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The Corvette debuted in January of 1953 as a show car in the GM Motorama. It was a stylish two-seat convertible, designed to show the world that GM could create a sports car to compete with European nameplates like Jaguar and MG. All 1953 Corvettes were Polo White with red interiors. The response to the Motorama show car was overwhelmingly positive, and production began that June in Flint, Michigan. It would change the landscape of the American road forever.
The 1953 Corvettes were built by hand and appeared nearly identical to the Motorama car. They were powered by the existing Chevrolet 235-cu.-in. 6-cylinder engine that was modified with a three-carburetor design and dual exhaust to give it more sports car-like performance. Named the Blue Flame Special, this engine generated 150 horsepower, and it was teamed with a 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. This powertrain, however, did not live up to the performance expectations of sports car buyers. Although sales climbed to 3640 units in 1954, they fell off dramatically to just 700 in 1955 setting off rumors that Corvette might be a short-lived automotive experiment. But Zora Arkus-Duntov had different ideas. Arkus-Duntov, an engineer on the Corvette team since 1953 and a former European road racer, set out to give Corvette the two things it needed most — better performance and better handling.
Corvette’s evolution into a true sports car began in 1955 when a 265-cu.-in. V8 that generated 195 horsepower was offered; and by the end of the model year, a 3-speed manual transmission was also available. In 1955, driving a prototype V8-powered Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov set a new record in the Daytona “Measured Mile” at just over 150 miles per hour. Corvette received its first major styling update in 1956. Changes included an all-new body with “scooped out” sides, outside door handles, roll-up windows and an optional removable hardtop. Corvette got a performance boost to go along with its styling in 1957. The 283-cu.-in. V8 was modified with fuel injection to produce an unprecedented 283 horsepower, and a new 4-speed manual transmission was offered as a $188 option — making Corvette one of the first cars in the world to mate a fuel-injected V8 engine with a 4-speed manual gearbox. Corvette lit up the streets in 1958 in more ways than one. The fuel-injected 283-cu.-in. V8 was now producing up to 290 horsepower, and Corvette’s new body design featured four headlights.
In 1960, Corvette production topped the 10,000 mark for the first time. It was now carving out a solid niche in the market and becoming a part of American culture. In each year between 1960 and 1962, performance and styling enhancements made it more and more appealing to a wide variety of buyers. 1961 was the first year for Corvette trademark quad taillights. In 1962, engine displacement was increased to 327 cu. in. and top horsepower was up to 360. But the most exciting changes were still a year away.
In 1963, Chevrolet unveiled its all-new Corvette Coupe and Convertible models — the Sting Rays. This was the first time Corvette was available as a hardtop coupe model as well as the traditional convertible. Both cars featured an all-new body design that was significantly trimmer and more stylish than the previous generation. It was also the first year for concealed headlamps. The chassis was all new as well, including an independent rear suspension. The 1963 Sting Ray Coupe featured a split rear-window design, but it was replaced with a single-piece rear window in 1964 because owners complained about visibility.
Today, a 1963 split-window Coupe is a cherished prize among collectors. The Sting Rays were the automotive success story of the year. Chevrolet had to add a second shift to its St. Louis, Missouri assembly plant to keep up with demand, and dealers reported owners waiting months for their cars to be built. By the end of the model year, Corvette production would surpass the 20,000-unit milestone. The Sting Rays continued the Corvette evolution through the mid-1960s.
In 1965, the 396-cu.-in. “Big Block” V8 was available in Corvette. It was rated at 425 horsepower. Four-wheel disc brakes were also made standard, although buyers could choose drum brakes as a cost-delete option while supplies of parts lasted. In 1967, the limited-production L88 Corvette was officially rated at 430 horsepower, although some Corvette historians believe that figure was artificially low. Only 20 of the L88 Corvettes were built. The all-new 1968 Corvette was dramatically different in appearance from any other Corvette. Bearing a striking resemblance to Chevrolet’s “Mako Shark II” concept vehicle, it literally changed the way people looked at cars. Along with its bold new look, the 1968 Corvettes introduced hidden windshield wipers and removable T-Tops on Coupe models. In 1968, Corvette production hit a new record of 28,566. Corvette received its most radical styling change in 1968, and this basic body design would continue to evolve for 15 years.
The 1970s were a time of great change for Corvette. While a late production start for the 1970 model year prevented the first cars from rolling off the assembly line until January, sales rebounded in 1971 and continued to climb. But at the same time, outside forces, such as the oil embargo and increasing government regulations, were having an impact on Corvette performance.
The original high-performance LT1 engine, a 350-cu.-in. “Small Block,” was introduced in 1970. It generated 370 horsepower. That year, the “Big Block” displacement was increased to 454 cu. in., and was rated at 390 horsepower in the LS5 version. In 1971, a special-purpose “Big Block” V8 was available that produced 425 horsepower. But 1971 was the last year for “gross” horsepower ratings. The industry changed to a “net” rating system that accounted for the exhaust system, vehicle accessories and other components. It provided a truer measure of an engine’s performance and is still used today.
The Convertible model was dropped at the end of the 1975 model year. The next Corvette Convertible would not be available until 1986. In 1977, Corvette hit the 1/2-million milestone as the 500,000th car rolled off the assembly line. Leather seats were standard for the first time, although buyers could choose cloth as a no-cost option. Production reached 49,213 units.
Corvette celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1978 and, in recognition of this event, was selected to be the Official Pace Car of the Indianapolis 500. Two special models were produced for public sale — a Pace Car appearance edition and a special Silver Anniversary paint package. In 1979, Corvette production hit 53,807 units — a record that still stands today.
Sales of Corvette remained strong in the early ’80s. It was clearly now a part of the American fabric, attracting buyers with its rich heritage and dramatic styling. There were no 1983 Corvettes produced for public sale, but 43 pilot models of the new-generation Corvette were built in 1983 for testing purposes. Today, one of those 1983 pilots is on display at the Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The rest were scrapped. Chevrolet introduced the first all-new Corvette since 1968. It featured an all-new body design, a double-wishbone front suspension and five-link independent rear suspension teamed with Goodyear Gatorback unidirectional tires. Inside, the cockpit surrounded the driver and featured advanced electronic instrumentation.
The introduction of the 1984 Corvette was one of the most eagerly awaited vehicle announcements in recent history. It was named Motor Trend,s “Car of The Year.” For 1986, the Corvette Convertible was back! To celebrate the convertible’s return, Corvette again paced the Indy 500 and all convertibles were designated Pace Car replicas. The evolution of Corvette as a world-class performance car also continued with the addition of new standard 4-wheel ABS, an increase in maximum horsepower to 230 from its 5.7 Liter V8 and continued suspension fine-tuning. The PASS-Key¨ theft-deterrent system was also added as standard equipment on all models.
Corvette handling made great strides in 1989 with the Performance Handling Package becoming standard equipment, along with new 17-inch wheels and tires. The Selective Ride Control adjustable suspension system was also introduced — allowing drivers to choose between three different operating modes: “Touring,” “Sport” and “Performance.” A new 6-speed manual transmission was also offered, giving drivers added ability to maximize the Corvette power range.
:: The 1990’s – Decade of the ZR-1!
ZR-1 roared to life in 1990 with an all-new 375 horsepower LT5 engine under its hood. Designed in a cooperative effort between General Motors and Lotus, the LT5’s dual overhead cam, 32-valve design made Corvette the talk of the automotive world. To help distinguish the appearance of the ZR-1 from standard Corvette Coupes, it was given an all-new convex rear fascia and quad rectangular taillights. All Corvettes received a new cockpit design that included digital readouts and analog gauges as well as a driver air bag. The maximum horsepower of the standard L98 engine was increased to 250.
Corvette received styling refinements for 1991 that included wrap-around front parking/cornering lamps, new side-panel louvers and a ZR-1 style convex rear fascia on all models. To help differentiate the look of the ZR-1, its center high-mounted stop lamp remained on the roof, while it was integrated into the rear fascia on both Coupe and Convertible.
Corvette performance continued to grow in 1992 with the introduction of the second-generation LT1 — putting a 300-horsepower engine back in the standard Corvette. The engine was designated LT1 because it was the first Chevy “Small Block” to surpass the horsepower of the original LT1 in 1970. The Acceleration Slip Regulation (ASR) system and Goodyear GS-C asymmetrical tires were also introduced as standard equipment.
ZR-1 received a ZR-1 badge on the sides of its clam shell hood. The one-millionth Corvette was built on July 2, 1992 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. For 1993, LT5 output was boosted to 405 horsepower, and a special 40th Anniversary package was available on all models. Passive Keyless Entry (PKE) was also added as standard equipment.
The cockpit of Corvette was transformed for 1994 with a new single-piece instrument panel, a front-passenger air bag, and new door panels. Both the standard and Sport seats were also restyled, and leather seats became standard equipment.
The most noticeable change on the 1995 Corvette was the revised gill panel design. This also marked the last year for the ZR-1. Corvette served as the Official 1995 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car. Two distinctive Corvettes are part of the 1996 lineup: the Grand Sport and Collector Edition. Both celebrate the rich heritage of the Corvette, and mark the end of the current style. The new optional LT4 engine is introduced (required on Grand Sport). Written by Scott Rear
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