Milestones and a few potholes: A 60-year drive with America's sports car
The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette: The first two cars were completed on June 30, 1953, on a temporary assembly line in Flint, Mich. By year end, 300 Corvettes were produced, mostly hand-built. More than 200 still exist today. All 300 were painted white, with red interiors and black convertible tops.
The arrival of the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Corvette today at the Detroit auto show falls just four days short of a key anniversary -- 60 years ago the original Corvette concept, EX-122 -- debuted at the 1953 GM Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City.
It has been a wild ride for GM's sports car since then. As the arrival of the seventh-generation Corvette kicks off a big year for fans of the car, here's a look back at some of the highlights from the past six decades, with help from author Mike Antonick's Corvette Black Book.
1953: Six months after Harley Earl's prototype was a big hit in New York, Corvette production starts in Flint, Mich., on a temporary assembly line. The first two cars are completed on June 30. By year end, 300 Corvettes are produced, mostly hand-built. More than 200 still exist today. All 300 are painted white, with red interiors and black convertible tops. Power comes from a 235-cubic-inch inline six-cylinder engine rated at 150 hp, mated to a two-speed automatic transmission. Sticker price, including the "optional" heater and AM radio, is $3,734.55.
1954: Corvette production moves to a renovated assembly plant in St. Louis. The plant is designed to build 10,000 cars a year. But production of 1954 Corvettes totals just 3,640 cars.
Meanwhile, Zora Arkus-Duntov, hired by Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer in May 1953, is on a personal quest to make the Corvette a real sports car. In December 1953 he delivers an internal memo to his bosses, titled "Thoughts on Youth, Hot-Rodders and Chevrolet," in which he lays out a vision for Corvette as a performance car.
1955: The Corvette gets a V-8 as the legendary Chevrolet "small block" engine is introduced. All but six of the '55 Corvettes get the V-8. But model year production totals only 700 cars as dealers have large inventories of unsold 1954 models.
1956: Arkus-Duntov sets a flying mile of 150.583 mph on the sand at Daytona Beach in a 1956 Corvette. The V-8 in the car uses a camshaft he designed.
1957: The purpose-built Corvette SS race car debuts at Sebring. It retires after 23 laps with mechanical failure. Fuel injection becomes an option on the 1957 Corvette.
Bill Mitchell's Sting Ray race car.
Photo credit: GM
1959: GM design chief Bill Mitchell enters his Sting Ray race car at Marlboro Raceway in Maryland. It mates Mitchell's body design with a Corvette SS chassis.
1960: Sportsman Briggs Cunningham fields three Corvettes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Car No. 3 finishes first in its class and eighth overall. Annual production finally tops the 10,000-unit mark designed for the St. Louis factory.
1961: Mitchell's Sting Ray race car debuts at the Chicago Auto Show as a concept car.
1962: The 1962 Corvette is the last of the first generation, and the last Corvette with a solid rear axle. C1 production totals 69,015 cars.
The 1963 Corvette
1963: A year of firsts. The 1963 model is the first of the second generation. Larry Shinoda is credited with the design, with styling inspired by the Sting Ray race car. It's the first year of coupe and convertible body styles. And the only year in which the coupe's rear window is split down the middle by a body panel. The independent rear suspension uses a transverse leaf spring.
Arkus-Duntov also launches the Grand Sport program, creating five ultralight Corvettes for international racing. But GM joins an industrywide ban on racing. The Grand Sport Corvettes go to private owners, aided by as much unofficial factory support as Arkus-Duntov can muster.
1965: The 1965 model year marks the arrival of the big-block V-8 option, and the last year for fuel injection for nearly two decades.
1967: The 1967 Corvette is the last of the C2 generation -- the shortest generation in Corvette history. C2 production totals 117,964 cars. It is also the first year for the L88 engine option. The L88 is a high-performance, high-compression racing-inspired engine advertised at 430 hp but making closer to 550 hp. Twenty 1967 Corvettes are equipped with the L88, making them highly desired today by collectors.
1968: The restyled third-generation Corvette arrives with styling based on Shinoda's 1965 Mako Shark II concept. The C3's chassis is carried over from the C2. The L88 engine option is continued -- 80 copies are built.
1969: A high point year for Corvette powertrains -- the last year for the L88 (116 cars) and the only year for the ZL1, an aluminum block version of the 427-cubic-inch L88. Only two Corvettes with the ZL1 are built. The 250,000th Corvette is built in November 1969.
The 1977 Chevrolet Corvette
1971: The last year of muscle-car Corvettes. The LS 6 big-block V-8 is rated at 425 hp -- 188 are built. The '72 model is the last with chrome front and rear bumpers.
1973: Stricter emission and safety rules push the Corvette to become more of a touring car. The base 350-cubic-inch V-8 is rated at 190 hp. At the same time, sales begin to climb to record highs.
Consideration of a midengine Corvette goes public with the debut of the Four-Rotor show car at the Paris motor show. The concept car is later renamed Aerovette, with a V-8, and set for production in 1980. But David McLellan, who succeeds Arkus-Duntov as Corvette chief engineer in 1975, cancels the plan as too costly in favor of a conventional front engine/rear-drive design.
1975: Just six years after Corvette horsepower hits a high point, it hits a low point -- the base 350-cubic-inch V-8 is rated at 165 hp, second lowest only to the 150-hp Blue Flame six used in the 1953-54 Corvettes. It's the first year for a catalytic converter on the Corvette and the last for a convertible body style for nine years.
1977: Total Corvette production passes the 500,000 mark, while one year production hits a high of 49,213 cars. Yet the base V-8 makes just 180 hp.
The 1978 Corvette Indy Pace Car: Chevy built 6,500 copies.
Photo credit: GM
1978: The Corvette marks its 25th anniversary with a new fastback design and a new interior. The Corvette is the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. Chevy plans to build 300 pace car replicas to commemorate the 1953 Corvette, but in the face of overwhelming demand builds one replica for each Chevy dealer plus some extras. Total pace car production: 6,502 cars.
1979: Corvette production hits an all-time high of 53,807 cars.
1981: This is the only year that Corvettes are built in two assembly plants -- St. Louis, Mo., and Bowling Green, Ky. The last St. Louis Corvette rolls off the line on July 31.
1982: The last year of the C3 Corvette is commemorated with a Special Edition that includes a glass hatchback. C3 is the longest run of any Corvette generation at 15 years. Generation production totals 542,741 cars.
1983: The year Corvette skipped. The completely redesigned fourth-generation Corvette is launched in March 1983. But since it meets all 1984 regulations, GM designates it as a 1984 model. This leads to a long model-year run and second-highest annual production of 51,547 cars.
The skipped model year means there is no 30th anniversary Corvette. There are 44 Corvettes built with 1983 vehicle identification numbers for testing and production validation. All but one are destroyed. The survivor is displayed in the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.
1984: The C4 Corvette is a clean-sheet-of-paper design. It uses a space frame layout instead of a body-on-frame design. The design is more rigid than previous Corvettes, but requires the use of tall side sills underneath the doors, which forces occupants to fall down into and climb out of the seats. The large hood also covers the tops of the front tires. The instrument cluster uses digital gauges.
In October 1983 Corvette production passes the 750,000 mark.
The 1984 Corvette.
1986: A Corvette paces the Indianapolis 500 for a second time and marks the return of the convertible body style. The Corvette has paced the Indy 500 11 times.
1988: A 35th anniversary edition is available for Corvette coupes. It features white exterior and interior with black roof panel and commemorative badges. Production of the anniversary package totals 2,050, about 9 percent of all Corvettes built for the year.
1989: The high-performance "king of the hill" Corvette ZR-1 debuts at the Geneva auto show and launches with the 1990 model year. The ZR-1 uses the LT5 5.7-liter V-8. The engine is designed by Chevrolet and Lotus, and uses double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. It is rated at 375 hp. The engine is built by Mercury Marine in Oklahoma. Production of the ZR-1 totals 3,049 for the 1990 model year, out of 23,646 Corvettes built. The ZR-1 option adds $27,016 to the base Corvette's $31,979 sticker price.
1992: Corvette production passes the 1 million milestone in July.
The 1992 Corvette brings the LT1 5.7-liter V-8 as the base engine. The LT1 marks a new generation of the small-block V-8 and is rated at 300 hp.
Late in 1992 Dave McLellan retires from GM. Dave Hill is named the new Corvette chief engineer.
1993: Corvette's 40th anniversary is marked with a special package. It includes ruby red exterior and interior. Nearly 6,800 Corvettes built that year include the anniversary package.
1995: The end of the 1995 model year marks the end of ZR-1 production. All the LT5 engines are built by the end of 1993. ZR-1 production totals 6,939 cars over six years.
1996: The 1996 model is the last of the C4 generation. An optional LT4 V-8 makes 330 hp and is available only with a manual transmission. The end of the C4 is marked with two special models: a Collector Edition, with silver paint and special trim; and the Grand Sport. All Grand Sports use the LT4 engine and are painted blue with a white center stripe. Only 1,000 Grand Sports are built.
Over its 13-year run, 366,227 C4 Corvettes are built.
The all-new 1997 Corvette was larger overall than the outgoing C4 yet weighed nearly 100 pounds less.
1997: The 1997 Corvette is the first of the fifth generation. Another clean-sheet design, the C5's space frame structure combines a structural center tunnel and single-piece side rails shaped via hydraulic pressure -- hydroforming. The design minimizes weight with increased rigidity. The C5 also mounts its transmission in the rear axle for better weight distribution and more room in the footwells. The C5 launches with a new 5.7-liter V-8, the LS1, rated at 345 hp. It is the first Corvette not equipped with a spare tire, using run-flat tires.
The C5 was designed as a convertible but that body style does not go into production until the 1988 model. The convertible marks the return of a separate trunk, last seen on the 1962 Corvette. For 1999 a fixed-roof coupe becomes the base car.
2001: The high-performance Z06 joins the Corvette lineup. The spiritual successor to the ZR-1, the Z06 is based on the fixed-roof coupe and employs several weight-reducing changes, such as conventional, not run-flat, tires. Power from the LS6 5.7-liter V-8 is rated at 385 hp. All Z06s use a six-speed manual transmission.
2003: The Corvette's 50th year is marked with a 50th Anniversary Edition. One of every three Corvettes built that year is an Anniversary Edition -- all get Anniversary Red exterior paint and shale-color interior trim.
2004: After an eight-year run the C5 generation comes to an end. It's marked with a Commemorative Edition with Le Mans blue exterior paint and silver front and rear emblems that mark Corvette's success in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Z06 Commemorative Editions get a hood made with carbon fiber.
C5 production totals 248,715.
The 2005 Corvette
2005: The sixth-generation Corvette is launched. It keeps the space frame layout of the C5 but with redesigned exterior and interior. Gone are the hidden headlights -- the Corvette last used exposed headlights in 1962.
The C6 Corvette is slightly shorter and narrower than the C5 but has a longer wheelbase. A navigation unit and power-assisted convertible top are options.
The base engine is a larger, 6.0-liter V-8, rated at 400 hp.
2006: A new Z06 arrives, with a 7.0-liter V-8 rated at 505 hp mated to a six-speed manual. The engine is hand-built in suburban Detroit. The Z06 gets an aluminum frame to reduce weight.
2008: The Corvette's base engine is increased from 5.7 liters to 6.2 liters. The engine, designated LS3, is rated at 430 hp.
The Corvette vision concept was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in 2009 and previewed the character Sideswipe in the movie "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." The concept was the creation of Corvette designers at GM and heavily influenced by the original Sting Ray race car introduced in 1959.
Photo credit: GM
2009: The ZR1 is the most-powerful production Corvette ever. It uses a supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 rated at 638 hp to push the coupe to a top speed of 205 mph. The ZR1 body uses carbon fiber for the hood, front fenders, roof panel and roof bow. The massive brakes use carbon ceramic discs and Brembo calipers. The ZR1 has a base sticker price of $103,300. In the first year of production, 1,415 ZR1s are built.
Also in 2009, total Corvette production passes the 1.5 million mark.
2010: The Grand Sport model joins the Corvette lineup. It marries the base car's steel frame and powertrain with the wider body of the Z06. By the end of the C6 run it becomes the most popular model.
2012: The 2013 model year marks the Corvette's 60th anniversary, and the end of the C6 generation. Chevy marks the milestones with a 60th Anniversary trim package -- white exterior with blue interior and optional silver stripes -- and the 427 convertible collector edition. The 427 convertible takes the Grand Sport convertible and adds the 505-hp 7.0-liter V-8 from the Z06 -- the first time the Z06 engine had been offered in a convertible body style. A six-speed manual transmission is standard.
Jan. 13, 2013: The 2014 Chevrolet Corvette, the first of the seventh generation, is unveiled in Detroit with a new badge designation: Stingray. It offers more power, improved handling dynamics and performance, as well as better fuel economy. GM, aiming to draw a new generation of buyers, conducted a global design competition from within its ranks to craft the C7's rakish look. The team considered more than 300 design proposals. Much of the new Corvette Stingray's final design is traced to a 2009 Stingray concept that played a role in two of the Transformers movies. It's a so-called technical design, with several subtle surface features. Among them: rear quarter windows, a feature not seen on a Corvette since the 1962 model. The change is needed to make room for air vents above its rear wheels.