In the freewheeling auto industry at the dawn of the 1900s, the maestro who created, then lost, General Motors bounced back to create his greatest automotive endeavor yet.
In the year Chevrolet was born, there were 270 auto companies operating in the United States. Although Chevrolet was started by one of the best-known and most prolific names in the fledgling industry, its survival was not ensured. But Chevrolet not only endured, it prospered. It went on to become one of the few American auto brands to reach the century mark, and it was the number-one-selling brand in the United States in the majority of those years. Herewith, a look at the 100 cars, people, technologies, events, and milestones that have marked Chevrolet’s 100 years.
1. Billy Durant
Chevrolet was the creation of William C. Durant, who founded General Motors but by 1911 had been tossed out. Looking to get back into the car business, he incorporated the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. (2) He started two other car companies that year and two more the next. Those other makers were soon subsumed by Chevrolet, which Durant envisioned as a low-priced brand that would take on Ford. By 1915, Durant and his proxies had succeeded in acquiring enough General Motors stock that Durant regained (tenuous) control of GM. He then engineered a stock swap which meant, in effect, that the Chevrolet company acquired General Motors (3). Back in the saddle at GM, he went on a buying spree (Fisher Body, Dayton Engineering, and Frigidaire, among others) but was caught out by the 1920 recession. He left GM and Chevrolet forever in December of that year.
4. Louis Chevrolet
Born in Switzerland, Louis Chevrolet spent his boyhood in France before emigrating to North America at age twenty-one. Chevrolet earned a name for himself working on the Buick racing team, and he drove Buicks to victory at the nascent Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 and 1910. Billy Durant wanted to tap Chevrolet’s racing notoriety for his start-up car company. In addition to lending his name to the enterprise, Chevrolet would design the new car. He finished the design and demonstrated the car for the press in late 1912, after which he departed for France and an extended vacation. When he returned, he was upset with the cheaper models that Durant had added, but the breaking point was his smoking. Durant hated Chevrolet’s habit of smoking a cigarette and letting it hang on his lip. He thought Chevrolet, as an executive, should take up cigars. Enraged at being told how to live, the hot-tempered Chevrolet quit the company. He later designed a couple of Indy-winning racing cars and started the short-lived Frontenac Motor Company.
5. 1912 Chevrolet Six Type C Classic
The first-ever Chevrolet was the only one designed by its namesake. Riding on a 120-inch wheelbase and powered by a 299-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine, it was a premium vehicle (costing more than $2000) and not at all what Billy Durant had envisioned for Chevrolet.
6. The Bow-Tie emblem
The now-familiar logo was first applied to a Chevrolet in 1914. As Durant told it, he’d seen the design on the wallpaper of a hotel room in Paris.
7. The Chevrolet Four-Ninety
In 1915, Chevrolet at last had a direct competitor to the Model T: the Four-Ninety. It cost $490, which also happened to be the price of a Model T. (Henry Ford retaliated by dropping the T’s price by $50.)
8. The first Chevrolet truck appeared in 1918. Trucks slowly became an important, if not highly visible, aspect of Chevrolet’s business. It wasn’t until decades later — 1989, to be exact — that Chevy trucks began outselling Chevy cars and accounting for an outsize majority of the brand’s profits.
9. Formed in 1919, GMAC greased the financial wheels of the auto industry. Financing allowed dealers to have more cars on hand, and it freed buyers from having to save up the purchase price of a car — a significant sum even for buyers of low-priced cars. Chevrolet’s ability to let customers buy a car “on time” gave it an important advantage over Ford, where the very idea was anathema to Henry Ford.
10. The Detroit-based Campbell-Ewald advertising agency placed its first ad for Chevrolet in 1919 and became the brand’s agency of record in 1922, beginning an agency/client relationship that would continue until 2010.
Before the War
It was boom then bust for America in the decades leading up to World War II, and Chevrolet saw its fortunes similarly ride highs and lows.
11. Alfred P. Sloan
In the period immediately after Billy Durant’s second (and final) ouster, GM was in disarray and so was Chevrolet, with stale products and sinking sales. GM president Pierre S. du Pont considered shuttering the division, but Sloan prevailed upon him to keep it. It was also Sloan’s plan to try to escape the scorched-earth price slashing necessary to compete directly against the Model T and instead to create a new price niche that skimmed from the top of the T range. Later, as GM president, he would be credited with the concept of planned obsolescence, which spurred the annual model change.
12. The Copper-Cooled Chevrolet
GM research chief Charles Kettering (13), who invented the self-starter, advocated for an air-cooled engine that was supposed to be lighter and cheaper than a conventional water-cooled engine and had fewer parts and greater performance. The air-cooled unit used copper cooling fins and was installed in the 1923 Chevrolet. Of the 500 or so copper-cooled cars that left the factory, 100 ended up in the hands of customers. Detonation problems were so bad that GM bought them all back (netting all but two) and eventually dumped many of the cars in Lake Erie. Luckily, the company had hedged its bets by also offering a water-cooled engine.
14. William S. Knudsen
Knudsen arrived at GM after a bitter departure from Ford (there being no other kind) and became Chevrolet general manager in 1924. He aggressively pursued Ford, solidified Chevrolet’s position as a higher-quality low-priced car, brought out the Chevrolet six, and tirelessly pushed the brand to the number-one spot in sales.
15. 1927 Chevy outsells Ford
Surging Chevrolet was still a ways behind faltering Ford in 1927, when Henry Ford shut down his huge River Rouge factory to retool for the new Model A. The shutdown lasted seven months and effectively handed the sales crown to Chevrolet, which produced more than a million cars for the first time. It did the same in 1928, once again outselling Ford (which was slow to ramp up production of its new Model A).
16. 1932 1 of every 3 cars sold is a Chevrolet
Chevrolet outsold Ford (fair and square this time) in 1931, and in 1932 its market share peaked at 34 percent.
17. “Knee-action” independent front suspension debuted on the Chevrolet Master series cars — and Pontiacs as well — in 1934.
18. Harley Earl
GM’s inaugural design chief first lent his pen to the design of a Chevrolet with the 1928 model. He would later oversee historic Chevys such as the first Corvette and the ’55 Bel Air.
19. The 1929 Chevrolet
The Chevrolet lineup had new chassis and bodies for 1928, but Chevy boss Knudsen held back the most noteworthy feature, an in-line six-cylinder engine, until the ’29 model year to let the furor over Ford’s new Model A die down. Introduced in November 1928, the so-called Stove Bolt Six (20) — which soon evolved into the Blue Flame Six — displaced 194 cubic inches and produced 46 hp, six more than the Model A’s larger four-banger. It was the first six-cylinder engine in a low-priced car (the original Chevrolet Six was not cheap in its day) and was advertised as “a six for the price of a four.” We rode in Lonnie and Darlene Courtney’s 1929 International four-door Imperial Landau semiconvertible, which, at $725, sat atop the 1929 Chevy range. Harley Earl’s deft touch is evident in all ten body styles of the 1929 lineup, but the Landau’s elegant lines are especially attractive these eighty-two years later. The Courtneys, of Lafayette, Indiana, also own a 1929 two-door sedan, or “coach,” which was the best-selling Chevy that year, with 367,360 sold. Production figures for the Landau remain in dispute, with some sources indicating as few as 300 and others as many as 8000, but either way the Courtneys own an example of the lowest- and highest-volume versions of the 1929 Chevy, which set a new sales record for the brand and put it on a path to surpass the Model A two years later. — Joe DeMatio
21. The Suburban
Launched in 1935, the Chevrolet Suburban is the longest-running nameplate in the auto industry. The original Suburban Carryall was a two-door, steel-bodied, truck-based wagon that could seat eight or carry considerable cargo with its rear seats removed. In its first decades, the Suburban was largely a commercial vehicle, and modern amenities appeared slowly: a V-8 and an automatic transmission came with the ’55 redesign, four-wheel drive two years later, air-conditioning in 1965. Interestingly, the Suburban has been offered as a two-door (through ’66), a three-door (from ’67 to ’72), and a four-door (since ’73). It’s been called the National Car of Texas, but the Suburban has been embraced by Americans everywhere. By 2002, sales reached 151,000, nearly six times the total from thirty years earlier.
22. The ’37 Chevrolet
A handsome redesign for 1937, featuring an all-steel body by Fisher, put Chevrolet ahead of Ford and out front again in the sales race, where it would remain, with very few exceptions, for the next several decades.
23. As a result of sit-down strikes in dozens of GM plants, most importantly its main manufacturing complex in Flint, the UAW was recognized as the bargaining agency for General Motors workers
on February 11, 1937.
24. Juan Manuel Fangio Fangio drove a ’40 Chevy Master 85 to victory in the 5900-mile Buenos Aires-Lima-Buenos Aires endurance race in 1940 for his first major win. Fangio went on to capture five grand prix world championships in a seven-year span.
25. World War II
GM president William S. Knudsen directed wartime industrial production for the Roosevelt administration. Chevrolet factories were converted to build trucks, armored cars, aircraft engines, and artillery shells as part of GM’s huge war effort.
Following the end of World War II, pent-up demand, rising prosperity, and booming innovation transform America — and Chevrolet.
26. The ’49 Chevy
After three years of building what were basically carryover 1942 models, the ’49 Chevy was the brand’s first new car of the era. It wasn’t an exciting design but it was new, and with it bow-tie sales topped one million for the first time since 1927. That was enough to keep Chevy in first place against an equally new ’49 Ford.
27. Thomas H. Keating
Keating, who became division chief in 1948, was asked in 1952 by GM president Charles Wilson what he needed to reinvigorate Chevrolet. He got what he wanted: Ed Cole as chief engineer, the Corvette, an overhead-valve V-8, and a dramatically redesigned ’55 Chevy.
Chevrolet offered the first low-priced car with a fully automatic transmission, the two-speed Powerglide unit, which first appeared as a $159 option on 1950 models. Even after the introduction of a more sophisticated three-speed automatic (the Turbo-Hydramatic), Powerglide stuck around through 1973.
29. Power Steering
Making driving easier was a theme in the 1950s, and power steering was a major part of that effort; Chevrolet had it on its ’53 models, before its low-priced competition.
30. “See the U-S-A in your Chevrolet!”
Sung by TV’s Dinah Shore starting in 1951, Chevrolet’s advertising theme song blended salesmanship and patriotism in a formula that would mark the brand’s advertising for decades.
31. 1953 Corvette
Chevrolet in the early 1950s was an unlikely purveyor of a two-seat sports car, but division chief Tom Keating was happy to grab the ’53 Corvette (which had already been designed and had been offered to other divisions) in an effort to give Chevy a new image. Styled by Harley Earl and engineered by Ed Cole, the ’53 Corvette — with its unexciting Blue Flame six, automatic transmission, and minuscule production numbers — is important not for what it was but for what it would become.
32. The ’55 Chevy
The ’55 Chevy transformed the brand’s image overnight. The styling by Clare MacKichan (33), with long and low proportions, was a sensation, and the car marked the debut of the seminal small-block V-8. Although the finned ’57 ended up being the 1950s icon, the blockbuster ’55 was the most important Chevy of the era. We fire up Gerald Nagy’s four-door in the parking lot of his alma mater, Flint Central High School, take in the throaty burble from the two-barrel, single-carb V-8, and put the two-speed Powerglide transmission into Drive. Grasping the huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel and sinking into the squishy, flat bench seat with Nagy riding shotgun, we ease out onto the streets of this once-proud Michigan city and quickly adjust to the lack of power assist for both the steering and the brakes. Nagy points to the freeway entrance ramp. The two-tone Bel Air surges forward onto I-475 and reaches 65 mph effortlessly. Visibility through the curved windshield is superb, and as the car settles into a 70-mph rhythm, bias-ply tires humming along the concrete and sunlight streaming into the airy cabin, it’s easy to imagine how good life must have seemed to the millions of Americans who drove Chevys in that era of limitless opportunity. People like Nagy’s parents, who had a Bel Air identical to this one, right down to the turquoise-and-cream color scheme. “I went 95 mph in my parents’ car,” Nagy recalls, then says that he was born in the back seat of a new 1940 Chevrolet Master Deluxe just a few blocks short of Flint’s Hurley Hospital. This man has Chevy in his blood. Treating himself to a ’55 Chevy convertible when he graduated from Flint Central in June 1958, he clearly cut a wide swath through town. “Oh, I loved that car!” he says, wistfully. “I miss it.” This ’55 sedan is not a bad consolation prize. — Joe DeMatio
34. The small-block V-8
The result of a crash program, the seminal ’55 small-block V-8 engine was designed and built in only fifteen weeks. The small-block was not the first Chevy V-8 (a V-8 was offered for one year, in 1918), but the 265-cubic-inch unit was the first modern one. It was originally rated at 162 hp — or 180 hp with the $59 power pack, which added a four-barrel carburetor, a revised air cleaner and intake manifold, and dual exhaust. The next year, the top-spec version was up to 225 hp. Displacement grew to 283 cubic inches in 1957, and with the new fuel-injection option, the engine achieved 1 hp per cubic inch. An engineering home run, the small-block Chevy V-8 would prove so versatile that its basic design continues to this day.
35. La Carrera Panamericana, November 1953
Driving a humdrum Chevy 210 sedan with a Powerglide transmission in the small-bore stock-car class of the notoriously dangerous Mexican road race, fifty-four-year-old C. D. Evans scored Chevrolet’s first victory in international competition.
36. Zora Arkus-Duntov
He was born in Belgium, raised in Russia, and schooled in Germany. He raced Porsches to class wins at Le Mans, designed tractors and lathes in Europe, and developed an overhead-valve conversion for flathead Fords that made him a legend with American hot-rodders. But Zora Arkus-Duntov finally found his niche at GM, where his fractured English, mechanical savvy, and marketing flair made him the godfather of the Corvette and the patron saint of Chevrolet’s postwar racing program. His technical genius flowered in the fuel injection and the high-lift cams that eventually found their way into the small-block Chevy V-8, and he set records climbing Pikes Peak in a Chevy coupe and sedan and on the sand of Daytona Beach in a Corvette. But Zora’s most enduring legacy was his ability to persuade his ever-reluctant bosses that the credibility of the Corvette was contingent on its racing heritage. He engineered the SS that raced at Sebring, the Grand Sport that humbled Shelby Cobras, and even-more-ambitious projects that were never fully realized. (Four-rotor mid-engine Corvette, anyone?) Even now, thirty-six years after his retirement and fifteen years after his death, some of his DNA survives in every Corvette on every racetrack around the world.
37. Ed Cole
Formerly the chief engineer at Cadillac (where he developed the brand’s first modern V-8), Ed Cole became the chief engineer at Chevrolet in the mid-’50s. He pushed for a new OHV V-8, and with a staff that had tripled in size to 2900, he led the team that developed it and also was the lead engineer on the ’55 Chevy. He became Chevrolet general manager in 1956 and stayed until 1961, eventually ascending to the presidency of General Motors. Besides the ’55 Chevy, he oversaw the introduction of the Corvair and initiated the program that delivered the Chevy II for 1962.
38. Smokey Yunick
In 1955, when Chevrolet unleashed its new small-block V-8 on NASCAR, it set up shop in the best damn garage in Daytona Beach — literally. Proprietor Smokey Yunick had established himself as stock-car racing’s premier engine man thanks to his mechanical ingenuity and an ability to exploit the ambiguities of NASCAR’s rule book. Although Fonty Flock scored Chevy’s maiden victory on the dirt oval at Columbia, South Carolina, the first major win came at Darlington in the 1955 Southern 500, with Herb Thomas driving a Smokey special. Yunick attributed the victory to Firestone racing tires liberated from a junk yard, but he always claimed that the small-block Chevy was part of NASCAR’s foundation.
39. Junior Johnson
Buck Baker gave Chevy its first Grand National championship in 1957 (40), but it was Junior Johnson — who was out of racing at the time thanks to a prison sentence for running moonshine — who became “The Last American Hero.” Immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s celebrated profile in Esquire, Johnson became a legend after his unlikely victory in a Chevrolet at the Daytona 500 in 1960. With his car a solid 20 mph slower than the leading Pontiacs, he discovered the technique now known as drafting and used it to win the race. Later, he owned the Chevys that Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip drove to Winston Cup championships in 1976, 1977, and 1985.
41. ’57 Corvette
It took a few years, but by 1957 the Corvette had achieved its promise. The car had received a handsome redesign the year before, and the first available V-8, as well as a manual transmission, had come two years prior. But ’57 saw the new, larger, 283-cubic-inch fuel-injected V-8, and with the four-speed, the ’57 Vette could race to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. The Corvette’s legend was ensured.
42. The 12 Hours of Sebring, March 1957
The SS looked like a Corvette with Jetsons-inspired styling touches.
In fact, it was a factory hot rod built around a Mercedes-Benz 300SL-inspired spaceframe. At Sebring, Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss practiced briefly in a test mule and got within three seconds of what would be the fastest lap of the twelve-hour enduro.
But the race car failed early while John Fitch was driving, and before Arkus-Duntov could rework it for Le Mans, the Automobile Manufacturers Association racing ban prompted GM to cancel the program.
43. The Impala
Introduced for ’58 as the top Chevrolet trim level and available only as a two-door hardtop or convertible, the Impala quickly expanded into its own series and became so popular that more than a million Impalas were sold in 1965, still a record for production of a single nameplate.
44. The El Camino
Chevy’s car/pickup half-breed was two years behind Ford’s 1957 Ranchero, but Chevrolet stuck with it longer and sold more, burning the El Camino into the public consciousness.
The 1960s saw Chevy flexing its muscles as it battled rivals on the track and in showrooms.
45. The Corvair
The Corvair debuted for 1960 as a coupe and a sedan, with an air-cooled, horizontally opposed rear engine and rear-wheel drive, just like the most popular import of the day, the Volkswagen Beetle. Ford and Plymouth released more conventional compacts that same year, and the Falcon easily outsold the Corvair. The sporty Corvair Monza Spyder, with a 150-hp turbocharged version of the flat six, debuted in 1962 and was the first turbo production car (46). But Chevy hedged its bet on the Corvair, bringing out the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Chevy II that same year. It was immediately more popular. Then, in 1965, came the death blow, as an obscure Washington, D.C., lawyer named Ralph Nader (47) published Unsafe at Any Speed, an indictment of the Corvair’s tendency to oversteer. The book launched Nader’s career, which in turn led the U.S. Congress to begin regulating the auto industry. The Corvair, meanwhile, got a handsome redesign for ’65 but little else, and it was quietly allowed to die in 1969.
48. Bill Mitchell
GM’s second-ever design chief left his mark on Chevrolet in all the cars and trucks designed during his reign (which ran from 1958 to 1977), but none more so than the ’63 Corvette Sting Ray, the ’65 Corvair, the ’67 Camaro, and the ’68 Corvette.
49. Super Sport
Chevy’s hot-rod designation first appeared in 1961 as a special option on the Impala. Engine choices started with the 305-hp, 348-cubic-inch V-8 and topped out with the 409; the package also included power steering and brakes, a heavy-duty suspension, and a tachometer. The Chevy II got an SS package for ’63, and many other models have offered it since, with varying degrees of credibility.
50. The 409 V-8
Immortalized by the Beach Boys, the 409 was a bored and stroked derivation of the underwhelming 348-cubic-inch V-8. It also used a unique casting, an aluminum intake manifold, and a four-barrel carburetor, and it was rated at 360 hp. The engine debuted in January 1961 and immediately went to the Winternationals drag races in Pomona, California, where, with Don Nicholson at the wheel, it scored a decisive victory with a 13.59-second quarter mile at 105.88 mph. Revised for 1962 (the early engines were not known to be robust) with a new block casting and other changes, output increased to 380 hp — or 409 hp with dual four-barrel carbs. “She’s real fine” indeed.
24 Hours of Le Mans, 1960
51. With back-door support from Chevrolet, Briggs Cunningham took a trio of C1 Corvettes to Le Mans. Despite major overheating woes, John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished eighth overall.
52. 1963 Corvette Sting Ray
The Corvette was a significant car from its 1953 debut, but it only became a great car ten years later. Zora Arkus-Duntov, who had spent the better part of the 1950s racing Corvettes (often in defiance of GM’s fickle stance on the activity), poured the acquired knowledge into a new independent rear suspension supported by a transverse leaf spring — an eccentric layout that survives in Corvettes to this day. Not to be outdone, design chief Bill Mitchell contributed the highlight of his illicit Corvette racing program, the Sting Ray designed by Larry Shinoda (53). Shinoda penned an even more dramatic production car that bore the influence of European sports cars such as the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing and the Abarth 207A while also paying homage to its namesake with a rear “stinger.”
At first meeting, the forty-eight-year-old coupe stirs no nostalgia in this twenty-six-year-old writer — just blind lust. Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Shinoda? The fuel-injected, 360-gross-hp, 327-cubic-inch V-8 doesn’t want to be some dull relic, either. At idle, the chatter of its solid lifters drowns out the usual small-block burble, and it sputters impatiently as if to say, “Let’s go!” OK, fine. The exhaust crackles as the tachometer — perfectly placed along with the rest of the round gauges — struggles to keep up with the frantically building cacophony. The engine revs so quickly toward its 6500-rpm redline that Chevrolet installed a buzzer to warn drivers when to upshift.
With each run, the tiny driver’s-side mirror flops in the wind as if in acknowledgment of its own futility, but the much criticized visibility afforded by the split rear window (eliminated for ’64) doesn’t seem so bad in this age of thick A-pillars and shoulder-high doorsills. Time has been less kind to the power drum brakes, the bias-ply tires, and the fixed-back driver’s seat. The four-speed manual, lauded in contemporary reviews as being very precise, isn’t. And yet the Sting Ray, unlike so many 1960s icons, remains very much alive as not just a significant car but also a great one. — David Zenlea
54. L88 engine
In the annals of Chevrolet monster V-8s, none tops the L88. A pure racing engine intended for FIA GT and SCCA A Production events, it shared little beyond its 427-cubic-inch displacement with its more pedestrian siblings. Sporting aluminum heads, a reengineered valvetrain, solid lifters, and cold-air induction, it produced heaps of torque and was rated at 430 hp — although the true figure was more like 560. To satisfy racing regulations, Chevrolet offered the engine in street cars, specifically the ’67-’69 Corvette. Buyers got an upgraded transmission, brakes, ignition, and a cowl-induction hood but gave up air-conditioning, a heater/defroster, and a radio. Nonetheless, some 200 were sold.
55. The Chevy II/Nova
After the Corvair’s disappointing showing, Chevrolet wasted little time in bringing out a new soldier to fight the compact-car battle. The Chevy II was rolled out for 1962 and, possessing absolutely none of its sibling’s radical engineering, proved far more popular. Available as a sedan, wagon, coupe, and convertible, it was initially offered with either a straight six or a four-cylinder engine (Chevy’s first since 1928). An SS model and V-8 engines followed almost immediately. It was redesigned and enlarged for ’68, but both convertible and wagon versions were gone. The Nova achieved its peak sales — and greatest importance to the Chevy lineup — in the 1970s (390,537 units in 1974) before it was finally replaced by the Citation.
56. Corvette Grand Sport
The Grand Sport was the ultimate Corvette racing car — lightweight frame, upgraded suspension, aerodynamic bodywork, and a stroked small-block V-8 rated at 485 hp. At the Nassau Speed Week races in December 1963, factory-prepared Grand Sports ran away from Shelby Cobras and Ferrari 250GTOs. But Chevrolet washed its hands of the project before Zora Arkus-Duntov could take the cars to Sebring and Le Mans.
57. Chaparral Cars
Jim Hall had a Caltech education and a year in Formula 1 under his belt when — with sub-rosa support from Chevy R&D — he created some of the most innovative race cars ever built. The Chaparral 2 was the world’s first composite monocoque racer; the 2E Can-Am car and 2F endurance racer pioneered high, movable wings; and the wacky 2J “sucker car” introduced ground effects and capitalized on the concept by using a two-stroke snowmobile engine to produce the suction.
58. The Caprice
Unveiled in February 1965 as a four-door hardtop only, the Caprice was an Impala equipped with a new 396-cubic-inch V-8 and dressed up with the full-boat luxury trim. It became its own series for ’66, available as both a two- and four-door hardtop and as a station wagon. It remained atop the full-size Chevy lineup for the next three decades.
59. The ’67 Camaro was part of the pony-car stampede that followed Ford’s Mustang. Nonetheless, the first-generation Camaro proved very popular in its own right and was quite potent on the racetrack. The second-generation Camaro arrived for the ’70s and stayed true to its mission, even as its rival downsized to become an economy car. The Camaro was almost killed off due to low sales in ’72, but it hung in there and enjoyed better-than-ever sales by the end of the decade — even if, image-wise, it was somewhat in the shadow of the related Pontiac Trans Am. The third iteration bowed for ’82 with grim news in the engine room: a standard four-cylinder making all of 90 hp. The IROC-Z arrived three years later, however, and became an ’80s icon — with 225 hp, the ’87 version could hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. There was another redesign in 1993, but sales disappointed even as performance improved. The 2002 model would be the Camaro’s last — until it was resurrected for 2010.
60. The Trans-Am racing Camaros
In its heyday, the Trans-Am series was the ultimate test of pony-car road-racing performance, and when the competition was at its fiercest, the Camaro was the horse to beat. In 1968, Mark Donohue, driving for team owner Roger Penske (61), won ten of thirteen races. The next year, Donohue and teammate Ronnie Bucknum went eight for twelve.
The auto industry of the 1970s was wracked by changes brought on by tightening U.S. government regulations and sudden spikes in fuel prices.
1970 Chevelle SS LS6
62. The mid-size Chevelle and its fancier Malibu twin debuted for 1964 and were the perfect hosts for Chevy’s Super Sport treatment as well as its family of V-8 engines. Like the frantic muscle-car craze itself, the Chevelle peaked in the 1970 model year, thanks to an available 450-gross-hp, 454-cubic-inch V-8 that went by the option code LS6. That horsepower figure, like many of the day, was surely underestimated, but it was nonetheless the highest advertised factory number of the era. The 454 was new for 1970, and the LS6’s Holley carburetor, high-rise aluminum intake manifold, solid-lifter camshaft, and other fortifications made it much hotter than the basic 360-hp LS5 454. Chevy built fewer than 200 Chevelle convertibles with the LS6 engine, and only a fraction of those had a four-speed manual transmission. Lucky for us, that’s what we drove for this birthday celebration.
The big 454 idles surprisingly quietly, and the thin-rimmed steering wheel feels almost dainty. This car is by no means a softie, however. Bury the long-travel gas pedal, and the Chevelle leaps forward, its nose pointed upward. The overboosted power steering only gently influences the Chevelle’s direction, and the superlong throws of the Muncie shifter force your elbow to bang into the seatback, but that doesn’t diminish the thrill. We shift and floor it again and again, just to be amused by 500 lb-ft of torque and marvel at the movement of the vacuum-operated flipper door that bridges the stripes on the cowl-induction hood. It’s easy to be awed by the LS6, one of the most muscular muscle cars ever and Chevrolet’s pinnacle of an awesome era. — Rusty Blackwell
The LUV pickup
63. This mini pickup was notable not for its strange name (an acronym for Light Utility Vehicle) but because the 1972 model was the first Chevrolet sold in the United States that was built by a foreign manufacturer: Isuzu, in Japan.
“Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet!”
64. Americans first began hearing this catchy jingle in the fall of 1974, when it was used to usher in the ’75 models. It soon became ubiquitous on radio and TV.
65. The Monte Carlo
Although it debuted with a fairly crisp and clean form at the dawn of the ’70s, the Monte Carlo really hit its stride with a garish, overwrought ’73 redesign that featured opera windows, an available half vinyl top, and prominent side scallops. Thus adorned, the Monte Carlo was perfectly in tune with the era’s questionable tastes. Sales zoomed to more than 400,000 in 1977 as Me Decade buyers snapped up this attainably priced “personal luxury” car. Designer Dave Holls said he considers the Monte Carlo “the most successful car ever made at General Motors. We never made more money on a car than [on] that one.”
66. In 1968, GM chairman James Roche proclaimed that in two years his company would “build a small, economical, durable, safe, comfortable, and well-styled car.” Incredibly, he was referring to the Vega. The Vega was nothing if not ambitious. It was powered by an all-new aluminum-block four-cylinder engine, and it was built at a new factory in Lordstown, Ohio, that featured the first major use of robots. GM had trouble both with its automated workers (which sometimes painted each other rather than the cars) and the human kind (who filed a blizzard of work grievances and went on strike in March 1972). The Vega earned a reputation for poor quality (the aluminum engine was prone to overheating and the bodies rusted voraciously), which was publicized by a spate of recalls (two of the most noteworthy were for gasoline spilling out of carburetors and for rear wheels falling off). A handsome restyling job for 1974 and the replacement of the aluminum-block engine with the more conventional and more durable Iron Duke four-cylinder couldn’t save the Vega, which was killed after 1977.
67. Toy XI
Toy XI, as Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins dubbed his 1974 Vega, was the most influential Pro Stock car ever built — the first with a tube frame, MacPherson struts, and a dry sump.
C3 Corvette racers
68. Jerry Thompson and Tony DeLorenzo, the son of a GM VP, scored twenty-two consecutive victories in SCCA and FIA competition — often finishing 1-2 — in C3 Corvettes powered by L88 big-blocks. Later, John Greenwood became the C3 standard-bearer, and a Corvette emblazoned with stars-and-stripes graphics clocked a record 215 mph
at Le Mans.
69. After the Vega debacle, Chevrolet went a more conservative route for its next small car, the Chevette. In order to bring the car quickly to market, GM adapted its Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Chevette, thus creating its first world car (versions were also sold in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Japan). U.S. buyers had a choice of an iron-block 1.4-liter making 52 hp or a 60-hp 1.6-liter. The $2899 Chevette Scooter had no rear seats, but more expensive models had four seats. Chevy general manager Robert Lund predicted 275,000 sales in the car’s debut year of 1976, but the final tally wasn’t even close. By the end of the decade, however, aided by a four-door version and — more important — another spike in gas prices, the Chevette was among the best-selling cars in America.
70. Dave McLellan
Dave McLellan succeeded Zora Arkus-Duntov as the Corvette’s chief engineer in 1975 — a difficult time for the sports car. Its performance had weakened, and many within GM questioned whether it should continue. McLellan was able to put the Corvette on the road to recovery, developing the C4 (1984), reintroducing the convertible (1986), and bringing out the ZR-1 for 1990 before retiring two years later, when he handed the reins to Dave Hill.
71. The ’77 full-size Chevy was exactly right for the times, and it was a best seller right out of the box. Compared with its porcine predecessor, the downsized Caprice/Impala shed about 650 pounds and nearly a foot in length. A 350-cubic-inch V-8 was the top engine, but the best money a buyer could spend was $36 for the F-41 suspension option. As to the new design aesthetic, GM design director Chuck Jordan said, “The longer, wider, and lower automobile philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s is gone for good.”
Pickups pull in front
72. In 1974, the Chevrolet C/K pickup nosed ahead of the full-size Chevy to become the brand’s best-selling model. Today, the Silverado pickup is well out in front (as is the case with crosstown rival Ford).
Highest sales volume ever
73. Chevy annual sales peaked at 4,550,632 in 1978. Four-million-plus years, though, have not been uncommon, occurring in ’73, ’77-’79, and ’05-’08.
74. Low and slow
The lowrider movement had been in existence in the Latino community since the 1940s, but it began to percolate into the wider popular consciousness in the 1970s. Although all kinds of cars were turned into lowriders, the early-’60s Chevy Impala became an indisputable favorite. Later versions of the big Chevy each got their own lowrider nickname: “Donk” (the big ’70s models), “Box” (the ’77-’90 version), and “Bubble” (the ’91-’96 Caprice).
Trouble & Trucks
A rising tide of imports presents fierce new competition in the 1980s, but the newfound popularity of trucks in the 1990s is a bright spot for U.S. automakers.
75. The Citation
General motors’ X-car project initiated the massive, corporate-wide move to front-wheel drive. What began as a Chevrolet effort later expanded to include Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. Equipped with a 90-hp four-cylinder or a new 115-hp, 2.8-liter 60-degree V-6, the Chevy Citation debuted in 1980 and replaced the Nova. Offered as a two-door coupe as well as two- and four-door hatchbacks, the roomy, efficient Citation had the best-ever first-year sales of any GM car. But quality problems surfaced almost immediately and sales swan-dived; 1985 was its last year.
76. INDIANAPOLIS 500, May 1988
The Chevy V-8 Indy-car engine, which had been developed with Ilmor Engineering — a company Roger Penske helped found — debuted in 1986. Two years later, Chevy V-8s finished 1-2-3 in the Indy 500.
77. The Cavalier
Two years after the Citation, Chevy launched the smaller Cavalier as a coupe, sedan, and wagon. Unfortunately, a lousy economy, poor performance, and high sticker prices made the Cavalier a sales disappointment. It lingered until 2005 with only one major redesign, which many saw as an indication of Chevrolet’s disinterest in the small-car market, but its neglect also was a result of corporate resources that were diverted from Chevrolet to the fledgling Saturn brand.
78. REEVES CALLAWAY
Chevrolet chief engineer Don Runkle wanted to explore turbocharging the Corvette V-8, so he had the idea to reach out to racer and tuner Reeves Callaway. That led to the 1987 Callaway Twin Turbo Corvette, which could be ordered as RPO B2K. Callaway’s association with Chevrolet deepened and his prominence grew when he began building and campaigning Corvette racing cars and adding more street cars. Today, Callaway makes special versions of the Corvette, the Camaro, and the Silverado.
79. NASCAR 1986/87: Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe
After Bill Elliott’s high-flying Ford Thunderbird dominated NASCAR in 1985, Chevrolet created a limited-edition version of the Monte Carlo with a more aerodynamic rear window. To homologate the car for Winston Cup, 200 Aerocoupes were built for 1986. NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt (80) used the slicked-up bodywork to win back-to-back championships and turn his number 3 stock car into an icon.
81. GM-10 PROGRAM
The GM-10 program undertook a redesign of General Motors’ mid-size cars, bringing forth the Pontiac Grand Prix, the Olds Cutlass, and the Buick Regal in 1988 and the Chevy Lumina for 1990. Taking to heart the lessons of previous look-alike models, the GM-10 cars each had distinct styling. However, hideous delays and cost overruns meant that the corporation lost some $2000 on every car built, making the program a symbol of dysfunctional product development.
The New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., factory was a joint venture between GM and Toyota located in a previously shuttered GM facility in Fremont, California. In the highly unusual partnership, GM would learn the Toyota production system (the key to building high-quality cars) and Toyota would learn how to build cars in America. UAW workers were flown to Japan to be taught the Toyota system. Production started in December 1984, and against all odds, NUMMI was an immediate success. The cars it built — initially Toyota Corollas and largely identical Chevy Novas — had quality numbers that equaled those of Corollas built in Japan. Unfortunately, GM had difficulty transferring the lessons learned at NUMMI to its other production facilities; it wasn’t until Jack Smith (who had helped broker the NUMMI deal) became chairman in 1992 that the Toyota-style manufacturing system began to be implemented on a widespread basis. GM pulled out of NUMMI in 2009, and Toyota closed the factory a year later. It produced nearly eight million cars.
83. Get to know Geo
In an acknowledgment that many import-minded small-car shoppers would not consider a Chevrolet, GM took Chevy’s import-based subcompacts (Nova, Spectrum, and Sprint) and rebranded them as Geos for 1989. The Storm sport coupe and the Tracker SUV also were added, but the Geo experiment was abandoned in 1998.
84. 1990-95 Corvette ZR-1
The ZR-1, which came out in the summer of 1989 as a ’90 model, was the first ultra-high-performance Corvette in years. Its 5.7-liter LT5 V-8 — a thirty-two-valve, DOHC unit with an aluminum block and heads — was codeveloped with Lotus (then owned by GM) and built for Chevrolet by Mercury Marine. The LT5’s 375 hp far eclipsed the standard Vette’s 245 hp, and the chassis was upgraded commensurately. Beyond a restyled tail panel, however, the ZR-1 differed little visually. The ZR-1 commanded a hefty premium ($27,016 in 1990), and only 6939 units were produced over six years.
85. Jeff Gordon & 86. Jimmie Johnson
The modern era for Chevrolet in NASCAR dates from 1995, when Jeff Gordon — a California-born former open-wheel racer who was cast as the anti-Earnhardt — won the first of his four Winston Cup titles, all achieved in Monte Carlos. The last five championships have been won by other Chevrolets, all driven by Gordon’s SoCal protege, Jimmie Johnson.
87. “Like A Rock”
Chevy’s long-running ad campaign for its trucks, which used the eponymous song by native son Bob Seger, debuted in the fall of 1991 — two years after Chevy’s trucks began outselling its cars (88) — and ran for thirteen years.
89. The Tahoe
The big Chevy Blazer sport-utility was redesigned for 1995, gaining a fresh four-door body style and a new name: Tahoe. The Tahoe, particularly the four-door, was perfectly timed to ride the SUV boom and immediately began notching six-figure sales and bringing home big profits as well.
The New Millennium
The new century’s bubble economy suffered a swift and sudden crash that took much of the domestic auto industry down with it. After a painful and previously unthinkable bankruptcy, General Motors — and Chevrolet — emerged leaner and stronger.
91. The Corvette Racing team
The Corvette Racing program has been a testament to Chevrolet’s commitment to road racing since its debut in 1999. Since then, Pratt & Miller-built C5-Rs and C6.Rs have scored six class wins at Le Mans, seven at Sebring, and one remarkable overall victory at Daytona. Handled by drivers ranging from Dale Earnhardt (both Jr. and Sr.) to Formula 1 refugees Jan Magnussen and Olivier Beretta, the bright yellow Corvettes have beaten all comers — Dodge Vipers, Saleens, Ferraris, Aston Martins, Porsches, BMWs, and Lam-borghinis. Up in Corvette heaven, Zora must be smiling.
92. Dave Hill
Only the third chief engineer in Corvette history (although his actual title was vehicle line executive for performance cars), David C. Hill was the guiding force behind the Corvette from the introduction of the C5, through the C5 Z06, and on to the C6 and its ultra-high-performance variants, which have placed the Corvette once again in the very top tier of sports cars.
93. 2001 CORVETTE Z06
With the Z06, the C5 Corvette had arrived “at the summit of mass-produced, world-class sports cars,” this magazine wrote, naming it the Automobile of the Year for 2001. A Z06-specific, LS6 V-8 (aluminum block, 385 hp) certainly gave it world-class performance: 0 to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds and a 171-mph top speed.
94. Bankruptcy & 95. Bailout
General Motors’ June 1, 2009, bankruptcy was a watershed event in the history of the company. Although the federal loan agreement engendered ill will among a considerable subsection of the populace, the reorganization that came along with it, as directed by Obama administration “car czar” Steven Rattner, resulted in fewer nameplates and reduced fixed costs, leaving Chevrolet in a much stronger position than it was before.
96. Bob Lutz
Hiring former Chrysler, Ford, and BMW executive Bob Lutz to lead General Motors out of the morass of brand management might have been the best move former chairman Rick Wagoner ever made. Lutz revamped the corporation’s product-development process and elevated the importance of design and interiors. We are seeing the fruits of those efforts today.
97. The Camaro Reborn
Almost as soon as Camaro production ended in 2002, there were calls to bring it back. A successful, retro-style 2005 redesign of the Ford Mustang surely added fuel to the fire, and in 2006, Chevrolet sprang a new-generation Camaro concept on an appreciative crowd at the Detroit auto show. As the Camaro moved from dream car to reality, it adopted the rear-wheel-drive Zeta platform. Although the dimensions changed, the production car stayed faithful to the show car’s design, which harks back to the ’69 Camaro. Finally reaching dealerships in early 2009, the Camaro (as an SS with a 6.2-liter V-8 or an LS/LT with a 304-hp V-6) was a shining light in a dark time. It now burns brighter with the addition of a convertible for 2011 and is poised for greater glory with the imminent arrival of the ZL1.
98. 2009 Corvette ZR1
“I wonder what this team could do for $100,000?” That question, from then-CEO Rick Wagoner, touched off the effort that resulted in the 2009 Corvette ZR1 (although the project initially went by the name Blue Devil, a nod to Duke University, Wagoner’s alma mater). To surpass the $73,000, 505-hp Z06, already a performance benchmark, the ZR1 pulled out all the stops. Its LS9 V-8 achieved 638 hp and 604 lb-ft of torque in a car that weighed only 3324 pounds. The ZR1 broke new ground for the Vette in many ways: the supercharged engine, the carbon-ceramic brakes, the extensive use of carbon-fiber body panels (including hood, roof, and front fenders), the top speed in excess of 200 mph, and the six-figure price were all Corvette firsts.
99. THE CRUZE
The Chevy Cruze, introduced last year, represents a clean break from its predecessors, the Cobalt and the Cavalier, and finally puts Chevrolet in the top tier of small cars. And the market has reacted — the Cruze was the best-selling car in the U.S. for the month of June.
Aye to the Future
What’s in a day? We take a Chevrolet Volt (100) through a century of energy development, from heavily tapped oil fields to the hope of a renewable tomorrow.
Celebrating the centennial of Chevrolet could have involved driving new Corvettes or Camaros, but we plugged in to a different idea. For more than a century, California has been at the center of car culture and energy production, so we put the two together in a day’s journey while also honoring the spirit of the company’s namesake, Louis Chevrolet. The Volt is the most significant car in decades to bear the Chevrolet name, and the man himself could surely appreciate what we were about to experience.
To start things off, we saluted Chevrolet — a man who was reluctant about giving up his racing career to sit behind a desk — in a way he might have endorsed. In 1905, Chevrolet’s very first year of racing, he set the mile-track record of 52.8 seconds on the great Morris Park racecourse in the Bronx. Hippodromes no longer welcome automobiles, not even the world’s first range-extended electric, but we were able to take a ceremonial lap at Bakersfield Speedway. On this Tuesday morning, beer cups remained on the Speedway’s grandstand after the previous Saturday night’s stock-car program. We bounced around the bumpy track in the Volt without whooshing the cups over; nevertheless, we entertained the fantasy of having Dale Earnhardt’s iconic number 3 leaning across our silver doors.
Almost within reach beyond the Speedway’s boundaries are the enormous Kern Front and Kern River oil fields. The Kern Front was discovered in 1912, the same year that the Chevrolet Motor Company introduced its first car, the Classic Six. By 1929, Chevrolet had outsold Ford for two straight years. That was also the year that the Kern Front reached peak production of 4.5 million barrels. To this day, Kern County remains one of America’s most bountiful sources of oil, but the lightweight crude is long gone; extracting the heavy goo that remains requires complicated and costly enhanced-recovery methods.
After he left the company that bears his name, Louis Chevrolet designed the Indianapolis 500-winning Monroe Frontenac (driven by brother Gaston), a car whose extensive use of aluminum and advanced cylinder-head design anticipated the future. With advanced aerodynamics (the most slippery of any Chevrolet) and, of course, its gasoline/electric powertrain, the Volt anticipates a different future, one with ever-scarcer oil reserves. Saying good-bye to Kern County, we hurried along in order to keep an appointment at a pioneering alternative-energy power-generation site. We left the San Joaquin Valley through Tehachapi Pass, the lowest crossing of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, where constant winds blow before expending themselves at the western edge of the Mojave Desert.
The oil shocks of previous years were fresh in mind in 1981, when the push for alternative-energy sources led to the development of the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area. Although many remain skeptical of wind power, the 3400 wind turbines here, most erected between 1981 and 1986, are capable of producing 710 megawatts of power. Planned growth will expand the TWRA to cover more than fifty square miles, three times larger than any other existing U.S. wind park.
In the town of Tehachapi, we met up with author and wind-energy policy expert Paul Gipe on the appropriately named Green Street. After introductions were made, the chipper sixty-year-old accepted our invitation to get behind the wheel of the Volt. An Indiana native, Gipe once studied at General Motors Institute and worked for the corporation’s Delco Remy Division. Setting off along the road to Willow Springs, he drove us into Oak Creek Pass and parked the Volt facing an array of wind turbines built by the Danish manufacturer Vestas. These noisy older turbines sent out an ethereal howling, as though animals were suffering beyond the ridge. Gipe explained that the distance between the rows of turbines is equal to six rotor widths, in order for the wind to recover its speed before being harvested again. He also noted that the tips of some older units’ blades have “weep holes,” which rid them of the balance-robbing buildup of condensation on cool mornings.
We asked Gipe if he dreams of the day when individuals generate their own power to provide for their own transport. “We have no choice!” he said, the passion behind his words causing him to twist and rock in the driver’s seat. “We will have to do that. There’s no alternative. That will be done. It will probably be done later in the United States than in other countries, because we can’t seem to get our act together.” He described his vision for building plug-in cars and wind turbines as “the way to reindustrialize the heartland of America, that great corridor through the Midwest and into Ontario and Quebec, where much of the auto industry was located before we outsourced it to Mexico and China.”
Well before Tehachapi, the 3781-pound Volt had started operating in extended-range mode with its 1.4-liter engine running. We had traveled only the first thirty-five miles on electric drive before depleting the 16-kWh battery. Once the stored juice was gone, we averaged 35 mpg over the next 356 miles. After bidding Gipe farewell in Tehachapi, we added premium fuel, which is required to boost the four-cylinder’s fuel economy and prevent the gas from going stale during prolonged spans of electric-only driving. Sneaking around Los Angeles in electric mode while doing errands or commuting to work is fun, but today the Volt also proved its acceptability for highway travel.
Our final destination, Kramer Junction, an hour ahead on Route 58, reflected the future in a way that would tickle all 288 of the Volt’s liquid-cooled, lithium-ion cells. Here is one of NextEra Energy Resources’ solar-thermal generating facilities. Another company’s solar installations are currently under construction at different locations in the desert. California utilities are tasked with generating twenty percent of their energy from renewable sources, beginning the process of lessening dependence on fossil fuels. In the same way, the Volt begins the journey toward an electric future while still retaining the flexibility to use traditional power sources.
On a flat patch near Kramer Junction’s truck stops, dozens and dozens of rows of mirror-covered parabolas stood silent and naked, capturing the sun’s energy. Oddly, they’re almost inversions of the canopies at the solar-powered charging stations that two dozen Chevrolet dealerships around the country are installing, including one already in place at a Modesto, California, franchise. Some Volt owners have even installed solar carports at home. The solar power emanating from tens of thousands of mirrors at Kramer Junction heats synthetic oil in a pipe that follows along a plane above each trough. The oil goes to a plant on the premises and superheats water, and the resulting steam is forced through a turbine to generate electricity. The beauty of such a generating method is that it helps meet peak demand on the hottest days without heavy reliance on carbon-based fuels.
It definitely looks futuristic. We took in the panels’ mysterious majesty, with each row of mirrors reflecting the row ahead. On a brilliant, 105-degree afternoon like the day we visited, NextEra’s seven solar facilities can produce 310 megawatts, enough power to serve more than 230,000 homes and more than enough to make the Volt’s heart go pitter-pat. Having taken it all in, we pointed the Volt homeward, turning up the air-conditioning and feeling better about tomorrow.