In 1953 General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Corvette sports car, America's first mass-produced automobile with a fiber-glass body. With its sleek design and Americanized European styling, it quickly became the "dream car" of thousands of auto enthusiasts. Though the economy was experiencing a postwar boom in automobile sales, the base price of $3,498 was prohibitive for many, and only 300 Corvettes were produced the first year. In 1960, its popularity was enhanced by a television series called Route 66 (1960-1964), which featured two adventurous guys—actors Martin Milner and George Maharis—tooling around the country in a Corvette.
The car was the brainchild of Harley Earl, an auto designer who had made his name turning out one-of-a-kind car bodies for movie stars. Earl's first design after joining General Motors was the spectacular 1927 Cadillac LaSalle, which was to help convince the automobile industry of the importance of styling. He scored another design coup by putting tail fins on the 1948 Cadillacs, making him the top man in GM styling and giving him the clout to persuade the company to build an entirely new car. Earl noticed that GIs had brought back a distinctive kind of automobile from Europe, a sports car that was fun to drive and had become a kind of cult object to the owners who gathered to race them on dirt tracks. Detroit made no vehicle to compete with the popular two-seat sports cars such as the MG and Jaguar until Earl convinced his bosses to let him build an American sports car to present at the 1953 Motorama, GM's traveling show. GM executives agreed after insisting that standard GM parts be used under its proposed fiberglass body. Legend has it that the designers cleared away a ping-pong table and in one night "laid out the whole skin for the first Corvette." After discarding almost three hundred suggestions for a name, they selected Corvette, the name of a swift fighting ship in the old British navy.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the new Corvette, word leaked out to sports car enthusiasts, and in January, 1953, long lines of curious car buffs waited outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for the Motorama to open. The 300 original models were polo white convertibles with red interiors, and all handmade body panels. The critics pronounced them beautiful, but not very satisfactory as sports cars due to an inadequate, rough-riding suspension system. They proved, however, to be superb investments, and those still owned by collectors are said to be worth more than $100,000 each. The number of original 1953 cars still existing is variously estimated at 120 to 290.
The engineering problems persisted, and in 1954, only half of the output of 3600 Corvettes were sold. A former racer on the European circuit, Zora Arkus-Duntov, came to GM's rescue by writing a memo to GM executives outlining the Corvette's shortcomings and urging the company to create a separate department within Chevrolet to oversee the Corvette's development. After GM hired Duntov for its Corvette project, his first step was to put a V-8 engine in the 1955 model, and that year GM sold all 700 of the Corvettes that were built.
Duntov went on to become Corvette's first chief engineer. In 1956 he replaced the automatic transmission with a three-speed manual, and the car became one of GM's hottest sellers. Corvette owners raced and defeated Jaguars and other European cars, and a modified 240 hp 1956 Corvette—with Duntov driving—set a record-breaking average of 150.583 mph at the Daytona Beach raceway. John Fitch drove a standard Corvette to a new production-car record of 145 mph during Daytona Speed Week in 1956. Later that year, in the 12 Hours of Sebring race, a Corvette showed its durability by winning first in its class. In 1960 three white Corvettes competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans race in France, finishing eighth overall. A 1968 Corvette reached a speed of 210.762 mph in the 1979 Bonneville Speed Week at the Utah Salt Flats, becoming the fastest carbureted car in the world.
The 250,000th Corvette, a gold convertible, rolled off the assembly line in 1969. Although Harley Earl had retired in 1958, being replaced as chief stylist by Bill Mitchell, the car underwent redesigns in 1963, 1968, and 1984. It was Mitchell who got the idea for the body shape of the XP-775, the Corvette Shark, after landing such a fish in deep sea off the Bahamas. The 500,000th Corvette was built in 1977, and the following year a Corvette was used as the pace car for the 62nd Indianapolis 500. In June of 1978 a movie, Corvette Summer, premiered in Maumee, Ohio, attracting a parade of Corvette owners that made the Guinness Book of World Records, the number estimated at between five and seven thousand cars. That October, another movie, High Rolling in a Hot Corvette, was released.
Into the 1980s the Corvette turned a profit for GM of about $100 million with a small production of around 25,000 cars annually. The Corvettes continued to act as a proving ground for new suspensions, new electronics, new chassis fabrication techniques, and new fiber-glass or plastic materials for body parts. The Corvette sold out nearly every year, and Corvette clubs worldwide were filled with proud owners who esteemed the cars and hailed the arrival of each new model, despite nagging problems such as rattles in the removable hardtop and the resistance of the fiberglass body to durable paint.
In the early months of 1989 was begun the long process of developing a new Corvette from scratch. The dream of developing the C5, the fifth-generation Corvette, coincided with a time of financial disaster at General Motors, which reported a $2 billion loss in 1990 and predicted even worse results in 1991. Despite this fiscal situation, new competitions were launched to design a C5 Corvette. The next five years proved to be a roller-coaster ride for the prototype due to internal rivalry at GM and budget cutbacks. Problems emerged involving the lubrication of the all-new aluminum engine, the electronic throttle control, and a new fiberglass side structure that failed to pass early tests in the crash laboratory. By 1996 the problems were solved, and C5s were being tested in long-distance drives throughout the United States. In Australia the new model Corvettes were set on cruise control in 110-degree heat and run on the outback roads for 90 to 120 minutes straight, with no problems.
When the new fifth-generation, cherry-red Corvette was unveiled at the Motorama Show the following January, fans were ecstatic about the car's new silhouette and its all-new 5.7-liter V8 345-hp engine, capable of moving from zero to sixty miles per hour in five seconds and delivering a top speed of 172 mph. Though it was still unmistakably a Vette, the wheelbase was longer, and the nose had been lowered for greater aerodynamics and road visibility. The new design reflected the sleekness of the '83 Corvette and the muscle of the '68 model. Other links to past Corvette generations included the air scoop on the front quarter panel, the familiar quad taillamps, and the concealed headlamps. The new version has one-third fewer parts despite the addition of a four-channel anti-lock braking system and complex traction control. Automobile writers raved about this sports car that was "as comfortable as a limousine." GM boasted that with all the improvements, the $44,990 sticker price was $635 less than the 1996 Corvette.
Adler, Dennis. Corvettes, 1953-1995. New York, Krause, 1996.
Schefter, James. All Corvettes Are Red: The Rebirth of an American Legend. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Zeichner, Walter. Chevrolet Corvette, 1953-1986. New York, Schiffer, 1990.