Corvette: 60 years on and strong

2013-01-11 12:18

DETROIT, Michigan - When it was first shown to the public as a concept at a New York hotel in January 1953 nobody expected the creamy, tail-finned Chevrolet Corvette to become a treasured automotive icon.

Fact is, it went on to be one of the most successful sports cars in history.

After a smooth debut at the Waldorf Astoria as part of General Motors travelling "Motorama" exhibition 60 years ago the car ran into some serious production snags.


GM had pinned its hopes on the Corvette, designed by Harley Earl and originally known by the code-name XP-122. The car giant wanted to produce America's first home-grown sports cabriolet after the Second World War to show the nation and beyond that US engineers could compete with European sports-car manufacturers, until then known only for heavyweight limousines - 'Yank Tanks'.

Earl, although strapped for development cash, was determined to shave weight from the Corvette. He opted for a glass-fibre shell.


Enthusiasts are grateful to this day for the far-sighted decision; since Fibreglas doesn't rust many Corvettes have survived. A total of 1.5-million examples have been assembled; the first few hundred were bought straight from the showroom floor and customers were hungry for more.

 Unfortunately, fashioning the glass-fibre body was more complicated than at first thought.The cars' performance also left much to be desired... Why? Because Earl, to cut costs, used a six-cylinder pick-up engine of pre-war design, a 3.8-litre capable of only 111kW.

It could hardly reach the old 'ton' (100mph, or 160km/h today) which left it well in the wake of European sports cars such as the Jaguar XK120.

The euphoria was short-lived; although the first six month's production was sold out the Corvette faced the axe only two years after launch.


New, more powerful, engines were the answer and they ignited what was to become one of the quintessential US muscle cars. A V8 was offered, initially a 4.3 capable of 145kW and 200km/h. Sales took off.

A spin in one of the original Chevy roadsters was, for me, a trip back in time to an era when music blared out from juke boxes.
One squeezes into a tiny leather seat before snapping back the soft top, adjusting sunglasses, and turning the ignition key. The motor bursts into life before settling down to a deep, rumbling idle.

Getting under way is not so easy. The footwell is amazingly narrow and the fragile gearstick has to be carefully stirred into place but once first gear is found and the clutch released the Corvette surges forward.

It weighs only 1300kg and, with excellent roadholding, can be thrown through curves - provided it's not raining.

Current models have all the modern driver assistance gizmos but the early cars were a handful on a wet road.

Accident damage can be very costly today, too. A well-kept Corvette C1 is worth the equivalent of nearly R800 000.

The Corvette is now in its sixth edition and the seventh incarnation will weigh in at the 2013 Detroit auto show that opens on January 14.

Details are still sketchy but two things are for sure - the car will have two seats and a zesty V8 engine.