower for every cubic inch of displacement. Top speed was clocked at an impressive 132 mph.

The 1958 Corvette touted dual front headlamps, a revised interior and more styling revision, while 1959 cars received a bit less chrome. In 1960, the Corvette traveled to Le Mans and won its class and in 1961, the rear “duck tail” design debuted, flanked by four round taillights. 1962 marked the last year for the first-generation design and saw the engine bay filled with the legendary 327 cu in. V8, a motor that produced 250 hp in carbureted form and a whopping 360 hp when equipped with fuel injection.

C2 1963-1967: The Corvette Becomes a Proper Sports Car

Although the first Corvette was certainly popular, its crude suspension and solid rear axle left it struggling to catch up to European models. The 1963 car saw all-new styling based on a Bill Mitchel show car and flushed out by designer Larry Shinoda. With the C2, the Sting Ray name was introduced, as was the hardtop coupe design with the distinctive tapered rear deck. Underneath the Sting Ray’s sexy new skin, the Corvette featured an independent suspension, mono transverse leaf spring and electronic ignition

1963 was the only year with a split rear window, a design that famed GM chief engineer Zoro Arkus-Duntov apparently hated because it blocked rear visibility. By 1965, Chevy offered an optional big block 396 cu-in. engine, while 4-wheel disc brakes became standard and fuel-injection was removed from the Corvette’s option list. In 1966, the Sting Ray’s optional engine again grew, this time into a big block displacing 427 cu in. and producing 425 hp. 1967 would mark the last year for the C2 body style. Among the more notable options that year were an L88 engine rated by Chevrolet at 430 hp, but regular unofficial tests showed output figures well over 500 hp. Only 20 such Corvettes left the factory so equipped.

C3 1968-1982: The Longest Running Body Style Cements in Place Iconic Corvette Styling Cues

Styling for the third generation C3 would again be influenced by GM Chief Stylist Bill Mitchell, this time by his famed Mako Shark II show car. Although most of the chassis and engines were carried over from the C2, the 1968 C3 Corvette nonetheless presented a different look and feel. In 1969, the 327 V8 was dropped as the base engine, replaced by a 350 cu in. unit producing 300 hp. Also in 1969, the “Stingray” script changed from two words to just one. Along with the coupe and convertible, a new T-top option debuted, allowing sun lovers to remove two roof panels that could be stored behind the seats. In 1970, a high compression small block LT-1 option pushed horsepower to 370, while the 427 cu in. engine was bored out to create the 454 cu in. V8.

By 1971, unleaded fuel was making its way to the pumps. In order to avoid knocks and pings, engine compression was lowered and with it, horsepower. This was the beginning of a very dark period in the Corvette’s life, stripped of the one thing every sports car needed: power. By 1973, 5-mph bumper regulation saw the Corvette’s front chrome bumper replaced by a polyurethane nose, while the rear bumper remained chromed. However, by 1975, the rear chrome bumper was gone, replaced by a similar plastic material used on the Corvette’s front end. The 454 was dropped and horsepower across the line again declined. By 1975, horsepower for the stock 350 had dropped to 160, with the L82 options producing just 205 hp. This was also the last year for the C3 Corvette convertible.

1978 marked the Corvette’s 25th anniversary. To celebrate, the vertical rear window and flying buttress rear panels were replaced with a massive fixed glass rear window that created a fastback look. A 25th Anniversary edition painted 2-tone silver was offered, alongside an Indy 500 Pace Car edition painted black and silver with a matching silver interior. Despite its lack of power, sales continue to boom and 1979 set a sales record of nearly 53,800 units. The 1980 model received new front and rear end caps with integrated spoilers, as well as the sculpted seats from the 25th Anniversary car. California cars had to make due with an anemic 305 cu in. V8. In 1981, Corvette production moved from GM’s St. Louis, MO plant to Bowling Green, KY and for a brief time, the Corvette was built simultaneously at both plants. 1982 marked the final year for the C3 body style. The manual transmission was dropped, and a commemorative Collector’s Edition debuted with unique silver and beige paint scheme, a lifting glass hatch and fuel-injection.

C4 1984-1996: A Return to Cutting Edge Technology and Performance

Due to development issues, there was no 1983 Corvette. 1984 saw the introduction of the all-new C4 Corvette, a car with a modern engine, suspension and interior, yet embracing familiar styling cues from the C3 car. This Corvette featured a sleek exterior with greatly improved drag coefficient, a single-piece removable top panel and a digital instrument cluster. From a performance standpoint, everything was better on the C4, from acceleration to handling to skidpad numbers. Horsepower was an acceptable 205, but in 1985, port-fuel injection bumped Corvette output to 230 hp. In 1986, the convertible model returned to the lineup and anti-lock brakes were made standard. In 1987, a Calloway twin-turbo dealer-installed option was offered, and horsepower on the factory V8 increased slightly. 1988 saw the 35th Anniversary Edition, a white Corvette with matching white wheels and interior.

One sore point for the C4 Corvette was that Buick’s new Grand National (basically a fancy turbocharged Buick Regal) was faster than Chevrolet’s halo performance car. Needing to remedy this indignity, Chevrolet introduced the ZR-1 in 1990. Powered by a 375 hp 5.7-liter V8 and mated to a new ZF 6-speed manual transmission, the Corvette once again regained its title as fastest production car in the U.S. The ZR-1 also got revised rear-end styling, wider wheels and a relocated third-brake light.

By 1992 the LT1 Corvette was generating 300 hp and came standard with electronic traction control. 1992 also saw the one millionth Corvette roll of the Bowling Green production line. Chevrolet marked the Corvette’s 40th Anniversary with a stunning Ruby Red paint and matching interior plus a matching top for the convertible. By 1994 Sequential Fuel Injection was added. The C4 finished out its life cycle seeing the ZR-1 phased out in 1995 and a final edition Grand Sport in 1996. The latter featured a 330-hp LT4 V8 and unique Admiral Blue paint with a bold white center stripe, black wheels and signature dual red fender stripes.

C5 1997-2004: Refinement and Sophistication Join the Corvette Lexicon

The fifth-generation Corvette built off the previous generation by refining the ride, improving handling and reducing the car’s weight. An aluminum block V8 placed behind the front suspension improved balance and cornering, while in back a new transaxle further aided in achieving a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Hydroformed frame rails improved rigidity and horsepower was rated at 345. The C5 Corvette had a drag coefficient of just 0.29. Its interior was also improved, with better seats, analog gauges and a more upscale look and feel.

In 1998, the convertible rejoined the lineup featuring a separate trunk with outside access. 1998 brought a fixed-roof coupe, more horsepower and, for the fourth time, a Corvette to pace the Indy 500. The Corvette chugged along for the next three years with only minor additions including a head-up display and standard Active Keyless Entry. 2001 marked another milestone for the C5 with the introduction of the Corvette Z06, a top-line trim packing a 385-hp LS6 V8 with a top speed of 170 mph and sub 5-second 0-to-60 mph time. In 2002, the Z06’s horsepower was raised to 405, and in 2003 the car celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a special edition clad in red paint and 2-tone shale interior. 2005 marked the final year for the C5, but it departed with another first for a North American made car: A painted carbon-fiber hood.

C6 2005-2013: Less Weight, More Power and No More Hidden Headlights

When GM launched the sixth-generation Corvette, even they admitted the mission was more to refine the C5 rather than make a whole new car. To that extent, the C6 Corvette received a better interior, more luxury features and, on convertible models, a power-operated soft top. The overhangs were shortened, while both overall body weight and price were lowered. A new small-block 6.0-liter V8 produced 400 hp. In 2006, the Z06 returned with a 505-hp 7.0-liter V8 under the hood. Extensive use of aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber made this one of the lightest Corvettes in recent history. GM’s annoying computer-assisted manual transmission that made the driver shift from 1st to 4th gear at low rpms remained, but in 2006 a paddle shift 6-speed automatic was offered. In 2008, the base car received a new LS3 6.2-liter V8 good for an impressive 430 hp. Also that year, a green version running on E85 paced the Indy 500.

In 2010, the Corvette began to encroach on supercar territory with the launch of the all-new ZR1. Powered by a supercharged 6.2-liter V8, the ZR1 developed 638 hp and could achieve a top speed of 205 mph. 2011 saw side airbags made standard and the return of the Grand Sport trim featuring the ZR1’s chassis and suspension but with power supplied by the base model’s V8. 2012 marked Chevrolet’s 100th anniversary and so, accordingly, the Corvette celebrated with a commemorative Centennial Edition package. In 2013, the final C6 rolled off the production line, with the year owning a 60th Anniversary trim as well as a one-year-only 427 Convertible.

C7 2014-2019: GM Makes the Most of Traditional Architecture

Compared to the model it replaced, the C7 Corvette made the C6 look almost tame. The lines were far more aggressive, with angular styling cues and louvered black inserts mimicking the Camaro. The hood and roof were both made of carbon fiber, and under the hood resided a 455-hp 6.2-liter V8. Owners had the option of a 6-speed paddle shift automatic or new 7-speed manual. Everything about the C7 Corvette was designed around the idea of racing, from its dry-sump lubrication to its numerous cooling systems for the transmission, brakes rear differential. The interior was also the most modern in Corvette history, with incredible attention to detail and high-quality materials used throughout. The seats were made more supportive and connectivity options rivaled that of the best European sports cars. Also new was an advanced reconfigurable instrument cluster. All Corvettes now employed an aluminum frame and most of the panels were either carbon fiber or composite. For this Corvette, the Stringray name returned on the base car.

In 2014, the Z06 was again offered, powered by a 650 hp supercharged 6.2-liter V8. For 2015, an 8-speed automatic replaced the old 6-speed unit. The Grand Sport was revived for 2017, again using the Z06’s wide-body styling, tires and suspension with the LT1 engine. As a swan song to the most radical Corvette ever built, in 2019 the ZR1 returned to the fold. It featured a 755-hp supercharged V8, more aggressive styling and an upgraded suspension.

C8 2020: A New Generation for a New Generation

The recently unveiled C8 Corvette Stingray is like no other Corvette before it. The styling has moved into the exotic realm of Ferrari and McLaren, and while the powerful, naturally aspirated V8 remains a mainstay, it has now moved to the car’s midsection. Standard on the base Stringray, the 6.2-liter V8 pumps out 490 hp and when paired with the Z51 Performance package, can accelerate the Corvette to 60 mph in under three seconds. For the first time since 1954, the Corvette will not offer a manual transmission. Instead, like the original 1953 car, an automatic will come standard, only this one is a new 8-speed dual-clutch unit built by Tremec. The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette’s chassis is new too, eliminating the old style frame rails in favor of an all-aluminum backbone structure with the front suspension attached to a subframe. But without question, the new Corvette’s greatest feat is its $60,000 starting price, a number no competitor of similar performance or style can come close to matching. Find a New Chevrolet Corvette for sale or Find a Used Chevrolet Corvette for sale

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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