Vetting the 'Vettes


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2014 Chevy Corvette Stingray, Corvette C7. Image: Chevrolet.com

Nothing against the Mustang, GTO, Barracuda, Challenger, or the other classic nameplates of the American muscle car age, but the Chevrolet Corvette merits special attention this year. America’s first and arguably favorite mass-produced sports car is marking three major milestones in 2013: 60 years since its 1953 debut, 50 years since the genre-defining Sting Ray, and the first peeks at an already popular redesign for 2014.

It had the very same straight-six-cylinder Blue Flame engine found in every other Chevy of the day, but the first-generation Corvette was very different from any other American car before it. As the first mass-produced U.S. car to integrate Detroit practicality with European styling and performance, the polo white two-seater was a symbol of the U.S. automotive industry at the peak of its post-World War II exuberance.

The new 'Vette proclaimed its sports-car aspirations through brash choices in design and engineering, like the crossed flags of victory on its emblem, open-top design, and an exclusive triple carburetor system to pep up the 150 HP engine. Within two years Chevy added a V8, more horsepower, new color choices, and other sporty tweaks, and the Corvette peeled out into history. In 1963, anticipating new price and performance competition from Ford’s upstart Mustang, Chevy introduced the sleek Corvette Sting Ray and changed the game once again.  Every few years thereafter, Chevy re-imagined the Corvette for the times, working with new, envelope-pushing ideas for power trains, color palettes, body styles, and dashboard gadgets. Signature innovations like 1963’s one-off split rear window, hideaway headlights, and FM radio reception raised the muscle car bar. Its fast acceptance as the conveyance of choice for astronauts and Hollywood stars added to the glamor, and its comparatively low price put it in the garages of an entirely new market of young, upwardly mobile, but decidedly middle-class car buyers.

The evolution of the Chevy Corvette 1953-2013. Images: Wikimedia Commons

With only a slight blip that limited production in the 1983 model year, the Corvette has remained in continuous production longer than any other American car. Corvette history is divided into seven distinct design generations and all buffs know that “C1” means first-generation Corvette, “C2” is a second-generation model, and so forth.

Next Year’s Model

GM is about to roll out the biggest revamp of the Corvette in decades. The C7 coupe debuted in January; a convertible model appeared at the Geneva auto show a few months later. GM revealed its confidence in the C7 by reviving the venerated StingRay designation for the first time since 1976. The new 'Vette is positioned for success, but the question remains: Will it stack up against the beloved models of the storied past?

Obviously it’s too soon to make an informed prediction, but never too soon to take the pulse of the fan base. We asked participants of Corvette Forum, an online discussion group, to help rank the relative popularity of each generation. Responses to a one-question Survey Monkey poll revealed some interesting, if scientifically invalid, ideas about what separates a great Corvette from a true classic. Here are the results.

Seventh Place – C4 1984-1996

It’s doubtful that any Corvette has ever been considered truly “unpopular,” but this model garnered a mere two votes in our poll. It arrived with typically solid performance and some fancy tech gimmicks like an LCD dash display and a passive keyless entry system – GM’s first – marking the first full-scale redesign in 20 years. But production hiccups during the 1983 model year essentially pushed its introduction into 1984.

Sixth Place – C1 1953-1962

It may have come out first, but the debut C1 generation came in next-to-last in this poll. The first 300 Corvettes off the line featured mostly off-the-shelf mechanical components, a repurposed sedan chassis, and unspectacular performance. Chevy quickly realized it had a potential winner and rolled out big improvements in looks and performance throughout the rest of the 1950s. It may not stack up against what was to come, but C1’s low standing in this poll does not diminish its impact as a trendsetter.

Fifth Place – C5 1997-2004

As the 20th century wound down, Chevy updated the Corvette with Japanese-inspired design changes, increased structural rigidity, and an active handling system allowing drivers to switch between “everyday” and “competition” driving by deactivating the traction control system. The 1999 convertible ranks as a “Best Engineered Car of the 20th Century” according to Automotive Engineering magazine.

Fourth Place – C3 1968-1982

This long-running, sharp-nosed generation borrowed from a concept car called the Mako Shark II, named in part after a fishing trophy on chief designer Bill Mitchell’s office wall. Innovations included the introduction of a T-top and a special big block 430 hp engine in 1969. The early '70s brought big changes from new emissions requirements and safety regulations, prompting Chevy to retire the convertible model for 11 years and replace the dual exhaust system with catalytic-converter-friendly alternatives.

Third Place – C6 2005-2013

Today’s Corvette, the C6, has a revamped body design that reintroduces exposed headlamps and offers a roomier interior. Computer-aided gear selection helps boost fuel economy and skirt new taxes on low-mpg cars. Chevrolet says the C6 can hit top speeds of 190 and get to 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds.

Second Place – C7 2014 –

For a car the public has scarcely seen and never driven, the forthcoming C7 'Vette stacks up quite well against its ancestors in our survey. At the very least, the results indicate an extremely favorable initial response to the snatches of information released about the car to date, fueled by its star turn as the pace car at the 2013 Indy 500. Its release will herald the return of the StingRay emblem after 37 years. Initial reviews are glowing, so stay tuned for more.

The Champion – C2 1963-1967

The hands-down favorite of Corvette Forum voters, with 34% of the votes, is the second-generation Corvette, which marked dramatic leaps in styling, performance, and features to take on the much-lower-priced Ford Mustang. Chevy introduced a coupe model for the first time in 1963, with a tapered rear deck and now highly collectible split rear window available only that year. This was the first appearance of the Sting Ray emblem and the first interpretation of the streamlined Mako Shark design concept. It’s popular now, and it was popular 50 years ago, triggering a 50% jump in sales over the prior year. “The high-water mark,” said one survey-taker.

Michael MacRae is an independent writer.

With only a slight blip that limited production in the 1983 model year, the Corvette has remained in continuous production longer than any other American car.

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August 2013

by Michael MacRae, ASME.org