Only a few models out there can brag about a longer history than the Vette. Though going through a number of redesigns, this Chevy has remained true to its purpose: being the staple American sports car.
Being such a long-lasting beast, its generations offer something for everyone. Do you consider yourself a supercar enthusiast? The latest 8th gen will suit you perfectly. Want to dabble into vintage cars? Then you can try to go for the classic Corvette that everyone wants!
However, looking at the Vette through the lens of time may give you the wrong impression. For example, did you know the first generation came close to utter failure? Or that it started out as the cheaper US alternative to Jaguar and MG? Let us see how the idea of Corvette was born, what went wrong, and how it ultimately rose to the top!
The origins of the Chevrolet Corvette
In typical General Motors fashion, the Corvette had less to do with originality and more with improving the already successful ideas. It all goes to show that even reactionary vehicles can end up becoming iconic. Though prior to that, it came close to becoming just a historical footnote. More on that in a second!
It all started with the boom of exotic sports cars like the Jaguar XK120 (the great-granddaddy of E-type). In the late 1940s, Harley Earl, the head of GM’s styling at the time, realized the potential such a market had. Mainly because the US had barely any claim to it.
All such vehicles hailed over from Europe with quite the hefty price tag, making the opportunity for a cheaper alternative quite apparent. On top of that, US companies had the advantage of relying on good old patriotism to drive more sales.
Taking all those facts into account, Earl presented the concept and managed to get the affordable sports car idea off the ground. Thus, in 1953, Chevrolet Corvette C1 was born. At first, everyone adored the two-seater beast. Its looks screamed “speed”, plus it did come out a bit cheaper than the competition. Sadly, performance did not match aesthetics.
What went wrong with the first-gen Corvette?
In the beginning, GM had fairly reasonable expectations of building about 10,000 Corvette units per year. Although a considerable number, it still fell somewhat on the conservative side. Yet, they could not even reach the 4,000 mark in the first 2 years.
The main reason for that had to do with engine details. The Corvette was touted as a sports car, but could not live up to that. GM initially put in a 3.9L inline-six engine, that gave the car only 150 hp after modifications. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph took 11.5 seconds. To put things in perspective, Jaguar XK120 could do it in just 8.5 secs even with its higher weight.
To make things worse the Corvette’s engine had already been used for more than a decade in other vehicles. In other words, they relied on old tech for a new car that had to compete with exotic foreign rides!
Perhaps people could have justified it if the price was tremendously lower. After all, that was the initial goal. Too bad it only came at about 15% cheaper than the alternatives. At this point, GM almost shut the whole project down, as it failed to meet their projections. However, largely because the company wanted to save face in the Ford vs Chevrolet rivalry, GM pushed forward for a while longer. The carmaker decided to improve whatever it could and possibly salvage the project. And it did succeed!
How Chevrolet Corvette C1 evolved through the years
Starting in 1955, GM introduced changes to the Corvette on an annual basis. The company took everything good about the car, added some more oomph to it, and made it fly. Below you can see a timetable of how it all progressed.
- 1953 – 300 Corvettes rolled out of the factory and received compliments on their aesthetics.
- 1954 – Only about 3,600 units were built, as the market reacted strongly against the lackluster performance. That almost spelled the end for the model.
- 1955 – GM put in a V8 engine and added a 3-speed manual transmission. Finally, the model got the performance to match its looks. It now had 195 hp and accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5s, rivaling the Jaguar XK120.
- 1956 – With further improvements to the body of the car, and ultimately dropping the old I6 engine, Corvette sales started going up again.
- 1957 – The model’s sales doubled and its V8 engine got some more power, now ranging from 210 up to 290 hp. The 4-speed manual transmission also became an option. The car finally felt like an expensive sports car. On top of that, its price went down, making it an incredible bang-for-the-buck alternative.
- 1958-1961 – Both the interior and exterior received noticeable changes. Models from ’58 and up could be considered facelift versions. Sales continued to rise steadily, even though the price got a serious bump, too (at about 30%).
- 1962 – The final production year introduced the most powerful 327ci V8 engine for the lineup so far. It had up to 360 hp, with both manual and automatic transmissions available.
Ultimately, the first-gen Corvette came out successful. By the end of its run, GM had produced a little over 69,000 units and was ready to take it a step further!
The legacy of the Chevrolet Corvette
In just a few generations, Corvette became the poster American sports car. By its third iteration, its numbers broke the half-million mark, making it one of Chevy’s mainstay models.
That being said, throughout the years, the Corvette became less of an affordable car and more of a top tier luxury beast. The model continues to receive praise, though many old school fans feel like it no longer carries the spirit of those first few generations.
So what do you think, should you buy a Corvette today, and if yes, which one? With the exception of C4 and C5, I love them all. The irony is that classic Corvettes often cost more than the new ones!