Seventy years of Corvette history is hard to summarize when so much has occurred, but the brand’s longevity is fostered by passion, drive, and performance. The passion of the designers, engineers, and enthusiasts has kept the brand going, driving the next generation of automotive enthusiasts, and impacting performance in ways that the world did not expect. Over the decades, pivotal and iconic moments made Corvette what we know and love today.
Although the story starts with Harley Earl, it wasn’t until Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote a letter to Ed Cole that Corvette’s fate would be changed forever. Zora’s attitude towards the improvement of the car by adding the V8 engine leads us to another pivotal moment, the 1963 Corvette. Curator of Collections and Exhibits Manager, Bob Bubnis, says, “The 1963 Corvette ended up inspiring generations of design. Even to this day, you can point out features on the current car that are directly connected to that ‘63 design. What also makes the ‘63 significant is that it was when Corvette first showed its rebellious attitude. Not only in design, where it was a complete departure from what it previously had been but when it began to push the limits of what this car was going to do on the track.” That rebellion was fueled by VP of Design, Bill Mitchell. Mitchell had been told to not design another Corvette, so he came up with one of his own. The XP-87 would bear the Stingray name, and now Stingray is a word synonymous with Corvette.
Performance has marked pivotal moments in Corvette’s history for decades now, but the most pivotal in Bubnis’ opinion, is when Chevrolet got behind a true factory-backed racing effort. The privateers made an impact during the time that General Motors would not back the program, but by making that decision during the C5 era to compete in motorsports, Chevrolet was making a statement that the Corvette was a world-class sports car.
With a desire to race on the world stage, the Corvette Racing program was a way for Chevrolet to get behind a huge marketing and technology push for the car. Tadge Juechter, Executive Chief Engineer, has even said that the Corvette went from being race-inspired in the early days to being race-derived today. The connection between what owners and enthusiasts see on the track versus what they get to drive is personal, and Corvette Racing helped make that happen in front of a global audience.
Through each generation of Corvette, Chevrolet has found a way to make it an aspirational vehicle for future generations of enthusiasts. The drive to want to own a Corvette has led individuals down the path to wanting to be successful because they knew they had to work hard to achieve their Corvette ownership goals. This worldwide desire to own a two-seated sports car is all about the personal, yet intimate connection, of sharing an open road alone or with just another person. Some may choose to push that experience as far as they can by tracking the car, others may just want that feeling of a Saturday afternoon cruise, either way, you can’t deny that the car hasn’t had an impact on the automotive culture. Corvette is one of the longest-running automotive brands in history, second only to the Suburban, and when you visit the National Corvette Museum or attend a car event, seeing 70 years of living history in front of you draws on your emotions. “When you think on the times when Corvette almost got canceled, it was the passion of drivers, racers, designers, and engineers, that kept it going,” said Bubnis. Those individuals also contributed to its international accolades. With names like Arkus-Duntov, Shinoda, and Lapine, Corvette is an example of what diversity and inclusivity can do when brought together for a common purpose. Of course, those individuals, and many others contributed to the iconic cars that we know and love today, such as the 1963 Corvette, 1990 ZR-1, 2001 Corvette Z06, 2009 Supercharged ZR1, and of course the 2020 Mid-Engine Corvette, just to name a few.
Earlier, we touched on the rebellious 1963 Corvette, but that rebel attitude carried over into the 1983 Corvette. In the 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency had rolled out plans mandating that the automotive industry address harmful emissions. Corvette was directly affected by these changes leading to decreased horsepower. Because of the passion of the people, even though the 1979 Corvette had been reduced to 195 hp, it set a sales record of over 53,000 units. Fast forward to 1990, Corvette had a lot of horsepower to make up for at the end of the C3, but the team of engineers rose to the challenge and used science to make the car fast again, even under the EPA’s requirements. The 1990 ZR-1 reached a horsepower of 375 and was successful at beating Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and BMWs who were in the same horsepower range.
Likewise, the launch of the C5 brought Corvette to new heights, taking America’s Sports Car to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it would eventually claim 8 victories. All of the factors added up perfectly, it was designed for that purpose and made the connection between being race inspired to race-driven even stronger.
The 2009 Supercharged ZR1 was impactful in another way as General Motors was going through a financial rough patch, but the Corvette came out stronger than ever with the most power we had ever seen, quite literally the light in the dark.
Finally, the 2020 Corvette became Zora Arkus-Duntov’s vision for a mid-engine Corvette come true.
Over the last 70 years, through the chaos of changing times, environmental challenges, and moments when Corvette was on the brink of death, it was the passion of those who love the car, that kept it going.
Where will the future take Corvette? “If the past has taught us anything, we can be assured that no matter where Corvette goes, it will always be leading the way to adventure,” shared Bubnis.
An American Love Affair: 70 Years of Corvette is now open and included with Museum admission.
Original article published in the April/May/June 2023 Issue of America’s Sports Car Magazine. If you are interested in stories like this one, become a member today!