A couple of years ago, about 30 former astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to participate in a parade marking the 50th anniversary of Alan B. Shepard’s suborbital space flight. Each man rode in a Corvette current at the time of his mission, so that all six design generations built since the car’s 1953 debut were represented. A few months later, in November 2011, the 100 millionth small block V8 engine came off of the assembly line at General Motors Performance Build Center in suburban Detroit. Though the observances were unconnected, they were both integral links in a chain of events that has made the Corvette into an American icon.
The two-seater, which first rolled off the assembly line 60 years ago, is the best-selling sports car in history with more than 1.5 million sold. It is the longest continuously running car model in General Motors’ history, second only to the Chevrolet Suburban. The car was conceived by men who were auto-industry legends, or who became legends because of their affiliation with the car. The inspiration for the car came from Harley Earl, GM’s first chief of design. He created the industry’s first concept car, the Buick Y-Job, in 1938. By 1951, Earl wanted an affordable American roadster concept that could match offerings by European automakers. He handed the job to Bob McLean, who designed the first Corvette, which was originally known as the XP-122. Engineer and R&D director Maurice Olleya massed the parts that went under the skin of McLean’s design. What they originally created was a futuristic-looking fiberglass two-seat Chevrolet. It had an uninspiring 150-horsepower six-cylinder engine, and a two-speed automatic transmission. As a subsequent Corvette chief engineer said, the 1953 model was a gussied up “grocery getter.”
But the major factor that led to the car’s transformation into America’s sports car was in place. It was not a part; it was a person—Ed Cole. He had been promoted to chief engineer of Chevrolet’s Motor Division in 1952. When he previewed the XP-122 concept developed for GM’s 1953 Motorama at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel months before the show, Cole lobbied for it to go into production and won the internal corporate maneuvering to have it badged a Chevrolet. Cole intended to use the car and the small bloc V8 engine that was under development to change the image of Chevrolet, then known as the high-volume producer of low-cost cars and trucks.
Cole met with Myron Scott, founder of the All-American Soap Box Derby and an assistant advertising manager for Chevrolet, to ask for a new name for the XP-122. GM wanted a non-animal name that began with a “c.” Scott suggested Corvette, which was the name of a small, fast warship used as far back as the 1600s. Cole loved it.
The Corvette debuted at New York’s Waldorf Astoria on Jan. 16, 1953, at the Motorama, which was an outgrowth of industrial luncheons hosted by GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who had turned the automaker into the largest corporation in the world. Positive public reaction sped the car into production. Initial sales projections of 150 doubled to 300, but Cole knew the 1953 Corvette would not succeed long term if it did not upgrade its engine.
The answer to his concern was delivered in a letter that arrived not long after Motorama from Zora Arkus-Duntov, a man who proved to be a true gift for Cole.
Duntov, a Russian born in Belgium on Christmas Day in 1909, grew up in Germany racing cars and motorcycles through the streets of Berlin. He earned an engineering degree from the city’s Charlottenburg Technical University in 1934 and married a Parisian in 1939. He fled France for New York after the country surrendered to Germany during WWII. He co-founded Ardun Mechanical and built munitions for the Allies during the war. But the company became famous for its Ardun head, an overhead valve cylinder used by tuners to bulk up Flathead Ford V8 engines to 300 horsepower. Duntov earned his world-class racing credentials doing development work on Great Britain’s Allard J2 race car in 1950 and by driving the car at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1954 and 1955 races. In 1953, he attended the Motorama and was so taken by the Corvette that he wrote to GM, extolling the looks of the car but expressing disappointment with its anemic power train. Cole was so impressed he hired Duntov as an assistant staff engineer at Chevrolet in May 1953.
Two years later, Duntov set a stock car record at the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb in 1955 in a Corvette powered by Chevy’s new small block V8. The next year, he sped down Daytona Beach at more than 150 mph, setting another record. A few months later, three Corvettes finished the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix endurance race. In 1957, a fuel-injected Corvette small block V8 produced 283 horsepower—one horsepower per cubic inch of displacement. As the Corvette’s horsepower rating and racing prowess grew, so did its sales. By 1960, seven years after the initial Corvette was sold, sales rose to 10,261.
That year also marked the arrival of yet another boost for the Corvette, a new weekly, hour-long television show called Route 66, which featured two guys traveling the country in a Corvette (Chevrolet was the show’s sponsor) from adventure to adventure. It was one of the first TV shows shot completely on location, and it was a Chevrolet marketer’s dream. The show made the Corvette a symbol of freedom and fun. When the series ended in 1964, 116 episodes had aired and Corvette sales had more than doubled to 22,229.
It also helped that the Corvette became known as the astronauts’ unofficial car. Alan Shepard drove his own ’57 Corvette to the first day of training. After the Mercury mission, he was presented with a white 1962 Corvette. Additionally, former Indy 500 winner and Chevy dealer John Rathman brokered special leases (i.e. free) for the car and six of the Mercury Seven astronauts drove Corvettes. (John Glenn opted for a Chevrolet Nomad Station Wagon because he had children.) Subsequent astronauts also drove Corvettes.
Affiliations with Route 66, the Mercury astronauts and the marketing muscle of Chevrolet (which placed the Corvette in hundreds of dealerships nationwide), were the springboard from which the Corvette was propelled into an iconic symbol for youth, power and fun. It also provided the framework for the Corvette’s survival.
It was a low-volume car in high-volume company, and due to its fiberglass skin it couldn’t be manufactured in a traditional GM plant. Though it is believed to have become profitable in 1958, the Corvette’s net earnings did not add much to GM’s bottom line. However, the Corvette had advocates in the top ranks of GM. The first, of course, was Cole, who retired as president and chief operating officer of GM in 1974. Two other Corvette protectors were Lloyd Reuss and Bob Stempel, the president and chairman of GM, respectively. In 1986, Reuss revived the Corvette convertible and set the stage for the “King of the Hill” ZR1 Corvette that in 1990 made 375 horsepower and later 405 HP. (The current ZR1 has 638 horsepower and costs $112,000. It sits atop a seven-model Corvette lineup that starts at 430 horsepower and $49,600.)
Still, the Corvette has come close to extinction. Two generations of Corvette, the C3 and C4, went unchanged for almost 30 years, from 1968 to 1982 for the C3 and 1984 to 1996 for the C4. That coincides with GM’s constant restructuring in an effort to streamline its operations and stop its slow financial slide.
The current C6 generation has been on the market nine years. “But General Motors went through bankruptcy during its lifecycle,” says Tadge Juechter, the Corvette’s current chief engineer. “Obviously redoing the Corvette wasn’t at the top of the priority list.”
The debut of the C7 will mark the Corvette’s 60th birthday, GM has announced. Production will remain at its Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant. GM has invested $131 million in the facility to produce the new ’Vette. It will also continue to have a composite skin. The 2014 Corvette will debut at the (Detroit) North American International Auto Show Jan. 13.
And in a slow leak of information, GM has shown the car’s new badge and given details on its heavily revamped base, let’s repeat that, base engine. It will be a direct injected 6.2-liter small block V8 that generates 450 horsepower, 450 pound-feet of torque, can power the car to 60 mph from a standstill in less than four seconds and will be the most fuel efficient Corvette ever. An Active Fuel Management system will shut down four of the eight cylinders during light engine loads. The current base Corvette gets 26 mpg on the highway.
Still, GM has not announced what kind of transmission the base car will have. Of course there’ll be a manual but will there be a dual clutch automatic, plain automatic, seven forward gears, eight? From spy shots, it’s a pretty safe bet that the Corvette’s front engine layout remains. Speculation is part of the Corvette legend—as is the fact that the Corvette will likely remain the most exotic car coming off an American assembly line.
Frank Washington is a freelance writer from Detroit, Mich., and a managing partner/editor of www.AboutThatCar.com.