The Corvette Set: 60 Years an American Cultural Icon

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The year was 2004, and, for me, high school was drawing to a close. Prom was coming up and, like every other red-blooded male classmate, my main concern was what car I would be taking to prom. Sure, having a date was important, too, but the car was key. For me the options were limited; it would be my trusty old Camaro with a nice wash and wax. My best friend, however, was borrowing his uncle’s silver Corvette coupe, making him the de facto prom king, regardless of whoever actually won.

As I was coming of age, the Corvette was already celebrating half a century of ruling the American road. My generation was just the latest of young men for whom the Corvette was the ultimate expression of American automotive muscle.

In the Beginning

When the Jaguar XK120 caught Harley Earl’s eye back in 1951, General Motor’s chief designer couldn’t have known he was about to reshape the country’s automotive landscape forever. The Jag had convinced Earl that America needed its own two-seat sports car. He, in turn, convinced GM execs of the same and two years later the cover was lifted on a small, Polo White convertible named after a sailing ship.

As promising as the legendary designer’s new car was, it was destined for an inauspicious start. The young ’vette was saddled with an inline six-cylinder engine that made around 150 horsepower and was hardly compelling. Reviews from the automotive press were lukewarm and the sales were worse. GM stayed the course and introduced the small block V-8 for the 1955 model year — an engine that would become famous in its own right as the Corvette’s star began to rise. Though the Corvette got off to a slow start on the showroom floor, it wasted no time finding its way onto the silver screen as a 1954 Corvette took a leading roll in the 1955 Film-Noir classic Kiss Me Deadly.

With the inline-six gone, the Chevy small block-powered car began gaining momentum as media reviews and sales improved dramatically. In 1960, the Corvette made another pop culture appearance as CBS launched the TV show Route 66, which featured young men chasing adventure along the Mother Road in a blue, 1960 Corvette.

As the car’s first generation entered its last years, the Chevy continued to acquire features that would come to define it. Four round taillights graced the rear end beginning in 1961 and the engine progressively gained more size and power.

The Stingray

The Corvette’s C2 generation, the Stingray, debuted in 1963 and brought with it a host of iconic design features that further solidified the ’vette as America’s sports car.

For the first time, the car was offered as a coupe as well as a convertible, and the headlights disappeared into the hood when not in use (a design cue that would last until the C6 in 2005). The fastback ’63 also boasted the famous split rear window, but that only lasted one year. The Stingray ushered in a variety of improvements that greatly increased the Corvette’s performance reputation including independent rear suspension, electronic ignition, and, beginning in 1965, the Chevy big block V-8 engines. By the C2’s last year in 1967 available engine size had grown to 427 cubic inches with power approaching 500 horsepower. That same year United Artists released the film Clambake, which saw Elvis Presley driving a 1959 Stingray racer.

The Right Stuff

During the 1960s the American public was wrapped up in the drama of the space race. Before his death, President Kennedy had challenged NASA to land a man on the moon “before the decade is out.” The astronauts were the superstars of the day.

With some creative lease deals dealt out by former Indy 500 winner and GM dealership owner Jim Rathmann, those with what author Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff” began driving the right car. This culminated in 1969 when Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad and Alan Bean (who designed the color scheme) all ordered matching gold and black Stingray coupes.

From this point on, the Corvette became the car of choice for America’s space men, further resulting in a number of movie appearances. These included the 1983 adaptation of Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, the film Terms of Endearment starring Jack Nicholson released that same year, and 1995’s Apollo 13. The Corvette’s link with space flight didn’t escape director J.J. Abrams as he worked on 2009’s Star Trek. In the movie young James T. Kirk’s car of choice is a 1965 Stingray convertible.

C3

Though the 1968 Corvette shared much with the previous generation, it did feature the T-top for the first time. As the car known as the “plastic fantastic” rolled into the 1970s, the big block grew to 454 cubic inches and the ZR1 performance option was offered.

In 1971, leaded gas was on the way out and the Corvette’s engine lineup was overhauled to run on modern fuel, greatly reducing power. Another hit came in 1975 when the government required the use of catalytic converters. Horsepower fell to an anemic 165 for the base engine. Despite the car’s diminished performance, the ’vette continued to be a sales success and to appear in numerous Hollywood movies including the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die and 1978’s Corvette Summer. Also in 1978, the car’s 25th anniversary, the Corvette was driven as the official Indy 500 pace car for the first time (the driver was the previously mentioned Jim Rathmann). The Corvette would go on to do so 10 more times (and counting).

Baby You’re Much Too Fast

In 1984, the C3 gave way to the C4, with performance edging slowly up from the doldrums of the ’70s. During the Reagan administration sales remained strong as Chevy’s two-seater continued to hold the public eye with numerous pop culture appearances. Perhaps the widest reaching of these being Prince’s song Little Red Corvette released in 1983 — never mind the song was actually about Prince’s love life and not the car. Chevy even used the song in a commercial in 2002 leading Chevy’s ad agency’s chief creative officer, Bill Ludwig, to say, “The Corvette and rock ‘n’ roll were both born in America 50 years ago. Coincidence? I think not.”

Chevy kicked the ’90s off with a bang, releasing a potent new ZR-1. The car went head-to-head against the venerable Porsche 911 Turbo in a highly publicized Car and Driver comparison test; and won. The ZR-1 also claimed the Vette’s first appearance in a video game in Electronic Arts’ 1992 release Car and Driver for PCs. Chevy sold the one millionth Corvette in 1992, and the National Corvette Museum opened near the car’s assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, two years later. Around the same time the film True Lies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger prominently featured a 1959 Corvette.

The New Millennium

Throughout the Corvette’s history GM execs had been reluctant to sink money into dedicated Corvette racing programs, though private owners did so from nearly the beginning. That changed in 1999 with the introduction the Corvette C5-R endurance racer. In the early 2000s, the C5-R racked up an impressive list of victories as well as video game appearances.

Of course, the racing version was based on the C5 generation of the road car, which arrived in 1997. The C5 saw a number of changes to America’s sports car including a new hard top model and the powerful Z06. The ’vette’s long awaited 50th anniversary arrived in 2003 and along with it, a special commemorative edition, which took its turn as pace car for the Indy 500. Chevrolet sponsored multiple anniversary celebrations across the country, and owners and enthusiasts turned out in droves.

Having eclipsed the half-century mark, the sporty Chevy continued to grace American movie and TV screens. The car made multiple appearances on The Simpsons in the late ’90s and early ’00s, as well as in movies like Mr. Deeds and 2 Fast 2 Furious, just to name a few.

The C6 made its debut in 2005 as a leaner, meaner and faster Corvette. The ZR1 returned in 2009, becoming the first factory Corvette to eclipse 200 mph. The top-of-the-line ’vette boasted super car performance that landed it on the BBC’s Top Gear. The C6’s swan song coincided with the Corvettes 60th anniversary in 2013 with Chevy offering another special anniversary edition to close out the model’s sixth generation. The Stingray name got dusted off the following year as the C7 hit the scene.

Future Prom King

The Chevrolet Corvette, now in production for more than 60 years, is the longest continuously running car model in history, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. The car’s reputation for (relatively) affordable performance grows with each successive redesign as it takes on the best that Europe and Japan have to offer. The ’vette has kept pace with the changing times by sticking to Earl’s original vision of an American two-seater with style and speed, and in so doing has made an indelible mark on the country that produced it.

More than any other vehicle in history, the magic Corvette has infiltrated American culture and the hearts of car enthusiasts everywhere. We can all rest assured that for generations to come any teenage boy lucky enough to wrangle himself some Corvette keys on prom night will find himself the envy of every other young man at the dance. Isn’t that what being prom king is really all about?

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