A Comprehensive History of Corvette, from Concept to Mid-engine C8
With a new generation of Corvette on the horizon, it’s time to look back at the history of the Corvette, and what makes it so special.
With every legend comes a unique and awe-inspiring history. Every hero comes from a place no one ever expected. The process is always rough, but the end result is what makes the story so rich. Cars are no exception to that rule. The Corvette brought style, ingenuity, and speed to America that wasn’t quite there before. Here’s how it all started.
The C1 (EX-122) Corvette: The One that Started it All (1953 – 1962)
It all started in 1950’s. As soldiers began trickling back in following the second World War, a lot of them began to bring home MGs, Alfa Romeos, Jaguars, and other European two-seated sports cars. Due to a lot of cars available to Americans being large, heavy and slow, many American manufacturers became nervous. As the clouds of heavy thought passed over, a light bulb flashed brightly. A lot of technology floated to the surface to build planes to be stronger and faster for the second World War. If we can do this to planes, why don’t we do it for cars, too?
And that’s exactly what started happening. Harley Earl, the head of design for General Motors at the time, posed the idea that America should hop on the two-seater band wagon, but make it a lot more accessible to the public. With hesitant acceptance, GM gave Earl the green light to start “Project Opel” in 1951. It took two years and a few trial runs, but finally, the experimental C1 Corvette was born.
In Flint, Michigan, 300 C1’s were assembled in 1953. The goal was to have the new car be presented at the General Motors Motorama. It had two doors, a small body made of glass fiber reinforced plastic, and an inline-six engine making a 150 horsepower. Interestingly, Chevrolet didn’t have a manual transmission that could handle that much power, so a two-speed automatic Powerglide transmission was used. Also, it took this old girl a whopping 11.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. Six months after the Motorama, production began. Amazingly enough, the car that was on display at that show is on display in Atlanta City’s Kerbeck Corvette museum, and is thought to be the oldest Corvette ever.
Then Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of the Corvette” came into the picture. During the Corvette’s gestation period and eventual debut, Duntov was making no small name for himself. He was well immersed in racing culture, and even invented the overhead valve cylinder head for the Ford flat V8 called “The Ardun.” This conversion kit was extremely successful, as it turned an otherwise gutless engine into a force to be reckoned with. In the racing realm, he was a master of speed. If there was a motor in it, it’s likely Duntov raced it at least once. Once he’d caught wind of the Corvette’s arrival, he was so moved by its exotic beauty that he called it “the most beautiful car he’d ever seen.”
However, according to Duntov’s mechanically inclined mind, it was far from perfect. It was slow, the steering was awful and clumsy, and he knew he could make it better. Motivated, he wrote GM to tell them his thoughts, and sent them a model he’d built describing exactly how he would make the Corvette the two-seated sports car it was destined to be. GM was so eager to have his work realized, they hired him on the spot. He went from a fan to Assistant Staff Engineer within the blink of an eye.
The wand Arkus-Duntov wove over GM was his brain-child of a small block V8 used in the 1955 Corvette. This small-block V8 is what got American heads turning, as now, it was in the ring with the Ford Thunderbird of the time. The Thunderbird came with an automatic transmission and a manual, and a powerful V8. The competition was incredibly fierce. Though, Duntov’s eight-cylinder wizardry eventually blew the Thunderbird so far out of the water, Ford stopped the two-seated production altogether. After 1957, they were four-door family sedans.
In order to draw attention back to the victor, Duntov ascended Pike’s Peak in a production car back in 1956. His speed broke the record for any stock car to ever attempt that. But, true to Duntov’s ways, it wasn’t enough and the tinkering resumed. Later that same year, he took to Daytona Beach to test out his new toy. There, he hit a staggering 150 mph. Aside from bringing the right attention back to the Corvette, he’s also the one to thank for the high-lift cam and fuel injection in Corvettes.
C1 Corvette Brings GM to the Racing Realm
In 1957, Corvette started to invest in racing real estate. Gearing up for the 24 Hour Sebring competition, Duntov developed race car called the XP-64 SS. This car was lighter and faster, using mostly aluminum for the body. It also came with a V8 that was modified to shred tires (and competition) with 307 hp. For that kind of power back then, the top speed was 183 mph. At the competition, the car was pulled from the track due to issues. Soon after, GM banned sponsored racing completely after the American Manufacturer Association (AMA) decided to back out of factory backed racing following a tragic accident involving a Mercedes and the killing of 83 attendees. After all, GM certainly didn’t want that blood or bad publicity on their hands.
XP-64 SS was stuffed into storage – Chevy never wanted to see that car or see another Corvette on the racetrack funded by them ever again. Not eager to give up, Bill Mitchell saved the car from retirement. Behind the curtains, himself and two of his top designers, 19-year-old Pete Brock and Larry Shinoda set to re-purposing the old girl. Except, in a way that Chevy wouldn’t know about it. Successfully, the team created the “Hammer Room,” which was a secret work space behind a tool room. It would take a few years before the world would see the SS again.
Obviously, GM waggling the corporate finger in their faces didn’t stop these men, though. They appeared at Le Mans again in 1960 with new and modified Corvettes, without GM’s funding. Instead, Mitchell funded the entire thing himself. While car #1 was in an accident and #2 crashed after 207 laps, #3 won 8th. That may read as a disappointing number, John Fitch and Bob Grossman, the drivers, earned GM a class victory for big bore GTs. GM still wasn’t sponsoring the race, but they weren’t not watching, either.
As one could see, the 1960 Corvette looked a little different from the first born of 1953. It had two headlights on each side, and a little less chrome than the ones made previously. It also came with a more powerful engine, and three different transmission options: a three or a four-speed manual or a two-speed Powerglide automatic seen in the very first Corvette.
The V8 in the 1960 Corvette made up to 290 hp, which was a huge upgrade from 1953. In 1961, there was a fuel-injected small block V8 that could make 315 hp. In 1962, if a customer was willing to pay 12% more than the listed price, Corvettes offered a V8 that pushed 360 hp – making the ’62 the fastest of the C1 generation.
Continue reading about the history of the C2 Corvette on the next page…