A family saga told across seven generations.
By Robert Cumberford
C1 The first Corvette is a dream car with a fiberglass body at the GM Motorama held in January 1953 at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. Styled by the Chevrolet design studio of Clare MacKichan, the C1 is conceptually (and even dimensionally) a copy of the Jaguar XK120. It features a 150-hp in-line-six engine and a two-speed automatic transmission, plus a wraparound windshield cribbed from the 1938 Hispano-Suiza Dubonnet Xenia. The revised 1955 C1 gets a Chevy V-8 as orchestrated by engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. The face-lifted 1956 C1 gets a dramatic door cove cribbed from a Pininfarina-styled Ferrari. The 1957 C1 adds a fuel-injected V-8 and a four-speed manual gearbox, plus styling by Bob Cadaret (the best ever?). The 1958 C1 gets lots of chrome, done by me (under the direction of GM design chief Harley Earl). The 1961 C1 gets a higher tail by Larry Shinoda (under the direction of GM design chief Bill Mitchell).
C2 The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray is styled by GM's brightest young designers, most from California. The initial C2 design study reaches full-size 1:1 scale with a clay model in 1956 under the direction of GM design chief Harley Earl and is developed into a production version under subsequent GM design chief Bill Mitchell. Key features are a fuel-injected V-8, a shorter wheelbase, an independent rear suspension, and, soon, disc brakes. It's available as a coupe and a convertible. The coupe's signature is a split backlight from the 1952 Abarth. Harley Earl used a split window first on the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket for the 1956 GM Motorama, then asked me to adapt it to the Corvette for the initial C2 design study. (This car was first conceived with a transaxle derived from the Chevrolet Corvair and Pontiac Tempest, and I used to kid designer Tony Lapine that his 1978 Porsche 928 was based on C2 Corvette studies that were done in 1956.)
C3 The rebodied 1968 C3 Corvette combines a new Coke-bottle aerodynamic look from Bill Mitchell's Mako Shark II show car with the C2's chassis. The revised 1973 version has pretty much the same body, but the chrome bumpers are replaced by soft urethane bumpers then being introduced on many GM designs. Most of the changes in the third-generation car come beneath the fiberglass skin, and they are not always good. Small-block V-8s are stretched to 5.7 liters (350 cubic inches), and big-block V-8s reach 7.4 liters (454 cubic inches). The cars drive like nose-heavy monsters. Then emissions regulations reduce the powertrain choice to a 190-hp small-block V-8. Early in the 1970s, there is much talk about a rotary mid-engine design, but the costs of emissions technology end the plan. There is ongoing controversy over quality. By 1976 it's coupe only, with a hatchback finally introduced for 1982.
C4 The 1984 C4 is reinvented as a European-style sports car by engineer Dave McLellan and designer Jerry Palmer. The chassis retains the general layout of the C3, only with a complex new package that is wider in the cockpit and that carries the driveline, the exhaust, and other bits down the middle of the car. Big tires, a new five-link rear suspension, and an aluminum suspension are key chassis features, plus a modernized small-block V-8. The coupe comes first, then the convertible. An emphasis on chassis dynamics and racing leads to a hard-riding car, and while it makes good numbers on the test track, it's too stiff for the road until 1987 revisions are implemented. The ZR-1 is introduced for 1990 with Lotus-engineered DOHC cylinder heads.
C5 The 1997 C5's aerodynamic bodywork, developed in John Cafaro's Corvette design studio, resembles the mid-engine Corvette GTP racing car. Fiberglass body panels are replaced by flexible plastic moldings. Key components in engineer Dave Hill's chassis are a new, long-wheelbase, perimeter-style frame that is four times more rigid than the C4 structure; the new LS1 small-block V-8; and a rear-mounted transmission (not a transaxle). Greater chassis rigidity improves the ride, as does the availability of three different suspension calibrations. The coupe comes first, followed by the convertible in 1998 and a notchback hardtop coupe in 1999. The Corvette team builds plenty of special editions, and the 2001 Corvette Z06 is the most important of these, with more power and less weight. A racing effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans begins in 2000 with the C5-R and continues to this day.
C6 The sixth-generation 2005 C6 Corvette is slimmed down slightly to suit European regulations. Designer Tom Peters, former head of the Corvette advanced studio, maintains the proportions of the C5 but combines them with the elaborately sculpted surfaces that have become popular at GM in the wake of the 1999 Cadillac Evoq concept car. Headlights are exposed for the first time since the C1. The mechanical elements of the package remain much the same, although a 6.2-liter LS3 engine is introduced in 2008. The car rides much more smoothly thanks to a longer wheelbase. The Corvette group continues to pursue performance credibility with the Z06 street car and the C6.R racing car. This effort also leads to the 2008 ZR1, a supercharged 638-hp car with carbon-fiber bodywork and carbon-ceramic brakes that goes on to set the lap record for mass-production sports cars at the Nuerburgring Nordschleife.