Of course the six subsequent generations of “America’s sports car” have been born in different eras, when the country’s mood, economy and tastes varied greatly from what they were in 1953.
According to Mark Reuss, president of General Motors in North America, the Corvette has, over its 60 years of existence has reflected the changing styles and tastes of America. To illustrate his point, Mr. Reuss offered brief test drives here Aug. 16 in examples of each of the Corvette’s seven generations; I drove them chronologically back to back.
First up was a 1954 model, little changed from the first 300 models produced in 1953 that introduced Corvette to America. That first generation debutante was a model rushed so quickly to market from its star turn as a G.M. Motorama concept, it didn’t have outside door handles or locks, side windows or even (on the earliest models) outside rearview mirrors.
Despite its flaws, it had Audrey Hepburn-caliber charisma and America was charmed. It became G.M.’s halo vehicle overnight – a role it is still playing 60 decades later.
The Corvette offered a revolutionary fiberglass body that fascinated the motoring public, but many were afraid to take a chance on such a radically new type of construction. Other than that, however, the car was pretty familiar to G.M. customers – it was mostly cobbled together from the G.M. parts bin. Power came from an unimpressive 150-horsepower six-cylinder passenger car engine, mated to a two-speed automatic transmission. Its suspension, derived from a 1952 Chevy sedan, had a spongy feel to it and was wholly inadequate for a sports car. Fit and finish was haphazard; the hood kept popping open on our test drive.
Test driver Mauri Rose, a three-time Indy 500 winner, called it “objectionable” and “not commercially acceptable.
On the test model, I climbed into a red-and-white interior as delectable as strawberry shortcake. The driver barely fits under its huge steering wheel; it’s almost in your lap. Controlling its wandering ride reminded me of a captain sawing at the helm of a sailboat. It is very uncomfortable to drive – but also tons of fun.
It’s the closest feeling I’ve had to driving an Italian sports car. The model improved dramatically over the years it was produced (1953-1962). In college, I was lucky enough to drive a 1960 model – like the iconic Route 66 car – that was light years better than the ’53. But all those years were considered C1 – or first-generation Corvettes.
To me, the 1953-1962 model years are what made the Corvette a legend.
That is not to say the trajectory of Corvette appeal was all downhill from there.
The voluptuous, breath-taking second-generation model, inspired by the lines of a Mako Shark, made its debut in 1963.
The wind-cheating fastback shape, independent rear suspension and V-8 engine transformed the Corvette from carefree companion to a rumbling road warrior.
The test car was a 1966 model equipped with a 425-horsepower 427 and a four-speed manual transmission; to shift it required effort akin to that of driving a truck – with long throws between gears, notchy engagement and a clutch with a tension spring seemingly taken from a tank.
I couldn’t imagine racing such a brute, but these were potent and popular speedsters on and off the track. What glorious noise they make.
What I call the Dark Ages for the Corvette began with the svelte third generation model, which made its debut in 1968. New fuel, emissions and safety regulations nearly wrung the life out of it, during its over-long 15-year life span. This is the generation that, at its low point, offered a V-8 engine with 165 horsepower.
The last iota of interior charm had been designed out of it by then.
For ease of driving, nothing I tested topped the fourth generation model, but was that really the reason people bought a Corvette? For that, buy a Camaro. This generation made its debut with the 1984 model year (there was no 1983 Corvette).
The 1987 convertible I drove, with a 240-horsepower V-8 and an automatic transmission, was the first one I tested that didn’t feel like wrestling an alligator, its bland styling, garish interior and floaty handling were major turn-offs.
The fifth generation Corvette, which arrived in 1997, rescued the marque from mediocrity. The things that stood out most for me were its much sportier driving dynamics, a more rigid structure with less chassis flex, and some thunder under the hood to match the lightning of its new styling. And actual brakes – something of a Corvette first.
But, efforts to light up the rear tires of the test car, a 2001 Z06 coupe with a 5.7-liter V-8, were thwarted by a feature called “Skip-Shift” which forces the six-speed manual from first to fourth, in the interests of saving fuel.
The C6, or sixth generation Corvette, is not without its virtues – racy exterior styling among them – but after driving a 2013 coupe, my conclusion is that efforts to refine it during its 2005-2013 lifespan were not a priority. Its cheap interior is alone almost a deal-breaker.
Though it is “all ate up with motor,” as the Nascar boys might say, its stock handling capability is definitely in the “wag the dog” category.
Moving unsold C6s that might have remained on dealer lots, after the arrival of the C7 must have been a challenge for even the best salesman.
At some point, the Corvette engineering department apparently disconnected its old phone and didn’t give the accounting department its new number. That seems to have happened during the development of the new seventh-generation model, with which Corvette’s Dark Ages officially come to an end.
While some plastic parts still defile a vastly improved cockpit, I found the blistering power of the 2014 Stingray’s 450-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8 and entertaining seven-speed manual, not to mention its best-ever handling, more than enough to keep my attention completely re-focused on more exciting pursuits.
There are worse things to do than drive 60 years’ worth of Corvettes all day. I don’t mean to pick them apart, or sound like a serial grump. I try to look at each of them with a critic’s eye. I could see where it would be a treat to own any (or all) of these. They are exciting cars, and a privilege to drive, and I thank G.M. for the opportunity.
Truth be told, however – nothing against the other six generations – I have to admit Generation 1 will always have a special parking place in the garage of my dreams.
August 31. 2013