Corvette: A pop culture classic
Dazzling 1953 Motorama debut launched a great American sports car that hasn't lost its luster
Harley Earl was too tall to sit in one. At 6 foot 3, he towered over the low curved windshield, which might explain why you almost never see the father of the Corvette pictured with his offspring.
Earl's creation is the most successful concept car in history and the most popular sports car in history.
An extremely positive public response confirmed Chevrolet's plans to put the Corvette into production after its debut at New York's Waldorf Astoria ballroom in January 1953. The Corvette has had a couple of brushes with extinction, but more than 1.5 million Corvettes have been produced, and the nameplate is still going strong.
Pop culture symbol
It wasn't long before the Corvette became a pop cultural symbol, thanks to appearances in song lyrics from the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean, plus appearances in feature films such as Corvette Summer. Boosted by its star status on the early-'60s TV show "Route 66," the Corvette became synonymous with freedom and adventure and became a dream car for many baby boomers growing up in the 1960s and 1970s.
Legions of loyal buyers have created a huge subculture of Corvette owners who have established clubs around the world.
There are hundreds of clubs in the United States, many of them under three umbrella organizations: the National Corvette Restorers Society, the National Council of Corvette Clubs and the C5/C6 Registry.
Several large national Corvette events take place each year, including Corvettes at Carlisle in Pennsylvania and Bloomington Gold in suburban Chicago.
The Corvette even has its own shrine, the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., which opened in 1994. The museum hosts a number of annual events that attract thousands of Corvette fans.
There have been six generations of the Corvette going back to 1953, and a seventh generation is scheduled to debut in 2013. The Corvette started out with components borrowed from General Motors' large passenger cars. But as time went on, the Chevrolet sports car became one of the pioneers of technologies that would later appear in many mainstream vehicles, such as disc brakes, fuel injection, independent rear suspensions, traction control, antilock brakes, stability control systems and lightweight materials.
Everyone has a story
Every member of the loyal legion of Corvette owners seems to have a Corvette story. People often remember the first time they saw a Corvette or took a ride in one, just as they recall where they were during a major historical event.
William Jefferson of Florence, Ala., was 12 when he got his first ride in a 1953 Corvette. "I was hitchhiking outside of Indianapolis when this guy picked me up. I had read about the Corvette and knew how rare they were in 1953. I thought it was the coolest thing."
Jefferson bought his first Corvette, a 1960 model, at age 17. Now 71, Jefferson went on to purchase 28 Corvettes. His current Corvette is a 2003 50th Anniversary Edition.
Gerry Smith of Bend, Ore., remembers the first time he saw a Corvette. "I was in high school in Ocean City, Md. I saw this Corvette go by with three or four people in the car just whooping it up and happy as can be. I thought that was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen."
In 1966, when Smith graduated from West Point, he bought a 1966 Corvette. It was a maroon convertible with a black interior. He remembers taking it to Germany when he was assigned to active duty there and causing quite a stir when he drove his Corvette to a Formula One race at the Nurburgring.
Most Germans had never seen a Corvette. "I had parked next to a Lamborghini Miura at the track, and when I returned there was this big crowd around my car. I thought it was for the Miura, but instead it was for my Corvette."
When Holt Davis of Artesia, N.M., first saw a 1963 split-window Sting Ray, he thought, "Wow." Davis is now on his 10th Corvette and still owns four of his original cars. "The Corvette shows that Chevrolet can build a world-class sports car that sells for less than similar sports cars," Davis says.
Doug MacDonald of El Monte, Calif., is the brother of Dave MacDonald, who was killed in a 1964 crash at the Indianapolis 500. Dave MacDonald was a test driver for the 1963 Corvette. "After he came home from the GM Proving Grounds," Doug MacDonald says, "he told my dad that Chevy had finally made the Corvette into a world-class sports car. When he brought the first '63 Sting Ray to hit Southern California from the factory, 15 cars followed him to the house just to find out what kind of car it was. That car started my 45-year love affair with Chevy and the Corvette."
MacDonald adds: "Now I finally have my own Vette, and it gets 28-plus miles per gallon. I have my cake, pie and ice cream all from one package -- Chevy!"
Fred Baumann of Versailles, Ky., fell in love with the Corvette in high school while driving a 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne. "From a practical viewpoint, I couldn't buy one in those days, but the fire burned until my 40th birthday, when I bought a '77 Corvette four-speed."
Bauman drove that car for 10 years until buying a 1986 Corvette coupe with the 4+3 transmission. But he still loved that third-generation body style and bought a 1973 Big Block. "It is the Corvette that I will keep until I leave this earth," Bauman says.
In honor of Chevrolet's 100th birthday, the 2012 model year offers a special 100th Anniversary Corvette with a nod to Louis Chevrolet, including a subtle graphic likeness of the Swiss-born racer.
If only Louis Chevrolet had been around to see what kind of car the Corvette would become and what kind of passion it would create, he might not have parted company with Billy Durant back in 1913. The Corvette -- in both street and racing forms -- became everything Louis ever dreamed of in an automobile.