Corvette Evolution, Part 1: How it Became an American Legend


For Part 1 of our Corvette Evolution feature series, we ponder 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.

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.

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 automotive 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. Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of our Corvette Evolution Series.

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