You can love ’em or hate ’em, but there’s one thing that’s indisputable: No other car occupies the same space as the Chevrolet Corvette. Porsche 911 guys can scoff, and Ford guys can be jealous, but the truth is, for 66 years and counting, the Corvette has been the only car that’s been able to hold onto its claim as America’s sports car. Today, it’s an institution seemingly as prestigious as Chevrolet itself. And like the Bowtie Brand, it’s experiencing a renaissance that recalls the glory days of yore while still moving headlong into the future.
The current C7 Stingray is a gem: fast, good-looking, thoroughly modern, and even reliable and economical. It can also be optioned as anything from a fast, comfortable cruiser to a red-hot supercar-killer, and with a few exceptions, driven home for well under six-figures. Try that with a 911 or Ford GT.
But it wasn’t always this way; we love ‘Vettes, but there have been some pretty awful ones over the years. There have also been some pretty interesting twists and turns along the way. So warts and all, we’ve put together a detailed timeline of Corvette history, and while it may not be the most comprehensive one out there (you could fill a small library with books on the ‘Vette), here’s a look look at the Plastic Fantastic, America’s Sports Car, the Corvette.
1953: America’s Sports Car
In the early ’50s, a new phenomenon had begun to take hold in America: the sports car. Small and nimble, these cars were imported from England and Germany, driven hard, and raced on weekends by a growing number of middle class men. Eager to see if there was a market for these cars, Chevrolet tried its hand at one with the 1953 Corvette Motorama show car, and public response was nothing short of staggering. The car was rushed into production, and by the end of summer ’53, America had its first sports car to come from a major automaker.
1953: A rocky start
After its massively successful run on the Motorama show car circuit, the Corvette was rushed into production in July and quickly became… a total failure. With Chevy’s lack of experience working with fiberglass, quality control was atrocious, it was saddled with a wheezy inline-six and two-speed automatic transmission, and was only available in white over red with a black convertible top. Just 300 cars found buyers that first year, and in ’54 Chevy couldn’t sell the 3,600 cars it built. The Corvette was in jeopardy of disappearing, when…
1955: Chevy figures it out
Chevrolet introduced its first V8 engine since 1919, and it was offered as an option in the Corvette, as was a three-speed manual transmission. With the V8, manual gearbox, and more colors, America’s sports car was starting to behave more like, well, a sports car.
1956: The ‘Vette starts to look the part
The Corvette’s first big facelift made it look even sportier, and managed to undo much of the daintiness of the original car. The V8 was now standard, and while sales remained low, there were signs that consumers were beginning to come around to Chevy’s sports car.
1957: Fuel injection and more power
The ’57 didn’t look much different from the ’56, but it was a milestone for two big reasons: the introduction of an optional fuel injected engine, and the car’s first four-speed manual gearbox – a Corvette hallmark for decades. With the rare and expensive engine, “Fuelie” cars cranked out close to 300 horsepower.
1957: Corvette defies GM and goes racing
The Corvette engineering team, led by Zora Arkus-Duntov, believed that the only way to turn the car into a true contender was to take it racing. Unfortunately, American automakers signed an agreement in 1957 to end manufacturer sponsored competition. So with the help of GM design boss Bill Mitchell, the team gave the Corvette SS — not officially a race car but a mule “built to test handling ease and performance” — to a racing friend of his, and campaigned it heavily throughout the late ’50s. The SS program led to a number of performance and handling innovations that would wind up in future models.
1959: The height of excess
By the end of the decade, the Corvette had succumbed to the style of the times and became laden with four headlights, lots of chrome, and fake air scoops. But none of that mattered to customers, because the ‘Vette was finally beginning to catch on with buyers.
1961: End of the C1 Era
The final three model years of the C1 Corvette were transitional ones. The excesses of the late ’50s were toned down, and in 1961, the rounded rear end was replaced by a more streamlined design with quad taillights, a design trend that carries on to today. The new design also foreshadowed the biggest change the car had seen since its introduction.
1963: Enter the Sting Ray
The Corvette’s 10th year brought the introduction of the groundbreaking Sting Ray model. Smaller than the C1, and with an independent rear suspension, and up to 380 horsepower on tap, the Sting Ray was a massive success, and proved that America’s Sports Car could run with the world’s best.
1965: The shape of things to come
The C3 was influenced by the both the SS and the 1961 Mako Shark concept, but auto show goers got a sneak preview of the next-generation Corvette in the 1965 Mako Shark II concept.
1967: The C3 takes a bow
Despite the popularity of the Sting Ray, the sports car world was changing quickly in the mid-’60s, so production ended after just five years. The unique “split window” rear glass disappeared after ’63, but despite a few small changes (disc brakes, fender inlet design, etc.), the car remained largely unchanged over its lifespan. Its final year, 1967, saw the most powerful ‘Vettes built to date: The optional L88 V8 was rated at 430 horsepower, but real-world tests indicated it actually made closer to 560.
1968: The Sting Ray is dead, long live the Stingray
It may have shared powertrains and much of its chassis with the C2, but the C3 Stingray (now one word) was a huge leap forward for the Corvette. Borrowing heavily from the 1965 Mako Shark II concept, the Stingray was a low, lean, razor-sharp sports car that looked as contemporary as any performance car in the world. And since the muscle car era was still in full swing, the drag strip special 1969 ZL1 put out over 500 horsepower, making it at the time the fastest production car ever built.
1973: A mid-engined ‘Vette?
The C3 was released at a time when performance cars were changing. Mid-engined exotics were taking the place of high-displacement front-engined cars, and Chevy wanted something that could compete. It had been toying with a mid-engined Corvette as early as 1969, but the ’70s Aerovette program was about as serious as it got. It debuted in 1973, and was consistently tested with everything from a Wankel rotary to a turbo V6, before finally getting the green light for production with a 350 cubic inch V8. Unfortunately, the program was cancelled in 1980, and the Corvette’s engine has remained up front ever since.
1974: The depths of the Malaise Era
The Corvette entered its dark ages in 1974, when after increased safety and emissions regulations, Chevy was forced to neuter the car of most of its power, and replace the elegant chrome bumpers with awkward polyurethane caps. The following year was its absolute nadir; the base 350 cubic inch V8 mustered just 165 horsepower, and the hottest model made just 205.
1978: The Silver Anniversary
Despite it being down on power, the Corvette celebrated its Silver Anniversary as the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. A special commemorative car ended up becoming one of the most popular limited-edition ‘Vettes of all time, with over 6,500 built.
1984: Performance makes a comeback
After 14 years in production, the C3 was put to rest in 1982, and a ground-up redesign was released to return the Corvette to the top of the global sports car market. Horsepower was still low, but the C4’s handling and breaking skills – plus the all-digital instrument panel – made it one of the most exciting cars of the 1980s.
1986: A return to open air driving
After a 14-year absence, the Corvette convertible returned for 1986, along with another stint as the Indy 500 pace car. The car would retain its four-speed manual (albeit with automatic overdrive) until 1988, when it would be replaced by a more modern six-speed unit. And by then, some big changes were in the air…
1986: The mid-engine rumors return
The Corvette Indy concept debuted in 1986, reigniting rumors that the Corvette would go mid-engined for its next generation. Those were stoked in 1990, when the Indy became the CERV-III, a running, driving 650-horsepower prototype. Unfortunately, a six-figure price kept the car from entering production.
1990: The ZR-1 becomes a legend
It may not have looked very different from a standard Corvette, but the 1990 ZR-1 was one of the most formidable performance cars in the world. With a suspension and powertrain designed by Lotus, and assembled by Mercury Marine, the ZR-1 was a 375-horsepower screamer that could also keep up in the corners with some of the world’s best sports cars.
1996: The Grand Sport signals the end of an era
For the C4’s final year, Chevy revived the nameplate used for the 1963 Sting Ray racer, Grand Sport, and released a limited-edition car that’s since become a classic. With its Admiral Blue paint, white racing stripe, and red fender slashes, the Grand Sport made sure the C4 went out on a high note. And with 330 horsepower, it went like hell too.
1997: The C5 arrives
While the C5’s styling did much to round off the C4’s hard edges, the big changes were under its fiberglass body. The transmission was moved to the rear of the car to improve handling and weight distribution, and an all-new box frame made the car significantly more rigid.
2001: Birth of the Z06
Eleven years after the ZR-1, Chevy souped up the Corvette yet again for the Z06. Lighter and leaner than the ZR1 ever was, the 385-horsepower (later bumped to 405 horses) car could scramble from zero to 60 in 3.8 seconds, and run the quarter mile in 12.4 seconds.
2005: The more things change…
Other than the loss of disappearing headlights – a Corvette hallmark since 1963 – the C6 doesn’t look all that different from a C5, and despite being 5.1 inches shorter (though with its wheelbase extended 1.2 inches), isn’t all that different underneath either. But the achievements of the past 15 years or so come back in a big way: A new Z06 is introduced in 2006, a ZR1 arrives for 2009, and the Grand Sport returns for 2010.
2009: Just as we remembered it, but better
By 2009, the Z06 was a wonder: 505 horsepower, 3,100 pounds, a zero to 60 time of 4.3 seconds, and a top speed of 2016 miles per hour. But when the ZR1 returned 20 years after the original, it became the new king of the hill. With 638 horsepower on tap, the ZR1 went on an exotic carbon fiber diet, and became one of the most impressive performance cars in the world.
2013: The best is yet to come
Despite decades of ever-faster Corvettes, the Plastic Fantastic’s interior and fit-and-finish made it something of a second banana on the global sports car stage. That all changed with the 2014 C7 Stingray, arguably the most radical reinvention of the car since the original ’63 Sting Ray. With use of cutting-edge materials like aerogel insulation, and carbon composite underbody panels, the current Corvette is an engineering tour de force whose style and interior can now compete with its rivals both on and off the track.
2015: Racing dominance
In 1999, Chevy returned to endurance racing with the C5.R cars, which ran at Sebring, Daytona, and Le Mans. Since then, Corvette racers have been GT3-Class contenders almost every year. The latest high point for Corvette Racing came in 2014, when it took its most recent 24 Hours of Le Mans class win in the brand new C7.R.
2017: The return of the Grand Sport
The Z06 is again at the top of the Corvette food chain, with 650 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque on tap, but the popular Grand Sport is tapped to make a return for 2017, and it looks beautiful in colors that recall the now-iconic ’96 model. With performance parts from the Z06 and Z51, but with the standard 460-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, the new Grand Sport feels like a Corvette greatest hits package. We love it.
2018: Back to the drawing board?
After several high-profile false starts, there’s a lot of evidence that a mid-engined Corvette may be coming in the next few years. While we’re still skeptical, the brief appearance of a concept drawing on one of Chevy’s main performance partners (above), seems to prove that there’s a little fire to go along with all that smoke.