Chevrolet Corvette: 70 years of America’s favourite sports car

| 21 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

While the C2 (which you can read about here) has become arguably the most coveted of all Chevrolet Corvettes, the model’s seven other generations all provide the big-hearted driving experience for which the ’Vette has become famed.

Many of the technical details have changed – at times drastically – over the years, but the basic recipe has remained the same since the beginning: a lightweight glassfibre body, a robust chassis, a large, powerful engine and stylish two-seater coachwork.

And all for a price significantly cheaper than its key rivals.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

Let’s celebrate seven decades of America’s original sports-car dynasty

There have been ups and downs over the seven decades since the birth of ‘America’s sports car’, but while certain model years are held in higher regard than others, continual development has meant that every generation has delivered real brilliance on a budget.

Here we gather our favourites from each.

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to: Sywell Aerodrome; Sywell Aviation Museum; Classic Corvette Club UK

Chevrolet Corvette C1 ‘Fuelie’

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The Chevrolet Corvette C1 ‘Fuelie’ is free-revving and far from slow, even by modern standards

Few cars have gained quite so much performance in such a small space of time as the first-generation Corvette.

It’s a reflection of the tumultuous and, let’s be frank, ultimately unsuccessful beginnings of the all-American favourite.

Two-seaters had largely disappeared from US roads in the late 1930s, but the experience of GIs posted overseas in Europe, both during the Second World War and in the years that followed, rekindled demand for sporting, open two-seaters.

There were small-scale local efforts, such as the Nash-Healey and Kaiser Darrin, but who better to make America’s first proper post-war attempt at a sports car than General Motors and the leading US designer of the 20th century, Harley Earl?

In a rush to get the new car on display at the 1953 Motorama show, stylist Robert McLean and head engineer Ed Cole had to cut corners.

McLean’s bodywork, overseen by Earl and featuring his famous wraparound windscreen, was fashioned in glassfibre for expediency.

Cole, meanwhile, had to grab the drivetrain from the parts bin: GM’s 150bhp, 3.9-litre ‘Blue Flame’ straight-six and two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission.

These were mated to a simple box-section chassis with a central ‘X’-shaped crossmember, with coil springs at the front and leaf springs at the back.

The reception was positive. The glassfibre body proved particularly intriguing so it stayed for production, even though steel had initially been the preferred option.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

From 1957, the Corvette C1’s fuel-injected V8 gave 1bhp per cubic inch

America’s ’50s car market was famously fast-moving; the almost universal body-on-frame construction allowed quick changes in coachwork, so GM felt it had to strike while the iron was hot.

Full production would begin at St Louis, Missouri, in 11 months, but 300 cars were built in Flint, Michigan, six months after the unveiling, almost unchanged from the hastily assembled debutant.

Once the car reached the public, however, the reaction was muted. Enthusiast drivers weren’t convinced by the automatic ’box and mediocre performance, while ordinary motorists were put off by the lack of equipment and sparse options list.

GM had hoped for 10,000 sales in the first full year, but just over a third of that was built in St Louis in 1954. One of those who had seen the Corvette at Motorama, engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, had anticipated such a problem.

Belgium-born Arkus-Duntov, who worked in both America and Britain, wrote with his recommendations to GM and advised they employ him to fix the car.

Clearly a decent letter-writer, he was hired and became the Corvette’s development lead – even if he wouldn’t be titled as such until 1967.

The updates of 1955-’56 were just a few years after the car’s launch, but these were the most pivotal years of all in the model’s history.

With discontinuation of the Corvette only held off by the political heft of Earl, the sports car finally found its place with the updates Arkus-Duntov laid down over the following 18 months.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

‘Our’ Chevrolet Corvette C1 ‘Fuelie’ runs an uprated ‘Duntov cam’ for 283bhp

First came the new 4.3-litre small-block V8. Taken from the Bel Air, but in a higher state of tune, it lifted power to 195bhp overnight. A three-speed manual ’box joined the options list, then replaced the auto as the standard transmission a few months later.

At last, the C1 had performance that not only matched but outstripped its European rivals. While hardly as headline-grabbing as the V8, 1956 brought a body redesign that was just as significant.

Once again from Earl’s design office, the new shape lost its dated tailfins and gained side scallops, but more important was the equipment.

The ’Vette gained external doorhandles and winding windows rather than sidescreens, while a powered hood, detachable hardtop and power steering were optional.

Belatedly, Chevy had blessed the Corvette with all the strengths of the American auto industry, providing the comfort, convenience and power Europe couldn’t match.

Tuning packages offered as much as 240bhp in top spec: this was now a proper sports car with a distinctly US flavour, and sales began to take off in 1956.

The 1957 ‘Fuelie’ took things further still. All Corvettes’ capacity increased to 4.6 litres, but the top 283bhp fuel-injected engine was, Chevy claimed, America’s first to provide 1bhp per cubic inch.

Yet with a price premium of 25% over the carburetted car, just 240 chose the option in 1957. The same year, a costly four-speed option was introduced; John Benson’s glorious Cascade Green car has both.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

This immaculate Corvette C1’s cabin is a time capsule of 1950s Americana

This engine, the more powerful of the two fuel-injected powerpacks on offer that year (a further 800 250bhp Fuelies were sold in ’57), benefits from solid lifters and what has become known as the ‘Duntov cam’, and is the highlight of the C1’s driving experience.

The unit pulls strongly at low revs, as you’d expect, but this small-block also dismisses any notion that a pushrod V8 can’t rev.

It spools up to a real roar and shoves the car forward with very un-’50s performance, especially when stirred with the four-speed ’box.

Peak power is all the way up at 6200rpm, and 0-60mph in 6.5 secs is still impressive today, while the throttle response and smooth running feel jarringly modern when juxtaposed with the C1’s chrome-laden, jukebox-style dashboard.

Dynamically, however, it is still very much a cruiser, at least to European sensibilities. You get the sensation of being perched on top of the Corvette’s chassis rather sitting within the car, with a palpable feeling that the separate frame is moving laterally beneath you.

The steering inspires a little more confidence, offering a direct feel compared to many GM models of its era, if still subject to plenty of play – but it’s a relative bright spot in a handling experience that feels far from sharp when compared with the likes of a Jaguar XK.

Nonetheless, the ’Vette was a belated success story. Development continued at a striking pace, with almost constant styling updates including a switch to twin headlights in 1958 and a new rear end in ’61.

In the C1’s final year, the V8 grew again, this time to 5.3 litres, with as much as 360bhp on offer – a 140% increase in power from its launch a decade earlier. The Corvette had found its form at last.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

Corners aren’t the Chevrolet Corvette C1’s forte

Chevrolet Corvette C1 ‘Fuelie’

  • Sold/number built 1957-’62/7599
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic body over separate steel chassis frame
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 4639cc V8, fuel injection
  • Max power 283bhp @ 6200rpm
  • Max torque 290lb ft @ 4400rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs rear live axle, leaf springs; telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering worm and roller
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 14ft (4267mm)
  • Width 5ft 11in (1791mm)
  • Height 4ft 3in (1298mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
  • Weight 2880Ib (1306kg)
  • Mpg 16
  • 0-60mph 6.5 secs
  • Top speed 132mph
  • Price new $4098 (1957)
  • Price now £60-180,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

Chevrolet Corvette C3 Stingray LT-1

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The sharper LT-1 Stingray is very much a driver-focused Corvette

Perhaps frustratingly for modern-day enthusiasts, the coveted C2 had the briefest production run, with development of its replacement, the C3, beginning almost as soon as it was signed off.

Stung by criticism that the C1’s 10-year life had been too long, Arkus-Duntov and Mitchell had agreed to replace the C2 after just four years – although in reality it would be five.

Given the major development work from C1 to C2, however, the new C3 would be a case of rebodying its predecessor’s platform.

Larry Shinoda’s 1965 Mako Shark II concept was in effect a debut for the styling of the new car, which was curvaceous and swooping in the extreme.

Indeed, in prototype form the front wings peaked so high as to block forward vision, while the boat-tailed fastback was near-impossible to see out of and aerodynamically catastrophic.

The extremes of the shape were moderated for production, with the sloping tail replaced by a thoroughly European-looking vertical rear window supported by buttresses.

With another look across the Atlantic, all C3s would be offered with a targa-style roof, the ‘T-top’, which provided open-air motoring without losing the upper-body rigidity for which a glassfibre car inevitably struggles.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The wipers hide behind a pop-up flap ahead of the ’screen

Mechanically, the car was largely identical to the C2, using the same coil-sprung wishbones at the front and independent rear end with a transverse leaf spring.

The engine line-up was the same, too: a standard 327cu in (5.3-litre) small-block, upped to 350cu in from ’69, with the 7-litre big-block as a potent option.

As in the C2, the jury was still out on which model was the ultimate driver’s Corvette. The power of the big-blocks was undeniable, but many felt they handled poorly with all that weight up front.

Keeping the big engines cool in such a compact body was always difficult, too. Arkus-Duntov came up with the answer in the LT-1.

Rightly regarded as one of the greatest variants of the Chevy small-block, the idea was to make almost as much power as a big-block, but in a much lighter unit.

Initially developed for the Camaro to compete in Trans-Am racing, it found its way into the Corvette in 1970.

With an aggressive cam, solid lifters, forged pistons and a higher compression ratio among other improvements, the 5.7-litre motor provided 370bhp, a figure just 20bhp shy of the top-spec 7.4-litre big-block, while allowing the LT-1 to save 83kg (182lb) over the larger engine.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The tail-happy Chevrolet Corvette C3 Stingray’s chassis needs a cautious right foot

With perfect 50:50 weight distribution, the model was instantly heralded as the sporting driver’s choice, and firmer suspension drove the point home that this was the handler in the C3 range.

As a result, this LT-1 is noticeably more focused than the preceding generations.

It has a lower seating position than the C2, with a high windowline and a smaller glass area in every direction giving it a more cockpit-like feel, as does the steep angle of the dashboard and the deeply dished instruments.

While you would still comfortably take a C3 on a long road trip, its lower-slung nature instantly makes it a sportier-feeling car than either C1 or C2.

That pivot away from the mainstream buyer and further towards enthusiasts is perfectly demonstrated on the damp roads on which we find ourselves today.

Where the C1 is a friendly, driveable car despite its power, the C3 is much less forgiving. Even at relatively low cornering speeds the rear tries to step out – a 30mph drift is very much a possibility in a C3 on a damp road.

The steering still has quite a bit of play, but the car otherwise feels much more nimble, with a sharp turn-in devoid of understeer – especially so in Stewart Curtis’ car, which has suspension that’s even lower than stock.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The 5.7-litre V8 in the C3 Stingray LT-1 makes 370bhp

The 1970s was an inauspicious decade for performance cars in the USA, however, with manufacturers struggling to meet new Federal emissions legislation.

Just a year after the LT-1 arrived, all Corvette engines suffered a drop in power figures – for the first time in the car’s history – of around 30bhp across the board.

A year later the LT-1 was killed off altogether as the Corvette began a downward spiral in outputs as the decade progressed. By 1980, the Corvette was being offered with just one engine, the 200bhp small-block.

It should be remembered that Chevrolet switched from gross to net power outputs in 1972, however, which makes the drop in output look worse on paper than it was in reality – but the reduced performance was nonetheless palpable.

Legislation also brought changes to the C3’s bodywork, with first front and then rear impact bumpers in 1973 and ’74 respectively, while the faltering American economy of the mid-’70s pushed GM into a cost-cutting drive in which Corvette variants were dramatically reduced.

The big-block went off the books in 1974, then the convertible option the following year. Sales actually boomed in the late ’70s, however, and the car’s all-time one-year production record of 53,807 was set in 1979.

But history has judged those early C3s as the last gasp of unadulterated American performance – and the LT-1 was the sportiest offering of those halcyon days.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

‘The LT-1 was instantly the sporting driver’s choice, and noticeably more focused than the preceding two generations’

Chevrolet Corvette C3 Stingray LT-1

  • Sold/number built 1970-’72/4977
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic body with steel-reinforced cabin structure, over separate steel chassis frame
  • Engine all-iron, ohv 5736cc V8, four-barrel carburettor
  • Max power 370bhp @ 6000rpm (1970)
  • Max torque 379lb ft @ 4000rpm (1970)
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs rear three links, transverse leaf spring; telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted recirculating ball
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 3in (4636mm)
  • Width 5ft 9in (1753mm) 
  • Height 4ft (1214mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 2in (2489mm)
  • Weight 3285Ib (1490kg)
  • Mpg 16
  • 0-60mph 5.7 secs
  • Top speed 122mph
  • Price new $5192 (1970)
  • Price now £30-80,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

Chevrolet Corvette C4 ZR-1

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

A grippy chassis and supple, Hethel-honed suspension helps marshal the C4 ZR-1’s huge power

Although it’s just a generation later, we have spanned two decades as we step from LT-1 to ZR-1. That reflects the lengthy durations of both these two incarnations of the Corvette and America’s ‘malaise era’.

A drastic change between two cars so far separated by time is to be expected, but there’s a sense that the ZR-1 is when the Corvette got a lot more serious.

The Chevrolet icon had sharpened its focus with every previous generation, but the process had been gently evolutionary.

With the C4, GM redeveloped almost every aspect, with a desire to create a sports car that could go toe-to-toe with European rivals not only in performance, but also handling.

Arkus-Duntov had hoped to replace the C3 after four or five years, this time with a mid-engined car to match the established exotic competition and put paid to any prestige Ford’s De Tomaso Pantera had over the Chevrolet.

But that car never arrived, despite Arkus-Duntov developing a prototype, and both he and his idea retired in 1975.

Development of a new, front-engined yet still very different Corvette began in 1977, riding high on the coffers brought in by the C3’s profitable Indian summer.

Initially intended for 1982 release, development delays and the move of the production line to Bowling Green, Kentucky, pushed the launch back to ’84.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The Chevrolet Corvette C4’s ’80s interior feels fragile

No 1983 model-year Corvettes were built, but the final C3s benefited from the fuel-injected engine, transmission, aluminium diff housing and composite leaf spring developed for the C4, so clearly much of it was finished by then.

The big change was to the chassis. Previous Corvettes had steel frames that, while lower in profile than most separate-chassis cars and increasingly integrated into the coachwork, still followed traditional body-on-frame logic.

For the new C4, GM introduced what it called a ‘uni-frame’: a skeleton cabin surround was the main load-bearing structure, to which a perimeter rail was attached.

The result was much improved stiffness and refinement but, to make the layout work, the car needed high sills.

That’s the first thing you notice when approaching the ZR-1: it is the lowest of the Corvette family and, combined with those high sills, it is by far the most difficult to get into – and that is perhaps the car’s single biggest flaw.

The reward, however, is a step-change in the feeling of rigidity from the C3. Every control, be it brakes, steering, gearshift or clutch, is considerably more modern than that of its predecessor.

Although a little heavier in feel than European contemporaries, each input is also far better resolved in a sporting sense.

The steering, for example, a rack-and-pinion set-up at long last, banishes the play found in all earlier Corvettes and, combined with the much smaller steering wheel, no longer feels like something to be wrestled with.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The doors and wings are unique to the ZR-1, to accommodate wider rear tyres

Where the new car didn’t improve on the C3, at least in base form, was its engine, carrying over the ‘Cross Fire’ small-block that made just 205bhp.

While the ‘tuned-port injection’ L98 of 1985 improved things with 230bhp, eventually creeping up to 250bhp, there wasn’t a proper high-performance option other than tuner Reeves Callaway’s low-volume, turbocharged rocketships until the ZR-1 of 1990.

A mass-produced turbocharged small-block was considered for this halo version, but a modern multi-valve, quad-cam V8 was the best way forward – although GM had neither development nor production capacity to create such an engine for a niche model.

Enter the unlikely input of the recently acquired Lotus, and a rare overlap on the Venn diagram of Detroit and Norfolk.

Hethel’s qualifications for the job were self-evident, because the firm was already getting 350bhp out of a 4-litre, 32-valve, quad-cam V8 it was working on for the Esprit.

Fitting the Lotus multi-valve heads directly to a small-block didn’t work out, so a completely new engine, the LT-5, was built, while Hethel also helped with the car’s chassis development, which took the existing Z51 optional handling package from the regular ’Vette and tweaked it in typical Lotus fashion, with more supple springs and anti-roll bars.

The new LT-1 engine Lotus put together was thoroughly exotic: all-aluminium, two cams per bank, an 11:1 compression ratio and four valves per cylinder. To this day it arguably remains the most technically sophisticated motor fitted to a Corvette.

Adding a further twist to the story, the contract to manufacture the V8s went to Mercury Marine, one of GM’s biggest customers of crate units, but also an engine-builder in its own right.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The C4’s Lotus-developed all-aluminium V8 is good for 375bhp

From the driver’s seat, however, the ZR-1 belies its disparate development story. A turn of the ‘valet key’ on the dash literally unlocks another level of performance as it activates the second set of intake valves.

It’s in the upper half of the rev range where you feel that: it not only spins to higher revs than the standard small-block, but the acceleration also keeps coming as you get towards the top of the powerband where the standard model reaches a plateau.

Quite simply, it pulls harder, both at the top of every gear and at higher speeds. The ZR-1 corners in a pretty similar fashion to a standard C4, but that’s an achievement in itself, given all the extra grunt on tap.

An extra 2.5in of rear tyre width increased grip in line with the additional power, while the Lotus engineers have found a ‘Goldilocks’ zone in the suspension stiffness, lying somewhere between the over-soft standard set-up and the over-firm Z51 optional handling package.

The main problem with the ZR-1 is that only 6939 were made. The price wasn’t far from double that of a normal C4, and a 1992 update that took the regular car to 300bhp gave even less incentive to stump up the extra cash.

Nicknamed internally ‘The King of the Hill’, the ZR-1 marked a real return to form for the Corvette. While the car still had a slightly raw edge, be it in the hefty controls or the fragile-feeling interior, it took the fight back to its European rivals with serious power and finely tuned chassis dynamics.

And, thanks to that high-tech quad-cam V8, it did so in a way the ’Vette had never done before – or indeed since.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

‘The “valet key” unlocks another level of performance. Quite simply, it pulls harder at the top of every gear, and at higher speeds’

Chevrolet Corvette C4 ZR-1

  • Sold/number built 1990-’95/6939
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic body over steel skeleton chassis 
    with perimeter rail
  • Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 5727cc V8, fuel injection
  • Max power 375bhp @ 6200rpm
  • Max torque 370lb ft @ 4500rpm
  • Transmission six-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by unequal-length wishbones rear five links; transverse composite leaf spring, tubular dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes vented discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 14ft 9in (4506mm)
  • Width 6ft 1in (1859mm)
  • Height 3ft 11in (1189mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft (2443mm)
  • Weight 3466Ib (1572kg)
  • Mpg 22
  • 0-60mph 4.9 secs
  • Top speed 175mph
  • Price new $58,995 (1990)
  • Price now £30-60,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

Chevrolet Corvette C5 Z06 Le Mans and Corvette C6 Z06

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

Chevrolet engineers developed a brand-new design for the Corvette C5 (left), which morphed into the C6

The ambitions and spirit of the C5 very much followed those of its predecessor, but the Corvette’s engineers had learned enough to realise that to improve it across the board in all the ways they wanted to, they had to start again.

Thus, the C5 became the first Corvette to be a clean-sheet design: the engine, chassis, transmission and body were all new.

The steel skeleton around the cabin with attached perimeter rails was similar to that of the C4, but an extremely rigid central tunnel now formed the base of the entire frame, providing a huge increase in the stiffness of the chassis – by 450%.

That alone is the single most noticeable difference between this Z06 and the C4 ZR-1. Gone is the flex as the car moves down the road; instead, the Z06 feels unshakable.

This rigidity allows the C5 to do everything that bit better, be it cornering, braking or putting its power down. It had benefits for refinement, too, where the C4 still fell short of its exotic European rivals.

With the body moving far less, and Chevrolet having designed-out 1500 parts from the car, many of those creaks and rattles were banished.

By the turn of the century, the American auto industry had left the ‘malaise era’ behind and big horsepower was back.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The 405bhp LS6 engine of this Chevrolet Corvette C5 Z06 Le Mans

The standard C5 launched with the new 350hp LS1 V8, a completely redesigned, all-aluminium small-block that, unlike the old ZR-1, retained an easy-to-maintain overhead-valve set-up.

If you recognise the name, it’s because the light, simple and compact LS1 has become the engine swap of choice for countless cars ever since.

The C5 needed a high-performance version that truly replaced the ZR-1, however, which is how we get to the Z06.

With a boosted compression ratio, high-flow heads and an aggressive cam, the LS6 offered 385bhp on its 2001 debut; a year later power increased to 405bhp, matching the output of the final versions of the C4 ZR-1.

The hardtop C5 body, rather than the targa-top coupe or convertible, was chosen for what Chevrolet positioned as its out-and-out sports car without any compromises.

With firmer suspension, too, the Z06 was the first Corvette capable of generating cornering forces of more than 1g – and it still feels planted and flat.

There is a touch of snappiness, though, and where the loose back ends of previous generations felt almost playful on narrow British back-roads, the C5’s higher limits demand more respect.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The Le Mans edition of the C5 celebrated class victories at the 24-hour race in 2001, 2002 and 2004

No greater point could be made of the C5’s dynamic abilities than its stellar race career, with class victories at the 2001, 2002 and 2004 Le Mans 24 Hours going far beyond anything previous Corvettes had achieved.

By way of celebration, Chevrolet created the final-year Le Mans Commemorative Edition, which is what we have here with us today.

Beyond the striking paintwork, it added a carbonfibre bonnet and all of the goodies from the previous year’s 50th Anniversary model.

With the C6, Chevrolet was able to replace a Corvette model in a timely manner for the first time since the 1960s, as it repeated the trick of the C3 by rebodying the previous-generation ’Vette.

The chassis remained the same and, while the bodywork was all-new, its lineage was clear: essentially a C5 minus the pop-up headlights and with some more angular surfacing.

Less easy to spot was that the C6 was also slightly narrower and sported significantly shorter overhangs, making the car more taut both to look at and to drive.

The biggest news was to be found under the bonnet, however, where the small-block LS3 V8 grew to a whopping 6 litres in capacity, taking displacement above 5.7 litres for the first time since 1974 and making the entry-level C6 almost as quick as the old Z06 flagship.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

‘The big news was under the bonnet. The small-block V8 grew to 6 litres, making the standard C6 almost as quick as the old Z06’

The new Z06, therefore, needed to come up with some fresh tricks, and so extensive were the modifications that the performance variant wouldn’t be released for another two years after the debut of the standard car.

Never before had a performance iteration diverged so far from the base model.

The 2006 Z06 swapped its steel perimeter frame for aluminium, and many of the body panels – widened to accommodate much larger wheels – were carbonfibre.

Bigger brake discs and six-pot front calipers provided greater stopping power, too, which was made all the more necessary by the new LS7 V8.

Expanded with a larger bore and stroke, the LS7 displaced 7 litres – or 427cu in, recalling the big-blocks of the 1960s. This made it the largest engine fitted to a Corvette since 1974, and it hasn’t been trumped in the years that have followed.

It wasn’t just about displacement, though: highly developed heads borrowing from the Corvette’s racing experience used titanium componentry to allow the LS7 to rev to 7100rpm – a hitherto unseen figure for such a large-capacity pushrod V8.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The Corvette C6’s LS7 V8 gave a boost to 505bhp

With 505bhp, a huge 470lb ft of torque and an 88kg weight saving, the Z06 had entered supercar territory.

What’s almost as impressive as the immense thrust of the Z06, however, is that it is still as driveable as any other Corvette on the road.

As with the C5, though, there’s always a feeling that the rear tyres could break away should the driver be truly reckless, but it’s remarkable just how approachable the Z06’s performance is, even on tight British lanes.

Within yards, the C6 creates instant grins, made all the more joyful by the constant but not oppressive V8 bellow. The springing remains comfortable, too, while the spacious interior is wrapped in leather and cooled by automatic climate control.

If the Z06 had graduated from America’s sports car to America’s supercar, it achieved it with a typical refusal to accept discomfort.

And the C6 wasn’t quite finished there, because 2009 brought the return of the famed ZR1 moniker, adding a new third model into the Corvette range.

With even greater use of carbonfibre and the model’s first supercharger (albeit attached to a 6.2-litre engine, rather than the Z06’s 7-litre unit), it was the first Corvette to break the 200mph barrier.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The hefty centre tunnel gave a significant stiffness boost in both the C5 and C6 Corvettes

Chevrolet Corvette C5 Z06 Le Mans

  • Sold/number built 2001-’04/28,338 (Z06)
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic body over steel skeleton chassis with central backbone and perimeter frame
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 5665cc V8, fuel injection
  • Max power 405bhp @ 6000rpm
  • Max torque 399lb ft @ 6000rpm
  • Transmission six-speed manual transaxle, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, transverse composite leaf spring, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes vented discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 15ft (4565mm)
  • Width 6ft 2in (1869mm)
  • Height 4ft (1211mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 9in (2655mm)
  • Weight 3117Ib (1414kg)
  • Mpg 25
  • 0-60mph 4.7 secs
  • Top speed 171mph
  • Price new $56,720 (2004)
  • Price now £20-40,000 (Z06)*


Chevrolet Corvette C6 Z06

  • Sold/number built 2006-2013/27,995 (Z06)
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic and carbonfibre body, steel skeleton chassis, central backbone, aluminium perimeter frame
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 7008cc V8, fuel injection
  • Max power 505bhp @ 6300rpm
  • Max torque 470lb ft @ 4800rpm
  • Transmission six-speed manual transaxle, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, transverse composite leaf spring, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes vented discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 14ft 7in (4460mm)
  • Width 6ft 4in (1929mm)
  • Height 4ft 1in (1245mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 10in (2686mm)
  • Weight 3131Ib (1420kg)
  • Mpg 20
  • 0-60mph 3.9 secs
  • Top speed 198mph
  • Price new $65,800 (2006)
  • Price now £20-40,000 (Z06)*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

Chevrolet Corvette C7 ZR1

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

This Chevrolet Corvette C7 ZR1’s rear wing, from the ZTK track performance package, is far from subtle

Like many of its predecessors, the C6 had a longer shelf life than initially intended.

Just as the development of its successor began to get serious, including significant plans to finally make a mid-engined ’Vette, the 2008 financial crisis hit.

Bankruptcy struck The General, and Corvette development had to be both postponed and scaled back in ambition.

But while the mid-engined model was off the cards for now, Chevrolet still declared the C7 ‘all-new’ when it finally arrived in 2013, and it wasn’t just a marketing spiel.

The chassis was similar in its basic design, but strengthened and lightened, with all models now constructed from aluminium.

The engine, the 455bhp Gen 5 LT1, borrowed a lot from its Gen 4 LS3 predecessor, but added direct injection among a host of other improvements.

The body was redesigned, as you’d expect; it was still the familiar Corvette shape, but with much greater attention paid to aerodynamics, and with carbonfibre making up the roof, bonnet and numerous underbody sections.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The C7 ZR1’s huge bonnet bulge can hamper the view out for shorter drivers

All together, it was clear that Chevrolet had not reinvented the wheel with the C7, but it was almost entirely new.

GM proudly stated that only two major parts were interchangeable between the seventh-generation car and the C6: a roof latch and the cabin air filter.

To the disappointment of not a single Corvette fan, the C7 followed its predecessors’ lead when it came to its different models, too.

That meant a Z06 in 2015, which was lower, wider and more powerful thanks to a 6.2-litre supercharged V8 pumping out 650bhp. Then the mid-range Grand Sport in 2017 and finally, for the C7’s last year, the return of the ZR1.

The Z06 had stolen the previous ZR1’s supercharging trick, so, to give the model the boost in power it needed, the supercharger and its intercooler were enlarged, while a second set of injectors allowed more accurate fuelling to yield a massive 755bhp.

With it, the Corvette had become a bona fide hypercar, at least in terms of acceleration, cracking the 3 secs 0-60mph barrier – and all for $120,000 or so.

Although this particular ZR1, equipped with the ZTK track performance package that includes a massive rear wing, looks like a bit of a hooligan, it remains approachable on the road.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The 755bhp C7 ZR1 was Chevrolet’s last Corvette offered with a manual gearbox

Like the C5 and C6, it resists being intimidating despite the immense pace on offer. There’s a comfort and ease in the controls that prevent it from feeling unwieldy or scary.

Its lineage to those two predecessors is obvious,  but it simply feels sharper and more modern. The steering is quicker and more direct, and the uprated suspension is even better at smothering bumps.

The gearbox – now with seven speeds – is tighter, too, allowing for rapid progress through the ratios, which fly by as soon as the throttle is depressed with any weight.

On tight country roads there isn’t room to push the ZR1’s high limits of adhesion, but even so there is a clear sense that the rear will break first.

Much firmer seating in this ZR1, again an optional extra, adds to the feeling that this is a serious performance car.

A one-year-only model from the second shortest-lived of all Corvettes, the C7 ZR1 is already being tipped as a future classic just a few years after it went off sale.

As the ultimate evolution of the last front-engined model, and the last offered with a manual gearbox, there is a sense in the ZR1 of the old-school ’Vette coming to an end with a roaring crescendo.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

Despite its performance, the Corvette C7 ZR1 is comfortable and easy to drive

Chevrolet Corvette C7 ZR1

  • Sold/number built 2019/2953 (ZR1)
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic and carbonfibre body, aluminium skeleton chassis with central backbone and aluminium perimeter frame
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 6162cc V8, Eaton supercharger, fuel injection
  • Max power 755bhp @ 6300rpm
  • Max torque 715lb ft @ 4400rpm
  • Transmission seven-speed manual transaxle, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, transverse composite leaf spring, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering variable-ratio power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes drilled carbon-ceramic Brembo discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 15ft (4567mm)
  • Width 6ft 5in (1966mm)
  • Height 4ft 1in (1232mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 11in (2710mm)
  • Weight 3560Ib (1614kg)
  • Mpg 18
  • 0-60mph 2.9 secs
  • Top speed 212mph
  • Price new $122,095
  • Price now £170-220,000 (ZR1)*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

Chevrolet Corvette C8 Stingray 70th Anniversary

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The C8 is the first right-hand-drive Chevrolet Corvette

Yep, they finally did it. He never lived to see the day, but Arkus-Duntov’s wish – indeed, his parting statement upon his retirement – to see the Corvette’s engine moved to behind the driver came to fruition at last in 2020.

There was quite some fear of how serial Corvette buyers would react to a mid-engined model, but the performance case was clear.

Yet more power added into the existing front-engined configuration would only really achieve more wheelspin, certainly in the high-performance models. The Corvette needed more traction.

Rumours of revolution preceded the C8’s unveiling, with talk of dual-clutch automatic transmissions, overhead cams and even V6 power.

In the end, only the first proved correct. The dual-clutch ’box is capable of lightning-quick shifts and, thanks to a simply engaged manual mode, is easily controlled.

Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter also pointed to the rigidity and packaging benefits gained by not having to make space for shift linkages.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

The Corvette C8 Stingray’s square steering wheel isn’t its only surprise

The latter was probably the real driver because, while more and more autos were being bought – 78% of C7s in its final year – the number of manuals sold was still considerable.

For many, not offering the Corvette with a ‘stick shift’ for the first time since 1955 was more controversial than anything else about the new car.

And the changes were thorough: instead of a transverse leaf, the C8 was sprung by coil-overs all round, while the perimeter rails that had run down every Corvette’s sills since the C4 were gone and there was a dry-sump oil system fitted across the range, too.

It’s the change in driving position and vision you first notice on the road.

You can easily see the front of the car, while the cockpit is so much further forward that the C8 seemingly pivots around your hips, rather than on a point somewhere around your shins.

The extremely high central tunnel and tall rear bulkhead give the interior a much more wraparound feel, but it’s also darker and more hemmed-in.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

For the C8, the Corvette finally evolved into a mid-engined supercar

Once you take on a bit more speed, however, any reservations you might have held about the decision to go mid-engined are immediately challenged by the secure sensations of the C8.

It simply feels balanced, nimble and sure-footed in a way that no Corvette before had done.

Does that mean that it doesn’t really feel like a ‘proper’ Corvette? Well, there’s strong visual similarity to the old C7, both inside and out – presumably a deliberate attempt to create a sense of continuity.

But it’s the engine that provides this car with the heart of a ’Vette. It feels a bit strange at first, to sit in a cockpit with the engine behind you and hear not a highly strung multi-cam European, but the familiar rumble of a pushrod Chevy small-block.

Power jumped by 40bhp from the old entry-level Corvette, but the LT2 of the Stingray is just a revision of its predecessor and it’s thoroughly American in character.

Though not unhappy to rev, it’s extremely tractable and torquey, doing better work at lower revs than its exotic competitors with redlines 1000rpm or more higher.

It’s a thrilling combination, and the familiar burble of the engine provides not only constant joy, but also a reminder that your mid-engined supercar doesn’t have the fragility or high running costs of the Ferrari that it can now, finally, give a run for its money.

Classic & Sports Car – Chevrolet Corvette at 70: America’s favourite sports car

Carbon-Flash metallic paint and special badging are features of the 70th Anniversary edition C8

Chevrolet Corvette C8 Stingray 70th Anniversary

  • Sold/number built 2020-date/101,572 (all C8s up to March 2023)
  • Construction glassfibre-reinforced plastic and carbonfibre body over aluminium centre tunnel frame chassis
  • Engine all-alloy, ohv 6162cc V8, fuel injection
  • Max power 495bhp @ 6450rpm
  • Max torque 470lb ft @ 5150rpm
  • Transmission eight-speed dual-clutch automated manual transaxle, RWD
  • Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil-over dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
  • Steering variable-ratio power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Brakes vented Brembo discs, with servo and ABS
  • Length 15ft 2in (4634mm)
  • Width 6ft 4in (1934mm)
  • Height 4ft (1234mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 11in (2722mm)
  • Weight 3813Ib (1730kg)
  • Mpg 23
  • 0-60mph 3.5 secs
  • Top speed 183mph
  • Price new $129,140 (70th Anniversary)
  • Price now from £92,980 (new)*

*Price correct at date of original publication

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