No, it’s not Porsche 911 the best-selling sports car in history. This title goes to Chevy Corvette, presented, it is true, more than ten years earlier. It was January 17, 1953, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, the first stage of General Motors’ Motorama traveling show.
Then it appears in many bodies, roads, but also hunting break says Nomad and coupe fastback, says Corvair. These last two will remain as prototypes, but their names will be used again, one to designate the version of the Bel-Air wagon, the other a model of its right, launched in 1960 to face the European: VW Ladybug. Furthermore, it is also the Old Continent that inspired the Corvette. GIs, returning from Europe, brought home sports cars, which began to meet with great success in the USA.
It must be said that the American producers do not have much to oppose them. One style in particular caught the eye of many viewers, especially at GM: the Jaguar XK120. This English car, especially beautiful and equipped with a high-quality engine, took the lion’s share, and brought the manufacturer a lot of income.
Harley Earl, the head of design of the American group Manitou, proposes to Alfred Sloan, the last leader, to produce a Jaguar competitor. When the two men get along well, Earl has the green light. In haste, we launched the “Opel” project, named after GM’s European subsidiary to disrupt the hearing.
Several prototypes are built, including the EX-122 which is considered the oldest Corvette. It will be shown as a concept during the 1953 Motorama. In particular, it features the world premiere of fiberglass bodywork. A new material discovered by Earl, which has many benefits for bodybuilding.
The public applauded the idea unveiled in New York, and GM had no choice but to put it into production. The final model goes into production six months later, but at very low levels. It is produced almost by hand in a dedicated workshop, therefore in very small quantities: 300 are planned for 1953. If the Corvette is misleading with its modern line, its mechanics are disappointing. Satisfied with the 6-cylinder in line, which was indeed nicknamed the Blue Flame, but it just fell apart, 3.8 liters developing 150 hp.
Why? Because at that time, the brands of the GM group retained some independence. Buick and Cadillac, the only ones that produce their own V8s, refuse to supply them to Chevrolet, the emblem of the weapon considered standard. Another shortcoming of the Corvette, is content with a two-speed automatic transmission. Reason? Only Chevrolet can use the 3.8-liter torque. The performances are considered insufficient, the quality of the meeting seems insufficient, in short, we are about to fail. A new factory is planned for 1954, where production increases, but without reaching a large volume: customers do not have a taste for Corvette, whose life is threatened. But he will be saved.
Already with a certain Zora Arkus Duntov, a Belgian engineer of Russian origin and an excellent pilot who, during Motorama, did not hesitate to talk to Ed Cole, the technical director of Chevrolet, to explain to him what was wrong with the concept. Surprise, he will be engaged! Then, surprisingly, the competition. In 1954, Ford presented its vision of a two-seat sports car, the Thunderbird. Very nice, it has everything the Corvette lacks: a big V8 engine, a nice finish and good performance. Meeting with great commercial success, shows the leaders of GM that the market is profitable for the American manufacturer!
So, we transplanted a V8 (4.3 l at 195 hp) to the Corvette in 1955, during its first facelift, and, miraculously, sales soared. We use the ideas of Duntov who, from 1957, manages the evolution of Chevrolet. It will change a lot, technically (disc brakes, manual gearbox, injection, increased power) and visually. So it received for 1958 a front end with four projectors and then, for 1961, a new refined cage consisting of four lights. Power goes up to 360 hp: The Corvette has become a supercharged machine, capable of competing with Europe’s most luxurious cars, including Ferraris, at a much lower price.
A striking version 2 of the Corvette, known as the C2, was introduced in 1962, featuring a modern rear suspension and independent wheels. It lays the technical foundations that will allow the sports Chevrolet to last for decades, to be constantly updated for generations, and to pass the milestone of one million copies before the Porsche 911.
This design will carry over to the 2019 Corvette C8, the first to benefit from a mid-engine. This was also Duntov’s dream. But he would appreciate the hybrid motorization that the Corvette is only connected to, in its version e-Ray, during the model’s 70th anniversary? Given the high level of craftsmanship of this variant (with four-wheel drive), one might think that he is having fun with it.