The “muscle car” is uniquely American. No other country is so much in love with “car culture”, and no one else is as obsessed as Americans are with big powerful gas-guzzlers. And of these, no muscle car is as famous as the Chevy Corvette.
But the story doesn’t begin in America. In post-WW2 England, where the economy was recovering from the destruction and privation of the war years, companies like MG, Triumph and Austin-Healey were producing small cars, mostly two-seat convertibles, that were maneuverable, agile, and fun to drive. They became known as “sports cars”. And by the 1950s, the Big Three car manufacturers in the United States adopted the concept and put it on steroids.
The General Motors “sports car” initiative was begun in the Chevrolet division in 1951 and was known as “Project Opel”, under designer Harley Earl. He came up with the idea for a two-seat convertible with a fiberglass body and a six-cylinder 150-horsepower engine and automatic transmission. Since Chevy cars traditionally had names that began with the letter “C”, the marketing folks decided to call the sprightly new sports car “Corvette”, after the fast maneuverable 18th-century naval warships. The new design was presented as a “concept car” at the Motorama Auto Show in New York City in January 1953.
The first Corvette rolled off the Flint assembly line on June 30. That year, 300 were produced. All of them were white with red interiors, and all of them were convertibles. By 1954, they were also available in black, red or blue. Some 3600 were produced. The assembly line was then moved to St Louis, where a new version of the Corvette was introduced in 1955. This sported a bigger 200-horsepower V8 engine with a manual transmission. Only 700 of these models were produced, though, and as customers demanded better speed and performance, the engine grew to reach 340 horsepower by 1962. To compete with the Ford Shelby Cobra, Chevy also developed a lightweight racing version known as the Grand Sport. Only five of these were produced.
The 1963 model year brought drastic changes, with a new look and a new name, both inspired by a new GM concept car that never went into production dubbed the “Mako Shark” (which was itself inspired when one of GM’s designers happened to catch a big shark while fishing in Florida). The “C2” generation was called the “Sting Ray”, and it turned the Corvette into the classic American sports car. The convertible top was gone, replaced with a fiberglass coupe body with distinctive retracted headlights and a split rear window (which only lasted for one year). The Sting Ray came with a standard 250-horsepower V8, with options available up to 360 horsepower. As a promotion, Chevy also developed a special Z06 racing version which it entered at LeMans and won several races, and by 1967 the Corvette was available with a monstrous L88 435-horsepower engine (only 20 of these were made, however).
The Corvette got a big publicity boost in the 1960s when it was featured prominently in the TV show “Route 66”. The show centered around two friends who were taking a Jack Kerouac-style road trip around the United States in their Corvette Sting Ray, attracting both girls and adventure. Also as a promotional gimmick, Chevy provided two cars per year to each of NASA’s astronauts and, naturally, they all chose a family car for their wives and a Corvette for themselves. GM splashed the ’Vettes on magazine covers at every opportunity. Soon every free-spirited young male in the country wanted to have a Corvette of their own.
By this time, the name had been altered to “Stingray”, and the fiberglass body had been replaced with steel. In addition to the hardtop or convertible, the Corvette was offered in a T-top configuration. This never sold very well, however, and it was dropped in the 1975 model year. The standard engine had to be altered in 1971 when the United States banned leaded gasoline, and was now 300 horsepower, with either a manual or automatic transmission: in 1973, the bumpers were changed too in order to meet new safety standards. After 1981, production of the Corvette was moved to a new assembly line in Bowling Green KY. It was now one of the most popular sports cars in the US, selling almost 54,000 in 1979.
More changes came in 1983 (though a series of delays meant there were no model year 1983 Corvettes, and the new version did not appear until 1984). A sleeker and more streamlined body was introduced. New federal emissions regulations meant new engines, though the reduction to 205 horsepower did not make most customers happy, and by 1992 the powerplant had grown to 300 horsepower.
There were more changes in 2005. The pop-up headlights which had been a feature of the Stingray from the beginning were dropped, replaced by fixed headlights. There was more interior space, and the convertible version had a powered roof that raised up or down at the push of a button. The Z06 racing version got an aluminum frame and magnesium engine cradle to reduce weight, and in 2014 the production versions went to aluminum frames as well. As a gimmick, buyers of the Z06 racing version were invited to come to Bowling Green and help build their engine, being allowed to bolt on a few parts and then take delivery of their new car at the factory.
In part, the new redesign was prompted by internal GM research indicating that the Corvette was being purchased mostly by well-off older men (some wags dubbed it “the successful plumber’s car” while others joked about it being a “midlife crisis car”), and Chevy wanted to appeal to a younger market. To help with this image, GM arranged for the popular video game “Gran Turismo V”, released in 2012, to feature the new Corvette, and also used the new model as the pace car for the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
In 2020, there were major changes again, as the “C8” generation Corvette went to a mid-body engine design, which had been under consideration already for several years but had always been rejected because of production costs. The new model features a 495-horsepower V8 engine with automatic transmission. It is available as a hardtop or convertible (with a retractable hardtop). The sticker price is around $60,000.
The Wheels of Yesteryear Museum in Myrtle Beach has a 1960 Corvette on display.