Whether you agree or not, the Chevrolet Corvette
has been the only sports car that matters to the majority of Americans for 60 years. Corporate branding notwithstanding, Corvette has never really fit the mold of the classic sports car icons: Austin-Healey
or more recently, the Mazda Miata
. Corvette has always been much larger, much heavier and a whole lot more powerful (usually) than traditional sports cars.
Truth told, the Corvette was more muscle car than sports car for the first three decades of its existence. It was only with the advent of the C4 in the mid-eighties that the 2-seater finally begin to fully embrace the term. At long last, Chevrolet applied the idea that a sports car had to be able to negotiate corners without grinding its outside door mirror to a stump in the process. For that, we can all be very thankful.
Here’s our take on 10 of the most important Corvettes of all time. Let's see if you agree.
10) 1953 Corvette Roadster
The original Corvette isn’t one to set many performance enthusiasts’ hearts aflutter, but it is the car upon which has been built a 60-year tradition. After debuting to public acclaim as a concept car at the 1953 General Motors Motorama show, the original Corvette was rushed to production in just six months. And it showed. Plagued by production issues, output was limited to just 300 copies, placing it amongst the rarest of the Corvettes.
Powered by a meager 155-horsepower inline six cylinder euphemistically known as the Blue Flame, the ’53 wasn’t exactly the street sweeper its radical look suggested. All ‘53s were painted white, no doubt in an attempt to mask the sub-optimal bodywork performed at the factory. Though tarnished by underwhelming power, less-than-inspired handling and questionable workmanship, the original Corvette still set the mold for all future models.
9) 1984 Corvette Z51 Coupe
The fourth-generation Corvette arrived as a 1984 model, a year late, but worth the wait. The C4’s Cross-Fire injected 5.7-liter V-8 debuted early, in the final year of the C3 in 1982. With 205 horsepower available at 4,300 rpm and 290 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm in 1984, it wasn’t hugely powerful, but at least the numbers were headed back in the right direction: up. A manual transmission was once again available with the Doug Nash 4+3 overdrive unit.
A new five-link rear suspension, transverse composite leaf springs, front and rear, and rack-and-pinion steering hauled Corvette’s handling out of the dark ages and helped it generate .91 g’s on the skid pad. In the end, the new Corvette was 250 pounds lighter than in 1982, and it showed in improvements in acceleration as well as in the twisties. The 1984 Corvette was capable of 0 to 60 mph in a fairly casual 7.0 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.5 seconds at 88 mph.
8) 1997 Corvette Coupe
The long anticipated C5, as the fifth generation ’Vette came to be known, finally appeared in showrooms in the spring of 1997. An all-new, far more rigid chassis, cloaked in a slippery body (.29 coefficient of drag in the wind tunnel) and powered by an all-new, all-aluminum small block V-8 promised far superior performance over the outgoing C4.
Very few components were carried over to the new car, presenting an enormous engineering challenge that was overcome in sensational form. Corvette engineers employed an ingenious backbone chassis structure based on hydroformed steel frame rails. A torque tube then tied the engine and rear-mounted transmission/differential together.
Altogether, this chassis was the most rigid in the industry at the time of introduction, and simultaneously eliminated the enormous doorsills that made ingress/egress such a contortionist act with the C4. Moving the transmission to the rear dramatically increased interior room while significantly improving weight distribution to a nearly ideal 51/49% (front/rear). The 345-horsepower C5 represented a renaissance of Corvette performance, once again making the car a world-class performer.
7) 1965 Corvette 396 Coupe
By 1965, the horsepower wars in Detroit were raging and Chevrolet’s crown jewel wasn’t immune from the escalation. The Stingray, as it was now known, was entering its third year of production with only minor styling updates, but the real news was to be found on the option sheet. There, buyers could select Chevy’s brand-new Mark IV big-block V-8. Displacing 396 cubic inches and producing 425 horsepower, this was far and away the most powerful engine to date, besting the fuel-injected 327 by 50 horsepower and saving the purchaser approximately $250 in the process.
The big-block was detrimental to the car’s cornering, but as anyone who has driven one can attest, a big-block Corvette is meant for one thing: maximum acceleration. This was also the year that 4-wheel disc brakes became available, and they were no doubt useful for hauling the 'Vette down from a quarter-mile pass of 14.1 seconds at 103 mph.
6) 2001 Corvette Z06 Fixed Roof Coupe
Chevrolet called the new Corvette Z06 “a production vehicle that's ready for the racetrack.” At the heart of the car was the more powerful LS6 engine and a mandatory new 6-speed gearbox, dubbed the M12, which featured more aggressive gearing matched perfectly to the engine’s power band. The standard FE4 suspension package featured an increased rate for the rear leaf spring to compliment the larger front sway bar.
An emphasis on improved performance through weight reduction was evident in the use of a titanium exhaust, a thinner windshield and rear backlight, plus a new compact lead acid battery. The Z06 tipped the scales at a svelte 3130 pounds, which was 82 pounds lighter than the standard coupe. Interestingly, in spite of its lighter weight (or perhaps because of it), the Z06’s weight distribution worsened from the coupe’s 51/49% front/rear split to 53/47.
Performance was fantastic, as the $47,500 Z06 was able to sprint to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds and cover the quarter mile in 12.6 seconds at 114 mph. Maximum lateral acceleration of 1.03 g’s was enough to induce brain slosh.
5) 1963 Corvette Z06 Coupe
Few would argue with the elegance of the 1963 Corvette. The first Sting Ray incorporated hidden headlights and of course, the dramatic, split rear window on the coupe version, making the ’63 instantly recognizable even to non-enthusiasts. Power was building, too, with four versions of the 327-ci small block offered, ranging from 250 hp all the way up to 360 hp for the fuel-injected variant. 1963 was also the first year to feature four-wheel independent suspension, giving the car somewhat improved agility in the corners. The ultimate ’63 Stingray was the Z06, and was intended for endurance road racing. Equipped only with the 360-horse L84 fuelie engine, the Z06 also received larger front sway bar, improved brakes and an enormous 36-gallon fuel tank. Just 199 Z06s were produced for 1963.
4) 1990 Corvette ZR-1 Coupe
In the spring of 1988, rumors were swirling about a return to true high-performance in the Corvette camp. Though the L98 Tuned Port Injection engine had proven a capable performer, true performance fanatics were left wanting. Enter: King of the Hill. Developed in conjunction with Lotus Engineering, the ZR-1’s 5.7-liter LT5 engine produced 375 horsepower. Strangely, one of the more ballyhooed features of the new ZR-1 was the “valet key”, which could be switched between normal and performance modes. When set to the performance mode, the LT5 had the oats to hurl the portly (3520 pounds!) ZR-1 through the quarter mile in 12.8 seconds at 111 mph. Zero to 60 mph was accomplished in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 175 mph was attainable. While the engine got the majority of the attention, the ZR-1 chassis was no slouch, either. Featuring the cockpit-adjustable FX3 suspension, it had three settings to allow the driver to maximize the car’s performance under differing driving conditions and could attain .9 g
’s of lateral acceleration.
3) 2006 Corvette Z06 Coupe
General Motors astounded the performance world with the introduction of the 2006 Corvette Z06. With more power and less weight than the already-impressive standard sixth-generation C6, the Z06 was the best-performing Corvette to date. Posting a best lap time of 7:42 at the Nürburgring was enough to establish bragging rights over most cars, even those costing over five times more. With a base sticker price of just $64,890, the new Z06 featured the 505 horsepower 7.0-liter (427-cubic-inches) LS7 engine, an aluminum chassis, carbon fiber body panels stretched to enclose upsized wheels and tires, and a hell of a nasty exhaust snarl, courtesy of its active exhaust system. Weighing just 3132 pounds, the C6Z was capable of sprinting to 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds on its way to covering the quarter mile in 11.5 seconds at over 127 mph. Top speed for Bowling Green’s latest and greatest was 198 mph.
2) 2009 Corvette ZR1 Coupe
The 2009 ZR1 is the single most expensive car ($106,520) ever manufactured by General Motors. It is also the most powerful, and fastest in every conceivable way. Though not as light as the naturally aspirated Z06, the ZR1’s supercharged LS9 engine more than makes up the difference. Able to leap to 60 mph in just 3.3 retina-flattening seconds, cover the quarter mile in 11.2 seconds at 131 mph and stretch its legs all the way to 205 mph, the ZR1 is firmly in supercar territory for roughly half the price of its erstwhile competitors. It seems no supercar is complete these days without a set of massive Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, and the suspension is also tuned to surpass the 1-g
mark on the skid pad. The ZR1 is dressed in specific carbon fiber bodywork including a clear, polycarbonate window in the domed hood, which provides passers-by an opportunity to view the engine's large, blue intercooler. As you’d expect, its performance at the Nürburgring was simply astounding. It turned a best lap of 7:22, silencing even the most vocal anti-American car critics.
1) 1969 Corvette ZL1 Coupe
As the horsepower war reached a crescendo in the late 1960’s, Chevrolet had a very deep war chest. Their Mark IV 396ci big block had grown to 427ci in 1966. While it was powerful, the iron block/iron head combination was extremely heavy. In an effort to combat excess weight, GM had developed aluminum cylinder heads as part of the RPO L88 racing package and was working on an aluminum MK IV block to go along with them. A low-volume production version became available in 1969 as RPO ZL1, though only three were installed in Corvettes. There were 69 Camaros produced with the engine and another 154 were sold as crate motors.
A ZL1 big block weighed less than an iron small block, and while rated at 430 hp; they actually developed about 525 hp the way they left Tonawanda. Out in the real world, they made over 600 hp when fitted with tubular headers. Though powerful nearly beyond belief, Car & Driver
was only able to bumble its way to a quarter mile pass of 13.8 at 105 mph in a Corvette ZL1. Put in the hands of a more experienced driver, however, it was a solid 11-second car.
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