From classics to concepts to customs.
Although the Corvette nearly didn't make it past its first generation and was nearly discontinued after just a few years, it's gone on to become a legendary marque that dominates on the road and track.
The launch of the Corvette wasn't strong though, arriving initially with an inline-six engine, water leaks and doors that wouldn't stay shut. Needless to say, it didn't sell well. However, in 1953 a Belgian-born and German-educated staff engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov was smitten with the Corvette and did everything he could to be involved in the project. He had seen how Ford had embraced the hot-rodding community and bred customer loyalty as younger people progressed from old jalopies to second-hand Fords to buying new Ford cars.
Duntov wrote the legendary manifesto "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet" and sent it to the Chevrolet Motor Division's Director of Research and Development, Maurice Olley. Through his passion, drive, and understanding of hot-rodding mixed with an instinctive understanding of marketing, Duntov persuaded Chevrolet to not only keep making the Corvette but to put a V8 in the car in 1955. Then, in 1956 he was named the director of high-performance vehicle design and development for Chevrolet in 1956.
Although the Corvette looked the part, it took a few years to start delivering on the actual performance. After getting the first V8 under the Corvette's hood, the next big step was the legendary Chevy small block gaining a fuel injection system. The "Fuelie" system was designed by none other than Zora Arkus-Duntov and the most desirable of C1 Corvettes for enthusiasts to drive.
In the early 60s, Chevrolet was not involved in motorsport but Duntov was a racer and knew the value of results. At the same time, he was also eyeing the Shelby Cobra as it started to get results at the racetrack. Duntov started a secret program to build a lightweight version of the second generation Corvette and planned to build 125 units so the car could be homologated and go racing. GM executives caught wind of the project and shut it down with only five cars known to be built. But they did make it to race tracks and were driven by various race car drivers including A.J. Foyt and Roger Penske. Now, they are amongst the most valuable Corvettes built.
The chances of anyone getting to drive one are tiny, but the Superformance company builds an officially licensed continuation "1963" Corvette Grand Sport complete with the #2 paint scheme replicating the one A.J. Foyt drove. It's road legal, and comes with a choice of GM's LS crate engines and are shod with street-legal Avon classic-car tires on 15-inch magnesium wheels to ensure an authentic 60s seat-of-the-pants race car experience.
In 1969 the ZL1 made an appearance just for that year. It was officially rated at 430 horsepower but in reality made nearer 480. However, for those in the know, Duntov was still pushing against GM's racing ban and introduced the L88 as a race-ready Corvette option from the dealer. The L88 was rated at 435 horsepower, but people were finding the 427 Big Block was delivering closer to 550 horses. Only 216 were built, so not that many people knew the L88 box was worth ticking and they go for big money now.
The idea for a mid-engined Corvette has been around since the idea of a Ford GT competitor was bandied about at GM, and Duntov pushed hard to make the C4 generation Corvette mid-engined. In 1972 GM partnered up with Reynolds Aluminum to build a steel bodied mid-engined concept as well as an aluminum-bodied concept car designated XP-895. Both cars had 400 cubic-inch V8s mounted transversely behind the cockpit for a feasibility study, but we're still waiting...
Before GM introduced the C4 generation ZR-1, Callaway Cars were already making Corvettes crazy fast and the company's twin-turbo kit for the C4 even became a dealer option. The Sledgehammer was more than a twin-turbo kit though. The suspension was developed with the help of Caroll Shelby and the heavily modified bodywork was a clue to the 898 horsepower and 772 pound-feet of torque being supplied to the rear wheels. It was also the fastest road legal car until the Veyron Super Sport outdid the Sledgehammer's recorded 254.7 mph top speed.
You couldn't actually buy a Sledgehammer from Callaway, but in 1990 you could buy the ZR-1. The C4 was co-developed with Lotus and under the new chief Corvette designer Dave McLellan, who had taken over from Duntov in 1975. The 5.7-liter ZR-1 engine made 405 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque and propelled the car to a still competitive 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. It remains an exhilarating car to drive, and the new suspension system lets you know there wasn't much compromise for comfort over handling.
Duntov was involved in all sorts of escapades behind GMs back to support and develop the Corvette with privateer racing teams, but it wasn't until 1999 that Chevy's first official competition Corvette appeared. It became an instant icon and its success at Le Mans forced the world outside North America to take the nameplate seriously. In 2001 the C5-R took its first class win at Le Mans and the overall victory at Daytona 24 Hours. Its successors, the C6.R and C7.R, kept up the pace, and Corvette Racing now has 100 wins to its name.
Originally, the Z06 was a performance package that circumvented an SCCA racing ban way back in 1963, but in 2001 it returned as the track-oriented version of the C5 Corvette. The Z06 came out as the spiritual successor to the ZR-1, and although it made less horsepower it was light enough to deliver a better power-to-weight ratio. The 2002 update produced 405 horsepower and got the Z06 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds, dashing down the quarter-mile in 12.4 seconds. More importantly, it began the modern era of performance on the track.
Chevy has always hung the Z06 spec just over the edge of too much horsepower for a road car that anyone can buy. But, Hennessey has never hesitated to drop 1000 horsepower into cars deemed worthy, and the Corvette is no exception. The C6 Z06 already comes with an engine that's worth buying the car alone, as the 505-hp 7.0-liter LS7 is closely related to the C6.R race car engine. Hennessey cranked the dial over towards insanity with a monstrous twin-turbo LSX engine upgrade that needed lots of forged aluminum engine parts, twin-ball bearing turbochargers, and all sorts of other performance parts to make 1,000 horsepower reliably.
The current generation of Corvette feels like the epitome of what a Corvette can and should be. Of course, the current ZR1 is a mind-bendingly fast tarmac-chewing feast of exhilaration, but the entry-level Stingray shows the world what American sports cars are about by making 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds and embarrassing not just about everything in its price range at the track, but a lot of cars that cost twice as much. The Grand Sport and Z06 can be mixed with packages to get the exact balance between comfortable power and ability and frenetic adrenaline pumping performance anyone could want. The fact of the matter is that there isn't a Corvette you can buy right now that an enthusiast doesn't want to drive.