When it come to muscle cars or any car for that matter it doesn’t get any better than this: Corvette. Want to see American technology at its finest? It’s right here in the Chevrolet Corvette. This is what it looks like when a car builder makes no compromises. In the 50s, Corvette was the symbol of the new excitement at GM. But by 1955, with just a little over 3000 Corvettes sold, the odds on Corvette’s survival were pretty low. But driven by an engineering team headed by a genius called Zora Arkus Duntov, who saw this car for what it could be and should be.
Corvette – Chevrolet’s Shining Star
By the 60s, the Corvette was Chevrolet’s shining star. 1963 through 1967 saw the Corvette achieve world class performance. With innovations like four wheel disc brakes, independent rear suspension, and fuel injection. By this time, it had become the “to die for” car among America’s car enthusiasts. In 1968, the Corvette’s long awaited new body style debuted. And for the first time, Corvette’s styling received mix reviews. But in true Corvette fashion, the new ‘Vette blew through a short list of glitches and the ’68 through ’82 Corvettes became some of Chevrolet’s best selling models. Like all American cars, the Corvettes of the 70s and 80s struggled to deal with a changing world. But the ‘Vette carried the additional burden of its own reputation and like all the other muscle cars, this was a car that wouldn’t be allowed to become just another low performance car with high performance paint.
Paul Zazarine, the Editorial Director for Corvette Enthusiast Magazine remarks: “The Corvette has always been GM’s flagship, a statement of what GM is capable of doing.” Today’s Corvette has emerged from the dark times of the early emissions years having never lost sight of its original vision. The Vette’s mission has always been to be the highest performing American production car and to go head to head with any sports car in the world. And pound for pound, dollar for dollar, blow them out of the water. This has been a Corvette promise from day one and the modern Vette does it better than ever. David Judski is one of the nation’s leading authorities on Corvettes. He places Corvette among the finest, most exotic cars being built today. “When you compare to your Ferraris it’s going to compare to your Lamborghinis. It compares to just about anything out there.”
In 1967, one car sat at the very top of American high performance and it wasn’t even a traditional muscle car. It was more than a muscle car. It was the Corvette Stingray. The Stingray had always received the best of everything from Chevrolet. It was the first kid on the block to get a racing suspension system with four wheel disc brakes. It always had the maximum horsepower Chevy’s engine labs could produce. When GM’s corporate policies attempted to snuff out high performance cars, the Corvette ignored it. This was truly a car that was in its own little world but by 1968, after five years of making this incredible car, Corvette’s design team was ready for a change and this one would be a biggie.
The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette
GM’s chief designer, Bill Mitchell, was a Corvette fanatic. During the early 60s, Mitchell had produced a couple of styling exercises called Shark I and Shark II. Shark II would be the inspiration for the 1968 Corvette. Observes Paul Zazarine: “The Shark body was something that people hadn’t seen on the road before and it was quite popular.” By now, people expected every new Corvette to be revolutionary and this car didn’t disappoint. Even though the all new body rode on the same chassis as the ’63 through ’67 Stingrays, the car felt new all over. It had been lengthened seven inches and was two inches longer and 50 pounds heavier than the ’67 models. The ’68 Vette’s cockpit had been completely redesigned with a lower, more reclined seating position. The view out the windshield was dominated by the high fender arches. This low stance and the change over to F70 by 15 wide ovals made this car feel like a completely new car.
And as a final statement that things had changed, Chevy no longer called this car Stingray. This new body featured several innovations like a vacuum operated door that removed to reveal windshield wipers and the first of it would become a Detroit standard: a T roof with removable panels. The rear window even popped out to make the Corvette Coupe a target style roadster. Corvette’s all star engine lineup was carried over from 1967 with a base 300 horse 327 and the L79 350 horse version. Big block power was abundant. The 427 engines ranging from 390 horsepower to the tri carb 445 horse unit but hiding on the engine option list was one of Chevy’s most brutal engines, the L88 427. The L88 was a pure racing engine.
Just twenty 1967 Corvettes left the factory equipped with this engine. And their main purpose was to kick butt on Cobras and any other cars that happened to be on the track t the same time. In 1968, Chevy would produce 80 Corvettes with this ground shaker under the hoods. The L88 took the Vette’s no compromise attitude to the limit. Its aluminum open chambered cylinder heads created 12.5 to 1 compression. With an 850 Holley on an aluminum intake manifold, solid lifters, .536″ lift cam, a high RPM valve train, transistorized ignition, and a practically unbreakable bottom end made the L88 Vette a turnkey race car. The factory posted ranting of 430 horsepower was one of the decade’s biggest fibs. The actual output was closer to 530.
The ’68 Vette would fly and that’s why most people bought Corvettes anyway. The ’68 was the most successful Corvette yet with over 25,000 cars sold. So for 1969, the Vette’s design team devoted itself to fixing the few details that ’58 owners had complained about. The door panels were redesigned to make the interior more roomy, the ventilation system was improved and quality control was stepped up from bumper to bumper. Under the hood, the small block 327 was enlarged to 350 cubic inches. The final tweak to the improved ’69s was the beloved Stingray name, now one word again appearing on the car’s fenders. This time it would stay there until 1977.
The 1970 Stingray
After a one year hiatus, Zora Arkus Duntov was back directing Corvette’s engineering. The Stingray name was restored to its rightful place and the new Vette was getting better all the time. But the years ahead would be the most challenging yet. Roaring into the 70s, the Stingray would again change very little with an emphasis on making a better car rather than changing the cosmetics. Slight grill and taillight changes appeared and there was a new design.
The most noticeable change was a slew of new power plants. Three versions of the 350 cubic inch engine were available, including the 370 horse LT1 and the 390 horsepower LS 5454 replaced the 427 big block. But nothing could ever compare to Corvette’s nuclear weapon, which had sneaked off the assembly line one year earlier: the ZL1 Corvette. Imagine a 427 big block that weighed just a few pounds more than a 327 and revved like a full race small block. This engine was rated at 585 horsepower at 6600 RPM and used most of the L88′s super strong parts inside its lightweight clock.
The Stingray with the ZL1 engine is perhaps the rarest of all cars from the muscle era. Chevy managed to produce just two of them, placing them amongst the world’s most prized collector vehicles. No matter how sophisticated it became, the Vette never forgot its roots as a straight up muscle car. By 1971 with Bonsai horsepower from the LT1 small block and the two 454 big blocks, the 425 horse LX6, only Nasa had more awesome rides. Corvette’s styling hardly changed in ’71 and ’72 but with sales increasing every year, it didn’t seem to matter. 1971 sales topped out at over 17,000 cars and ’72s hit almost 27,000 units: a far cry from just twenty years earlier when Chevy had made just 300 Corvettes. But the good times were drawing to a close. Compression ratios were falling and over the next ten years, the big job would be to comply with all the new government regulations and still make a car that ran like a Corvette Not an easy job. And for the first time, the Corvette engineering team wouldn’t have unlimited engine power to keep this car at the head of the pack.
By 1974, performance from the base 350 engine at fallen to 190 horsepower and the new urethane front and rear bumpers had added close to 50 pounds to the car but incredibly Stingray’s sales continued to climb. Paul Zazarine recollects: “There was a class of people that had grown up always loving Corvette that could now afford to buy Corvette. When they were kids they saw Corvette go by: ‘One day I’m going to have one of those’ and I think they came to fruition in just about that time period. I think that had a big bearing on the car’s resiliency in a really dark, dark period of time for the car industry.”
The Last Corvette Convertible
The next few years would be a test to see if a car like the Corvette could survive in a world full of gas lines and catalytic converters. It wasn’t easy being a performance car in an unleaded gas world. In July 1975, bowing to insurance pressures the last Corvette convertible was made.
And after 1976, the Stingray name disappeared forever. And the Vette no longer had tear your head off acceleration, the car was maturing into something very special. Corvette’s sales were better than ever and for the first time in its life, the Vette was starting to be important to Chevrolet’s profit line. Paul Zazarine goes on: “Corvette made a lot of money for Chevrolet and for GM. Each unit they sold was a very profitable bottom line.”
The Vette spent the latter part of the 70s fixing some problems that had nagged this car since the introduction of this body style. Little things like better sound systems and a wider rear view mirror joined the bigger things like a new suspension system to improve both drive ability and customer satisfaction. By now, the Corvette was starting to realize how important it was to American car lowers And so, in 1978, on its 25th birthday, it decided to celebrate itself with a silver anniversary model, which also marked the first restyling since 1968. A new fast back rear window reclaimed some of the wide open feeling owners had missed since the convertible went away. And a new 220 horsepower L 82 350 showed the first increase in horsepower in several years. Since it was the Corvette’s 25th anniversary, 1978 was a pleasant year to give something really special, like the Limited Edition Indie pace car. A two tone black and several paint scheme with a red pin stripe and spoilers front and rear created a fresh look. Goodyear’s 60 series radials on special alloy wheels were standard, as was the silver leather upholstery Just 6502 Indy pace cars were made: about one car for every Chevrolet dealership. They stickered for $13,653 over $4000 more than a base Corvette. But most of these cars sold for thousands more than that. Some lucky owners who got their hands on one never drove it or even removed the plastic covering from the seats. Choosing to keep their silver anniversary Corvette showroom new forever.
The Chevrolet C4
As the 70s drew to a close, Corvette was at a crossroads and everyone watched to see how America’s Sports Car would respond. Corvette was now in it’s 13th year of the Shark body style and it was still using the chassis for the S’63 Stingray. The end of the road for this car was approaching and it was clearly time to re-think the whole Corvette thing. Every time Chevrolet had rolled out a new Corette, they had stopped the world.
They did it again with the C4. So different was this new Corvette that Chevrolet decided just to skip the 1983 model year and introduced the new generation Corvette as the 1984 model. David Judski comments: “It’s a completely different car. Same name but a completely different car.” The starting point for the C4 was an all new chassis featuring unitized construction. This rigid new frame eliminated squeaks and rattles, reduced weight, and provided mounting points for all front and rear suspension. The steering wheel was changed and the four speed gear box was back to the delight of the purists. Goodyear VR rated 50 series tires on a new set of 16 inch alloy wheels helped this car achieve a .9 skid pad rating: numbers that made Porsche and Ferrari jealous. Stopping power was provided by huge 11.5 disc brakes. And go power came from a 205 horsepower 350 cubic inch small block with Crossfire fuel injection. The C4 fixed everything that had been a problem with the earlier Vette while maintaining and even enhancing its one of a kind personality. The key was applying high tech to every part of the car. Says Paul Zazarine: “This was one of the first time that engineering and design actually sat together and said let’s build this car this way and consequently when the ’84 Corvette came out it was so radically different and it was the first time the Corvette was truly a world class sports car.”
As people lined up to slap down the ’84 Corvette’s $21,800 base price, the Corvette team was already hard at work on the next Vette and the one after that. As great a car as the C4 was, the Vette’s engineers looked at it as a stepping stone to the ultimate Corvette.
The C4 platform would be the bed for some of Corvette’s most memorable versions. 35th anniversary and 40th anniversary cars and more Indy pace cars kept Corvette in the headlines while the engineers were continuing to improve the car under its skin. Adds David Judski: “in 1985 we were introduced to tuned port injection which helped horsepower, helped performance, boosted us from 1984 205 to 1985 at 230 horsepower. We maxed out horsepower at 250.” But the biggest bombshell of the 90s was dropped at the start of the decade when Chevy resurrected an old racing options from the 70s: ZR1. But this time, they left nothing on the table.
The Chevrolet ZR1
In 1990 when this car was unveiled, Corvette’s engineer described it as “Corvette, only moreso.” Paul Zazarine says: “Chevrolet had built a car that was the equivalent of a Ferrari or a Porsche or a Lamborghini at 1/3 of the price. They wanted to take it to the Europeans and say ‘We’re now on equal footing with you with this car.’” The heart of the ZR1 was the totally new LT5 engine, designed by a team of engineers from Chevrolet and Lotus, the LT5 engine was measured at Mercury Marine in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The LT5 5.7 liter all aluminum blocks supported aluminum cylinder heads with overhead cam shafts and 32 valves. 2 fuel injectors per cylinder fed the mixture in clover leaf combustion chambers. And it was sparked by a direct fire crank center ignition system. This engine’s output of 375 horsepower was equal to anything ever put on the Corvette’s hood. Needless to say, the performance was astonishing. The LT5 came with a 7200 RPM rev limiter, not to save the engine but to protect the belt driven accessories. Toby Johnson, a ZR1 owner, describes it: “From the 32 valve 375 horse engine to the wider rear end and the square taillights, it’s just everything a Corvette was meant to be.” Between 1990 and 1995, 6939 ZR1s were built and during that time no other car came close to offering this much excellence at this price. The Corvette with the ZR1 option cost nearly $70,000 but it was a match for any $200,000 Ferrari. The list of improvements to the Vette got longer every year and the only way to appreciate them was to drive the car. By 1996, all the old hot rod feel was back in a car no one would have even dreamed of in the 60s. David Judski says: “We’ve now created a car after listening to a customer that many other folks said ‘I will never own a Corvette’ are now buying Corvettes.” It was hard to believe that a car this good could get better but it could and it did in 1997 with the C5.
Paul Zazarine explains: “Really the C5 phenomenon has surprised so many people. We’ve never seen this kind of appreciation for a specific portion of Corvette history before. The C5 was practically a showroom stock race car, stickering for around $45,000. With its 345 horsepower LS1 engine and another legendary road racing option code from the 60s, ZL6, this Corvette raises the bar for every other performance car in the world. Today’s Corvette has all the straight line performance of the 60s Vettes and has gained quality and sophistication. In many ways, today’s Corvette resembles all of us muscle car fans who have loved this car since the glory years. It’s grown up but it’s still a racer. It just does it with more class these days.