In production for more than six decades, the Chevrolet Corvette has evolved into an international automotive icon and the quintessential American sports car. As the 4th of July approaches and we celebrate all things American, we thought it might be a good time to reflect back on the seven generations of the Corvette to see just how far this little two seater has come along since 1953.
Like many aspects of modern society, World War II had a profound impact on the automotive industry. GIs returning from Europe had been exposed to the sleek and nimble small sports cars made by the likes of Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, and other European marques, and the demand for a similar domestic sports car became undeniable. In 1951, legendary General Motors automotive designer Harley Earl convinced GM’s top brass that they needed to enter the sports car fray, and by late in the year, the design phase of the first Corvette, dubbed “Project Opel”, had begun.
Unveiled at the Motorama car expo in January of 1953, the Corvette’s beautiful, then-revolutionary fiberglass body was met with universal fanfare. However, the “C1” Corvette that landed in dealerships later that year came equipped with a feeble inline six cylinder engine mated to a two speed automatic transmission, which turned out to be no match for its rivals across the pond, and the Corvette nearly met an early demise in 1954. However with the introduction of Ford’s Thunderbird, GM decided to up the ante instead.
Late in 1955, Chevrolet began offering its new 195 hp, 265 cubic inch small block V8 in the Corvette, and also added a three-speed manual transmission to the options sheet. This combination dramatically improved the car’s performance, and in subsequent years the car would quickly evolve into a world-class performer, and its popularity grew in turn.
In 1963, the second generation C2 Sting Ray Corvette was unveiled. It marked a number of firsts for the Corvette, including hidden headlamps, an independent rear suspension, and the first coupe configuration of the car. Performance continued to improve in dramatic fashion, and by 1967, Corvettes could be configured with the L88 engine option, a big block V8 weighing in at 427 cubic inches, giving it an official power rating of 430 hp, but was rumored to actually make well north of 500hp.
By the time the C3 “Mako Shark” Corvette was introduced for the 1968 model year, the American performance car wars of the late 1960s were in full swing, and GM had every intention of keeping the Corvette at the top of the heap. Featuring a much curvier body than the C2, with bulging fenders and a low profile, the C3 definitely looked the business. In 1969, Chevrolet unveiled the ZL1 engine option for the Corvette, which featured an all-aluminum big block V8 which was again vastly underrated at 430 hp, and kept the Corvette comfortably among the top tier supercars of the day.
The C3 iteration of the Corvette would continue throughout the 70s and into the early 80s, and as such, suffered from the same issues which plagued the rest of the auto industry. Smog regulations, skyrocketing gas prices, rising insurance costs, and a floundering economy all took their toll on the Corvette, and the performance of the C3 began to drop precipitously after 1970. By 1975, the base engine of the Corvette generated a miserable 165 hp, turning the Corvette into a car that would now be thoroughly dusted by a late-model Toyota Camry. The C3 would soldier on in similar fashion with minor updates until 1982.
Introduced in 1984, the C4 Corvette was the first clean-sheet redesign of the sports car since 1963. While the power on tap was still a far cry from the salad days of the late 60s, the new modern styling, coupled with extensive refinement and modernization of the car both inside and out, including the use of LCD displays in the dashboard and aluminum in braking and suspension components to reduce weight and increase handling ability, the Corvette had been brought back into the fray with the rest of the world’s top performance cars. By 1990, the ZR1 option debuted, and the Corvette found itself back at top of the performance car heap with a bespoke 375hp motor and extensive suspension and braking upgrades.
Released in 1997, the fifth generation C5 Corvette was an exercise in further refining the previous generation to bring it up to par with its Japanese counterparts. Along with a sleeker, more curvaceous bodyline, the C5 saw Chevrolet focusing on improving performance through the use of lightweight components and added structural rigidity. 2001 saw the introduction of the Z06 Corvette, which again offered unprecedented handling and straight line performance, now well beyond anything seen in the production Corvette’s history.
Hitting showrooms in 2005, the C6 Corvette, while not drastically different in appearance from its predecessor, contained numerous subtle visual changes and refinements. Gone were the flip-up headlights which had adorned the hoods of Corvettes since 1963, and the new longer wheelbase, and in turn, passenger compartment, made the car much more roomier than previous generations. But where the C6 really separated itself of the past was underneath the skin. It boasted totally reworked suspension geometry and an all-new 6.0 liter V8, generating 400hp in the base model, and with its low-drag aerodynamics, the C6 was capable of hitting a top speed of 190mph. While this level of performance in the base model of the Corvette was exciting, Chevrolet wasn’t willing to settle on “good enough”, and would soon introduce a new generation ZR1 Corvette.
Equipped with carbon ceramic brakes, magnetic-ride suspension, cutting edge stability and traction control systems, carbon fiber body panels and a 640 hp supercharged V8 — the most powerful production engine to ever be put into a production car at the time — the ZR1 caused a sensation upon its arrival in 2009. Topping out at over 200 mph, the ZR1 would go on to break the production car lap time record at the world-famous Nurburgring racetrack in Germany, and remains one of the fastest supercars money can buy.
Which leads us to now — the C7 Corvette, which revives the Stingray moniker from the C2 and C3 Corvettes. Unveiled at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, the new Corvette is a the most extensive redesign of the Corvette since the introduction of the C4 in 1984. The C7 employs a thoroughly modern design that provides jaw dropping good looks and yet another new level of performance.
An all-new LT1 small-block V8 is now on deck for the “base” model, which develops 450hp and 450lb-ft of torque, and is mated to an all-new 7–speed manual gearbox. The C7 also gets a vastly improved interior, and the extensive use of carbon fiber and an aluminum frame (a first for a base Corvette) means the new ‘Vette will be stiffer than its predecessor and will allow the new Corvette to include more features without gaining a significant amount of weight.
It seems, that even after six decades, things just keep getting better and better for the American sports car icon. And there may be a C8 in the works for 2018 — after a mid-engine prototype was recently snapped running a track in broad daylight, rumors are coursing over what Chevy has in store.
Corvettes on Turo
Just because you’re not Prince doesn’t mean you can’t have your own close encounter with a Corvette. If you’re feeling moved by the rich history, check out some of the fine Corvettes on Turo.
John’s 1965 Corvette in San Jose, CA
Manny’s 2008 Corvette in Miami, FL
Miles’s 2009 Corvette in Las Vegas, NV
Alejandra’s 2016 Corvette in Houston, TX
Amanda’s 2016 Corvette in Marina Del Rey, CA