Chevrolet Corvette: 65 years in the making

In production for more than six decades, the Corvette has been through many changes in its seven generations. We’ve documented the highs, and the lows, as this American icon prepares to celebrate its 65th anniversary. 

Enthusiasts are often split over who can truly be called the ‘father’ of the Corvette. Harley J. Earl (left) was the GM designer who commanded the initial project on the car that would become the Corvette. However, Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgian engineer, would lead mechanical development, taking the Corvette from convertible cruiser to all-American sports car.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette Motorama Show Car

Between 1949 and 1961, General Motors held its own car show, known as Motorama and designed to promote new models directly to customers. For January 1953, a hand-built pre-production prototype of the Corvette was shown to excited crowds. Designed to compete with sports cars like the Nash-Healey, the enthusiastic reception convinced GM to rush the Corvette into production.

1953 C1 Chevrolet Corvette

Just six months after being displayed at Motorama, the first production C1 Corvette rolled off the Flint, Michigan production line on June 30th 1953. Only 300 cars were built in the first year, all finished in Polo White with a red interior. Despite the sporting looks, the C1 was powered by a modest 150hp ‘Blue Flame’ straight-six engine combined with a two-speed automatic transmission. Even with a lightweight fibreglass body, performance was underwhelming. Prices started at $3,498, but values today are over a hundred times higher – at nearly $400,000 for a concours example.

1954 C1 Chevrolet Corvette

The lack of performance translated into a lack of sales the following year, with a substantial number of the 3,640 Corvettes built unsold. Quality problems with the fibreglass body caused complaints from those who did buy one, too, with General Motors later moving production to new factory in St Louis, Missouri. Under the management of Arkus-Duntov, changes would be made for the coming years to give the Corvette a fighting chance.

1958 C1 Chevrolet Corvette 283 V8

While the six-cylinder engine would be upped to 155hp in 1955 – with a three-speed manual gearbox also offered – the introduction of a 265-cubic inch (4.3-litre) 195hp V8 engine was a bigger deal. By 1958, this had grown to a fuel-injected 283-ci (4.6-litre) unit, producing 290hp. Styling changes included the adoption of quad-headlights, more chrome trim and a redesigned grille.

1960 C1 Chevrolet Corvette

The improvements to the Vette worked, with sales increasing year-on-year between 1956 and the end of C1 production in 1962. The final year would see the option of a 327-cubic inch (5.4-litre) V8 engine with 360hp, representing a substantial increase from the original ’53 model cars. A total of 69,000 first-generation Corvettes were built, proving that Harley J. Earl’s dream to produce a two-seat sports car was the right idea.

1959 Chevrolet Corvette XP-87 Stingray Racer concept

Long before production of the C1 Corvette had finished, Chevrolet was already working on taking the second-generation car in a more radical styling direction. Built by GM designer Bill Mitchell, the XP-87 Stingray Racer was ostensibly created to test handling and performance. However, the styling features were clearly a preview of the C2 Corvette. XP-87 also ended up competing on track, taking an SCCA National Championship in 1960. Mitchell would later use the XP-87 as his own personal car at weekends.

1961 Chevrolet Mako Shark Concept

Although styling for the next Corvette was already completed, Chevrolet wanted to generate interest in the forthcoming new car. Designed by Larry Shinoda, under the direction of Bill Mitchell, inspiration came from a Mako shark Mitchell had caught while fishing. The pointed nose, streamlined sides and short rear made it look futuristic and aggressive, marking a clear distinction between the old and new Corvettes.

1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe and Convertible

The styling of the new C2 Corvette was the most obvious change when launched, but the work of Arkus-Duntov in overhauling the mechanical elements was also revolutionary. Suspension was upgraded front and rear, with the latter using a new independent design instead of the C1’s solid axle. A 327-cubic inch (5.4-litre) V8 was the only engine option, available in outputs ranging from 250hp to 360hp. A three-speed manual gearbox was standard, with a four-speed manual and two-speed auto also on the options list.

1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray

Unique to the 1963 model year Corvette, and one of the defining features of the second-generation car, was the split rear windscreen on coupe models. Hated by Arkus-Duntov, but loved by Mitchell and Shinoda, it would eventually be replaced due to visibility concerns. The coupe was also notably more expensive than the convertible: $4,257 against $4,037. Despite this, sales were split equally between both, with 21,500 examples sold in total during 1963.

1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Race Car

General Motors had banned factory-sponsored racing, but Arkus-Duntov was still keen to use motorsport to promote the prowess of the second-generation Corvette. As such, the development of racing parts for the C2 continued, culminating in the ‘Z06’ option package, which added $1,818 to the price of the car. The first Z06 race cars went straight into battle, winning their first race at the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix.

1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 ‘Big Tank’

Whilst the Z06 package was meant for racing, nothing stopped a road car being ordered with this box ticked. It meant upgraded suspension, power-assisted brakes with extra cooling and the 360hp fuel-injected V8. A larger fuel tank was also fitted to coupe models and, with just 63 examples built, these ‘big tank’ cars are seriously collectable. This particular car is set to go to auction in May 2017, with the potential to sell for up to $750,000 (£585,000) based on previous results.

1966 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible 427 big-block V8

Development continued throughout the life of the C2 Corvette, with the addition of a ‘big-block’ 427-cubic inch (7.0-litre) V8 for the 1966 model year. With 425hp, it was no more powerful than the 396-ci (6.5-litre) V8 introduced the previous year, but it did pack extra torque: 460lb ft.

1967 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible 427 Tri-Power

The ultimate C2 Corvette came in the final year of production, with an arrangement of three two-barrel carburettors maximising output from the 427 V8. Named the ‘Tri-Power’ and fitted with uprated camshafts, plus other internal changes, this engine officially produced 435hp – although some believe it to be substantially more. Also unique was a cowl induction hood, feeding air directly to the carburettors and giving the 427 a menacing look.

1963 C2 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

Arkus-Duntov had been determined to make the C2 into an effective race car, running a secret project to create a lightweight version to beat the Shelby Cobra. Initial plans were for 125 cars, but when GM executives became aware of the programme, all work was stopped. Just five Grand Sports cars ‘escaped’ the factory, and they proved to be effective in racing – taking wins throughout 1963. The rarity of the C2 Grand Sport, with values in the region of $5-10million (£4-7m), has created a substantial market for kit car replicas.

1965 Chevrolet Mako Shark II Concept

Aquatic life made another appearance on a Corvette concept, with the Mako Shark II shown at the 1965 New York Auto Show. Ultra narrow Coke-bottle hips, a louvered rear window, and high wheelarches were cool features, but would require substantial modification to make a usable road car.

1969 C3 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Coupe

Although styling elements were toned down, the overall shape of the C3 Corvette owed much to the Mako Shark II when released in 1969. Pop-up headlights, a removal T-bar roof on coupes and hidden wipers brought the C3 up to date. Initial engine choices kept the 327-cubic inch and 427-ci from the C2 Vette, with a new 350-ci (5.7-litre) unit added in 1969. The two-speed automatic transmission was also finally ditched, replace by the exotic-sounding three-speed Turbo Hydra-matic.

1969 C3 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Apollo astronauts

General Motors was always keen to snap-up a marketing opportunity for the Corvette, so what better chance than supplying cars to NASA Apollo astronauts? Pete Gordon, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon of the Apollo 12 mission took the option to lease matching 1969 Corvettes for just $1. Each car featured a gold and black colour scheme, plus unique personal badging with the initials of each astronaut’s mission role on the wings.

1972 C3 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Convertible LT-1

American car manufacturers found themselves contending with new emissions regulations in the early 1970s, and the Corvette was no exception. By 1972, Chevrolet was already limiting engine choices in California, and had lowered compression to allow engines to use low-octane fuel. Changes to horsepower measures also meant the output of the 350-ci LT-1 engine reduced from 330hp to 255hp, with 1972 being the last year it was offered.

1977 C3 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

More changes would take place over the next five years, with the 1977 Corvette sporting urethane bumpers front and rear to withstand 5mph impacts. Catalytic converters were also introduced in 1975, with the convertible body style dropped the same year. And 1976 saw the end of Stingray badging, with new Corvette emblems added the following year. Power languished at just 180hp or 210hp.

1978 C3 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe Indy 500 Pace Car

Despite having been in production for over 25 years, the Corvette didn’t receive the coveted honour of acting as pace car for the Indianapolis 500 until 1978. A special edition of 6,052 cars – one for each Chevrolet dealership – was built to celebrate, wearing a unique black and silver colour scheme. Interiors were finished in a choice of silver leather or grey cloth, with the option of an eight-track tape player or CB radio reminding everyone that this was the late 1970s. Pace car stickers were supplied unattached.

1984 C4 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

With the origins of the C3 Corvette stretching back to the 1960s, Chevrolet went for clean slate with the fourth-generation car. Its aerodynamically optimised design was dramatic and modern, featuring panels that made use of plastic rather than fibreglass. An all-new interior included a cutting-edge LCD dashboard, too. The C4 was also the first Corvette to feature the mono-leaf spring suspension setup, replacing the coils of the C3. An emphasis on handling was important, given the C4 Vette initially made do with the 350-ci (5.7-l) V8 engine with 205hp and 290lb ft of torque.

1986 C4 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Indy 500 Pace Car

Big news for the Corvette came in 1986, when Chevrolet re-launched the convertible body for the first time since 1975. Chosen as the pace car for the 1986 Indianapolis 500, all 7,315 convertible ’Vettes sold that year wore a commemorative plaque. For 1987 the convertible became part of the regular range.

1990 C4 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

Having acquired Group Lotus in 1986, General Motors opted to use the engineering prowess of the British firm to build the ultimate Corvette. Lotus designed a new 350-ci (5.7-l) aluminium V8 engine, with 32 valves and four overhead camshafts. Power peaked at an impressive 375hp and 370lb-ft of torque, making the ZR-1 capable of 0-60mph in 4.4 seconds and a top speed of over 175mph. Chevrolet would also set numerous FIA speed and endurance records as testimony to the reliability of the new V8 engine. Almost doubling the $32,479 price of the base C4 Corvette meant numbers sold were low, with around 6,000 ZR-1s sold between 1990 and 1995.

1992 One-millionth Chevrolet Corvette

When the one-millionth Corvette rolled off the production line in 1993, finished in white with a red interior like the 1953 original, it was preserved for posterity. As an exhibit in Chevrolet’s National Corvette Museum it, along with seven other Corvettes, was damaged by a sinkhole that opened up directly beneath the museum floor. Chevrolet committed to restore the car to original condition, investing four months and 1,200 hours to recreate it perfectly. This even extended to scanning and reproducing the signatures beneath the body panels of those who built the car in 1993.

1993 C4 Chevrolet Corvette 40th Anniversary convertible

Turning forty is always an excuse for a celebration. To commemorate edging closer to the average age of a Corvette buyer, the 40th Anniversary package was available on all models produced for the 1993 model year. Ruby red paintwork was combined with matching leather seats, while the wheels featured red centre caps.

1996 C4 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

The final year of C4 Corvette production saw two special editions offered, but the Grand Sport is the most noteworthy. Just 1,000 examples were produced, with all cars finished in Admiral Blue with a white centre stripe, plus black alloy wheels. Two red stripes above the driver’s side wheelarch were intended as a reminder of the car’s 1963 C2 Grand Sport namesake.

1997 C5 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

With the C4 having restored the image of the Corvette, Chevrolet continued to push on making improvements with the new C5. An all-new aluminium 5.7-litre LS1 V8 engine was standard, with 345hp and 350lb ft of torque. The transmission was mounted at the rear to form a transaxle setup, with a new six-speed manual gearbox also introduced. Critics took issue with the cheap plastics found inside, but for a bargain price of $37,495 something had to give.

1998 C5 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Indy 500 Pace Car

Launched a year later, the C5 convertible was the first soft-top Corvette since 1962 to feature a boot. The C5 convertible was, just like many Corvettes before it, chosen to be the official Indianapolis 500 pace car, with a terrifying purple and yellow colour scheme. A replica version was offered for sale, including the yellow wheels and upholstery. Despite its garishness, the pace car replicas enjoy a cult following amongst collectors.

1999 C5 Chevrolet Corvette hard-top

The final choice in the C5 Corvette body style roster came in 1999, with the unveiling of the hard-top option. Officially known as the Fixed Roof Coupe, it lacked the targa T-top roof of the regular coupe version, making this the most structurally rigid of C5 body types.

2001 C5 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Additional structural rigidity meant that the C5 hardtop was used as the basis for a brand-new Z06 Corvette, playing homage to the name first used in 1963. Powered by a modified version of the LS1 engine, renamed to LS6 to recognise the changes, output was rated as 385hp and 385lb ft. A titanium exhaust, thinner glass and a lighter battery helped save weight, while suspension upgrades and performance tyres made it perform on-track. Brake ducts in front of the rear wheels were a visual clue to the Z06 option, and were actually functional.

2001 Chevrolet Corvette C5-R

Having been officially absent from sports car competition for over a decade, Chevrolet took the decision to enter the C5 in global endurance racing. Pratt and Miller were picked to develop the C5 into the C5-R race machine, with the first outing in 1999 at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Upgrades and modifications turned the C5-R into a dominant GT-class racer, taking wins at Le Mans in 2001, 2002 and 2004. This was also combined with 31 class victories in the American Le Mans Series, along with an overall victory at the 2001 Daytona 24 Hours.

2005 C6 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

Shorter, narrower, and the first Corvette since 1962 to feature exposed headlights, the C6 Corvette was something of a revelation when introduced. Under the skin, much was carried over from the C5, although there was a new 6.0-litre LS2 V8 engine, producing a neatly rounded 400hp and 400lb ft of torque. The Fixed Roof hardtop version was dropped, with a convertible body appearing late in the 2005 model year.

2006 C6 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

Buoyed by the positive reaction to the C5 Z06, the performance option would feature again in the C6. Billed as the fastest Corvette ever made, an even bigger dry-sumped 7.0-litre LS7 engine was fitted, making 505hp and 470lb ft of torque. The 0-60mph sprint was dusted in 3.7 seconds, with the Z06 pushing all the way to a top speed of 198mph. Carbon fibre was used in the construction of the front bumper and other body parts. Bigger brakes, wider wheels and stiffer suspension rounded out a comprehensive makeover.

2008 C6 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible LS3

Following a pattern used since the original C1, the Corvette gained enhanced engines for the 2008 model year, with a new LS3 V8 motor. Displacing 6.2 litres and producing 430hp and 424lb ft, the LS3 was combined with a new six-speed manual gearbox. Other improvements included changes to steering feedback, with a new five-spoke alloy wheel design also added.

2009 C6 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

Surpassing even the Z06 as the ultimate C6, the ZR1 firmly pushed the Corvette into supercar territory. A supercharged 6.2-litre V8 produced a monstrous 638hp with 595lb ft of torque, with the intercooler visible beneath a polycarbonate window in the carbon fibre bonnet. Carbon ceramic brakes were standard, as were specially developed Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tyres, plus multi-spoke alloy wheels. Carbon fibre also featured in the roof panel, front splitter and widened wheelarches. With a top speed of 205mph and 0-60mph in 3.3 seconds, the ZR1 was peak C6.

2013 C6 Chevrolet Corvette 427 convertible

Built as the fastest Corvette convertible to date, the 427 special edition commemorated the end of C6 production along with the 60th anniversary of the ’Vette. Using the 7.0-litre (427-cubic inch) V8 from the Z06, with the same 505hp output, 0-60mph was dispatched in 3.8 seconds, with a top speed of more than 190mph. The 60th anniversary package included Arctic White paintwork with optional stripes. Inside, all Corvettes built in 2013 featured a special plaque to mark 60 years of production.

2014 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

After an absence of more than 30 years, the Stingray name reappeared on the C7 Corvette. General Motors believed the C7 was good enough to wear the iconic badge, even if it lacked a split rear windscreen like the 1963 original. Intended to appeal to a younger audience, the body of the C7 is angular and edgy, making extensive use of carbon fibre throughout. A new 6.2-litre V8 engine provides 460hp, and is coupled to a seven-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox.

2014 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray convertible

Following the C7 Stingray coupe, the convertible version was launched at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show. With no additional chassis stiffening required over the coupe, Chevrolet was confident that the soft-top would be on par with hard-top versions. The power-folding roof is capable of operating at speeds up to 31mph, avoiding those awkward moments when the traffic lights turn green half-way through opening.

2015 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Z06

With styling inspired by the C7.R race car, the Z06 was launched as hardcore track-focused machine, even down to its data logger that captures HD video and telemetry. A supercharged 6.2-litre V8 engine bellows out 650hp and 650lb ft of torque, making it the most powerful car General Motors has ever built. Hitting 60mph in 2.9 seconds and a top speed of 195mph are considerable achievements for a supercar that costs only $79,450 (£90,455 in the UK).

2017 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

Continuing the Grand Sport name first used back in 1963, the latest GS combines elements of the Z06 to produce another track-oriented Corvette. Using the 6.2-litre LT1 V8 engine with 460hp, an optional Z07 Performance Package adds Brembo carbon ceramic brakes, tuned suspension and an aggressive carbon fibre bodykit.

2018 C7 Chevrolet Corvette Carbon 65 Edition

How do you celebrate 65 years of production? If you’re a Corvette, it’s with unique Ceramic Matrix Grey paintwork, special stripes on the doors and wheelarches, a bodykit with visible carbon fibre and an interior with, well, even more carbon fibre. Limited to just 650 examples globally, the Carbon 65 Edition will be available on both Grand Sport and Z06 C7 ’Vettes.