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Then vs. Now: 2015 Chevrolet Corvette vs. 1954 Chevrolet Corvette

The self-shifting Corvette finally comes into its own.

David ZenleawriterAndrew Trahanphotographer

There are two kinds of Chevrolet Corvette. On the one hand, there's the fire-breathing, hairy-chested sports car. It often graces the pages of this magazine wearing extra codes like Z51, Z06, and ZR1. The transmission is almost always a manual. But there's also that other Corvette—the garage-kept, low-miles car piloted by a gray-haired gentleman who keeps a California Duster in the trunk. The transmission is usually a smooth-shifting automatic.

It's true that many sports cars suffer from such a split personality. Porsche would have you believe that the 911 belongs at the Nürburgring with Walter Röhrl at the wheel, even if you're more likely to see one being driven by a urologist in L.A. on the 405. But with the Corvette, the identity crisis goes much deeper, since about two-thirds of all the Corvettes ever built have automatic transmissions. It also goes much further back. Back, in fact, to the very genesis of the car.

The Chevrolet Corvette that debuted at New York's Waldorf Astoria in January 1953 was in many respects a tour de force. Its streamlined styling and wraparound windshield, now as familiar as the opening guitar lick of a Chuck Berry song, was, just like Chuck Berry, incredibly innovative in its day, especially since many of its contemporaries from Europe still wore prewar bodies with cycle fenders. The Corvette's curves were all the more impressive because they were rendered in a cutting-edge material, fiberglass.

At the same time, the first Chevrolet Corvette utterly missed its target. Much has been made of the fact that the Corvette debuted with an inline-six engine, yet its cylinder count and 150 hp were respectable in its day. Far more damaging was GM's decision to offer it only with a two-speed automatic. American sports car buyers would eventually embrace automatics, but the young enthusiasts who were then snapping up English sports cars demanded a shift-it-yourself option. They wanted speed and control, not elegance and convenience.

Talking the talk:
With a wraparound windshield, dual-cove cockpit, and (faux) knock-off wheels, the '54 Corvette looked ready to compete at the track. It wasn't.

For better and for worse, the automatic does fit the personality of that first Corvette. We drove a white 1954 Chevrolet Corvette convertible from GM's Heritage Center collection around Detroit's Belle Isle. The steering, albeit unassisted, is nevertheless comfortably light thanks to the extra-large-diameter steering wheel and extra-skinny bias-ply tires. The transmission shifts smoothly from first into second and likes to stay there; downshifts come only at very low speed in response to a buried throttle. (This owes in part to the tune of this particular show car; the transmission is supposed to kick down at speeds as high as 47 mph.) The Blue Flame inline-six plays a satisfying baritone exhaust note and feels up to the task of keeping pace with modern traffic. Yet nothing about the car encourages aggressive driving (neither did the stout handler from the Heritage Center who accompanied us).

The very opposite can be said of the seventh-generation Corvette. Everything about it encourages us to drive fast. Whereas the C1's styling reminds us of a happy rock 'n' roll riff, the angular C7 is an angry punk-rock tune. We hit the starter button and hear the oh-so-familiar rumble of the small-block V-8, which debuted in the Corvette for 1955 and has never really left despite its many evolutions.

The digital age:
A driver from the 1950s wouldn't know what to do with the buttons, knobs, and screens in the 2015 Stingray. Operation of the auto shifter, however, remains simple. Put it in drive and step on it.

This particular 2015 Chevrolet Corvette C7 does share one trait with its ancestor: a GM-engineered torque-converter automatic. Only this one has four times as many gears, and it must stand up to significantly more torque—up to 650 lb-ft in the new 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Indeed, this massive amount of twist is one of the reasons Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter cites for using an in-house torque-converter transmission versus a dual-clutch automatic. There are cost savings, too, as the eight-speed's development will be paid for by its use in GM's large trucks. The transmission takes up the same space as the six-speed automatic used last year and weighs slightly less.

There's not much slush in this slush box. On our first full-throttle run, the eight-speed rips off the sort of machine-gun-quick shifts we've come to associate with Porsche dual-clutch transmissions. Only here, the soundtrack is that of a 460-hp V-8. Upshifts are actually as much as 0.08-second quicker than a Porsche PDK, GM claims. Thanks to the quicker shifts and a shorter ratio for first gear (4.56 versus 4.03 to 1 in the old six-speed auto), the eight-speed Corvette hits 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, slightly quicker than the seven-speed manual and a good 7 or 8 seconds faster than the 1954 Corvette.

Of course, for all the focus on how it shifts, the real measure of an automatic transmission is whether it knows when to shift. We had the opportunity to drive an eight-speed 2015 Chevrolet Corvette coupe equipped with the Z51 package on GM's Milford Road Course, the so-called Lutzring. The transmission, controlled by a suite of sensors that analyze and execute driver commands 160 times per second, anticipated our needs like an attentive butler as we hustled through the diabolical corners. The GM-employed hot shoes who post the top lap times on this circuit agree, noting that the automatic is also able to snap off quick shifts where a human driver wouldn't be able to contemplate it. The Corvette does come with (flimsy) shift paddles, but the truth is there's seldom an occasion where we'd want to use them. Apparently, we're not as smart as the computers.

Open air: Both Corvettes sound and look great cruising with the top down. The '54 is surprisingly easy and pleasant to drive despite its unassisted
steering and drum brakes.

During more common highway cruising, the automatic downshifts the moment you decide to risk imprisonment and indulge in triple-digit speeds. The only time the transmission hesitates is when the car is in Eco mode; it must wait an additional fraction of a second as deactivated cylinders come back online. The rest of the time, the eight-speed feels just like any of the millions of silky smooth automatics GM has produced over the years. Corvette owners won't have to acclimate to head-jerking shifts or herky-jerky takeoffs.

Building muscle:
The Corvette's inline-six made respectable power for its day but was soon phased out in favor of the small-block V-8, which reigns to this day.

You're probably wondering, so we'll tell you: As good as this automatic is, we'd still choose the seven-speed manual. What can we say? We really like manuals. But most buyers will want the automatic, and for the first time in Corvette history, they really won't be missing anything. The C7, with its eight-speed automatic, finally manages to synthesize the two Corvette personalities. It's both the stylish, quick cruiser so many buyers still desire, and it's a finely tuned sports car capable of chasing down much more expensive competitors at the track.

We don't try any hot laps in the '54. It would take years of chassis tuning and the development of a manual transmission—efforts led by Zora Arkus-Duntov—before the Corvette truly belonged on a road course. That's fine. Today, it's easy to appreciate the early 'Vette for what it is: a beautiful American car. "I can get speed and precision from the C7 Z06," says GM product chief Mark Reuss, who owns a black 1954 Corvette. "When I drive the '54, I can't help but have a connection to … the leaders back then … a time when magic was happening."

1954 Chevrolet Corvette Specifications

  • Price: $3,523* (*$31,174 in today’s dollars)
  • Value today: $60,000–$80,000
  • Engine: 3.9-liter (235.5 cu-in) I-6/150 hp (gross) @ 4,200 rpm, 223 lb-ft at 2,400 rpm
  • Transmission: 2-speed automatic
  • Layout:
  • 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
  • Wheelbase: 102 in
  • L x W x H: 197.5 x 75.7 x 55.7 in
  • Weight: 2,850 lb

2015 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Specifications

  • Price: $59,995
  • Engine: 6.2-liter OHV 16-valve V-8/460 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 465 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
  • Transmission: 8-speed automatic
  • Layout:
  • 2-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD convertible
  • Wheelbase: 106.7 in
  • L x W x H: 176.9 x 73.9 x 48.6 in
  • Weight: 3,362 lb

"Corvette: America's Star-Spangled Sports Car,"
by Karl Ludvigsen, Bentley Publishing,
784 pages, $100, karlludvigsen.com

The best book about the Corvette is back in print. First published in 1973, it benefits from author Karl Ludvigsen's extensive interviews with Corvette pioneers—many of whom are no longer with us. The latest iteration spans from the genesis of the car through the end of the third generation. Ludvigsen is
presently working on a sequel covering the C4 to C7 Corvettes and aims to get it published in 2016.