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50 Years of Corvette

The American sportscar icon celebrates a half-century.

Courtesy of GM

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This article was first published in 2002.
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Its huge engines and eternally unique design have seen Corvette write American automotive history - in the US it is patriotically referred to as "America's Favourite Sports Car" or "The Heartbeat of America." The sportscar also has a solid following in Europe, where it sold around 1,000 units in 2001, for example.

The sportscar's success story began on June 2, 1952, when General Motors President Harlow Curtice and Chevrolet General Manager Thomas Keating gave the go-ahead for production of the EX-122 prototype. The Corvette was thus born, the legendary sportscar that owes it name to a fast escort ship. Chevrolet has sold over 1.2 million Corvettes in five generations.

The list of series reads as follows:

  • C1: model years 1953 through 1962
  • C2 ("Sting Ray" versions): model years 1963 through 1967
  • C3 ("Coke-bottle shape" models): model years 1968 through 1982
  • C4: model years 1984 through 1996
  • C5: starting with 1997 model year

The First Generation (C1) - fibreglass body defines a new segment

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Some cars might have been devised under the shower or conceived at the office desk - the flash of inspiration that drove the Corvette's inventor to create a new kind of American roadster came, appropriately enough, at a sportscar race. It was while attending a meet in Watkins Glen, New York in September 1951, that General Motors head designer Harley Earl came up with the idea of his new vehicle. On June 2, 1952 General Motors President Harlow Curtice gave the go-ahead for construction of a prototype.

In January 1953, the Corvette was ready for its first public appearance at the Motorama Show hosted by General Motors at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The response from the public was overwhelming, and just six months after this debut, the very first production model left the factory gates in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953. This saw the birth of the first Corvette generation - the C1 roadster went on to sell over 69,000 units until August 1962.

The breathtakingly beautiful form of the open-top two-seater was the work of tail fin inventor Harley Earl; this fibreglass-bodied Corvette bares the chrome teeth of its grille like a predator. The fenders formed a sinewy frame to the wheel arches. The front was defined by headlights hidden under a gravel guard, while hints of fins give the car a particularly elegant rear. The panoramic windshield surrounded the two passengers and did without triangular windows. The symmetrically arranged, paint-finished dashboard featured two conspicuous bulges, the one on the driver's side accommodating a large dial.

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The first major body redesign took place in 1956. While the tail fins disappeared completely, side dents in front of the front wheels and the first two-tone finish in model history made their debut. Exterior door handles were a further new feature. The 1958 Corvette was the first with four front headlamps. New GM head designer Bill Mitchell introduced the four round taillamp-design in 1961 - a styling cue that heralded the next generation and which the Corvette has always remained loyal to.

The first Corvette generation was not just visually fascinating. In technical terms, too, it marked a milestone in sportscar history. It was the first production car ever with a fibreglass body. In addition to the weight-saving factor, the material was also chosen to give the designers greater freedom and made tooling easier to create - the rapid production start would not otherwise have been possible. In July 1953, Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole, the Corvette's second spiritual father next to Harley Earl, received expert reinforcement: Zora Arkus-Duntov, a young engineer and motorsports enthusiast, joined General Motors.

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Cole and Arkus-Duntov souped up the sportscar; in place of the previous six-cylinder, in 1955 they implanted a small-block V8 with, initially, a 4.3-litre capacity and 195hp. The revamping of the chassis in the following year meant the Corvette could take on even more output. In 1957, the engine (now enlarged to 4.6 litres) could already deliver 283hp thanks to the new fuel injection. With exactly one horsepower per cubic inch, this represented a magical peak value.

The two-seater made the dash to 100 km/h in just seven seconds. The last first-generation Corvette was even quicker; the 1962 edition with its 5.3-litre V8 delivered a sumptuous 360 SAE hp and reached speeds of up to 241 km/h.

Specifications - Corvette C1
Period of production June 1953 - August 1962
Production output 69,015 (not including roadster)
Factory Flint, Michigan (only 1953),
St. Louis, Missouri
Length/Width/Height (m) 4.25/1.77/1.31 (1953)
Wheelbase (m) 2.59
Engines "Blue Flame" six-cylinder with 3.8-litre capacity and 150/155 hp (until 1955); small-block V8 with 4.3, 4.6 and 5.3-litre capacities and 195 - 360 hp (as of 1955)
Technical innovations Fibreglass body (1953), 12-Volt power supply (1955), factory-fitted hard-top (1956), combination of gasoline injection with manual gearbox (1957), aluminium cylinder heads (1960), aluminium automatic transmission housing (1962)

The Second Generation (C2) - inspired by a shark with independent wheel suspension

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According to legend, GM head designer Bill Mitchell had the idea of adopting the shape of a shark for car design while open-sea fishing. The Shark concept car - later called the Mako Shark I - resembled the predatory fish through its mouth-like grille, the gill-like side inlets and the colour run from blue/green on the top to silver/white. Premiered in 1961 at the Road America course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, both the show car and the modified Corvette Stingray Racer (1959) anticipated a number of styling features of the second-generation Corvettes.

The wedge shape that defined the front and rear is characteristic for what are known as the "Sting Ray" models. Pop-up headlights and the distinctive side dents at the level of the wheel housings served to further emphasize the flat shape. Although the wheelbase shrank by ten centimetres to 2.49 metres, the C2 model seems more drawn-out than the first generation.

A coupe was introduced to join the open-top version, the rear forming a downward dome shape. An especially collector's model today is the split-window Corvette. Only the 10,600 units from 1963 boast this extravagant body feature. By the next year, the metal strip separating the window had already been removed to ensure better vision and easier production.

The rear independent suspension on transverse leaf springs represented a hidden, but significant technical innovation beneath the underbody. "Together with the frame-mounted differential, the independent rear suspension was the fundamental prerequisite for realizing the excellent driving properties and the outstanding handling," wrote Zora Arkus-Duntov (appointed Corvette chief engineer in 1955) to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in January 1963.

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The second technical advance, on the other hand, was visible from the outside; expert observers could recognize the big-block engine version - available as of 1965 - from the conspicuous bulge on the hood. The displacement of the potent eight-cylinder was initially 6.5 litres, growing to 7.0 litres in 1966. The engine delivered an enormous 554 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm - quite litreally power from the depths of the engine. The 425hp model made the dash from 0 to 96 km/h in just 4.8 seconds.

In order to keep these excellent sprint qualities in adequate check, all Corvettes as of 1965 were equipped with efficient disc brakes including five-piston calipers on both the front and rear axles. 1967 saw the debut of dual-circuit braking, ensuring greater safety for the eventuality of one system failing.

Specifications - Corvette C2
Period of production September 1962 - July 1967
Production output 117,964 (including 45,546 coupes)
Factory St. Louis, Missouri
Length/Width/Height (m) 4.45/1.77/1.26 (1963 coupe)
Wheelbase (m) 2.49
Engines Small-block V8 with 5.3-litre capacity and up to 375 hp, big-block V8 with 6.5 and 7.0-litre capacities and up to 450 hp
Technical innovations Rear independent wheel suspensions (1962), pop-up headlights (1962), disc brakes all-round (1965), dual-line braking system (1967)

The Third generation (C3) - voluptuous body line and the biggest V8 of all time

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Debuting in 1965, the two Mako Shark II concept cars caused a sensation with numerous futuristic details like the squared-off-steering wheel, a retractable rear spoiler or an extendable bumper for added protection. While these visionary ideas did not appear in production models, designer David Holls adopted the bold, curved contours of the show cars for the third generation introduced in the fall of 1967. Production totalling almost 543,000 units saw it consolidate the success of its predecessors. The best production year in model history - 1979 with exactly 53,807 units - was also during the era of the C3 Corvette.

The voluptuous sweep around the wheel housings resembles the similarly pinched-waist Coca-Cola bottle, the design masterpiece of Raymond Loewy. As a result, models from this series are commonly known as "Coke-bottle shape" Corvettes. In 1969, the "Stingray" emblem appeared on the front fenders - this time spelled as one word, unlike the C2 versions.

The coupes now also offered the open-air experience; in a world-first for production cars, they featured a removable "T-bar" roof. For the first five years of production, even the vertical rear window could be detached. It remained a styling feature until 1977, after which the Corvette designers give the sportscar a fastback with a large glass dome behind the B-pillar - one of various model enhancements.

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The safety debate in the mid-1970s did not just lead to hectic changes to the bumpers - the 1973 model, for example, had the odd combination of a body-coloured front plastic bumper and a classic chrome rear bumper. It also meant the provisional discontinuation of the open-top versions. The convertible was dropped in 1976.

The competition for the biggest capacity and performance now reached its absolute climax. The Corvette big-blocks made between 1970 and 1974 were the most powerful ever; a mighty 7.4-litre capacity meant a volume per cylinder of over 930cc. In 1971, 425hp represented the highest output of any production version in the history of the American sportscar legend - even though this model year saw a reduction in the compression ratio.

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A decade later, the engineers again proved their innovatory spirit in the suspension department. As of 1981, the transverse leaf springs on the rear axle were made of composite material. The benefits were numerous; a weight of just four kilograms, no corrosion and a five-fold increase in durability.

In 1981, production was moved for the second time since December 1953 - from St. Louis, Missouri to Bowling Green, Kentucky. This is where the Corvette is still made today. Exceptionally, the C3 models were produced in parallel in June and July. In this period, the St. Louis plant made the mono-colour versions, while Bowling Green specialized in the two-tone models.

Specifications - Corvette C3
Period of production September 1967 - October 1982
Production output 542,861 (including 70,586 convertibles, built solely between 1967 and 1975)
Factory St. Louis, Missouri (until August 1, 1981), Bowling Green, Kentucky (as of June 1981)
Length/Width/Height (m) 4.64/1.75/1.21 (1968 coup)
Wheelbase (m) 2.49
Engines Small-block V8 with 5.3 and 5.8-litre capacities and up to 370 hp. Big-block V8 with 7.0 and 7.4 litres and up to 425 hp
Technical innovations High-voltage ignition (1975), catalytic converter (1975), suspension with composite leaf springs (1981)

The fourth generation (C4)- a clean form and a tight, lightweight construction

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Just as some hotels do not have a 13th floor, for some reason there is no 1983 Corvette. It was due not to superstition but to the relatively late start to series production in March 1983, however, that Chevrolet General Manager Robert Stempel decided to jump straight to the 1984 model year to begin the new generation.

The fourth edition possesses the cool charm of the 1980s. Designer Jerry Palmer gave the sportscar a clear, functional form. The clean design proved a success in the wind tunnel; the drag coefficient of 0.34 was one of the best aerodynamic specifications of the era, thanks also to the flat windshield with a rake angle of 64 degrees. The dome-shaped rear window comprises the largest piece of glass in an American car to date.

Overall, the C4 Corvette turned out half a size smaller than its predecessor; compared to the last C3 version from 1982, the '84 Corvette shrank 16 centimetres to a length of 4.48 metres, and with a height of just 1.19 metres it hugged close to the road like none of its ancestors.

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After a hiatus of exactly ten years, 1986 saw the reintroduction of a convertible, the roof disappearing elegantly under a flat cover. Although the open-top Corvette now cost more (around US$5,000) than the coupe for the first time, the convertible was an immediate hit, making up one third of Corvette sales in 1987.

In order to further improve the handling and weight distribution, the C4 designers shifted the engine further toward the centre of the vehicle, i.e. the bulkhead. The wider transmission tunnel gave the body greater torsional stiffness. Active safety was enhanced by ABS (1987) and traction control (1992). A new six-speed manual gearbox from ZF (1989) reduced fuel consumption.

After the capacity and horsepower records set by the previous generation, the C4 was available only with 5.7-litre V8 engines, the L98 debuting in 1985 with new Bosch fuel injection including air flow meters. Despite the horsepower increase from 205 to 230hp, it brought about a fuel economy gain of eleven percent.

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When it came to lightweight construction, Corvette designers were again ahead of their time. Chassis components like the front upper and lower transverse links, the generator mount and power steering parts as well as the air conditioning compressor were all made of aluminium in the C4 models, and the drive shaft was likewise made of forged aluminium. The bonnet was a sandwich composite part. The cooler had aluminium fins and a plastic reservoir; in 1985, Chevrolet also introduced synthetic material for the power brakes housing. Aluminium was introduced for the cylinder heads in 1986.

With C4 production topping 358,000, the all-new successor was launched at the Detroit Motor Show in January 1997 - the current C5 Corvette.

Specifications - Corvette C4
Period of production March 1983 - 1996
Production output 358,180 (including 74,651 convertibles)
Length/Width/Height (m) 4.48/1.80/1.19 (1984 model)
Wheelbase (m) 2.44
Factory Bowling Green, Kentucky
Engines Small-block V8 with 5.7-litre capacity and up to 405 hp
Technical innovations Air conditioning compressor, suspension and power steering with aluminium parts (1983), ABS (1986), Selective Ride Control suspension with adjustable damping (1989), anti-slip regulation (1992), run-flat tires (1992)

The Fifth Generation (C5) - perfect weight balance and head-up display

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The latest series, launched in 1997, boasts the longest wheelbase of all Corvette generations (2.66 metres), although the overall length of 4.56 metres makes it eight centimetres shorter than the C3 generation. For the first time ever, Corvette buyers have a choice of three body variants; in addition to the coupe with removable centre section and the convertible available since 1998 (featuring outside access to the boot for the first time since 1962), a hardtop version was launched on the US home market in 1999.

The C5 Corvette is an all-new construction, as is the 5.7-litre V8 engine designed by chief engineer Dave Hill and his team. The LS1 unit is an all-aluminium construction and delivers 253 kW/344 hp at just 5,400 rpm. The peak torque of 483 Nm is available at 4,200 rpm. The Corvette makes the dash from zero to 100 km/h in just 4.7 seconds (automatic gearbox: 5.1 seconds).

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Power is conveyed to the rear axle via a choice of a six-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic transmission. In the fifth generation Corvette, the transmission is not flanged to the engine, but positioned in a transaxle arrangement, i.e. on the rear axle. Since the engine itself is mounted towards the centre, an ideal total vehicle weight distribution of 50 percent on each axle is achieved.

The Corvette interior is pure sports car. The two leather seats feature power controls for length and height as well as electronically adjustable lumbar supports and side bolsters. That and a height-adjustable steering column allow every driver to find an ideal seating position. The electronic memory option allows as many as three different drivers to recall their preset configuration for seating position, wing mirror angle, dual-zone climate control settings and even favourite radio stations on the standard Bose sound system. Another technical highlight is the Head-Up Display, which projects the most important indicators, such as speed and rpm level, onto a special layer on the lower half of the windscreen. A further safety feature is the sensor-assisted Twilight Sentinel system, which automatically activates the headlamps at the outbreak of darkness.

Specifications - Corvette C5
Period of production Since 1997
Production output approx. 152, 500 until June 2002
Length/Width/Height (m) 4.56/1.87/1.21
Wheelbase (m) 2.66
Factory Bowling Green, Kentucky
Engines Small-block V8 with 5.7-litre capacity and 344 hp (LS1); from 2001 available in the USA as the Z06 top-of-the-range sports model with 385 hp LS6 engine and identical displacement; since 2002 the Z06 with 405 hp is even more powerful
Technical innovations Transaxle arrangement (1997), power-adjustable steering wheel, second-generation airbags, head-up display and twilight sensor (1999), magnetic suspension control (2003)
Corvette Trivia!
  • The Swiss flag in the Corvette logo recalls the European heritage of co-founder (and source of the company's name) Louis Chevrolet, who was born the son of a clockmaker in La Chaux de Fonds in Switzerland's Jura mountain range in 1878.
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  • Sting Ray is not synonymous with Stingray: the single-word spelling only appeared in 1969 and is the common term for models up until 1976, Sting Ray being the name for the '63 through '67 versions. The name was trademarked by General Motors in February 2, 1993.
  • Goldwall tires topped the extras list in 1965, at the time costing an extra US$50.05. They were as such far more expensive than the whitewall tires for US$31.85. Only 989 of a total of 23,562 buyers in 1965 chose the goldwall tires.
  • The AstroVette was a special edition exclusively for the three-man crew of the Apollo 12 mission. These '69 coupes wore NASA logos and hints of black wings.
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  • At the front a modern body-coloured bumper, at the rear a classic example made of chrome. This was no slip-up - the '73 model year really was designed with this disparity. It was due to legislation requirements.
  • A federal mandate meant that the 1980 models have a speedometer with an upper limit of just 85 mph (137 km/h).
  • Due to tougher state emissions standards, Corvettes sold in California had 305 cubic inch engines instead of 350 - and included a compensatory discount of $50.
  • There was no 1983 Corvette model year. Because the '84 version was already due for launch in March 1983 and fulfilled all the legal stipulations for the following year, Chevrolet General Manager Robert Stempel decided not to market any 1983 models.

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