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Chevrolet Corvette - 70 years of reign

Do you know of any sports cars that have been produced continuously over several decades, respecting the initial concept, with successive generations and countless improvements? The Porsche 911 (1963), the Ford Mustang (1964) and the Chevrolet Camaro (1966) are all examples, but they all add at least a decade to the reign of America's oldest sports car. Designed by the famous Harley J. Earl and taking its name from a type of military ship, the Corvette entered the scene in 1953 and hasn't left it since! In 2023, the Corvette celebrates its 70th birthday, giving us the opportunity to look back at its history.

In the early 1950s, Harley J. Earl, vice-president and head of design at General Motors (GM), observed a trend taking shape in the US automotive world. The proliferation on American roads of British roadsters such as the Jaguar XK120 and MG, and the development of competitions and club races, were clear signs of a growing craze for small sports cars. With this in mind, Harley J. Earl decided to design a low-cost roadster, priced at around $1850 ($23,000 by 2023). The idea immediately caught on. Called "Opel" to fool the competition, the project, led by a small team, remains a secret. Certain parameters are modelled on the chassis of the Jaguar XK 120, and existing parts are recycled to reduce costs.

However, the engine is a problem. The old Chevrolet in-line 6-cylinder only delivers 115 bhp. The installation of 3 carburetors enabled 152 hp to be extracted, just enough to achieve the desired level of performance... In any case, development progressed well and it was decided to build the body in fiberglass, a material synonymous with modernity. This technique also eliminates the need for costly investment in stamping tools. Planned for the end of 1952, the first prototype was completed in time for the General Motors Motorama in New York in January 1953, where interest in the Corvette was deemed sufficient for the decision to launch a small production run on June 30. A first series of 300 cars was assembled almost by hand over the summer, all identical and painted in Polo White with a red interior.

These 1953 model-year Corvettes (the vintage changeover in the United States takes place at the turn of August and September each year) were offered by Chevrolet at a final price of around $3,500, i.e. considerably higher than expected.
At the end of the summer, the '54 Corvettes had a varied color palette and new options, but sales struggled to take off and failed to confirm the hopes placed by GM in its new sports car. The reason for this lies mainly in performance. The engine notably lacked temperament and was mated to the sad Duoglide 2-speed automatic gearbox, which suffocated it with its slowness... The result was that 3,640 units were produced, of which only 2/3 found takers instead of the 10,000 envisaged. A reaction is called for!

The miracle solution is found for vintage 55 with the optional adoption of Chevrolet's new 265 Ci "Small-Block" V8 (4.3 l), clearly more lively and powerful. Combined with the optional manual gearbox, the Corvette's temperament was transformed, and it finally met customers' expectations. It was time to react, as Ford had just launched its Thunderbird, offering far superior styling and comfort, and above all, a V8 as standard!
1955 was nevertheless a transitional year in terms of sales, as unsold 1954 models had to be disposed of, and production was limited to 700 units, 99% of which were V8s. The Corvette was on the right track, however, and thanks to the continuous improvement work carried out by Zora Arkus-Duntov, the program's chief engineer, sales took off with the 56 model, which also benefited from a redesigned body. In the end, 69,000 examples of this first generation Corvette, known as the C1, were produced until 1962, when it was replaced by the next generation C2.

Today, we're in the 8th generation of the Corvette, still faithful to the initial concept of a 2-seater sports car available as a convertible. The Corvette is also the only car of this type in American production.
A total of 1.8 million Corvettes were produced, half of which are still on the road. An unrivalled success story!

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