Iconology: Chevrolet Corvette

It’s hard to believe Corvette’s golden 50th anniversary is upon us, officially marking the first production roadster at Flint, Mich., on June 30 a half-century ago. Chevrolet and ’Vette enthusiasts are enjoying a June 27-28 birthday celebration at the Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant and museum, and in Nashville, the nearest big city.

Naturally, Chevrolet has introduced a 50th Anniversary Edition in special red paint with unique badging and interior trim. One of them was the Indy 500 pace car last month. All 2003 Corvettes also have a this-year-only "50" embedded in the crossed-flag emblems on the car’s front and rear.

1953 Chevrolet CorvetteStill, It seems like only yesterday. As a college senior, I must have seen the first ’Vette concept car when it was unveiled in January 1953 for the General Motors Motorama at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. But I have no specific recollection of it, perhaps because I was so dazzled by all the other magical creations of Harley Earl that GM typically rolled out for its Motoramas.

Star-crossed Vettes

For a long period afterwards, Corvette and I had something of a star-crossed history. In the winter of 1953-54, as a young reporter and member of the Miami Jaycees, I drew a brand-new production Corvette to drive in a parade along Miami’s Flagler Avenue. A bathing-suit-clad beauty-contest winner was perched on the back of the seat beside me for the parade. The trouble was, that sheep in wolf’s clothing — not me, but rather the ’Vette with its old Chevy Blue Flame Six — couldn’t keep its engine running. The triple carburetors didn’t like idling along in a parade. It kept stalling, and efforts to restart produced more gasoline fumes than wheel spin. Having an automatic — the only trans available then — didn’t help; I had to throw it in Neutral, restart, pull it into Drive­ and then it would stall all over.

Of course I was also trying to impress the Georgia Peach beside me of my motoring prowess. And if the %#@& ‘Vette had had a stick shift, I could have merely slipped the clutch while gentling goosing the accelerator to keep it running. Oh well, "a world I never made."

Taking the ’Vette back to the dealership when the parade thankfully ended, I also learned something else about sports cars: they sit so low you can’t see around the standard car in front of you, even in 1954.

A few months later, I was scrutinizing the night-before’s police blotter at the North Miami City Hall, searching for newspaper stories, when someone ran in from 125th Street, shouting, "One a’ them plastic Chevys just cracked up outside." A gaggle of cops and I dashed out to see what happened. A pristine white-with-red interior ’Vette — as they all were the first year — top down at 8 o’clock of a Florida morning, had rear-ended another car right across from the PD station. Its fiberglass front end indeed was all cracked up, just like a busted eggshell.

Such were my introductions to what came to be — who would have guessed — the legendary Chevrolet Corvette, America’s first mass-production sports car.

Incredible survival

Looking back on that sequence of events today, with a knowledge of auto industry bureaucracy and years’ long lead-times, I find it incredible almost beyond belief that even mighty General Motors could start production of a totally unique model just six months after it was unveiled as a wannabe show car.

Of course, fiberglass body panels didn’t require huge metal stamping presses, and Chevy’s V-8 for the 1955 models was still too far away for pull-ahead installation in the first ’Vette. Only 300 Corvettes were built in 1953, factory-priced at $3498. "Wide" white-sidewall tires, gasp, were standard, and the only options were a heater and AM radio.

The early development of the Corvette is a fascinating story, and would take up a whole ’nother column. Diehards should seek out Mike Lamm’s account in the Jan-Feb 1971 issue of Special-Interest Autos, available for example at the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library (313/33-1456).

Production of Corvettes for the ’54 model shifted from Flint to St. Louis, with a more than ten-fold increase to 3,640 units and the addition of three other colors, red, blue and black. The watershed came when Road & Track endorsed the car as a genuine sports car, even if made from family-car parts. The magazine clocked a 0-60 mph time of 11 seconds.

Arguably the most important upgrade in Corvette history came in ’55 with the addition of the new small-block, 265-cid V-8 and a manual transmission, while the base price dropped to $2,934. According to my edition of "Standard Catalogue," 1955 model production was only 700, but I wonder if that isn’t a typo.

1958 Chevrolet CorvetteStill, the ’56 ’Vette presented with scalloped sides, external door handles, roll-up windows and a $200 optional detachable hardtop, very significant changes. Other than the four-eyed quad headlamps introduced for 1958, the First Generation Corvette then stayed fairly fixed through the end of 1962. Meanwhile, production steadily climbed from 3467 for 1956 to 14,531 for 1962. Prices crept up to $4,038 for a ’62.

Run-in sequel

It was during this period that I experienced my second Corvette run-in. In the spring of ’60, now a Business Week reporter on the auto beat in Detroit, I went wheeling out to a dinner party in a top-down ’Vette borrowed from the Chevrolet media test-drive pool. When it started to rain, I couldn’t get the automatic top to operate.

We waited and waited for the downpour to stop. Finally, when all the other guests had left and the hosts were yawning away, my bride and I had to face the elements. The water practically poured out when we opened the doors. We found out the real meaning of bucket seats. As we drove down cruisin’ Woodward, midnight drag-race challengers hailed us with thumbs up for defying them and the rain. We laughed but the Chevy PR guy was thoroughly chagrined when I turned in the still-soaking roadster the next day. I still recall the exhilaration of driving top down in a warm night’s rain.

1963 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray A couple of years later, I got my first glimpse of a second-generation Corvette when what turned out to be a Sting Ray prototype flashed by me on a country road in Michigan’s Thumb. The split-window fastback was sensational. I couldn’t hope to catch up in my dowdy but family-friendly Falcon station wagon, but I had glimpsed the manufacturer’s license plate and knew it had to be a GM model. I still believe Sting Ray fastbacks are the most handsome of all Corvettes and wonder why the style lasted for only five model years, 1963-67, the shortest of any of the ’Vette series. With a choice now of two body styles, production and sales continued to climb, up to a 23-28,000 range, far from mass output but very respectable for a true sports car. Prices also climbed modestly, to $4353 for a ‘67 fastback.

1968 Chevrolet CorvetteThe next, Third Generation, lasted the longest of any of the ’Vette series, from 1968 to 1982. However, it went through numerous body and technology changes dictated to a considerable extent by Federal regulations, especially for bumpers and exhaust emissions. On safety, the car probably was way ahead of other contemporary cars because of its overdesign for high-speed, even competitive race, operation.

Major visible changes during this duck-tail-backed "Mako Shark" era included early ’70s accommodations for bumper laws, the "bubbleback" rear window of ’77 and the "pop-top" of 1982. The T-tops introduced with launch of the series in ’68 later provided a hedge against the end, for the time being, of Corvette convertibles after 1975.

Production of Third Series ’Vettes ranged from about 17,000 for 1970 up to 54,000 for ’79, while prices escalated from $4,663 in ’68 to $22,537 for a Collector Edition in 1982. Significantly, assembly shifted from St. Louis to a new "greenfield" plant at Bowling Green, Ky., in 1981.

Beyond the cult

By this time, Corvettes had long since passed into the Land of the Cult. Of ten guys in my investment club, five of them just HAD to own Corvettes, and three still do. One of them, now a retired engineer from a truck axle supplier, still has his original ’78 Silver Anniversary job with only 20k on the clock.

1984 Chevrolet CorvetteIntroduction of the Fourth Generation 1984 Corvette — "C4" in GM parlance — was marked by the hiatus of 1983 when none were produced for sale. It is unclear from available sources whether this was a result of the industry’s 1980-81 recession when development money would have been sparse, because of problems meeting Federal exhaust emission requirements or even due to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) issues. In any event, if someone tries to sell you an ’83 Corvette, offer him the Brooklyn Bridge in exchange.

The trademark of the C4 ’Vette was improved aerodynamics, with a claimed 24-percent improvement over the ’82 which was pretty sleek to begin with. Also, the manual transmission — removed for ’82 — came back. The new-bodied ’84 was introduced early in mid-1983, partly making up for the missing model year.

It wasn’t until the third year of the C4, for 1986, that a convertible Corvette returned, but at an ouch! price of $32,032. Some 51,500 C4s were built for 1984, but production then trickled back to the 30s and then the 20s, despite the spicing up offered by the high-performance ZR-1 of 1990. In the final Nineties years of the fourth-generation ’Vette, production annually declined to around 20,000 while prices shot up to as high as $68,000 (for the ’95 and final ZR-1).

1997 Chevrolet Corvette The present-day fifth-generation Corvette C5 debuted for 1997 in coupe-only form. The C5 introduced hydroformed steel frame rails, which didn’t work their way into arch-competitor Ford’s cars until 2002. To get there, it had to run a gauntlet of GM corporate financial problems, a weakening Chevrolet sales organization and endless corporate infighting, according to All Corvettes Are Red, the exceedingly detailed 1996 account of C5 development by the late Jim Schefter.

The Corvette convertible once again returned the following year, for the 45th Anniversary 1998 model. For 1999, Chevy brought back another traditional GM style ­ the Corvette "hardtop," first of the genre since that of the 1963-67 Second Generation. In the march toward its Golden Anniversary, Corvette followed imports to another historical trend, the horsepower race. For 2001, it offered a 385-hp LS6 V-8 in the L06 model and then for 2002 upped the ante again by another 20 horses to 405. Shades of the unbridled Fifties.

GM lists a top sticker price of $52,235 for an ’03 C5 LO6, but doesn’t single out a separate price for the Anniversary Edition, which features the base L1 engine. The Detroit Free Press lists it at $56,195. The base 2003 model is a mere $44,435.

Not bad for the C5 my cousin Nick, an ex-Navy pilot and car nut, termed "the most comfortable long-distance car I’ve ever driven" after a New England to California and back trip — with wife and luggage.

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