In the Christmas season 20 years ago the Corvette, a bright new sports car immaculately conceived by a General Motors designer named Harley Earl, made its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Although there was little to herald its coming, the first Corvette attracted a multitude of ordinary folk and also skeptical wise men from rival car companies. Many of the wise men were shaken by what they saw at the Waldorf and went back to their think tanks sore afraid.
Because of its recessed headlights and its wide grille, from head on the first Corvette resembled an albino toadfish with ill-fitting false teeth—but from every other point of view it was a slick little beauty. It was low in profile and low-slung on a short wheelbase. Except for rudimentary fins the Corvette had no unnecessary protrusions and little of the meaningless chrome that has afflicted so many American cars. In striving for a clean look, Designer Earl had even reduced the rear bumper to the point where it was a vestige, barely enough to withstand the impact of an onrushing bunny rabbit. Since the Corvette body was made of resilient fibered plastic, it could be dinged like a surfboard, but it took a Jot more than a bunny to rumple it.
The throbbing guts of the original Corvette were engineered by Chevrolet, the General Motors division that for a quarter century had been making useful automobiles that were about as exciting as a Good Humor truck. So when Chevrolet—the master builder of fuddy-duddy cars—showed up at the Waldorf with a cutie called Corvette, rival companies were naturally nervous.
The new Chevrolet Corvette was billed as "the first All-American Sports Car," a bumptious claim that ignored the prior existence of the Mercer and the Stutz Bearcat and the old chain-driven Apperson Jack Rabbit. Sixty-five years ago when a dollar was a lot, the Apperson Jack Rabbit cost five grand. If "feel of the road" is one of the criteria of a sports car, the Jack Rabbit owner got his money's worth solely on that count. Whenever the Jack Rabbit's wheels found a pothole in the Godforsaken byways of its time, the shock instantly shot up the driver's spine and rebounded off his skull. At such times as a Jack Rabbit was scorching along a country road at 65 and ran into a flock of chickens and got some of them tangled in its chain drive, it was truly an exciting car. On such occasions the feathers really flew, blotting out the sun.
Although in the beginning the Corvette had relatively no more to offer than the old Jack Rabbit, in time it became a very good sports car. The Corvette of today has power. It is nimble and quick. It bores deep into curves with no disturbing sway, and it comes out strong. In the modern Corvette the discrete trinity of man, car and road are fused. To appreciate this, one need only drive a Corvette for a day, then switch to a standard sedan. After a Corvette an ordinary machine feels like a large undulating mattress remotely associated with the road.
The car has taken on weight over the years—due largely to its increased power and steel reinforcement in its fibered body. Since 1953 its wheelbase has decreased by four inches, and its overall length has increased by 18. Its bucket seats are more comfy today, and its instrument panel is resplendent. Its tracks are wide; its tread is growing ever wider; its luggage space is shrinking. Still, through all such changes it has remained a sports car.
In 1955, two years after the Corvette, the Ford Motor Company came out with a dashing two-seater called the Thunderbird. The impending rivalry of the Corvette and Thunderbird turned out to be no contest because the cars took off in opposite directions. The sporty Thunderbird was not truly a sports car, never tried to be, and by its fourth year had become a four-seater. Then in the early '60s a trim and nasty sports car called the Cobra, conceived by a onetime chicken farmer named Carroll Hall Shelby and powered by Ford, made its appearance. In production competition on road courses the Cobra blew the Corvette off in the same convincing way that the Corvette had been scoring over Jaguars, Mercedes and other foreign marques. But while Shelby's Cobra was an honest sports car its virtues were dissipated by what is known as "rub-off" in the industry. Ford applied the names "Cobra" and "Shelby" to outsized, high-performance street cars, and about all that is left now of the original sparky enterprise is a lightly tarnished memory.
Although it was not the first American sports car, 20 years ago the Corvette was the only one, and it is that still. This coming year about 125,000 sports cars will be sold in the U.S. Twenty-seven thousand of them will be Corvettes; the rest will be foreign.
The Corvette has retained its sports-car integrity and has held its place against imports because in the vast warrens of General Motors there are men of assorted genius who have had an abiding, almost puckish, love for it. In the beginning the car surely needed love, or at least compassion and understanding. The first working prototype of the Corvette was known as EX-122. It was subsequently named Corvette by Myron Scott, a Chevrolet public relations man better remembered as the originator of the annual Soap Box Derby. A corvette by modern definition is a light, fast and maneuverable craft. The first production Corvettes were truly light, but beyond that they did not live up to their seafaring name. They were not very fast or maneuverable, and when it rained they leaked like a wicker basket.
The first Corvette engine was called the Blue Flame Special, although there was little special about it except three side-draft carburetors that helped it whomp out about 150 horsepower. In essence it was the six-cylinder, valve-in-head Chevrolet engine that had been in loyal and humdrum service for 16 years. A 1954 Oldsmobile with V-8 engine could outrun the six-cylinder Corvette and also outdrag it from a standing start. Although the early Corvette's leaf-spring rear suspension was far better than that of, say, the model 1848 Conestoga wagon, the car was not set up well enough to appeal to sports-car purists. On tight curves taken at speed the early Corvettes tended to wander, oversteering in front, understeering in the rear.