Toyota’s Corolla is the best-selling car in history, with 37.5 million units delivered since 1966. Despite this impressive volume, nobody writes songs about Corollas. In the same vein, nobody plans their vacation around Corolla shows, spends six-figure sums restoring old Corollas, makes provisions to be buried in one or gets Corolla-themed tattoos. These manifestations of devotion—some would say obsession—are the exclusive domain of a handful of cars, and at the very top of that list is Corvette. For more than six decades, this iconic two-seater has been integral to the lifestyles of millions of people around the world.
Corvette began as a bold but risky experiment whose future was far from guaranteed. But thanks to the hard work of a small, brilliant cadre of supporters and a healthy measure of luck, this now legendary car came back from the brink of extinction multiple times to evolve into something truly great. To help celebrate Corvette Magazine’s 100th issue, we’ve decided to take a look at look at the full breadth of Corvette history, with a focus on one example from each of the nameplate’s seven generations.
In September 1951 Harley J. Earl, the dean of automotive design who led GM’s styling department for more than three decades, accompanied his Le Sabre concept to a showing at the Watkins Glen (New York) race. It was there, amidst the low-slung Ferraris, Allards, MGs, Jaguars, Cunninghams and Bugattis, where Earl became convinced that GM should build a two-seat sports car.
By the spring of 1952 a small group of GM engineers and stylists handpicked by Earl had penned a sports-car design and created a full-size plaster model. Upper management, including GM President Harlow “Red” Curtice, Chevrolet General Manager Thomas H. Keating and Chevrolet Chief Engineer Edward Cole, all liked what they saw and gave their approval to transform the design into a functional “Dream Car” concept for the following year’s Motorama.
Because the public’s reaction to the Corvette Dream Car was so passionate, GM decided to enter it into production immediately. A total of 300 1953 Corvettes were produced, and all were powered by a derivative of Chevrolet’s 235-ci six-cylinder engine, a passenger-car staple. The ’53 Corvette engine differed from Chevy’s standard-issue six by virtue of a bespoke cylinder head that delivered 9.0:1 compression, a high-lift camshaft and a unique induction system featuring three Carter one-barrel carburetors mounted horizontally to clear Corvette’s low hood line.
The more potent inline six put its 150 horsepower to the ground through a Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission, a fact that did not sit well with sports-car purists interested in doing their own shifting. It would be two years before a three-speed manual was offered, and another two before a four-speed appeared on the option sheet.
Subsequent first-generation Corvettes were continuously improved, with highlights being the adoption of V-8 power in 1955; roll-up windows and door locks in 1956; a four-speed manual transmission, Positraction rear axle and fuel injection in 1957; and the 327-ci engine in ’62.
Our feature car is one of about 100 complete and functional 1953 survivors, and one of only approximately six that has earned both the NCRS Duntov Mark of Excellence and Bloomington Gold awards. Well-known collector Phil Castaldo has owned this car, the 229th built, since 1986, when he purchased it from noted early-Corvette expert John Rohner. Rohner bought it in Wisconsin in the early 1970s as a mostly original, fully functional (if tired) driver. Over a period of 18 months he performed a complete restoration that returned the car to as-new condition. Like all 1953s it’s Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior, and it came equipped with a radio, heater, directional signals, windshield washers, courtesy lights and whitewall tires. It was hand-built on November 18, 1953, on a temporary assembly line in a small Chevrolet customer-delivery building on Van Slyke Avenue in Flint, Michigan.
The motoring press got its first glimpse of Chevrolet’s second-generation Corvette in June 1962, and praise flowed like a mighty river. “As a purely sporting car,” wrote Road & Track, “the new Corvette will know few peers on road or track.” Said Car Life, “Tricky, twisting roads are this Corvette’s meat.” And Car and Driver noted, “One glance at the new Corvette tells you that it is faster and sportier than its predecessors. Hiding independent rear suspension under its sculptured tail, the Corvette is now second to no other production sports car in road-holding and is still the most powerful.”
The new Corvette’s dazzling looks and world-class speed were not lost on the public. Demand was so great that a second shift was immediately added at the St. Louis plant, where production had moved in December of 1953. By year’s end a total of 21,513 cars had been built, representing an impressive 48-percent increase from 1962.
While its gorgeous new styling and peerless performance went a long way in explaining Corvette’s appeal in 1963, they were only part of the allure. A lengthy list of options also added to the desirability, as it allowed buyers to tailor their cars to individual tastes. Engines ranged from the base, 250-hp 327 all the way up to a 360-hp mill with fuel injection, 11.0:1 compression and a solid-lifter cam.
Though it remained true to its competition pedigree with options such as RPO Z06—a comprehensive package of heavy-duty suspension and brake parts—Corvette also had increasingly more to offer buyers interested in comfortable touring. To begin with, they could have a quieter, more weather-resistant coupe body style. Power steering and brakes, as well as Saddle leather upholstery, were offered from the outset, and starting in mid-March enthusiasts could enjoy a newly available AM/FM radio. Passenger comfort took a giant leap forward in mid-April when air conditioning became available for the first time.
Beginning in 1965 four-wheel disc brakes became standard, and the now legendary Chevrolet big-block was offered. In 1966 the big-block was enlarged from 396 to 427 cubic inches, and in ’67 it was available with triple two-barrel carburetors as well as in an all-out racing version called the L88.
Greg Seferian, an avid collector and vintage racer, owns the 99-point NCRS Top Flight Nassau Blue 1966 shown here. Seferian had wanted a Corvette ever since childhood, motivated in large measure by a neighbor who had one back then. He was attracted to this particular car because it was extremely original, equipped with a great color combination and documented with the original Protect-O-Plate. It also had desirable options, including a 327/350 engine and side pipes. Seferian bought it in 1988 and drove it regularly for the next 20-plus years, doing all of his own maintenance and repairs to keep the Corvette going. But after decades of faithful service it was pretty tired, so he enlisted Chris Tucci and the staff at Benchmark Corvettes in Lindenhurst, New York, to completely restore the car. Benchmark did a complete, body-off-the-chassis restoration that returned the ’66 to the brand-new condition seen here.
Chevy’s third-generation Corvette, introduced in 1968, featured a completely restyled body on a largely unchanged chassis. Based on the 1965 Mako Shark II show car, the new look took Corvette’s pronounced fender peaks and sexy curves to a higher level. The car’s broad front and rear track, exaggerated wheel arches and tapered midsection combined to yield an aggressive yet sleek appearance that was unlike anything else on the road. Corvette’s passenger compartment was also completely redesigned for 1968. First- and second-generation cars all had an aircraft-inspired cockpits, but as with the exterior cues, the new Shark’s interior styling took the fighter-jet motif to the extreme.
In terms of outright performance, there were few cars on the road in 1968 that could even approach Corvette. Buyers had a choice of no fewer than seven different engines, beginning with the base 300- and optional 350-horsepower 327 small-blocks. Also available at extra cost were a single-four-barrel 427/390; iron-head, Tri-Power 427s delivering 400 or 435 horses; a 435-horse 427 with aluminum heads; and the famed L88, a race-ready 427 that was rated at 430 hp but capable of producing around 580 in near-stock form.
Raw performance hit an all-time high in 1969, the final year for the L88 and the only year for the aluminum-block ZL1. By the dawn of the 1970s the beginning of the end of America’s first golden age of muscle cars had arrived. Increasingly stringent emissions and safety requirements diminished power and added mass, which together dramatically reduced performance. There were a couple more high points, including the 1970-72 LT1 small-block and 1971 LS6 454 big-block, but by the mid-1970s Corvettes had become pretty anemic.
Concurrent with its decline in brute power, Corvette’s transformation into a more luxurious car continued. As time went on Chevrolet offered more creature comforts, and increasing numbers of buyers ordered them. By the late 1970s the vast majority of Corvettes came with air conditioning, cruise control, tilt-telescoping steering, an AM/FM stereo cassette/8-track player and power assists for the locks and windows. While they did do their share to dull performance, all of the luxo appointments gave buyers what they wanted. In that regard, they enabled Corvette’s sales numbers to remain strong, an indisputably important consideration in the car’s survival during an otherwise difficult time in the domestic automobile industry.
Our featured C3 is a beautiful example that poignantly illustrates the transformation in Corvette’s character during the C3 era, as it transitioned from a brutish muscle car to a more refined grand tourer. This high-point NCRS Top Flight winner came equipped with a number of desirable options that made the car both fast and comfortable, including a 427/390 horsepower engine; Turbo-400 automatic trans; power steering, brakes and windows; shoulder belts; AM/FM stereo; speed warning indicator; leather seats and a rear window defroster.
That long and somewhat unusual list of options, along with the car’s outstanding condition and extensive documentation (which includes the original window sticker, warranty papers, dealer order form and invoice), were what motivated present owner Chris Mazzilli to buy this car. He had it repainted in its original Monza Red hue by the Corvette experts at Vintage Automotive Restorations in Hicksville, New York, and today he enjoys showing and driving it regularly.
“The car drives really well and is dialed in,” he says. “It has no squeaks or rattles, and with 3:08:1 gears it cruises really nice on the highway. I’ve had it [Top] Flight judged a few times, and recently it scored a 98.1.”
In 1978 General Motors’ top management authorized funding to develop the fourth-generation Corvette. Chief Engineer Dave McLellan and a dedicated team of engineers and designers immediately began the monumental task of creating a completely new vehicle that somehow still carried with it a sense of Corvette’s historic past. The result of their efforts, unveiled for the public in February 1983, was nothing less than remarkable.
The previous Corvette’s chassis layout dated all the way back to 1963, and by the early 1980s it had become entirely obsolete. The new C4 design changed all of that, placing Corvette squarely among the most sophisticated production cars in the world.
Just how good was it? A 1984 Corvette generated the best skidpad results Road & Track had ever measured, contributing to the magazine’s pronouncement that it was time to “…break out the superlatives (and the champagne), the new Vette is here and it’s a winner.” Car and Driver also drove an ’84 to the highest lateral acceleration figure in that publication’s history. Popular Mechanics labeled it the “Best American Car Ever!”
As is always the case, the C4’s incredible road grip and handling qualities were the result of everything working together toward those ends. Goodyear developed new 16-inch Eagle VR50 “Gatorback” tires expressly for the Corvette, with unidirectional tread patterns derived from Formula 1 rain skins. These mounted on cast aluminum wheels that bolted to forged aluminum knuckles front and rear. The knuckles anchored to unequal length A-arms in the front and a sophisticated five-link setup in the rear.
The use of lightweight, but strong, alloys of aluminum was pervasive throughout the suspension, and in fact throughout much of the entire car. This helped keep curb weight down even as features were added. Composite transverse leaf springs at both ends and the extensive use of different plastics virtually everywhere also helped keep down mass.
Motivation came from the same “Cross-Fire Injection” 350 seen in the final C3s. With help from computer-controlled spark and fuel delivery, it made 205 hp at 4,200 rpm and 290 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm. Power went through either the base four-speed automatic or a Doug Nash Engineering “4+3” four-speed manual, so called because it featured overdrive in Second through Fourth gears to improve fuel economy. Rounding out the C4’s performance was a new braking system. It used aluminum calipers manufactured by Girlock, a joint venture of Girling and Lockheed in Australia, clamping 11.5-inch rotors on all four corners.
While the C4 was clearly a major leap forward, it was certainly not without its faults, which included an unreasonably harsh ride when fitted with the Z51 suspension, squeaks and rattles on rough roads, and a somewhat fragile electronic dash. Over the fourth generation’s lifespan, many of these problems were improved, if not cured altogether, and increasingly sophisticated technology such as Tuned Port Injection, aluminum cylinder heads, anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control propelled performance to new heights.
From 1987-91 Chevrolet offered a Callaway twin-turbo option under RPO B2K. Completed cars went from the Bowling Green plant to Callaway Engineering in Old Lyme, Connecticut, for installation of a twin-turbo engine assembly and various other high-performance parts. In 1987 B2K-optioned Corvettes had 345 hp; in ’88 that figure grew to 382 hp.
From 1990-95 Chevy offered another ultra-performance Corvette option called ZR-1. The heart of this package was its complex and incredibly powerful LT5 engine, created jointly by Chevrolet and Lotus engineers and assembled by Mercury Marine in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The ZR-1 powerplant utilized a new-design aluminum block, four-valve aluminum heads and four overhead camshafts to churn out 375 horsepower—130 more than Corvette’s standard L98 engine in ’90.
Besides the exotic engine, the ZR-1 option package also included special doors, rear quarters, rockers, rear deck and rear fascia, all of which combined to make these Corvettes wider than the base model. This was done to accommodate 11-inch-wide rear rims wearing “Z” speed-rated Goodyears sized at 315/35ZR17. The LT5 remained largely unchanged until 1993, when revised cylinder heads and changes to the valvetrain resulted in a horsepower increase to 405. Output remained at that figure through the ZR-1’s finale in 1995, by which time a total of 6,939 examples had been built.
Our featured C4 is an extremely well-preserved 1994 still in the hands of its original owner, Andrew Samour. Samour’s first car was a 1974 Nova SS that he bought when he was 18. He went through what he calls the “huge stereo setups and chrome valve covers” phase before restoring the car back to original condition. He then lusted after a Corvette, but they were always just out of reach, so his next car was a 1989 IROC Camaro. By 1993 he was settled into his new job as an air traffic controller, so he decided to take the leap and order a brand-new Corvette. Showing a keen sense of the nameplate’s history, he chose Arctic White because all ’53 models were painted white.
Besides adoring the C4’s styling, Samour appreciated its fantastic combination of luxury and performance. “It was great to get a CD player along with the cassette deck, and the new [in ’92] LT1 was rated at 300 horsepower. That’s not a lot of power today, but back in 1993…that was a big milestone!”
Samour drove his new Corvette regularly, enjoying trips with his wife to Atlantic City, Connecticut, the Corvettes at Carlisle show and the wineries of eastern Long Island. By around 2009 the C4’s odometer showed 75,000 miles, but owing to careful driving and meticulous maintenance, it was still in remarkable original condition. The following year, after a lot of hours were invested in cleaning it, the car earned a 99-point NCRS Top Flight award.
“I got a little crazy with the detailing,” admits Samour, who owns a detailing and restoration business called A and M Corvettes in Mount Sinai, New York. “Over the years I replaced the tires, brakes and battery one time each, but otherwise the car is completely original, so all it needed was a very intensive detailing to score so well.”
Corvette Chief Engineer Dave Hill and his team set out to create the fifth-generation Corvette starting with a clean sheet of paper and a long list of very ambitious goals. The product of their labor, unleashed in March 1997, catapulted Corvette to the very forefront of the world’s greatest performance cars.
The C5 was introduced as a coupe only, but by the beginning of the 1998 model year a convertible was also offered. Because the platform was designed as a convertible from the beginning, no additional structural support was needed. Even in droptop form, the newest-generation Corvette could handle the roughest roads with aplomb.
A third model dubbed the hardtop joined the C5 lineup in 1999. It was initially intended to have fewer standard features than the coupe and convertible offerings, and as such be the lowest priced of the three. Though plans to install cost-saving items such as cloth seats and manual door locks were ultimately canceled, the hardtop still ended up being the least expensive Corvette. It also wound up being the best performer, owing to its lower mass and greater stiffness.
The foundation for the C5’s excellent all-around performance was its body structure. During the design process, engineers gave a great deal of thought to making the underlying structure as stiff and as strong as possible. Through the use of innovative materials, manufacturing processes and design techniques—most notably the full-perimeter frame anchored by hydroformed side rails working in combination with a center backbone feature—they created a body structure that was approximately four times as stiff as the one utilized in the C4, with no weight or cost penalties.
Enhancing the C5’s fundamentally sound structural design were its integrated electronic chassis systems and admirably low coefficient of drag (cd). Updated anti-lock brakes, an ultra-sophisticated traction-control system and GM’s Active Handling all combined to make Corvettes much faster and safer. And the C5’s fantastic .29 cd yielded a long list of impressive dividends, including its real-world top speed of greater than 170 mph, a quieter cockpit, excellent management of water along exterior surfaces and impressive fuel economy.
Still, the sturdiest body structure, cleverest electronic assistance features and slickest aerodynamic qualities aren’t going to carry a car to the top of the performance mountain without a powerful engine. The C5’s came in the form of a completely new Chevrolet small-block named the LS1. This all-new powerplant’s innovative features included a deep-skirt, closed-deck aluminum block; cross-bolted, four-bolt main bearing caps; cast aluminum cylinder heads and a nylon/plastic-composite intake manifold.
In 2001 C5 performance took a big step forward with the introduction of the Z06 model. Chevy chose to use the hardtop as the starting point for the Z06 because it was already the stiffest (by 12 percent) and lightest (by 80 pounds) model in the lineup. All Z06s were powered by a performance-enhanced LS1 relabeled LS6. The LS6’s initial rating was 385 horsepower, but output grew to 405 horses in 2002.
Our featured C5, a 2002 Electron Blue coupe still owned by its original purchaser, aptly illustrates what Corvette ownership has meant to millions of people over the past six decades. Owner Jamie Prince grew up in a family of auto enthusiasts (she’s your author’s sister!) and has had a passion for special-interest cars since childhood. “I owned several Camaros and other cool cars over the years,” she explains, “but longed for a Corvette since I was a little girl.”
As is so often the case, various life events stood in the way of her pulling the trigger and joining the ranks of Corvette owners, but all that changed in 2001. “After the September 11th tragedy, I realized that life can end without a moment’s notice, and it was time for me to get that Corvette that I always wanted—even if it meant working two jobs and not buying much of anything for several years.”
Prince has driven her C5 a little over 44,000 miles and finds the camaraderie that exists among Corvette owners to be especially enjoyable. “There is a special bond that exists amongst Corvette owners. Each person has his or her own story, and it’s always great to hear the story behind each car and to be part of such a great group of people.”
The sixth-generation Corvette, unveiled in January 2004, retained the same basic architecture as its predecessor but was improved in every way conceivable. Chevrolet paid particular attention to upgrading the car’s interior, long a sore point with enthusiasts.
Under the hood a more powerful 6.0-liter LS2 engine delivered 400 hp, 45 more than the C5’s LS1 and only 5 shy of the Z06 model’s LS6. But while more power is at the top of nearly every Corvette buyer’s wish list, the real story with the C6 was how the massaged chassis, revised electronics and improved tires controlled the power and put it to the ground better than did the C5.
C6 performance ramped up dramatically in 2006 with the introduction of a Z06 version. It was lighter than a standard C6, courtesy of its aluminum chassis and other mass-reducing features, and it went like a rocket thanks to its 7.0-liter, 505-hp LS7 engine. In 2009 Chevy raised the bar again with a new ZR1 model. (The hyphen was dropped from the name this time around.) It rocked the supercar world with 638 hp from its supercharged 6.2-liter LS9; lightweight carbon fenders, roof, hood, splitter and rocker extensions; and huge carbon-ceramic brakes. Even base-C6 performance was on the rise, thanks to the introduction of the 430-hp LS3 engine in ’08.
With the C6 nearing the end of its production run, Chevy in 2010 introduced the Grand Sport model, a handsome package comprising flared body panels, Z06-spec brakes and model-exclusive wheels allied with the standard LS3 powerplant. (Manual-trans GSs additionally received dry-sump oiling, and their engines were hand built alongside the LS7 and LS9 at GM’s Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan.) The GS proved immensely popular, outselling the base C6 from 2010 through 2013.
Our featured C6 is a gorgeous Grand Sport edition that’s traveled only 8,751 miles. Present owner Art Nastre racked up almost 5,000 of those. Prior to purchasing this GS in 2013, Nastre owned 11 different Corvettes ranging from a 1963 Split Window to a C5 Z06, but none were convertibles.
“I set out to find a topless car after going for a long drive in a good friend’s 2006 convertible,” he recalls. “I enjoyed the open-air driving so much that I decided I had to have a convertible, and right away!” He spotted the GS on a Massachusetts Corvette dealer’s website and had a pal who happened to live nearby inspect it. “He gave it a 99.98 rating out of a possible 100, and that was good enough for me. I made the entire deal over the phone, drove to Plymouth, Massachusetts, with my wife the next day and drove home in the Grand Sport—all 250 miles of the trip with the top down, naturally.”
Though absolutely fanatic about maintaining the car’s condition and originality, Nastre is not afraid to drive it. “My wife and I took a most memorable 11-day, 2,700-mile trip in the car with the 2014 New England Caravan, to the 20th Anniversary Celebration at the National Corvette Museum in August-September 2014. We drove with the top down every day, all day, except when it rained. I also autocrossed the car at Lime Rock Park on the first day of the New England Caravan, which was a real blast, and took it on another road course in Virginia, as well as the NCM road course.
“I’m a tremendous car enthusiast in general, but there is no car that can be compared to a Corvette. It is the only car that I feel 100-percent comfortable in, and 100-percent confident in, when driving. There is no more car for the money, anywhere, and it out-performs cars many times its price, which of course any Corvette person knows!”
Chevrolet revived the Stingray name for the seventh-generation Corvette, which was introduced as a 2014 model. While its proportions and general chassis layout are very similar to those of C6, it’s been dramatically changed and improved in every measure. The C7’s angular styling and beautifully crafted interior, made with high-quality materials, distinguish it from C4, C5 and C6 Corvettes. Propulsion for the base coupe and convertible comes from a direct-injected, 460-hp, 6.2-liter LT1 engine coupled with a seven-speed manual or (beginning in 2015) a new eight-speed automatic.
Chevrolet significantly ratcheted up Corvette performance with the C7 Z06, a track-oriented technological tour de force that ranks among the fastest production cars in the world. The heart of this beast is a 6.2-liter, 650-hp supercharged V-8 called the LT4. While the LT4 employs the same cylinder case as the LT1, it uses a number of unique parts to handle higher cylinder pressures and added power output. These include titanium intake valves, stainless steel cast exhaust manifolds, a modified cam with more duration on the exhaust side and forged pistons. The block is topped with Rotocast aluminum heads, which are better able to withstand the additional heat generated by the supercharger.
All prior versions of the Z06, going back to 1963, were available only with manual gearboxes. Owing to advancing technologies and changing consumer tastes, however, Chevrolet offers the C7 Z06 with a seven-speed stick or the superb new eight-speed automatic. Regardless of transmission, the Z06 is easy to distinguish from its Stingray stable mate, thanks to its widened bodywork (by 2.2 and 3.15 inches front and rear, respectively), functional aerodynamic add-ons and model-exclusive 19×10- (front) and 20×12-inch (rear) wheels.
In October 2014 I photographed Z06s at Road Atlanta and elsewhere in Georgia for Chevrolet, and more recently I had our featured Z06, a Chevy press vehicle, for a week. With the perspective I’ve gained from having driven multiple examples of every-year Corvette from 1953 forward, I can state as a matter of fact that the spirit permeating every Corvette that came before lives on in the most recent ones. The C7 Z06 truly is a remarkable car that will inspire anyone lucky enough to own one.