From Leningrad, Russia, to Bowling Green, Kentucky.
We're entering an exciting time for the Chevrolet Corvette. A model with a mid-mounted engine has been in the cards since the "patron-saint of the Corvette," Zora Arkus-Duntov, built a test vehicle with a mid-mounted V8 engine in 1960. Arkus-Duntov continued to advocate for a mid-engined Corvette for the rest of his career and built another prototype in 1970, only to have the idea shot down again for being too expensive to build. He tried again in 1974 just before he retired, but various design problems meant it would never make production.
We've been reflecting on the history of the Corvette and the many stories and facts that surround the American icon loved for going fast in style. These are the things we believe that everyone with even just a passing interest should know about the Corvette.
When legendary designer Harley Earl first sat down to create a new car, the roadster was conceived under the name Project Opel and the target price point was just $2,000. When it was released in 1953, the Corvette cost $3,513, and the only options were a heater for $91 and an AM radio for $145. There were no color options, so if you didn't like the Polo White paint with a red interior, well, you were out of luck.
Adjusting for inflation, that means the Corvette what have cost $33,942 before options. That's not quite half of a new C8 generation Corvette, which starts at $58,900.
Zora Arkus-Duntov joined General Motors in 1953 by impressing higher-ups with his passion for the Corvette and his suggestions to improve it. His memo titled "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet," and his thirst for racing then set him on course to become Director of High-Performance Vehicles at Chevrolet in 1957. From there, he went on to push the Corvette from being a disappointing European style roadster to becoming an innovative sports car and an American Icon.
The man that designed the Corvette was born American, but Zora Arkus-Duntov was born Zachary Arkus in Belgium on December 25, 1909, raised in Leningrad, and then educated in Berlin. His parents were Russian Jews, and during World War 2, Arkus-Duntov and his brother joined the French air force. When France surrendered, Duntov and most of his family smuggled themselves out, while his wife fled Paris for Bordeaux in an MG sports car, racing ahead of Nazi soldiers. Finally, the family reunited in New York on a ship from Portugal.
The fourth-generation Corvette was due to be on dealer forecourts in 1982. However, it ended up being pushed back to the fall and launched as a 1983 model. Ambitious upgrades led to the date being pushed into 1983, and when production started, quality issues caused GM to stop production until the issues could be taken care of. Of 43 "pilot assembly" cars built to validate production processes before they became 1984 models, one miraculously survived as they couldn't be sold to the public and were scheduled to be crushed. Car RBV098 slipped through the net and was discovered by a plant manager, who then had it cleaned up, and it's now on display at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
When it was introduced, the C6 generation ZR1 was the fastest and most expensive production Corvette yet. Its supercharged LS9 V8 was a brutal powerhouse of an engine that generated 638 horsepower and 595 lb-ft of torque. It weighed 3,350 lbs and had a better power-to-weight ratio than the contemporary Porsche 911 GT2, the Ferrari 599, and the Lamborghini LP640. It was supercar power and supercar speed for just $103,300 versus the Lamborghini's $382,400 price tag. Perhaps just as impressively, though, the 2014 Corvette Stingray has been recorded doing 53 mph in reverse, just two mph shy of the world record.
Originally, the Corvette logo was a checkered flag crossed with the American flag and designed by a man named Robert Bartholomew. Thankfully, four days before the badge made it onto production models, executives realized it's illegal to use the USA flag for commercial branding purposes. The badge was quickly redesigned to include the fleur-de-lis and the Chevrolet bow-tie we're now familiar with.
The 2020 Corvette has a zero to 60 mph time of 2.9 seconds, which is remarkably fast, even by today's standards. However, a prototype for the 1970 Corvette cleared 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds. The prototype was a 1968 LT-2 model, and Chevy rolled it out with a Monaco Orange paint job at a press event in 2015 where it clocked 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds and the quarter-mile in 10.86 seconds. The dyno sheet then showed an immense 588 hp at 6,400 rpm and 542 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm.
While many are despairing over the lack of a manual transmission in the latest generation of Corvette, this isn't the first time the manual has been missing. However, the new automatic transmissions are faster and offer a lot more control to the driver than those in the dark days of the early 1980s. The reason the 1982 model year car was sold with no manual option was a failure to understand the mindset of Corvette customers, and a misguidedly early attempt to push transmission technology into the future. Even more unfortunately for Corvette fans, 1983 was the year the Corvette never was, and it wasn't until 1984 that a Corvette could be purchased again with a manual transmission.
The Corvette wasn't born with a burbling V8 engine. In 1953, it debuted with a 3.8-liter straight-6 engine, and only 300 models were sold. The Corvette was far from an instant hit, despite its celebrated styling. A large part of the reason was final quality, fit and finish, and mediocre performance. In 1955, a 4.3-liter V8 engine was introduced that produced 195 hp through a Powerglide automatic transmission. A manual was added shortly afterward for V8 models. For that year, 90% of Corvettes were sold with the V8 option ticked, and since then, the Corvette has come equipped with nothing but a V8.
The Corvette has been the Indianapolis 500 pace car 16 times now. The first time was in 1978 and coincided with the Corvette's 25th anniversary. It arrived with a distinctive black and silver paint scheme dissected by a red pinstripe, and 6,502 special edition replicas were produced. The reason for the black and silver paint job wasn't just that it looked good, though. It was mainly designed so it would photograph well as most publications and TV screens were black and white at the time. The reason it took so long for the Corvette to be the Indy 500 pace car is that Chevrolet only intended the Corvette to be a low volume car and didn't need to be promoted to sell well. However, the 25th-anniversary model was seen as being worth promoting. As a result, 1979 was the Corvette's best selling year to date, with 53,807 units rolling off the production line.
When people think of early Corvette design, the 1963 split rear window model springs to mind. For many, it's the pinnacle of the vintage Corvette, and came from the pen of Bill Mitchell. Mitchell was as crucial to the Corvette becoming what it is as Arkus-Duntov. The problem was that owners didn't appreciate the fact it was directly in their line of sight and blocked their view out the rear window. It was also expensive to make and ate into the Chevrolet's bottom line. Mainly, though, Arkus-Duntov really, really, hated it. It led to a rift between them with Mitchell upholding his uncompromising stylistic vision and Arkus-Duntov upholding his uncompromising dedication to the Corvette being the perfect performance driver's car.
Rift is actually a needlessly delicate way of saying there were screaming arguments and a lot of name-calling over the design. "We got rid of the split window for the 1964 model year, but there was blood spilled over it," Arkus-Duntov recalled, "My blood." Ultimately, he won the war, though, and the split rear window disappeared for the 1965 model, never to be seen again.