Chevrolet Corvette: 60 Years of an American Icon, Part 1

1953-1982: C1, C2, and C3

Drew Hardin Jan 12, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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The First Restyle
The '56 model year was a watershed for Corvette. A thorough exterior redesign maintained the basic shape while updating some styling cues and addressing some of the issues potential buyers had with the car. Outside door handles were added, as were roll-up windows. The car's signature recessed headlights and protective grilles were replaced by lights mounted on the leading edge of the front fenders, while the protruding taillights were recessed into the fenders to give the rear a more slippery look. This was also the first year of the fender coves, a styling element that began at the trailing edge of the front wheel opening and came to a bullet-shaped point midway through the doors.

1956 Chevrolet Corvette Side 2/41

Changes were made beneath the skin, too. Output from the V-8 grew to 210 hp, while an optional, twin-carb version of the small-block was rated at 225 hp. In a reversal from the previous year, the three-speed manual transmission became the standard gearbox, while the Powerglide automatic was offered as an option.

There was a third engine option available in 1956, one that was fitted with a solid-lifter "Duntov" cam that brought the motor's horsepower up to 240. The cam, of course, was named for Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgian-born engineer who went to work for GM in May 1953. He had been among the throngs at the New York Motorama and, like many who saw it, immediately fell in love with the Corvette. Though his initial duties at GM were not Corvette related, he was soon assigned to the car by Ed Cole and began working on ways to make its performance match its looks.

1956 Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car 3/41

Duntov's high-performance cam was just the start of his influence over the '56 Corvette. Once he had coaxed that additional power from the engine, he proved the Vette's mettle by taking it to Daytona Beach and running it at more than 150 mph at the NASCAR Speed Weeks. A month later, a four-car Corvette team entered the Sebring 12-hour endurance race, where one of the cars finished First in class and Ninth overall.

First Fuelie
From the outside it's difficult to tell the difference between a '56 and a '57 Corvette, but under the hood the changes were profound. The 265-inch motor was enlarged to 283 cubes, and the output of the standard, single-carb engine grew to 220 hp. The optional dual-carb version was rated at 245 hp, while the hot motor with the Duntov cam produced a remarkable 270 hp.

1956 Chevrolet Corvette Rear Three Quarter 4/41

Ed Cole had asked Duntov to help develop a fuel-injection system for the Corvette, and that high-tech induction system debuted with the '57 model. The fuelie V-8 was available in two states of tune: a hydraulic-cammed model made 250 hp, while the solid-lifter, Duntov-cammed version produced 283--the fabled one hp per cubic inch of displacement. (A third variant, the "air box" model, used a fenderwell-mounted intake plenum to feed cooler, denser outside air to the engine.) Magazines in the day clocked the injected Corvette from 0-60 in 5.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 94 mph.

More racing-inspired parts became available for the Corvette in '57, including a heavy-duty suspension, a heavy-duty brake package, and Positraction in the differential.

Seeing Double
If it was hard to tell a '57 from a '56, there was no mistaking the '58 model, with its new quad headlights, hood louvers, cove vents, and chrome trim on the trunklid. About the only thing that was simplified on a '58 Corvette was the grille, which now sported nine teeth instead of the 13 found on previous versions.

1958 Chevrolet Corvette Front Three Quarter 5/41

The dashboard underwent a revision for '58, the first since the Corvette's introduction. In earlier models only the speedometer was in front of the driver; the other gauges, including the tach, were mounted in the center of the dashboard. For '58 all the gauges moved in front of the driver.

Horsepower rose again at the high and low ends of the V-8 lineup. The standard motor's output went from 220 to 230 hp, while horsepower from the solid-lifter fuelie motor rose from 283 to 290. Though it wasn't yet reflected in the Corvette, behind the scenes Harley Earl left his position as GM's styling chief in December 1958 and was replaced by Bill Mitchell, who in just a few short years would have a huge impact on the Vette's look.

1958 Chevrolet Corvette Left Side 6/41

The Corvette's styling was toned down a bit for '59 with the removal of the hood louvers and trunk trim strips. Beneath the now-less-adorned trunk, the solid axle was fitted with radius arms to eliminate wheel-hop issues. Two racing-inspired options were made available: sintered metallic brake linings in the heavy-duty brake package, and a 24-gallon fuel tank that replaced the standard 16.4-gallon tank. This big-tank (or "tanker") option required the addition of the removable hardtop, as the big tank left no room to stow the soft top.

Inside the car the seats sported a new shape and different upholstery, with the pleats now running east-west rather than north-south. It sounds like a small thing, but the return to north-south pleats for the '60 Corvette was one of that model year's few changes.

1960 Chevrolet Corvette Front 7/41

The '60 Vette's carryover status turned out to be a big disappointment for fans of the car, as several reports in enthusiast magazines, inspired by the XP-700 concept car and Bill Mitchell's Stingray race car, seemed to indicate a redesign was on the way for the model year. A redesign was on the way, but not for '60.

Another Restyle
A hint of those changes appeared on the '61 Corvette, which featured a raised and pointed tail-end that was very similar to the rear styling found on the XP-700 -- and also foreshadowed the rearend styling of the coming redesign in '63. Incorporated into the new rear were dual round taillights on either side of the car, a styling cue that would be a Corvette trademark for years to come.

1961 Chevrolet Corvette Rear 8/41

A new cylinder-head design brought more power to the fuel-injected motors, with the hydraulic-cammed version up to 275 horses, and the solid-lifter version now pumping out 315 hp. The exits for the dual exhausts were moved to behind the rear tire, rather than under the bumper, while aluminum was used for the car's radiator and four-speed manual transmission case to shave a few pounds.

Chevrolet's seemingly constant revisions to the small-block V-8 led to another major upgrade for the '62 model year, as the 283ci motor was bored and stroked to 327 inches. That translated to an increase in power across all of the engine variants, from the base engine -- now good for 250 hp -- to the solid-lifter fuelie, which made 360 hp.

1961 Chevrolet Corvette Front 9/41

Styling changes for the '62 model year were fairly minor: the front grille was blacked out, the side coves lost their chrome trim (and therefore the option of two-tone paint), and the cove vents were redesigned. In less than a decade, the Corvette had undergone an amazing transformation. The promise of the Motorama dream machine, which seemed to dim and almost disappear at first, became fully realized as a powerful, honest sports car that won hearts in the showrooms and races on road courses here and abroad. Had the Corvette's development stopped right there, the car would have been considered a major success. But, of course, the end of the Corvette's first generation was only the beginning of even better things to come.

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