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History of the Corvette

Article by Chris Wilson

It’s got fan clubs, collectors groups, and its own museum, as well as its own homecoming parade. It’s the Chevrolet Corvette, and it was the first all-American sports car that was also build on American soil, so it really is no surprise that it has become iconic, and as representative of American culture as the proverbial baseball, Mom, and apple pie.

The Corvette was inspired by GI’s returning home after World War II, bringing with them MGs, Jaguars, and Alfa Romeos. In 1951, after Nash Motors began selling their two-seat Nash-Healey, which was co-developed by British engineer Donald Healey and Italian designer Pinin Farina, that Harley Earl, who had been hired by GM in 1927 because he had a flair for automotive styling, convinced the company they also needed to build a two-seater.

Code named “Opel”, the secret project that Earl began that year would eventually result in the 1953 Corvette, which debuted at the Motorama car show. It’s original concept design included the integration of the American flag, but that was changed before the car ever saw production, because it was felt that associating the flag with a product was disrespectful.

The Corvette’s name came from Myron Scott, who borrower the word from a kind of small fighting frigate, and the first models were built by hand at Chevrolet’s customer deliver center in Flint, MI. (The center has since become an academic building on the Kettering University campus.) The outer body was build from the then-revolutionary fiberglass, a material chosen because steel was still in short supply because of the recent war.

Underneath the new fiberglass body the components were pretty standard Chevy offerings: the “blue flame” six-cylinder truck engine, two speed “Powerglide” automatic transmission, and drum brakes from the regular car line. Engine output was increased a bit by using a triple-carburetor intake exclusive to the mode, but performance was lacking, especially when compared to British and Italian sports cars of the same era. Next to them, the Corvette seemed underpowered, had a difficult time stopping, and was considered wanting because it didn’t have a manual transmission. While the marque had previously been known for high-quality, un-fussy cars, the spiffy Corvette’s sales went from bad to worse.

Corvette was saved from a well-considered extinction two years later, when Chevy’s first V8 engine since 1919 was developed. Soviet-born engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov married the V8 to a three-speed manual transmission, and in the process turned the Corvette into the performance car it was always meant to be.

Since 1953, the Corvette has evolved through six generations, with rumors of a seventh to come in the future, but it is the third generation Stingray, patterned after Chevy’s “Mako Shark II” that debuted in 1968 and remained in production until 1982 that most of us think of when we hear the name “Corvette,” and it was introduced to the public in a rather interesting fashion. 1968 was also the debut of Mattel’s Hot Wheels line of 1/64-scale toy cars. General Motors tired to keep the look of the Stingray under tight wraps, but when Hot Wheels unveiled their own line several weeks before the actual car was introduced, it included a model of the “custom Corvette” - and authorized model of the 1968 Corvette Stingray.

The current model of the Corvette (which has been its own marque since 2005) is the Z06, and it was the official pace car for both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 races in 2006. The 2007 version was named as one of Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile All-Stars,” and the 2008 version sports a brand new TR6060 six-speed manual transmission.

Inspired by returning soldiers, pioneering the use of fiberglass forms, and ending up not just in the garage, but on the racetrack, the Corvette is quite possibly the ultimate American car.

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