Some things definitely get better with age. Consider the Corvette. By the time you read this, Chevrolet's two-seat flight of fancy will be 56 and looking not at all in need of any enhancement whatsoever, natural or otherwise. No doubt many Corvette owners wish they could say the same-while often showing considerably fewer miles on their clocks in comparison. Fortunately slipping down behind the wheel of the latest "best Vette yet" always seems to help turn back the years, or at least we men like to think ye women always see it that way. If not, there's still Rogaine, right?
What a long, winding road it has been. Six Corvette generations have now appeared, each making its own share of history, each picking up the pace to all-new heights. First came the original "solid-axle" models, built from 1953 to 1962, followed by the "midyear" Corvette Sting Rays, fondly fashioned all too briefly from 1963 to 1967. The third generation, the so-called "Shark" legacy, still stands as the lengthiest after running on and on from 1968 to 1982. Chevrolet officials then opted to skip the 1983 model designation due to delays encountered during development of the fourth generation, which debuted as an '84 model then retired in 1996.
Originally considered in 1988, the radically upgraded fifth generation was initially slated to burst onto the scene in August 1992, just in time to help pre-stage the Corvette's upcoming 40th anniversary celebration. But stumbling blocks again took their toll, pushing that date back repeatedly, first for the 1994 model year, then 1995. When all the trials and tribulations were finally dealt with, Chevrolet's latest next-generation Corvette was introduced to rave reviews, in Targa-top coupe form only, in January 1997. A topless running mate followed a year later.
It was during the '97 Corvette's protracted crawl to market that code names came into vogue for the breed's much-ballyhooed generations. Once "C5" became the recognized label for the 1997 redesign, it logically followed to retroactively identify the preceding groups accordingly: C1, C2, and so on. At present we have the predictably tabbed C6, which did the C5 one better in 2005. Make that "50 better," for that was how much standard engine output increased, to an unprecedented 400 horsepower. Standard C6 performance, meanwhile, graduated into the surreal range: 0-60 in 4.2 seconds, a top end of 186 miles per hour. Talk about all-new heights.
"The C6 represents a comprehensive upgrade to the Corvette," explained former chief engineer David Hill rather humbly while announcing the upcoming new model late in 2003. "Our goal is to create a Corvette that does more things well than any performance car. We've thoroughly improved performance and developed new features and capabilities in many areas, while at the same time systematically searching out and destroying every imperfection we could find." In Hill's opinion, the C5 had been "90-percent perfect." His estimation for the '05 C6 was 99 percent. Easily one of the world's best performance buys, Chevrolet's latest, greatest Corvette now offers far more refinement than ever imagined not all that long ago.
And to think this story started oh so humbly more than a half century back.
"Now there's potential," claimed Zora Arkus-Duntov after seeing the first Corvette on an auto show stage in January 1953. "I thought it wasn't a good car yet, but if you're going to do something, this looks good," he added in a 1967 Hot Rod magazine interview. Duntov went to work at Chevrolet Engineering in May 1953, made Chevy's 'glass-bodied two-seater his baby soon afterward, and the rest is history. The first of four Corvette chief engineers, he retired in 1975, passing the baton onto Dave McLellan. Former Cadillac man David Hill took over in 1992 then stepped aside in January 2006. Filling Hill's shoes that year was Tom Wallace, previously the lead engineer for General Motors' small and midsized trucks.
Though a certified crowd-pleaser in prototype form in 1953, the original Corvette surely represented an unproven entity if there ever was one, and for more than one reason. Most obvious was its Euro-style sporting nature. Sure, foreign sports cars had started crossing the Atlantic after World War II, but they were still quite rare in the United States during the early 1950s. Fortunately, however, there were those at GM who felt numbers, however meager, shouldn't get in the way of a potential new wave.
Among these was Duntov. "Considering the statistics, the American public does not want a sports car at all," he claimed during a 1953 address before the Society of Automotive Engineers. "But do the statistics give a true picture? As far as the American market is concerned, it is still an unknown quantity, since an American sports car catering to American tastes, roads, ways of living, and national character has not yet been on the market."
An American automaker diving into such untested waters represented news enough in 1953; that that company was GM's low-priced leader made the move look doubly outrageous. Few today seem to recall what Chevrolet was all about in those days. What made it Detroit's top-selling car company every year from the 1930s into the 1950s wasn't prestige, pizzazz, or performance but dependable practicality at a competitive price. Putting the Bowtie onto an expensive play toy-what were they thinking?
To read more, pick up a copy of The Corvette Factories: Building America's Sports Car, available now.