As Chevy’s fastest Corvette ever wraps up its second model year, we’re taking a look back at the Plastic Fantastic’s history to better understand its legacy as General Motors’ leading performance machine. The Corvette you see today isn’t some juiced-up sports car made with leftover bits from the GM parts bin; it’s the culmination of decades of engineering hits and misses that, like other great vehicles, have been honed to a fine edge.
The Corvette is more than just a muscle car or a performance coupe, it’s a staple of American culture, and a really fun one at that. Today, this V8 driven juggernaut has transformed into a car that is far more affordable than one might expect, carries more luxury options than the average Jag, and is incredibly clever in both its engine management and handling departments.
For the first time in years, the current generation of Stingray has proven to be as popular with critics as it has been with customers. On top of making Car & Driver’s 10 Best List in 2014 and 2015, the Corvette was also named Automobile Magazine’s 2014 Automobile of the Year. It’s had its first back-to-back 30,000-plus sales years since 2006-’07, and with things like fuel saving cylinder deactivation and insane special edition models making the rounds, you can see why.
But before we get too deep in the joys of modern technology, let’s take a look back at what made the Vette what it is today. With a little help from our friends over at Edmunds.com, we were able to come up with eight of the most crucial Corvette developments in history, starting all the way back in 1953.
1. 1953: Genesis
The car that started it all is a far cry from the Corvette of today, as you’d probably expect. Though the original ‘Vette looked stunning, “as a sports car it was pathetic,” Edmunds writes. This machine was built out of the parts bin, and it showed. The vehicle had a suspension setup from Chevy’s larger sedans, and the 150 horsepower that it offered from its inline-six wasn’t anything to write home about. Nonetheless, it was the foundation for things to come.
2. 1963: The Sting Ray
Ten years down the road, and my, how times changed. Though the Corvette saw some serious evolution from 1953 t0 1963 (namely, the shift to V8 power), the introduction of the “Sting Ray” was the greatest transition the nameplate had ever seen. “We thought the old model cornered darn well,” Motor Trend wrote at the time, “But there’s no comparing it to this new one. It does take a little different technique, but once the driver gets onto it, it’s beautiful.” The public agreed, and sales of Chevy’s flagship sports car took off, with the 1963-only split window version being one of the most highly sought after American collector cars today.
3. 1968: The “Mako Shark” Stingray
Five years down the road, a new Stingray debuted, which was borrowing heavily from the Mako Shark II concept from 1965. Flowing lines were a defining characteristic of this generation of Corvettes, with fenders that “seemed almost to burst over the tires, but there were no phony scoops or extraneous chrome details anywhere on the car. The nose seemed to almost be plowing into the ground and used pop-up headlights to keep things sleek,” Edmunds said.
4. 1984: Scientific Corvettes arrive
The Stingray soldiered on until 1982, and by then, the ’70s-era safety and emissions standards had left it a shadow of its former self. So when the 1984 model finally came around, it was the most significant reinvention of the ‘Vette since the ’63 Sting Ray. Sporting a sleek new body, a fresh suspension setup, and a larger interior “with fully digital instrumentation that looked as if it had been ripped off a Star Trek movie set,” Edmunds said, but added “… one of the particularly cheesy and unconvincing Star Trek movie sets.” Still, it was a blockbuster for the brand. The fourth-generation Corvette had been so significantly overhauled that the small-block 350 V8 was just about the only component carried over from the generation prior.
5. 1990: The Corvette ZR-1
The “King of the Hill” Corvette ZR-1 — which was first introduced in 1990 — was virtually unchanged from a cosmetic point of view, but instead of the 230 horsepower Chevy mill, the ZR-1 featured a “Lotus-designed, Mercury Marine-built, all-aluminum 5.7-liter, 350 cubic inch DOHC 32-valve LT5 V8, which made 375 horsepower” — a terrific figure for its time. Better yet, an in-dash key had to be inserted in order to allow “full power” mode to access all 375 ponies, leaving “valet” mode with a sensible 250 horses instead. The ZR-1 basically gave the Corvette a far more hardcore, asphalt-eating status, an acclamation that still lives on to this day.
6. 1997: The world beater
In 1997, the Corvette received a massive redesign, and was again re-engineered from the ground up. According to Edmunds, the C5 was “the most wholly new Corvette since the ’53,” with General Motors scrapping the old car entirely and opting to start with a blank slate. “Not even the engine carried over from the C4, and the entire concept of how the car was built changed,” Edmunds reports. Notably, the transmission was separated from the engine and moved to the back to offset the weight in the front, and while this was common for certain European models at the time, it was a big shift for Chevy. Though the engine was still 5.7 liters, it was a brand-new, all-aluminum unit that took advantage of the latest production techniques at the time in order to throw down 345 horsepower to the pavement.
7. 2005: The beater gets better
The C6 Vette — that is, the last generation — built on the foundation set by the C5 and expanded on its strenghts, while ditching its dated soft spots. Other than replacing the flip-up headlights with stationary units (the first since 1962), not a whole lot changed on the surface. But that wasn’t the case beneath the bonnet. The 5.7-liter engine was tossed in favor of a 6-liter LS2 V8, which offered a zero to 60 time of 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 186 miles per hour. Power was quoted at around 400 horsepower and with 400 pound-feet of torque on tap, so launches from a standstill were no longer an issue.
8. 2014: The Stingray returns
The C7 Corvette “is built around an all-aluminum structure that surrounds the entire passenger compartment. It’s not just a plastic body atop frame rails anymore,” Edmunds says. That breakthrough was just the beginning too, as GM’s engineers went back to the board — again — and came up with an entirely new car, which also ended up being the most powerful Corvette to date. The base C7 has 455 horsepower on tap from its new 6.2-liter V8, or more than three times the amount produced by the six-cylinder in the 1953 Corvette. It also generates 50 pound-feet more torque than the previous 7-liter LS7.
9. Corvette Z06
Packing even more heat than the former ZR1, the 650-horsepower Z06 is the most powerful Corvette to roll off Chevrolet’s production lines. It’s as much a track car as it is a beast on the strip, and at $79,450, it’s perhaps the best performance bargain ever — offering Ferrari-like horsepower for a Cadillac-like price. While limited edition versions like the carbon-clad C7.R and the Grand Sport are certainly tempting, the power, refinement, and price of the Z06 makes it pretty tough to beat.
Additional Reporting by James Derek Sapienza