We drive every generation of Chevrolet Corvette and meet the owners
Corvette: the greatest American dynasty. But which is the best? We drive every generation – including the new mid-engined convertible.
Making us feel young: eight generations of Corvette. We drive every generation of Chevrolet Corvette and meet the owners
The man’s nothing if not versatile. Sam Chick’s last CAR shoot was portraiture of Nissan’s CEO. This month? Corvettes
Cars, like car magazines, come and go. Only a handful of names have the flexibility and cultural clout to weather changing tastes and regulatory obstacles. Even CAR's 60-year run looks inconsequential next to the seven decades of service put down by America’s favourite sports car, the plastic-fantastic Corvette.
The use of fibreglass as a body medium for the original C1 Corvette was a radical move for a big OEM like GM. But underneath the 1953 Motorama show car’s Polo-white body with its micro tail fins, it was mostly parts-bin stuff to keep costs down, though the 235 cubic-inch (3.9-litre) V8 moved backwards in the leaf-sprung, ladder-framed chassis to benefit weight distribution. It was also hopped-up to 150bhp thanks to mods that included a third carb and hotter cam.
That still made it less powerful than Jaguar’s similarly-priced XK120, the only transmission available was a two-speed Powerglide auto and buyers had to contend with iffy panel fit and leaks. Sales were slow for the first two years and GM could have pulled the plug. Instead, it pulled out the barely-lit Blue Flame straight-six and dropped in Chevrolet’s brand new 265-cube (4.3-litre) small-block V8 plus a three-speed manual in time to face-off with Ford’s new also-two-seat Thunderbird.
The 0-60mph time fell from 11.0sec to 8.5 for ’55 thanks to the 195bhp small-block, and to as little as 5.7 seconds in 1957, when the V8 was opened up to 283 cubic inches (4.7 litres) and optionally available with Ramjet mechanical fuel injection that claimed 283bhp – the mythical 1bhp per cubic inch. Bob West’s ’57, the C1 you see here, is packing dual carbs and slightly less heat. But its 245bhp punch still feels strong today. It was seriously rock ’n’ roll for 1957.
As was the styling, which it inherited from the ’56 car. Fins were out (ironic, given they were growing on every other Detroit car), contrast-colour coving was in, and the faired headlamps were replaced by more traditional vertical lights. Later cars doubled-up on the number of front lights and the chrome, but former drag racer West, who bought the C1 after a string of TVRs, reckons the ’56-’57 look is the pinnacle of first-generation Corvettes.
We think he’s right, and so does Peter Reeves, who owns both a C1 and the stunning C2 Sting Ray coupe he’s brought along today. GM built a fastback prototype in 1953, but it was another 10 years and the launch of the second-gen Vette before a fixed-roof shell became a production reality, appearing in 1963 with exotic popup headlights, independent rear suspension and a now-iconic split-rear-window design (dropped after the first year).
You could still buy a convertible Vette, but it’s the hardtop, with its inverted boat-tail rear and door frames that cut deep into the roof, that’s the definitive C2 shape – perhaps the definitive Corvette shape. It’s hard to believe it’s only two years younger (and, if you go by classic car polls, considered less beautiful) than Jaguar’s E-Type. It’s impossible not to make the same comparison when you drop into the black ‘bucket’ seat that’s really more of a one-man bench. An XKE, as the Jag was known in the US, isn’t quite as cramped as Bob West’s C1, whose giant steering wheel’s worrying proximity to your belly acts like a BMI danger-zone early warning device, but the roomy C2’s cabin is far more comfortable than either. Think that double-arch dashboard and full suite of gauges looks cool in the pics? That’s nothing to what it’s like actually being here. I feel so damn icy cool, daydreaming that I’m off to collect Raquel Welch for a hot date at the Whisky a Go Go, I fear my legs might snap off at the knees when I try to get out.
Twist the big fake-wood wheel to take up the on-centre free play and the steering feels good mid-corner, even if the recirculating-ball set-up doesn’t connect you like an E-Type’s rack and pinion. And with around 360lb ft ready to be deployed by your right foot courtesy of a now-327 cubic-inch (5.4-litre) mill developing upwards of 300bhp, there’s enough grunt that the still-only-two-speed auto isn’t the disaster you’re expecting. Think of it instead as like driving a single-speed EV while Detroit’s own MC5 kick out the V8 jams.
By the time Reeves’ ’66 was built you could order big-block 427 cubic-inch (7.0-litre) V8s with up to 425bhp and shouty side exhausts. But most went for a small-block convertible, and it wasn’t until 1968 and the C3 Corvette (known as the Stingray from 1969) that coupe buyers finally outnumbered convertible shoppers. Previewed by the 1965 Mako Shark II concept car, the third-gen Vette carried over the C2’s chassis and running gear, but finally subbed the old Powerglide with a three-speed Turbo Hydramatic auto and clothed the lot in a swoopy Italian-looking body with standard removable T-tops and huge peaked front wings that dominate the view from the driver’s seat. A 15-year production run makes the C3 the most long-lived of all Corvettes, and coincided with seismic shifts in the automotive landscape that had huge ramifications for the way America’s two-seat sweetheart looked and drove.
Performance peaked in 1970, the introduction of low-lead fuels causing compression ratios that had been heading towards diesel territory and power outputs to plummet, and then appear lower still from 1972 when Detroit switched from fantasy gross horsepower numbers to net ratings that more closely resemble how engine output is measured today. By 1975 the chrome bumpers (victims of federal 5mph impact regs) and big-block motors were toast and every Corvette’s exhaust manifold gases were herded through a single catalytic converter, leaving the base 350 V8 with just 165bhp. But Chevy hadn’t totally given up on performance. Steve Jenkins’ ’75 has the optional 205bhp L82 motor, a plaque on the console behind the surprisingly slick four-speed manual’s shifter proudly stating its heady (for the time) 9.0:1 squeeze, and an optional gymkhana suspension pack that perhaps explains why it steers incredibly well for an antique Yank.
And by 1982 the C3, which was essentially a dressed-up ’63, really was an antique. The C4 fixed that. Though not quite a modern unibody, the new chassis featured an integrated passenger cell, rack-and-pinion steering, aluminium driveshaft and a lightweight fibreglass transverse rear spring, plus another transverse leaf at the front in place of coils. Handling was on a different plane, which is just as well, because emissions stricter than a Rikers Island guard meant the first 1984 C4’s 5.7-litre V8 made just 205bhp.
Yet only six years later a Corvette was one of the fastest cars on the planet thanks to help from GM’s recent acquisition, Lotus. The Norfolk crew’s aluminium LT5 V8, with its double overhead camshafts, sounds and feels incredibly refined next to its pushrod relatives, but it was the 375bhp output and resulting 175mph top speed and 4.5sec 0-60mph time that earned it the ‘King of the Hill’ name. Stepping over the awkwardly high sill of Robert Green’s striking Competition Yellow car reveals the C4’s improved legroom and a controller for the ZR-1-specific Bilstein adjustable dampers and ZF six-speed manual – clearly, Lotus involvement wasn’t restricted to the engine.
Though that engine got a boost to 405bhp for 1993, Chevy undermined the ZR-1 in later years, giving the base car the King’s convex rear panel, six-ratio ’box and a vastly improved pushrod V8 that made 300bhp from 1992, and cost a heap less to buy. C4 Corvettes are even better value now, but Mark Eastwood knows the C5 that followed in the autumn of 1996 is the true bargain in the Corvette world. A 345bhp, 175mph sports car with a Ferrari-style transaxle layout but none of the Maranello-grade running costs for less than £15k? Damn right it’s a bargain.
The now legendary 5.7-litre LS1 aluminium V8 that’s become the go-to transplant motor for any amateur engine swap is even pretty good on fuel, capable of nudging 30mpg at a gentle cruise. And doorman-proportioned Eastwood appreciates the additional legroom versus the C4 he owned before. Standing somewhat closer to ground-level, I still find myself wanting a seat set lower and with more side support, but like the meaty steering, snappy throttle response and fantastically clear instruments. And the boot is enormous. I make a mental note to check the classifieds as soon as the shoot is over.
Open that wallet a little wider, though, and you could be opening the throttle to unleash the 400bhp of the C6 that came next. Expanding the V8 to 6.0 litres brought the new 2005 base Corvette’s LS2 engine within 5bhp of the previous C5 Z06 performance model’s LS6 for almost $10k less, and automatic buyers now had six gears to play with instead of just four. The C6, like the C5, was officially available in the UK, though only in left-hand drive. But Richard Evans’ 2007 car was originally sold in Florida, meaning his C6 is cheaper to tax than a genuine Euro-homologated equivalent.
Visually, the C5 and C6 look confusingly similar from some angles, but Evans points out that the newer car looks leaner and sharper, and has fixed headlights, bringing an end to 42 years of pop-up illumination. The Z06 badge returned, this time signalling a lightweight aluminium chassis frame, a balsa wood (yes, really) and composite floor, and an epic 7.0-litre LS7 V8 stomping out 505bhp and an equally stout 470lb ft of tyre-killing torque. But even that looked meek next to the 2009 ZR1, whose 638bhp supercharged 6.2-litre LS9 was visible through a window in the carbon bonnet and reined in by carbon brakes and magnetorheological dampers.
By 2014 the Stingray name was back, and even the 455bhp LT-1- powered base car had a fancy carbon bonnet, aluminium frame, quad exhaust tailpipes and seven-speed manual gearbox with rev-matching software. And that was only the start. A ’60s-style horsepower war raging worldwide meant Steve Saunders’ Z06 received a supercharged 6.2-litre V8, like the previous ZR1, but made even more power: 650bhp, together with a road-wrinkling 650lb ft. Saunders’ car oozes attitude, yet it’s got the traffic manners of a Honda Jazz, albeit one with a Spidey Sense – a brush of brake or accelerator suggests zero inertia. The seats have decent lateral support at last, the steering is just the right side of Ferrari-fast, and the drop-down infotainment screen provides an answer to that age-old problem of where to stash your Glock 9mm.
Or .500 Smith & Wesson, the world’s most powerful handgun, I’m told, if you step up to the C7 ZR1. Introduced for 2019 and equipped with a supercharger that’s 50 per cent bigger than the Z06’s, and a rear wing that would make a 911 GT3 feel inadequate, the ZR1 generated 755bhp and 715lb ft of torque, leaving the world struggling to imagine how much further Chevy could push the Corvette.
Instead, Chevy really did start pushing it, as opposed to pulling it, placing the engine behind the seats for the 2020 C8, finally productionising an idea it had been toying with for over 50 years. I haven’t been that enamoured with the C8’s Chinese-knock-off- Ferrari styling so far, but Ian Stone’s car’s rich metallic red coat is light years better than the plain red alternative, giving the C8 an expensive supercar look to match the promise of that new aluminium chassis and 40:60 weight distribution.
Something else is new, and I’m not talking about the Corvette’s first-ever (and sadly, mandatory) dual-clutch transmission, incredible fighter-jet-style cockpit or weird square steering wheel. It’s that for the first time in Vette history that steering wheel is on the ‘correct’ side for Brit drivers. Stone waited two and a half years years to get a genuine right-hooker and is so taken with the C8 he finds he reaches for its keys ahead of his Ferrari 458’s. Praise indeed, but perhaps not entirely surprising given Chevy benchmarked the Ferrari during development, and that the C8 feels vastly more sophisticated, even if its 475bhp European-tune LT2 V8 (US versions get up to 500 horses) still relies on pushrods to open its valves and looks conspicuously underpowered next to (admittedly far pricier) mid-engined rivals.
The new Z06, though, and the other C8s heading this way, will meet those rivals head-on. The Z06 gets a DOHC 5.5-litre V8 with 670bhp, a Ferrari-style flatplane crank and an 8600rpm redline, a teased hybrid car rumoured to get the E-Ray name will give us the world first four-wheel-drive Corvette, and leaked documents suggest there’s a 1000bhp Corvette waiting in the wings. And don’t forget the obligatory electric version.
Cars, like magazines, need to stay on their toes if they’re to survive and thrive. The Corvette has weathered plenty of storms in its 69-year career, and is proud of its back catalogue – or at least most of it. But like us, it’s itching to see where we’re all headed next.
CORVETTES AND THE COSMOS
In May 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and he would have been the first man in orbit if Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin hadn’t beaten him to beyond the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere by a matter of weeks. But only Shepard was met on his return by GM President Ed Cole holding out the keys to a brand new 1962 Corvette.
NASA didn’t allow astronauts to endorse products, though, so enterprising Florida Chevy dealer and 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann came up with a clever scheme whereby astronauts could lease up to two Chevys per year for just a buck each. Throughout the ’60s and early ’70s the space guys got a deal that was out of this world, and GM and Rathmann benefited from a rush of free publicity every time the crew was photographed leaving home or work. It’s easy to forget that in the run-up to the moon landing the public was gripped by the idea of interplanetary travel and pilots like Buzz Aldrin were rocket-riding rock stars, their exploits both in Corvettes and in their space suits later immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff.
THE 2020 C8 PRODUCTIONISED AN IDEA CHEVROLET
HAD BEEN TOYING WITH FOR OVER 50 YEARS
C3 took original idea as far as it could go; C4 a big step forward.
CORVETTE CAR C LUB
LIVE THE DREAM?
Fear not – help is at hand
Writing about a car launched in 1953 and only intermittently sold through official channels in the UK isn’t like knocking up a ‘greatest BMWs’ group test. We couldn’t have done it without the generous help of the UK’s Classic Corvette Club.
What began life in 1979 as a meeting between three British Corvette enthusiasts today has 1050 members who between them own Corvettes covering every year of the model’s 69 seasons. Most popular? That’d be the third-generation, Coke-bottle-shaped C3. If you’re into Corvettes the door’s open, whether your car is a £250k big-block rarity, a wildly customised project, seven boxes full of bits, or just a fantasy you turn to when doing the washing up.
The CCC website’s forum is available to anyone, but an annual fee unlocks a members-only section, saves you money on insurance, RAC membership and parts from suppliers in the UK and US, and gives access to the technical gurus whose expertise could prove a lifeline when trying to maintain a car thousands of miles from its birthplace.
But best of all it puts you in touch with like-minded people, who supplement the Club’s massive two-day annual CCCUK Nationals show and recently added northern event in Ullswater with regional meet-ups, run-what-you-brung days and European road trips. The Corvette has always been big on value, but a measly £40 to get more out of owning one is a steal. You can find the CCC at www.corvetteclub.org.uk
Colin Bruce and the Classic Corvette Club UK; especially C1 owner Bob West, C2 Peter Reeves, C3 Steve Jenkins, C4 Robert Green, C5 Mark Eastwood, C6 Richard Evans, C7 Steve Saunders, C8 Ian Stone
THE CORVETTE HAS WEATHERED PLENTY OF STORMS IN ITS 69 YEARS AND IS PROUD OF ITS BACK CATALOGUE
C2 Sting Ray right up there with Enzo’s 250 GTO and the Jag E-Type Owner Steve Saunders’ bedside reading includes the build story of his Z06
THOUGH NOT QUITE A MODERN UNIBODY, THE C4’S STEERING
AND SUSPENSION PUT IT ON A DIFFERENT PLANE TO THE C3
Get your motor running (before it’s replaced with a charisma-free electric version) C6 lighter, smaller and sharper than the car it replaced.
NEED TO KNOW
The story so far…
Detroit does Europe, and in some style.
Explain the ranking…
Corvette as durable and as iconic as the Fifth
Amendment – plus the cars aren't bad either.
Corvette in three words…
TVR that works.
C8 to drive; the C2 to look at. Chevrolet? It’s hard to look past the era-defining ’57 Chevy but look past it we will, to the Impala SS: to-die-for looks and lethal 409 horsepower performance to boot.
California’s 1980 Vette: a ‘tiny’ 5.0-litre V8 and auto ’box.
The future looks… Ultium. GM’s new battery-electric platform is rewriting the rulebook to become a thorn in Ford’s side.
I FEEL SO DAMN ICY COOL IN THE C2, DAYDREAMING THAT I’M OFF TO COLLECT RAQUEL WELCH FOR A HOT DATE AT THE WHISKY A GO GO
Chromed wheels? I mean, why not. What a view. And what’s an airbag? Not just the best looking Corvette but the best looking car?Much has changed. Nothing's stayed the same.
EVEN CAR’S 60-YEAR RUN LOOKS INCONSEQUENTIAL NEXT TO THE CORVETTE’S SEVEN DECADES OF SERVICE
Authentic big American horizons (just outside Bicester). Into the 21st century with the C5 (right) and fixed-light C6 Chris: comfortable with this mid-engined heresy A pancake – without maple syrup and bacon, for once
WE ARE FAMILY
…and we bloody love a leaf spring
1957 C1 284 DUAL QUAD CORVETTE
- PRICE $3176 then, £70,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 4.6-litre 16v V8, rear-wheel drive,
- TRANSMISSION two-speed auto
- MAX POWER 245bhp
- MAX TORQUE 300lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 7.0sec (est)
- MAX SPEED 120mph
- The C1 (1953-1962) gets serious from ’55 (with V8 power) and sexy from ’56 (two-tone Wurlitzer restyle). Early coupe prototype never makes production so all C1s are live-rear-axle roadsters, and have up to 360bhp.
1966 C2 CORVETTE STING RAY
- PRICE $4084 then, £60,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 5.4-litre 16v V8, rear-wheel drive,
- TRANSMISSION two-speed auto
- MAX POWER 300bhp
- MAX TORQUE 360lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 8.3sec
- MAX SPEED 115mph
- C2 (1963-1967) brings the first coupe, though the split window doesn’t get a second season. You can still get a convertible. Engines range from a 250bhp 5.7 to a monstrous 425bhp 7.0 during the C2’s brief run.
1975 C3 CORVETTE L82
- PRICE $6550 then, £15,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 5.7-litre 16v V8, rear-wheel drive,
- TRANSMISSION four-speed manual
- MAX POWER 205bhp
- MAX TORQUE 255lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 7.0sec
- MAX SPEED 130mph
- C3 (1968-1982) arrives in muscle’s golden age, but spends most of its 14-year career battling increasingly tough safety and emissions regs. They kill big-block V8s after 1974 and ensure the convertible doesn’t live to ’76.
1991 C4 CORVETTE ZR-1
- PRICE $58,995 then, £20,000 now (ZR-1)
- POWERTRAIN 5.7-litre 32v V8, rear-wheel drive
- TRANSMISSION six-speed manual
- MAX POWER 375bhp,
- MAX TORQUE 370lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 4.5sec
- MAX SPEED 175mph
- The all-new C4 (1984-1996) is lighter, stiffer, grippier and faster, despite just 205bhp. A new generation of V8s lift that to 330bhp by ’96, but the high point is the Lotus-developed ZR-1 with a DOHC aluminium V8 and 175mph top speed.
2001 C5 CORVETTE
- PRICE $39,171 then, £15,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 5.7-litre 16v V8, rear-wheel drive
- TRANSMISSION four-speed auto
- MAX POWER 345bhp,
- MAX TORQUE 350lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 5.3sec
- MAX SPEED 170mph
- Aluminium LS V8 in C5 (1997-2004) is lighter and more powerful, giving the base Corvette 170mph. The transmission is at the back to improve handling. Manual-only Z06 gets upgraded suspension, thin glass and up to 405bhp
2007 C6 CORVETTE
- PRICE $44,995 then, £20,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 6.0-litre 16v V8, rear-wheel drive,
- TRANSMISSION six-speed auto
- MAX POWER 400bhp,
- MAX TORQUE 400lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 4.3sec
- MAX SPEED 186mph
- The designers lose the pop-up lights for the C6 (2005-2013), drop in a bigger 6.0 V8 (later 6.2) and resurrect two names from the past: Z06 brings an aluminium frame and 505bhp V8; ZR1 plumps for a supercharged 6.2.
2017 C7 CORVETTE Z06
- PRICE $79,450 then, £60,000 now
- POWERTRAIN 6.2-litre 16v supercharged V8, rear-drive,
- TRANSMISSION eight-speed auto
- MAX POWER 650bhp,
- MAX TORQUE 650lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 3.1sec
- MAX SPEED 195mph
- C7 (2014-2019) looks similar but gets a seven-speed manual. Base car’s 455bhp swells to 650bhp in the Z06, which pinches the ’charged 6.2 idea from the old ZR1. Real ZR1 refines the same recipe to generate 755bhp.
2022 C8 CORVETTE
- PRICE £81,700
- POWERTRAIN 6.2-litre 16v mid-engined V8, rear-wheel drive,
- TRANSMISSION eight-speed dual-clutch
- MAX POWER 475bhp
- MAX TORQUE 452lb ft
- ACCELERATION 0-62MPH 3.5sec
- MAX SPEED 184mph
- After decades of prototypes and pleading, Chevy finally puts the horses in the middle of the cart for 2020’s C8, and even gives us RHD. Engine is still a basic two-valve pushrod V8, and Euro cars’ 475bhp is middling.