Corvette Evolution: How it Became an American LegendCorvette Evolution: How it Became an American Legend
Published: Apr 01, 2012
Words by Ya'acov Zalel
In our Corvette Evolution feature, CarBuzz ponders the phenomenon of the all-American sports car.
It isn't an exaggeration to claim that the Chevrolet Corvette, the first true American sports car, is the most famous model ever to come out of the U.S. There were probably more important cars, such as the Ford Model T, more popular cars like the Ford Mustang , and more influential cars such as the Jeep. However, the Corvette, a model that is also regarded as a brand, outlasted all of them in longevity, fame and popularity amongst car fans everywhere.
The Corvette's success can be attributed to many factors: The post war era of rapid growth in the American auto industry that went hand in hand with the increase of automobile consumption. There was the popularity of the European sports car, British ones in particular, among well-off young people that grabbed the attention of legendary GM design Chief Harley Earl. During the then annual GM design extravaganza known as Motorama, in which halo cars in the shapes of aircrafts and ballistic missiles and equipped with elements such as huge fins and rounded canopies, transformed the car's image from a means of daily transportation into a technological wizardry.
«The first true American sports car»
Although the Corvette didn't look as futuristic as most of those 'cars', at the 1953 Motorama, the Corvette concept received an impassioned support from the huge crowds who flocked to the annual show. They probably sensed that the car was made not only of dreams, but had real substance under its innovative fiberglass body and had potential to become a successful future model. The Corvette's transformation from a concept car into a commercially viable sports car was much faster than what today's industry is capable of, even though nobody was sure whether its body panels would be made of fiberglass.
Just a few weeks before production started, Chevrolet executives opted for the fiberglass solution, anticipating a production pace of 10,000 units annually. It would take the Corvette a few years to reach that number, but it was the first time a composite material was used in the serial production of a road going vehicle. And it was Harley Earl was the pivotal person who started the Corvette legend. He traced the trend that small European sports cars like the MG, Healey, Riley and others offered a different kind of open top driving experience and sophistication. This concept, he thought, could also work well in the U.S.
«The continued success of the Corvette can be attributed to its multifaceted personality»
However, the car that most influenced Earl's decision was the Jaguar XK120, an upmarket two-seater sports car with racing versions that enjoyed considerable success in European motorsport. From that model sprang out the 'Opel Project' that heralded the coming of the Corvette. After the first development stages, Earl had to find a customer for his new baby. He turned to Ed Cole, the General Manager of Chevrolet who didn't hesitate to adopt the concept and the car. At the time only a 6-cylinder inline engine was available. The Corvette name was offered by Myron Scott, a public relations executive at Chevrolet, and Cole adopted it as fast as he adopted the car itself.
Those were two decisions that paid off handsomely in the years to come, though the Corvette's first few years weren't rosy. Sales were slow and the Ford Thunderbird, which was introduced in 1955, was selling much faster. The two cars were both two-seater convertible; however Ford didn't describe the Thunderbird as a sports car, but as a 'personal luxury car.' To the Corvette's rescue came Zora Arkus-Duntov, a mechanical engineer who took interest in the Corvette from the moment he first saw it at the 1953 Motorama.
Within only a few months Arkus-Duntov was working at Chevrolet and on December 16, 1953 he sent a famous letter to Cole, under the literary title "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet." This is where he advocated the development of special parts for Chevrolet cars in order to challenge Ford on its hot-rod home territory. His ideas, while perhaps unusual at the time, proved to be just the things the Corvette needed. In 1955 Arkus-Duntov implanted the new Chevrolet V8 engine, known as the small-block, into the Corvette and changed its image and its trajectory forever.
Instead of an open top boulevard car, the Corvette became a true sports car that could challenge the greatest sports cars for the next 60 years through six generations and multiple versions. It was an opposite trajectory to that of its contemporary, the Mercedes-Benz SL series, which started life as a racing machine and became a tamed poodle of a car. The continued success of the Corvette can be attributed to its multifaceted personality: the small-block engines and its successor, the LS series engines. They remained push rod engines that are relatively easy to handle and to develop.
There were also many Corvette-based prototypes that featured the unique appearance with its unmistakable design queues. In addition, a racing program has become alive in the last decade at the highest professional level with successes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Corvette's unique fiber glass body (it's sometimes called the 'Plastic Fantastic') and the practicability of numerous tuning and conversion options as well as the versions offered by Chevrolet such as the Z06, ZR1, ZL1, Grand Sport, and Indy 500 pace cars have all become icons for not only the car's fans, but also in general automotive history.
And we cannot also forget the combinations of small-blocks, big-blocks, various gearboxes, advanced suspension systems, the B2K Callaway Twin Turbo, a Regular Production Offer (RPO), and all of the anniversary editions that were commemorated for commercial reasons.There are also thousands of articles, road tests and technical analysis, and more than 100 titles that have been dedicated to the Corvette. Its history, legacy and cultural influence helped cement the legend that the Corvette became known as the first American sports car.
Corvette C1 - The Engine that Made the Difference
On June 30, 1953 the first Chevrolet Corvette generation (C1) rolled off the assembly line at a temporary production facility in Flint, Michigan. It was a convertible (a C1 coupe was never made) equipped with the Blue Flame six-cylinder inline engine with 150hp and Powerglide, GM's 2-speed automatic transmission. Only 300 units, all of them in the same colors - Polo White exterior, Sportsman Red interior - were produced before production was transferred to a facility in St. Louis, Missouri at the end of that year.
Sharp-eyed observers would discover a few similarities in design details between the Corvette C1 and the Mercedes-Benz SL 190. These included the proportions between the long hood and the short rear deck, the rounded headlights encircled with chrome rings, the rectangular prominent chromed front grille, the position of the hood, and the bulbous front wheel arches. This shouldn't have come as much of a surprise since both models aspired to cater to the same clientele in the same car segment. However, the taillights at the end of the small fins are a reminder to the design trends of that era.
The convertible top was simple, light and easy to fold. Only two bows supported it and a sophisticated lifting rear bow enabled its storage in a compartment behind the two seats and under the rear deck. For the first three years the Corvette was short of essentials such as exterior door handles, and the smooth looking door was the better for it.In 1954 the Corvette soon made its debut on the international motorsport scene. American racing driver Bill von Esser and his co-driver Ernest Pultz started the Carrera Panamericana road race that ran the length of Mexico from south to north.
However, the two didn't cover much of the course, since a con rod in their Blue Flame engine found its way out of the block on the first day of the race, bringing the Corvette's racing debut to a premature end. After two years of slow sales it became clear that the Corvette had a problem, a big one, and it was in the engine department. The Blue Flame engine wasn't powerful enough for the Corvette to lay a claim to the aura of a true sports car and to increase sales. Then in 1955 Zora Arkus-Duntov, who was selected to lead the team that developed the Corvette, implanted the new small-block V8 with 195hp under the hood.
Interestingly, rumors had it that the idea emanated from Chevrolet chief engineer and three time Indy 500 Winner Mauri Rose. A 3-speed manual gearbox was then mated to the new V8 engine. For 1956, the C1 had a massive facelift: concavity on the car's side that started behind the front wheels and ended with a sharp corner at the middle of the door. In addition, the sculpted-futuristic taillights were erased and new ones were incorporated into the sloping rear fenders and roll-up windows replaced the curtains that were used to separate the car's interior from the exterior.
Proper door handles were also installed, which brought to an end the practice of opening the door from the inside. More improvements were made to the convertible roof that became available in a hydraulic operated arrangement. And in 1958, double headlights on each side debuted. In the years to come the C1 received a few small scale design changes. More powerful engines were offered, like the 283 CID that was installed in 1957. It was the first American engine in a road going car to be equipped with a mechanical fuel injection system and a bigger 327 CID was added for the C1's last model year in 1962.
In a 10 year production run, almost 70,000 Corvettes were sold at prices ranging from $3,500 to $4,000. Most if not all those C1s are today now worth tens of thousands of dollars. A few weeks ago at an RM auction in Arizona, the C1 No. 5 was sold for $445,000 (and missed the lower sum of the valuation of $450,000). It is not the most expensive Corvette ever sold, but it is a fine testament to the value of the Corvette C1 from 1953 when only 300 were produced. Of those, about 250 are known to survive almost 60 years after they were given the green light to go on the road.
C2 - Basing the Legend
When in 1963 the second generation Corvette was revealed, its design shocked Corvette fans, car enthusiasts and the occasional onlooker alike. None of them needed to use a magnifying glass in order to spot the differences in design language and styling between the new and the old.Its body shape was transformed from bulbous and friendly looking into a rectangular, angular and menacing looking creature. A huge hood surface with a longitudinal triangle-shaped bulge with an air intake was also prominent.
It featured two fake hood vents that were positioned to the bulged side, but they disappeared after the first model year. Hidden headlamps were attached to pop-up plates. The front grille was almost hidden under the front body work and the chromed fenders were actually behind and under the body work front line. There was also the sloping back end with the famous split rear window that characterized the novel coupe version.The C1's small trunk was discontinued in order to allow for a new coupe-fastback version; the only orifice at the back was placed under a chrome coated fuel door right at the car's back center line.
The big doors protruded into the roof; under the fiberglass body panels was a new, stronger and heavier chassis that created the C2's underpinnings. From the C1 only the engine and the gearbox were retained. The car's shape and configuration were chosen and designed after long excruciating deliberations, discussions and heated arguments and disagreements between Bill Mitchell, GM's new chief of design, and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the head of the Corvette engineering team. The former, who had more political clout, wanted the more edgy design with its split rear window.
Arkus-Duntov opposed the idea on grounds of efficiency and safety. The C2 design, which received the name 'Stingray' (in one word) was influenced by other projects such as the racing Sting Ray concept (two words for this car) from 1959-1960. Other influences included the rear engined Chevrolet Corvair and the CREV-1, which was an open wheeler test car built by Arkus-Duntov, as well as the Ford Thunderbird. It continued to outsell the Corvette by a 10:1 ratio. For GM veterans that experience was painful. The Jaguar E-Type that was introduced in 1961 was also a source of inspiration and a target to strive towards.
The E-Type had the pedigree of racing cars such as the XK, C-Type and D-Type. The Corvette couldn't show off such a pedigree but some racing experience had accumulated and racing technology was developed when the Corvette SS took part in a few competitions at the end of the '50s.It was Ed Cole, at that time already promoted to the job of GM Vice President responsible for cars and trucks, who fancied the Corvette to take on the Ford Thunderbird in its own backyard. Others suggested to follow the Corvair route, a rear-mounted air cooled engine with rear-wheel-drive.
Another idea was to create a 2+2 GT car and a special chassis was developed in order to accommodate the second row of seats. Legendary designer Larry Shinoda then came on board, becoming the C2's most influential designer. His work was supervised by Bill Mitchell, who was Harley Earl's successor. Fortunately, GM's big bosses were always interested in the Corvette. The ideas stream was constant but when decision time arrived, the conservative approach won the day, but not an absolute victory. The Corvette maintained its original configuration of a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car.
It also kept on its treasured small-block V8 engine, but this time it also received a second version, the coupe. Sadly, the rear split window design was abolished for the 1964 model year. That left only the 1963 coupe versions with that intriguing rear window; those cars' value nowadays is much higher than their convertible brethren. The C2 enjoyed the shortest lifespan of all six generation Corvettes, with only five years of production. The smallest engine under its hood was the small-block 327CID with 250hp and the biggest was a big-block V8 427 CID with 435hp.
Transmission options included a 3-speed manual, 4-speed manual or a 2-speed Powerglide automatic. During its production period its design was refined and improved, its engine became stronger and the Corvette nameplate established itself as the ultimate American sports car. All other options that were considered prior to the C2 were now buried and done with.
C3 - Its Quintessential Character Arrives
During the transition from the Corvette C1 to the C2, the battle for the car's spirit was decided in favor of a true sports car, unlike that of the Ford Thunderbird. The designers approached the look of the third generation, the C3, with the task to establish and disseminate its reputation as a pure sports car. After getting rid of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the original Stingray, designers gave the Corvette its familiar shape, which has remained as the leitmotif of its designers ever since.
The C3 retained all of the C2's underpinnings, i.e. chassis and V8 engines, though the engines varied during its lifespan. Its look was more attractive and its proportions better suited for a sportscar: A very long forward sloping hood with wavy sections at its side, above the front wheels.There was also a very noticeable shoulder line behind the doors over the rear wheels; rotating headlamps were replaced by pop up units (actuated by a hydraulic arrangement rather than electric motors). The side vents behind the front wheels were also redesigned and the front air intakes were divided into two sections, hidden under the chromed front bumper.
A shorter back end with a new design theme and look was also incorporated. The coupe's rear window was shoved forward right behind the headrests and was stretched to the entire car's width.The hard top convertible was given a removable back canopy and the soft top could be folded into a storage compartment behind the two seats. The fuel tank was planted under the fiberglass body panel at the rear of the car (where a normal car's trunk is located) and the tank opening was positioned at the center of that rear deck body panel. Overall the C3 was a rough design that was the base for refinement in coming incarnations.
In 1965 Chevrolet engineers and designers were already hard at work on the new car. The concept Mako Shark II revealed the first clues for the new generation with more curves in its bodywork and a different look for the passenger compartment. During its entire 15 year production run, the Corvette C3 was equipped only with V8 engines; either small-blocks starting at 165hp or big-blocks up to 430hp (the latest was the ZL1 with only two units built). However, the powerful engines were available only up to 1974, following the introduction of unleaded fuel and the switch in output measurement from gross horsepower to net horsepower.
In 1982, the C3's last year, a new fuel injection system was installed in its small-block 350 CID engine. It was called "Cross-Fire Injection" that utilized two throttle bodies combined with Chevrolet's computer control system to produce a scant 200hp output. It was mated to a new four-speed automatic transmission with a torque converter. Another memorable development during the C3's lifespan was its huge price increase. The 1968 model's price was $4,660, about $1,100 above the price of the C1 when it was launched. That price tag more than doubled in a decade as the price went up to $9,750. In the next four year it rocketed to a staggering $18,290.
So the same model, albeit now with a modern fuel injection system, a catalytic converter, a 5 mph front and rear bumper system, sport seats and a less powerful engine quadrupled its price in 14 years. Sales were hampered by the next price increase in 1982, the model's final year. Only 25,407 units were sold, down from almost 54,000 in 1979. That year the Corvette was offered in a special Collector's Edition that featured a hatchback rear window that was later incorporated into its successor, the C4. It was the first Corvette to receive $20,000 + price tag ($22,530) and 6,759 units were sold.
C4 - The First With a Modern Look
In the Corvette's rich literary history, and it's probably competing with the Porsche 911 as the most documented car ever, you won't find a 1983 model year. After C3 production ceased at the end of 1982, the new C4 came out only in April 1983. The Chevrolet boss at the time decided, as is allowed by U.S. regulators, to jump straight into the 1984 model year. The Corvette C4 was the first modern day Corvette with a slick and sophisticated look.
When it is driven nowadays among modern day cars it still won't look entirely look out of place. The chrome fenders on the C3 were replaced by modern bumpers painted either in black or the body color. For the first time in the Corvette's history (not including the 1982 Collector's Edition), there was a rear canopy. It was the largest glass piece in the American auto industry at the time. The canopy was sloped backward as much as possible, leaving a lot of space for light luggage inside the car. The car was designed by Jerry Palmer who used wind tunnel testing.
Drag coefficient was reduced to 0.34 and it was one of the best aerodynamic specifications of the era, thanks also to the flat windshield with a rake angle of 64 degrees. The C4 Corvette also turned out half a size smaller than its predecessor. Compared to the last C3 from 1982, the '84 Corvette shrank 6.3 inches to a total length of 176.4 inches, and with a height of just 46.9 inches, it hugged close to the road like none of its predecessors. After a hiatus of exactly ten years, 1986 saw the reintroduction of a convertible, with the roof disappearing elegantly under a flat cover.
Although the open-top Corvette now cost more (by around $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, C4 designers shifted the engine further toward the center of the vehicle. 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) also reduced fuel consumption.
The C4 was available only with 350 CID V8 engines, the L98 debuting in 1985 with a new Bosch fuel injection system that included air flow meters. Despite the horsepower increase from 205 to 230hp, it brought about a fuel economy gain of 11 percent. 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 aluminum. The drive shaft was likewise made of forged aluminum. The hood was a sandwich composite part. The cooler had aluminum fins and a plastic reservoir; in 1985, Chevrolet also introduced synthetic material for the power brakes housing. Aluminum was also introduced for the cylinder heads in 1986. For many fans, this was the Corvette of their youth. Those who were born in the early 1980s didn't see a new Corvette until 1997 when they already well into their teenage years.
C5 - The Corvette that Came from Space
The exterior design of the C5 is the closest Corvette stylists ever came to designing a flying saucer. Its elongated slick line, nicely angled curves and huge glass surfaces gave it a fresh look over the outgoing C4 and even a bit idiosyncratic. The styling was also a retreat from the more straight lines of the C4 to the more rounded ones of the C3, only more gently executed. Under the traditional fiberglass body panels lay the chassis and drivetrain of a new configuration.
The gearbox was moved from the front to the rear in order to form a rear mounted transaxle unit which improved weight distribution. The C5 was also "the Corvette that never was." In the beginning of the 1990s, GM suffered one of its cyclical crises and the Corvette project almost fell victim to GM bean counters looking to save money. Fortunately logic prevailed and with a $250 million dollar investment, the C5 was developed with a new chassis that was manufactured using hydroform technology. That enabled a much stronger chassis than before and the convertible variant became almost as twist resistant as the coupe.
The C5 also boasted the longest wheelbase (104.7 inches) of all previous Corvette generations, although the overall length of 179.7 inches made it 3.1 inches shorter than the C4. For the first time ever, Corvette buyers had a choice of three body style variants. In addition to the coupe with the removable center section and the convertible (which featured outside access to the trunk for the first time since 1962) a hardtop version was launched in the U.S. market in 1999. Not only did the C5 have an all-new design, it also came with the 5.7-liter V8 engine designed by chief engineer Dave Hill and his team.
The so-called LS1 unit was an all-aluminum construction that delivered 344hp at just 5,400 rpm. Peak torque of 356 lb-ft was available at 4,200 rpm. The maximum possible engine speed proves the sturdiness of the optimized valve operation; the engine, positioned behind the front axle so as to balance the weight distribution, reaches 6,000 rpm with ease.The C5 made the dash from zero to 62 mph in just 4.7 seconds. Power was conveyed to the rear axle via a choice of a six-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic transmission.
The C5's interior was also pure sports car. The leather seats featured power controls for length and height as well as electronically adjustable lumbar support and side bolsters.There was also a height-adjustable steering column that allowed for 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 their favorite radio stations on the standard Bose sound system.
Another technical highlight was 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. An additional safety feature was the sensor-assisted Twilight Sentinel system, which automatically activates the headlamps at the outbreak of darkness. Production ended in 2004 just Chevrolet was putting the finishing touches on its replacement, the C6.
C6 - Open the Eyes with New Headlights
When the C6 Corvette was unveiled in 2004, it was the first time in almost 40 years that its headlights were not hidden under pop up covers. Chevrolet explained this about face due to the desire to give the car a cleaner face and to make the lights less technically complicated.It was a logical reason with one tradition disappearing while another one returned; the exposed headlights seen on the original C1. Like its predecessor, the C6 is protected by a big front bumper that's the same color as the body.
Only now it has a more narrow air intake at the bottom and a very modest, almost invisible triangle-shaped bulge at the center of the hood, which is a typical Corvette design cue. The back-end of the car looks to be higher than the front, giving the car a unique look and feel. The surface at the back is flat and the fuel door is just behind the left hand door. The taillights are also rounded and embedded in the back of the car, just like in previous generations.Larger wheels and shorter overhangs contribute to a more purposeful design. Rear-end styling also features four exhausts in the rear diffuser.
Its development consisted of many types of simulations in order to achieve the proper aerodynamic balance and sleek design with more than 400 hours of wind tunnel testing. The results clearly paid off as the C6 has also had a race-winning experience at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a win in the GTE Pro class. In terms of everyday conveniences, the C6 coupe's removable roof panel can be stowed in the luggage area. The convertible also features a choice of either an easy-to-operate fabric manual top or a power-operated soft top. And as design tradition goes, the dual cockpit interior theme continues. The seat frame is also made of a two-layer composite.
Among many of the new electronic technologies are GM's Keyless Access with Push Button Start and an updated head-up display which projects information onto the windscreen. At launch, the C6 was powered by the automaker's then new LS2 6.0-liter V8, which was based on the Gen IV small-block. Capacity was increased, components were improved and output peaked at 400hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual and optional Hydramatic four-speed automatic transmission were also both upgraded and strengthened to accommodate the LS2's higher torque.
GM's overall Corvette chassis and running-gear philosophy also continued. Vehicle weight was significantly reduced, despite features such as larger wheels and tires, more robust brakes and increased body sound-proofing materials. The suspension configuration was also carried over from the C5, but with all new components, while the Traction Control and Active Handling systems operate as an unobtrusive safety net for spirited driving. Most importantly, however, the C6 delivers stunning performance. Both manual and automatic standard models accelerate from zero to 62 mph in 4.2 seconds and have a top speed of 186 mph.
Fitted with the optional Z51 Sport Package, this acceleration time is cut down to 4.1 seconds. For buyers who feel that the base C6 isn't powerful enough are fortunate to have some incredible upgrades. As always, the price increased, but it's still impossible to deny the power to dollar ratio offered by the Z06 and ZR1. The track-oriented Z06 arrived on the scene back in 2006 and was powered by a new 7.0-liter small-block V8 that produced 505hp. Other changes include a dry sump oiling system and a body frame constructed from aluminum instead of steal. All told, this cut nearly 140 pounds from the standard car's weight.
In 2010, the Grand Sport was unveiled, replacing the Z51 package. It received several components from the Z06 such as the front splitter, rear spoiler and brakes. In addition, it has wider front and rear fenders along with 'Grand Sport' badges. There are also unique 18-inch front and 19-inch rear wheels.And then there's the ZL1. Designed and engineered to run with the world's best supercars, the ZL1 is powered by a modified version of the LS3 V8, newly designated LS9. It produces an incredible 638hp and 604lb-ft of torque and is the most powerful, expensive ($112,600) and quickest production Corvette ever built. Engineers are now working on the next generation Corvette, the C7, which is expected to hit the market sometime in 2014.The C6 has, by and large, been a phenomenal success and its successor has some very large - and historic - shoes to fill.
Grand Sport - the Promise that was Never Fulfilled
Since 1957 American car manufacturers were bound by a self-imposed agreement, signed by all under the auspices of the AMA organization. It prevented them from taking part in motorsport. For a few years, the major automakers abided by the rule, before Ford began to digress, as it considered participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. More importantly, Shelby Cobra cars, first based on the British AC Ace chassis and equipped with a Ford V8, were doing quite well in American sportscar racing.
In fact, GM snubbed Shelby when he expressed interest in the small-block V8. Ford's interest soon inspired the Corvette engineering team, headed by Zora Arkus-Duntov, to follow suit. The inspiration became even stronger since the team was hopeful of the potent two-seater at their disposal. In 1962, with the tacit consent of Bunkie Knudsen, Chevrolet Manager at the time, Arkus-Duntov and his team began developing the 'lightweight' Corvette and transforming it into a racing machine. Their main target was slashing hundreds of pounds off the 3,100 lbs. production car and installing a more powerful engine under the hood.
In order to cope with the new performance demands, various components from the transmission to the brakes also had to be replaced. The first phase of the Corvette's transfiguration was producing the main tubular frame of thin-walled steel tubes, which weighted only 170 lbs. Holes were drilled into components such as the rear trailing arms, front and rear hubs and the brake, clutch, pedal, and shifter arms. The 'birdcage' construction was made of aluminum tubes rather than steel tubes. Handmade ultra-thin fiberglass body panels were laid over that structure (one finger could press them in an inch or two).
Aluminum was also used for castings of the steering, gearbox and differential housings. Among the dozen of components made of aluminum were door frames, door hinges and handles, wiper mechanism arms and motor plates, inner body braces, fresh air vent doors, hood hinges, window frames and many more. At the end of the process the car lost over 1,000 lbs. and weighed in at 1,950 lbs. Five prototypes were built and homologation papers were submitted to the FIA in order to allow the production of 125 cars to be eligible for North American as well as international competition. Originally, Arkus-Duntov planned to install a V8 377 CID engine.
But the engine wasn't ready in time for the first tests at Sebring in December 1962, so an L84 fuel injected 327 CID engine was installed instead. The car was driven by veteran Corvette racer Dr. Dick Thompson, a dentist by trade and therefore also known as "the flying dentist", who set impressive times. He was shy by a few seconds of the official lap record.However that was the last time that the Corvette 'lightweight', as it was called in its early days, was seen as a GM supported product. In January '63 the GM board heard about the racing car project and decreed that it would be abandoned.
And that it was, as the homologation papers were withdrawn. Luckily the five prototypes were not destroyed. Two remained with GM while the three others were loaned to racing drivers, who raced them during the 1963 season.The most notable result was a victory for Dick Thompson at the SCCA Nationals at Watkins Glen with GS #004. By the end of the season the cars were returned to GM and Arkus-Duntov and his men applied various improvements to them. Slots and vents were opened up in the bodywork for improving the cooling of the brakes and the differential, wider wheels and tires were fitted and to accommodate them and the fender flares were created.
The icing on the cake was the new aluminum cast small-block 377 CID that was fed by four 58 mm Webber carburetors through a special aluminum cross-ram manifold. Output was 485hp at 6,000 rpm. Late in 1963 the car took part at the Nassau Speed Week, one of the most important racing events at the time. Although it wasn't an official GM team, a few shady figures, who incidentally were Chevy engineers, attended the meeting and their suitcases were full of spare parts. Although the drivers didn't gain any overall victory at any of the races, they returned home with a good results, leaving in their wake the Shelby Cobras.
The relative success grabbed the attention of the GM board, who insisted in culling the program and destroying the cars. However, cars #003, #004 and #005 were smuggled out of the Chevrolet facilities and transferred to private owners while cars #001 and #002, whose roofs were chopped off in preparation for the Daytona race in February, were hidden away before being sold to Roger Penske a few years later. The value of those Grand Sport prototypes is estimated to be at least $5 million each, only because the original Grand Sport is the racing car that never fulfilled its promise.
The Corvette and the Astronauts
From the beginning of the 1950s and at the same time, but not in any way in conjunction with the development of the Corvette, the American administration and its affiliated military establishment promoted the space program. American scientists, industrialists, military personnel, pilots and media networks became involved in that multibillion dollar project that turned out to be another front in the Cold War. The American public wasn't aware of the developing front until that fateful day on October 4, 1957.
Americans were caught off guard, hearing the news that the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into space. That immediately began a new era in world politics. Another bombshell landed on April 21, 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space in the Vostok 1 space craft.Only two weeks later on May 5, following a few costly delays, American astronaut, and proud owner of at least 10 Corvettes during his lifetime, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to travel to outer space. On May 25, 1961 President Kennedy delivered his famous speech of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The space race was officially opened and the Corvette would benefit from it. "When I was a kid, Corvette was the thing," said former astronaut Joe McBride in a gathering to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Shepard's sub-orbital flight. "Certainly when I got to the Navy all the Navy pilots had Corvettes, and I wanted to be like all the Navy pilots. At that time young astronauts were getting Corvettes, and I wanted to be one of them one of these days. Why not? It's happening. Still the Corvette is the dream car of every astronaut." General Motors has clearly taken full advantage of celebrating the longstanding relationship between astronauts and the Corvette.
And of course GM executives liked more than anything else the front cover of the "Corvette News" (Vol. No. 1), in which Shepard was photographed sitting nonchalantly on the front wing of the C1 he was awarded by the company. Shepard reportedly brought along his 1957 Corvette (his first C1) when he reported for astronaut training in April, 1959. The Cape Kennedy Corvette Club was later founded in 1967 and one of its founding members was John R.T. A. Dillon III, a safety engineer at Kennedy Space Center. "All of the astronauts were test pilots back then," he reminisced.
"They flew performance aircraft and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration and so forth." In 1961, Jim Rathmann, an Indy 500 winner, opened a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership near the space center and soon negotiated lease arrangements with Chevrolet to put the astronauts into the sports car. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer. The enduring association with America's astronauts has contributed greatly to the legend of the Corvette. "In the 1960s, astronauts were the American heroes that every child idolized and every adult respected," said Corvette historian and former Corvette Quarterly editor Jerry Burton. "That so many of them drove Corvettes really helped to establish Corvette as America's sports car."
The C4 Corvette that Wanted to be a Supercar
During the first three decades of its existence, the Corvette established its reputation as the first and only American sports car. Below this level there was a crowded playing field for pony cars and above it there was the rarified layer of the supercars heavily populated by European brands. In the 1980s, Corvette management took on a new challenge: to build a Corvette that could penetrate that exclusive club of supercars like the Porsche 928GT and Ferrari Testarossa.
But even in its new 'supercar' guise, that would be called ZR-1, the Corvette was supposed to cost its owners just over $50,000. Starting in 1984, the R&D project lasted for a few years under the nickname '400 horsepower package'. Engineers were mainly interested in implanting an all-powerful turbo-charged motor under the hood to bestow on the car a new speed dimension, during an era dominated by turbo engines and new digital management systems. 15 test mules were built, engines were tested, but when push came to shove, the marketing department advised that the turbo trend was fading out.
The 'Turbovette' was out; another solution was needed and it arrived from across the pond. David McLellan, Corvette Chief Engineer, asked Lotus Group to develop a set of dual-overhead camshaft cylinder heads for the existing 5.7-liter small-block V8. However Tony Rudd, Lotus chief engineer, proposed to build a new engine. Surprisingly the idea was approved by Chevrolet management and even a detailed explanation was given: "To create a car that is second to none in acceleration, nothing less than the fastest production car in the world," explained Chevrolet Chief Engineer, Fred Schaafsma.
"Achieve that kind of performance without sacrificing drivability, not only at the high end, where you expect fast cars to drive well, but at the low end, too. Then package all this leading-edge performance and drivability into an engine that could still deliver great fuel economy. Design this engine to fit between the rails of the existing Corvette's engine compartment, a brand new engine but not one that would require a totally new car. "The result was the LT5, a European designed engine based on relatively modern racing technology, for the first American supercar.
The LT5 was a 5.75-liter all-aluminum V8 engine, that although technologically had nothing to do with the small-block family, it shared the family's iconic dimension of a 4.40 inch bore center-to-center distance. However, the crucial components were a 4-valve per cylinder engine head operated by two overhead camshafts. Engine production was contracted out to Mercury Marine, a marine engine manufacturer (whose small two stroke outboard engines were also used in motor racing during the 1950s). Mercury was chosen because of its expertise in aluminum processing and the low production run of a maximum of 50 engines that was envisaged.
The facility built for the LT5's production was equipped with cutting edge CNC equipment and the engines were hand-made, just like racing engines. Changes were made to the car all around in order to adapt it to the 32 valve 375hp and 370 lb-ft V8. This included Goodyear Eagle Gatorback 315/35ZR-17 tires mounted on 11-inch-wide rims and a wider body that necessitated new doors, rear quarter panels, and a rear bumper fascia with a new rectangular lamp design. The new Corvette supercar was unveiled at the 1989 Geneva Motor Show and received a roaring welcome from the world press. Production began a year later and buyers received not only an owner's manual, but also a driver's manual that provided valuable advice on how to get the most performance in the safest manner from the 4.6 seconds to 62 mph and 180 mph top speed American supercar.
A Return to Le Mans to Drive a Winning Corvette
Almost two years ago a Corvette C1 was taken to Le Mans. It was driven around the famous track by John Fitch, a former fighter pilot and racing driver, now in the 10th decade of his long life. Exactly 50 years before, Fitch, the first American to race successfully in post-World War II Europe, managed the Cunningham Racing Team that fielded three Corvette C1's at the most famous race in the world. During the 1950s the 24 hours of Le Mans gave the Indy 500 a fair run for its money, at least among wealthy Americans.
Briggs Cunningham was one of those Americans. He was born into a well-to-do family and even his adventurous life style and his passion for yachts and fast cars couldn't exhaust his resources. He also had a dream: to win with an American car the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He shared this dream with Zora Arkus-Duntov, who apart from being the Corvette project leader was also a race driver. In 1954 he drove a Porsche at La Sarthe as well as his Corvettes. However, fate intervened. American automakers decided to eliminate their motorsport activity and Arkus-Duntov had to resort to other means to get what he wanted.
Cunningham then came to his rescue. In the early '50s Cunningham took part in Le Mans driving cars he built known as C1, C2, C3 and C4 (no relation to the Corvette). In 1960 the Le Mans rules changed by creating the GT 5000 class which allowed for big engined cars to race there as well.Americans were delighted and Cunningham, with the covert support and assistance from Arkus-Duntov, acquired three road cars and turned them into racers. The cars were prepared by Alfred Momo and equipped with a 290hp 283 CID V8 with fuel injection and a top speed of 150 mph.
Racing drum brakes were added as well as magnesium knock-off wheels and racing tires. Among the other racing accessories included were Stewart Warner gauges in a special dash plate, a Halibrand quick release fuel cap, rear axles with Firestone racing tires, running lights, Lucas brake lights, Koni competition shock absorbers, two Bendix fuel pumps, front additional sway bar (as in 1959), aircraft 'jump' seats, and a 37 gallon fuel tank. Cunningham ordered the cars to be painted white, the American racing color, and a blue strip all along the cars' center line. At Le Mans the cars were allocated numbers 1, 2 and 3.
Fitch raced car #3, rotating the driving shifts with Bob Grossman. Car #1 lasted only three hours before it crashed and burned. Car #2's race lasted for 17 hours before its engine ceased functioning. Only car #3 completed the 24 hours, lagging behind give Ferraris and winning its category, an achievement Chevrolet would not emulate for the next four decades. For the Corvette camp at Le Mans, including Arkus-Duntov who took an unexplained holiday from his daily job, the last two hours of the race were especially nerve racking as the radiator broke which lead to a blown head gasket.
During the last two hours Grossman dived into the pits at every lap in order to get ice into the engine compartment to cool it down. After the race the cars were returned to the U.S., converted back into road going cars, were sold off and became lost in American garages. Car #2 is now in private hands and car #3 was located back in 2000 and underwent an extensive restoration. Two years ago, 50 years after it won, it returned to Le Mans and was driven by Fitch himself. The whereabouts of car #1 are still shrouded in mystery.
C5-R - Finally a True Racing Corvette
During the first half of the last decade, a low silhouette racing sports car conquered not only American but also European racetracks. It was the Corvette C5-R, the first truly official racing effort of the famous American sports car. There is no official explanation for the change of heart from Chevy executives, after almost 45 years of complete disregard for racing Corvettes. However, the main objective for the investment was the desire to spread the reputation of the marque and improve sales.
The Corvette's choice for this assignment was a natural decision. However the claim that the racing program was also part of an international marketing and promotion effort is an exaggeration. Yes, the Corvette C5-R raced successfully at Le Mans, netting three class victories out of five starts, but the bulk of its racing efforts were done in the ALMS series. When the C5 Corvette arrived on the scene, everyone involved knew that when race-prepped it would be good enough to go head-to-head with the Saleen Mustangs, Porsches and Dodge Vipers in GT2/GTS sports car events in the North American theater.
Chevrolet Race Shop had an enormous task at hand to start from scratch by putting together a race team and design a GT2/GTS race car based around the production C5. Pratt & Miller Engineering was hired to develop and construct the chassis under the direction of chassis engineer Ken Brown. Katech Engine Building and Development would handle the engine side of the racing equation. By November of 1998, the group finished the test mule and was working hard to complete and shake-down chassis' #1 and #2 in time for their debut in March of 1999 at Sebring.
The actual race chassis' were built, sharing only basic key structural elements with the production road cars. A firewall was placed immediately behind the driver's seat in the cockpit, eliminating any rear visibility from inside the car. A large diffuser and wing were added to the rear, while a splitter and vents on the hood were added to the front. The distinctive front headlights were also replaced with protruding permanent units in place of the pop-up headlights on the standard production car. Upon its initial completion, the C5-R came with a 366 CID (6.0-liter) V8 engine.
This was replaced with a larger 427 CID (7.0 liter) engine several months later during the 1999 season and became the standard engine for the C5-R for the rest of its career. Katech Engine Development constructed the C5-R's engines, although they retained elements of the production LS1 units. The C5-R made its race debut in 1999 at the Daytona 24 Hours, finishing second in its class. Its main competitor in the GT2 was the Dodge Viper. During that season performances weren't brilliant and no wins were achieved, but gradually the team gained experience and the car was development into a more competitive configuration.
In 2000 results improved with two wins in ALMS races. The team also, for the first time, went beyond U.S. borders and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, capturing 3rd and 4th places in the GTS class.2001 was the first great year for the team and GM managers could see some return on their investment. The Corvette team won convincingly at La Sarthe, capturing the two highest steps of the podium and routing the opposition in the ALMS series with seven wins out of nine races. The Corvette C5-R was now firing all cylinders.
The C5-R retired from racing after winning the 2004 ALMS title with a total of 35 ALMS race wins out of 55 starts. In 2004 alone the car registered a 100 percent success record with 10 wins out of 10 starts, in addition to a class win at Le Mans, the last of them in Laguna Seca Raceway."It's a very special year when you can go undefeated," said Doug Duchardt, GM Racing director, at the time. "This was an amazing effort from the beginning until the end. This is a great way to send out the C5-R."
When Elvis Drove a Corvette
For nearly six decades on mainly American roads, the Corvette has become an American cultural icon as much as any other American icon. It's taken part in movies, TV series ("Route 66" was probably as important to the Corvette image as can be), mentioned is songs, and even Elvis Presley drove a 1959 Stingray racer in the movie "Clambake". A Corvette also made an appearance in the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die" and was also briefly featured in "American Graffiti."
The Corvette had the honor to kick start the writing career of Karl Ludvigsen, one of the most important automotive authors ever. In 1959, when he was the technical editor of "Sports Cars Illustrated", he published a booklet dedicated to the car. He later published four more books and helped position the Corvette as the ultimate American sports car. Coming from a Europhile like Ludvigsen, this was a great tribute to the Corvette and its people. Ever since Ludvigsen, dozens of other mostly American authors, famous and less famous, have dedicated their time and efforts to depict, record and photograph its multifaceted development, growth, activity and influence.
The basic book for a Corvette fan is probably the "Corvette Black Book", an annual publication that is dedicated to Corvette history and technical details of all generations. "Corvette American Legend" is a five title series dedicated to all forms of the C1. "The Corvette in the Barn" is another book from the "...in the Barn" series with a few dozen stories of lost and found Corvettes. The Corvette, as opposed to rare, lucrative and expensive sports cars such as those from Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and others, was never a rare exhibit but at times a superfluous commodity and its price, therefore, was reasonable.
In its early iterations its shape was changed significantly from one generation to the other and therefore created further interest and background noise that helped increase interest in the car. The sporting adventures, supported covertly by Zora Arkus-Duntov and his engineers, against the monolithic background of GM's senior management, also contributed to the free spirit the car espoused.It was a different spirit to that of GM's bean counters and it brought them satisfaction only in later years. In 2003 ItalDesign, the most radical Italian design house, designed a concept for a new Corvette.
Dr. Jerry W. Passon, who teaches English and technical writing at Hopkinsville Community College, has been a Corvette fan since childhood.He consummated this love affair when he wrote "The Corvette in Literature and Culture". In a lecture a few months ago he said that the Corvette represents many aspects of car culture: technology, emotion, rebellion, freedom, women, power and men's heroism.It also possesses the auto mobility magic power that Americans have adored ever since the Ford Model T first appeared on the road way back in 1908.
Most importantly, it has the air of driving pleasure combined with the sensations of race driving. And all those qualities are in the mix that made the Corvette such an American icon.