Crucial Cars: The Chevy Corvette

2015 Corvette Stringray.png

2015 Corvette Stingray. Photo credit: Chevrolet.

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, we explore the amazing and iconic Chevy Corvette.

 

Fast, sporty, classic – even iconic. Not many cars can successfully make these claims, and still be within the reach of an average-sized American checkbook. The Chevy Corvette can, though – and, over the past 60-plus years, the sexy ‘vette has allowed many of us to grab our piece of the American dream though adrenaline-fueled car ownership.

As CNN writes, “Even for folks who don’t care about cars, the Corvette matters. It’s historic . . . The sleek silhouette has transformed into a pop culture icon across TV, films and advertising.” And, don’t forget Prince and his 1999 hit, “Little Red Corvette.”

Corvette’s appeal

Here’s the irony: no other car boasts the long-term continuous production as the Corvette. And yet, this classic car wasn’t intended for mass production at all.

In the 1950s, General Motors was the largest corporation in the world, twice as big as the second biggest – Standard Oil of New Jersey – manufacturing more than half of the cars driven in the entire US of A. None of the GM vehicles, though (Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, GMCs, Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs), were sports cars.

In the fall of 1951, GM’s chief designer, Harley J. Earl, began to brainstorm about an open sports car that would sell for the same price as a typical sedan, which was $2,000. He passed on this dream-car-on-a-budget idea to Robert F. McLean, who caused the notion to become a reality, using standard Chevy parts off the shelf.

According to Edmunds.com, “The chassis and suspension were for all intents and purposes the 1952 Chevy sedan’s, with the drivetrain and passenger compartment shoved rearward to achieve a 53/47 front-to-rear weight distribution over its 102-inch wheelbase. The engine was essentially the same dumpy inline-6 that powered all Chevys but with a higher compression ratio, triple Carter side-draft carbs and a more aggressive cam that hauled its output up to 150 horsepower. Fearful that no Chevy manual three-speed transmission could handle such extreme power (there were no four-speeds in GM’s inventory), a two-speed Powerglide automatic was bolted behind the hoary six.”

GM planned to showcase this vehicle at the Motorama exhibit of the 1953 New York Auto Show but didn’t intend for it to go into production. Then, GM’s chief engineer Ed Cole saw the sweet vehicle and recognized its huge potential – and production preparation began so quickly that it started before the New York show even began. Once the car was displayed to the public, show attendees also loved the car. Six months later, on June 30, 1953, the Corvette rolled down the assembly line in Flint, Michigan.

Urban legend says that Henry Ford offered his cars in any color, just as long as it was black. Well, if you’d wanted to buy one of the 300 Corvettes produced in 1953, you’d have had only one color choice: a white exterior with a red interior.

Production continued to rise to meet the demand. During the 1960s, production increased to about 27,000 cars per year, with multiple engine choices, including performance options.

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1957 Chevrolet Corvette. Photo Credit: Automobile.com.

By the time the C5s rolled out (1997-2004), the ‘vette was racing at Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series. In these vehicles, the “transmission was relocated to the rear of the car to form an integrated, rear-mounted transaxle assembly, connected to the all-new LS1engine via a torque tube — an engine/transmission arrangement enabling a 50-50 (percentage, front-rear) weight distribution for improved handling. The LS1 engine initially produced 345 hp (257 kW), subsequently increased in 2001 to 350 hp (261 kW). The 4L60-E automatic transmission carried over from previous models, but the manual was replaced by a Borg-Warner T-56 6-speed capable of a 175 mph (282 km/h) top speed.”

ZR1 Corvettes of the 21st century can surpass 200 mph, with prices tags of $100,000-plus. And, if you pony up for a 2015 model, these vehicles include an HD video camera (720p resolution) behind the rearview mirror and an SD memory card in the glove box. The original intent: for racers to record laps. This device also records speed data, plus G-force, braking and stability-system data – along with a “secret valet-recording mode.” If you use valet parking, this is one way to make sure that drivers treat your ‘vette with tender loving care.

Heartbreak at the National Corvette Museum

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Photo credit: National Corvette Museum.

Unfortunately, the Corvette was in the news recently, not for its stealthy look, but rather for a catastrophe that badly damaged some of the finest specimens.

On February 12, 2014 at 5:44 a.m., the National Corvette Museum got a call from their security company, stating that motion detectors had gone off while no one was in the museum. Nobody could have anticipated what they’d see, which was a 40-foot-across and 60-foot-deep sinkhole, large enough to swallow up eight Corvettes worth an estimated $1 million.

These vehicles included two on loan from General Motors (first two bullet points) and six owned by the museum. Damage-wise, they have been placed into one of three categories: least damaged, significantly damaged or worst damaged:

  • 1993 ZR-1 Spyder:
    • fewer than 12 ever built
    • worst damaged
  • 2009 ZR1 “Blue Devil”:
    • least damaged
  • 1962 Black Corvette:
    • least damaged
  • 1984 PPG Pace Car:
    • one-of-a-kind car for Indy Car World Series
    • significantly damaged
  • 1992 White 1 Millionth Corvette:
    • millionth to come off the assembly line
    • significantly damaged
  • 1993 Ruby Red 40th Anniversary Corvette:
    • significantly damaged
  • 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06 Corvette:
    • one-of-a-kind
    • worst damaged
  • 2009 White 1.5 Millionth Corvette:
    • 1.5 millionth to come off assembly line
    • significantly damaged
Damaged Corvette.jpg

Photo credit: National Corvette Museum.

The rescue operation took exactly eight weeks, with two of the cars difficult to find in the rubble. To quote CNN, “One priceless car was crushed. Another, mashed; a third, pancaked. Now, Vette City faces a sinkhole summer.”

Here is footage of the devastation from a University of Western Kentucky’s Engineering Department’s drone helicopter.

Since the time of the collapse, increasing numbers of people are visiting the museum, with March 2014 attendance figures spiking by 56% and donations of more than $75,000 given. Attendance has continued to rise since the collapse, reaching 66% with revenue up 71% overall.

What’s next?

On April 26, CNN published an in-depth article on the progress of the rescue and restoration efforts, including thoughts on the main challenges:

  • Should the cars be restored?
  • If yes, to what degree?
  • If yes, who does the restoring?
  • What should the museum do about the giant sinkhole?

As far as the car restoration goes, there were probably as many opinions as there were people giving them. General Motor’s Tom Peters (director of exterior design for performance cars) shares this point of view: “Respect the vehicles. They have ‘souls.’ They have ‘character’ and ‘being.’ Replacing too many key original parts might result in ‘re-creations’ rather than restorations.”

In the meanwhile, the damaged cars are on display. As far as the hole, the museum considered keeping part or all of it intact, and transform it into an historic display of its own.

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Photo credit: National Corvette Museum.

In fact, board members were leaning that way as recently as late June. But, on August 30, 2014, they voted to fill in the hole because of the high costs of safety features needed to maintain the hole, which would have required 35-foot-tall retaining walls plus beams. Humidity-control devices would also be needed, skyrocketing the repair costs to an unattainable $1 million.

So, the hole will be filled in with rock. Workers will then drill into the rock to add steel casings and then cover all with concrete. Repairs will begin in November (so visit sooner if you want to see the sinkhole!) and will last approximately six months. The museum will be open during the construction period. If you visit, be sure to also schedule a tour of the Corvette manufacturing plant. And, if you can’t visit, then take advantage of the museum’s multiple live webcams.

Share your experiences

Despite the changing design trends, economic downturns and fantastic disasters, the Corvette thrives, more than sixty years after its invention.

Tell us your stories and experiences with the Corvette, in the comments below. And, feel free to check out our prior review of the 2015 Chevy Corvette Z06.

 

Editor’s note: If you’re a proud owner of one of the 1.4 million of these attention-grabbing monsters of acceleration, know that Advance Auto Parts has you covered. 

 

Comments

  1. Corvette is the quintessential American halo car. This article captures 60-plus years of the phenomenon of America’s star-spangled sports car. There are the highs of the vaunted model, including its successes in racing. And, too, the lows – including last year’s tragic losses at the Corvette museum. As a Corvette enthusiast and former Corvette owner, I believe this article captures the spirit and essence of Corvette.

  2. As we grow up we carry dreams with us that we hope to fulfill at some point in our lives. As we grow older however, we sometimes loose site of some of these dreams as other life events enter into the picture. I started working on Corvettes when I was a teenager as my half sister was a big collector of 67-69’s that always needed to have the fiberglass fixed from one mishap or another. Being that I was building sail planes at that time for Applebay Sailplanes, it was a no brainer that she would bring the cars to me and I would send her home with beautiful looking car. Mind you that when I would work on the cars, I never actually drove them until one day I decided that I needed to see what the car was all about. Mom always said, ask before borrowing…dad always said its better to ask forgiveness than permission…in this case dad was right. After burning almost a tank of gas I came back home with perma grin on my face and knew that I needed to have one, I was 17 at the time.

    As I said, life is not static and things in happen and we replace and forget what we once wanted with other things… In my case, I started college, joined the Navy, finishing grad school, got married, get a job, bought a home…and things in life just add up.

    I got serious about motorcycles and racing and filled the need for speed through them, but knew I was forgetting something. Some may say, “this is silly Eric as you see Corvettes all over, how can you forget the passion you once had”? They would be right except for one fact, giving myself permission to fulfill that dream.

    I think we tend to set traps inside our own minds that say what we can and cannot do, and I was neck deep in one of these traps…until last week when my wife said why haven’t you ever looked at getting a vette?. It was a good question, why hadn’t I??? Well, given we had this conversation during one of our many nightly calls home to each other as I have been on long term travel over the last three years in Central Asia and other places around the region. During this particular call, I was sick as a dog, tired from work and was looking at a one month stay in NY before returning home. Her question took seed in my mind.

    Once I got settled in NY I started looking in the evening, first on the East Coast, down South eventually I worked my way around the country calling various dealers, talking to sales people, reviewing picture after picture until last week. There in the middle of Phoenix I found a 2013 3LT. After a weeks worth of discussions and wrangling, my time in NY was drew to a close and I changed my flight to take me to Phoenix. I had closed a deal.

    The salesman picked me up at my hotel and we drove to the dealership. As we pulled into the lot, they had my car sitting out waiting for me. The sun was shining and the gleaming Blade Silver was simply stunning. I was asked if I wanted to take the car for a spin before we finished the paperwork. I said no as once I start driving, I don’t want to come back. We did the walk around, stuck my head in every corner of the car and I was simply awestruck at how graceful it was.

    Not wanting to rush the moment we went inside wrapped up the deal and took a bit of time to simply talk cars. Given that most of my conversations have been work related and with people I needed translators to understand, it was time well spent. As with most conversations, we laughed and talked ourselves to the point that it drew to a natural end. Anthony gave me my keys, packet of paperwork and we shook hands and said goodbye.

    As I got inside the car and closed the door, I settled in as the drive home would take just over 21 hours, but getting in the seat had taken 32 years. Since that last drive at 17, I had never graced the door of any vette anywhere. From the first second I sat down, I was transported back in time and sitting before me were those beautiful lifted fenders which enclosed the graceful canyon of the hood that seemed to go on for miles. As I pushed the button my spine started to vibrate from the engine as it came up through the seat and oh the notes from the exhaust that was a symphony. Then it all hit me…this is mine.

    As I drove off the lot and headed for home that perma grin returned to my face and my heart actually skipped a few beats. This was both an emotional and physical release as the mind trap I had set so many years ago was gone.

    I hope you don’t mind my ramblings.

  3. Randy Stone says:

    I was brought up by a father that loved cars. My older brother and sister loved cars. At 14 years, I got to drive my first Corvette. It was my sister’s 1964 4 speed coupe. At 16 , I was taking my sister’s 68 coupe on dates. Since then I have owned 4 Corvettes with the present one being a 2008 Z06. As for the disaster at the museum, I’m glad they are filling in the hole. The museum is supposed to be about the Corvette, not sink holes. I’ve been to the museum on it’s 10th anniversary and hope to get back one day. As for the restoration of the damaged Corvettes, I’m glad they are restoring the ones that are restoreable. I get no pleasure out of seeing wrecked Corvettes. As for the ones not being restored, they would end up being nothing more than recreations of the originals.

  4. Back in 1968 I owned a 1965 White Fuely coupe. It was pristine,the last year for mechanical fuel injection, the first for four wheel disc brakes. It had Micky Thompson headers, a roll bar, 4 speed and a 4:10 rear end. Over the years I have let a lot of nice cars go but this is the one I regret the most.

  5. mike schiavone says:

    Corvette has indeed captured America’s heart, doesn’t matter if you like Corvette or not it has had an impact on all other car manufactured in the world.
    This car is a true American Icon, no matter where or who you are everyone knows Corvette.

  6. Alfonso Quiller says:

    Owning a Corvette has always been a dream of mine since I was a kid.My dad has been a Corvette owner since the early 80s and his love for this brand has never wavered.Two years ago my dad gave me his C4 for my birthday,the first thing I asked was,dad are you sick?My dad laughed and said,no son you deserve it,needless to say Im still on cloud nine and forever grateful,I am living my dream.

  7. Thanks for sharing this history of the Corvette! I agree that there is something awesome about their sleek design and powerful engine. However, I didn’t know that the Corvette Museum suffered from a massive sinkhole! In my opinion, I think most of those damaged cars should be fixed up. However, it is also interesting to see how much damage a sinkhole was able to do to these cars!

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