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Driven: Seven rides with seven Corvettes

2015-09-08 10:14

Ferdi de Vos

FROM THE BEGINNING: Seven generations of Chevrolet's Corvette from the first version in 1954 the C1 to the current machine, the C7. Image: Chevrolet

Cape Town - In 1954 the celebrated musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers hit the silver screen in the US. It was also the first year of full production (besides the 300 polo white convertibles hand-built in 1963) of GM’s vision for an all-American sports car, the Corvette.

The film with its rousing dance numbers won the Academy Award for best scoring of a musical picture that year and was nominated for four additional awards, including best picture. It was also in 2006 named as one of the best American musical films ever made.

Gallery: Chevrolet Corvette logos

The Corvette, originally designed as a show car for the 1953 Motorama display at the New York Auto Show, also was an immediate hit and generated enough interest to convince GM to produce it.

Designed by a legend

Penned by design legend Harley Earl and inspired by the Jaguar XK120 the new sports car combined the wistful shapes of early ’fifties luxury American cruisers and the sensual, yet powerful lines of Euro sports cars.

Still, in contrast to the classic movie’s popularity, sales were initially slow with only 3 640 ’Vettes sold in 1954, but a new body shape and face (1956) and the addition in 1957 of the legendary Chevy Small-Block V8 with 211kW saw sales take off…

1954 Corvette - The C1 (1953-1962): Grand dame

The Corvette – its name, as suggested by a photographer in GM’s ad agency, was taken from the highly manoeuvrable warship – charmed Americans and it became GM’s halo model overnight.

Now, more than six decades and six generations later, the Corvette is still going strong. It’s the General’s most revered nameplate, and still one of the few true American sports cars left…
Every generation of ’Vette

It was a beautiful Michigan summer’s day when I met up with all seven generations of the ’Vette at Belle Isle Park, in the middle of the Detroit River.

The island, also known as the Jewel of Detroit and home to the GM sponsored Belle Isle Grand Prix, recently played host to an assembly of world media and on display were all the Corvette models – from the C1 right through to the recently released C7.

These cars over a period of 62 years reflected the changes in the style, taste and mood of American society, and we had the opportunity to sample them – all of them white and gleaming in the bright sunshine; except for the 2015 C7 Stingray glowing flame blue in the rays.

1954 Corvette - The C1 (1953-1962): Grand dame

The C1 (1953-1962): Grand dame

First up to sample was a 1954 C1 model, little changed from the first 300 models that introduced Corvette to America the year before. It was Earl’s “dream car”, sporting a revolutionary fibreglass body, but the other bits and pieces were all scrounged from GM’s parts bin.

It also had to make do with the optimistically named, but inadequate Blue flame straight six-engine (112kW) that was mated to a two-speed PowerGlide auto transmission.

The detail on the C1’s beautifully crafted body is astounding, and in that sense it’s truly a work of art – Earl’s labour of love. The red-and-white interior is exquisite, but the size of the steering wheel is surprisingly big.

It’s so huge it literally sits on your lap, and steering it is very similar to being at the helm of a boat.

The softly sprung suspension with solid rear axle amplifies the ‘Vettes ship-like behaviour, the ride is spongy and the car wanders all over the place.

It also takes some real effort to get its wheezy six-cylinder up to speed, and there’s no braking power to speak of. All this made the original Corvette really uncomfortable to drive.

It did improve in the following years, but in terms of performance and handling this model was light years behind the best that Europe could offer.

Yet for all its faults it’s a mesmerising car with Audrey Hepburn-type charisma… a grand dame on her way to the ball.

1966 Corvette StingRay - C2 (1962-1967)

C2 (1962-1967): A legend is born
While the original Corvette, built until 1962, can be considered the model that established the ’Vette, it was its successor, the C2, that made it a legend.

Just before the C2’s introduction in 1962 the rear of the ’Vette was completely redesigned. It grew a “duck tail” with four round lights –a design element that would stay with it until 2014.

It also previewed the Stingray design language penned by Peter Brock, at the time called the Q Corvette coupe.

Inspired by the Jaguar E-Type, Larry Shinoda, working with Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, refined elements from the Q Corvette project to create one of the most iconic sports cars ever – the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe.

With a beautiful design, a powerful V8 delivering 270kW and independent rear suspension the Stingray could compete with the best of Europe.

This was further enhanced by the Mako Shark concept of 1965, apparently inspired by a mackerel shark mounted in chief designer Bill Mitchell’s GM office.

We could sample a 1966 Stingray model endowed with a 427 Chevy V8 pushing 317kW. Coupled to a four-speed manual gearbox the glorious sound of the thunderous eight-pot and the feeling of power under your right foot highlighted the difference between the C1 and C2 models.

The C2 was a real sports car, a road warrior, and while the long-throw gears and heavy clutch required some effort to engage, the Stingray rewarded you with some lurid and hugely entertaining tail-slides (yes, I was reprimanded for lighting up the rears…).

Sure, the steering wheel’s still too big for comfort, and yes, it needed to be manhandled around corners, but the fun factor made up for all those shortcomings.

1972 Corvette – C3 (1968-1982)

C3 (1968-1982): Downwards spiral

Corvette Gen 3 made its debut in 1968.Taking its design ques from the Mako Shark II concept it was longer and lower than its predecessors, with a distinct “Coke bottle” shape.

It was a beautiful, classic design but while it initially set new sales records the life was wrung out of it by fuel, emissions and safety regulations during its overly long lifespan.

The C3 was even more compromised when in the early 1970’s the fuel crisis saw its V8 power decline to a measly 123kW.

While attractive to look at the 1972 Stingray convertible available to us wasn’t a likeable car on the road. It tried its best to give a muscle car experience (all 168kW of it), but the quite rudimentary electronics made its engine power delivery it too abrupt.

Its steering was vague and light, and worst of all was its completely over-servoed brakes. By just touching them you were nearly propelled through the windscreen.

A pity, because despite its lovely shape it was disappointing to drive.

1987 Corvette – C4 (1984-1996)

C4 (1984-1996): Drivin’ Miss Daisy…

The C4, manufactured from 1984 (there was no 1983 Corvette), was the antithesis of the C3. It was as if GM in its quest to cure the ills of the C3 completely overcompensated for it with its successor.

In contrast to the bucking bronco characteristics of the earlier C3s the new ’Vette was actually made too easy to drive.

The first thing you noticed about the 1987 convertible awaiting us, besides its garish and plastic interior, was its overly assisted power steering.

Endowed with a V8 delivering 180kW, an automatic transmission with too tall gearing and very soft suspension settings, it floated all over the place, and felt more like an old XJ Jag, rather than a proper sports car…

2001 Corvette – C5 (1997-2004)

C5 (1997-2004): The rescuer
Just when it seemed things can’t get any worse, the fifth generation Corvette arrived. The C5, extensively used in racing, rescued Chevy from mediocrity as the lessons learnt on track was incorporated into the road car.

It was far sportier than its C4 predecessor, much more rigid with good driving dynamics and brakes to match.

However, any effort to get our test car, a 2001 Z06 Coupe powered by a 5.7-litre V8, to spin its wheels were thwarted by some clever software cutting the power to the rear wheels.

Still, this model that spearheaded the resurrection of a brand in recession, was a fun car to drive.

2013 Corvette – C6 (2005-2013)

C6 (2005-2013): The good, the bad, the ugly

The GM design team did a sterling job with the exterior design of the sixth generation Corvette.

However, it is also clear the automaker was under massive pressure to cut costs when the C6 was rolled out– evident from the cheap plastics and other trimmings in the interior.

For GM the future at this time looked bleak and ugly. The company was in dire straits and eventually had to be bailed out of its financial woes. This challenged its capacity to keep the production lines rolling and was detrimental to product quality.  

A real shame, because the C6 wasn’t a bad sports car. On the contrary.

It surprised with its great power delivery and good handling, but the C7 – introduced two years later after sales of its predecessor went into freefall – is just so much better…

2015 Corvette Stingray – C7 (2013-present)

C7 (2013-present): Renaissance ’Vette
When you look out over the river from Belle Isle the Renaissance Centre, or RenCen as it is called, dominates the skyline in the background.

The C7 in much the same way marks Corvette’s renaissance. Not only was it developed by a highly dedicated team, enough resources were made available to make sure that they could do the job properly.

The latest ‘Vette, bringing back the Stingray nameplate, is good to look at, goes like stink and has all the latest electronic bits and pieces (such as a fully electronic dash), not to mention technology, to take on the best in the sports car market.

It was highly entertaining to fling the Stingray, with a 336kW 6.2-litre V8 mated to a seven-speed manual gearbox, around.

Not only was it great to listen to its burbly V8 soundtrack, it was also fantastic dynamically – proving beyond doubt that there is still much life left in the Corvette brand.

The C7 ’Vette had a stellar sales year in 2014 and GM plans to introduce go-faster models, such as the ZR1, soon, There’s even talk of a right-hand drive version which could be ready by 2018…

Like trust, faith and sometimes hamfisted devotion won over the girls in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers so the seventh generation of the ’Vette restored faith and trust in the nameplate – not only from GM’s management, but also from customers.

So which is best?

While I have a soft spot for the original C1, particularly the later models, and would love to have one in my garage, it’s the 1963 C2 Sting Ray that really captured my affection.

Not only does this model still encapsulate the essence of the brand, it’s also the derivative that dictated the design and engineering direction for future generations.

Now, in its latest incarnation, the Corvette, specifically with the return of the Stingray, has again found its mojo.

After sampling all seven generations it was clear why the ’Vette still after 62 odd years is a favourite in the land of the star spangled banner.

Let’s hope a right hand-drive version of this all-American sports car find its way here… sooner rather than later.

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