Delightful Excess

With early Corvettes, loading up on options mostly meant adding race-ready goodies. By the time this ’71 convertible rolled off the assembly line, a customer could pair luxury with big-block performance.

January 26, 2010

Also from Issue 56

  • Geiger Z06 Bi-Turbo
  • Callaway 2009 GT1 Championship
  • Tech: Superchargers
  • Market Report: C3
  • 1964 convertible restoration
  • Profile: Terry Michaelis
  • Ex-Delmo Johnson racers: C1, C2 Z06
  • Scale-model Corvettes
  • 1965 vintage race car
  • How To: Holley carb tuning
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With its power brakes and steering, as well as its air-conditioning and electric top, our featured Ontario Orange 1971 convertible is loaded with options. Though such goodies had become the norm on most cars, they were new to the Corvette.

Early Corvettes are best described as Spartan. For the first few years they lacked some of the most basic features, things we take for granted today, such as roll-up windows and outside door handles. A few influential people within Chevrolet, most notably Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, preferred it that way because more content meant more weight, and more weight meant diminished performance. Also, more content would inevitably lead to a higher price tag, something the Corvette’s keepers continuously struggled to avoid.

Against the objections of hardcore performance enthusiasts, the wishes of a growing majority of the buying public won out. Their ever-growing demand for comfort and convenience features could not be stemmed, and it slowly but steadily overcame resistance from Arkus-Duntov and other like-minded GM insiders. Power windows and a power-operated folding top were offered in 1956; power steering and brakes, and air-conditioning appeared on the option sheet beginning in ’63; and a telescopic steering column was added in ’65.

Despite the added weight and complexity of these power assists and other luxury features, the Corvette’s performance capabilities continued to expand right up through the end of the muscle-car era in the early 1970s. It was in this time frame, when fantastic performance lived side-by-side with the most luxurious features the auto industry had to offer, that the Corvette came to epitomize the ultimate grand-touring car.

Joe Shapiro’s option-laden ’71 convertible illustrates the point perfectly. It’s equally at home hitting the Saturday-night drags, taking its owner to Sunday brunch with Alain Ducasse atop the Essex House and then fighting rush-hour traffic on Monday morning.

The heart of this beast is option LS5, a 454-cubic-inch V8 rated at 365 horsepower. Despite a very modest compression ratio of 8.5:1, which enabled it to run on unleaded fuel, the long stroke and sheer displacement of this monstrous big block enabled it to make gobs of stump-pulling torque from idle all the way up to its 5,600-rpm redline. Even with 3.08:1 rear gears, which were standard fare in automatic-transmission cars, and a final drive ratio of 1:1, a well-tuned LS5 Corvette could light up its rear tires for a full city block and momentarily break them loose again at every upshift.