Breaking Down The Corvette Identity Crisis

The argument is decades old. The points have all been belabored a hundred times over. It fact, you’d think even bringing this topic up is a moot point. Yet, for some friggin’ reason, people still continue to polarize on either sides of the lobby. Even as the car has been branded as “America’s Sports Car,” people – especially dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts – testify that the Corvette is America’s ultimate muscle car. So which is it: muscle car or super car? That’s what we’re going to find out.

Both terms, “muscle car” and “super car” came into popular nomenclature a decade after the first Corvettes began rolling off the Flint, Michigan assembly lines in 1953. Of course, those first Corvettes were a tiny pine seed compared to the towering monoliths of performance that they are today. Originally created as an “image car” by GM designer Harley Earl, in an effort to appeal to Americans who fell in love with European roadsters while serving in the military during and directly following WWII, the Corvette was light, sporty and woefully underpowered.

Only 300 units were sold that first year, as Americans struggled to understand what the fiberglass-bodied Corvette truly was meant to be. Undefined and nebulous, the original Corvettes didn’t start “coming into their own” until 1955, when Chevrolet replaced the inline six-cylinder Blue Flame with its 265cui small block making 195hp. Infused with new life, the Corvette graduated to GM’s unofficial performance test mule. Nearly all evolutionary steps taken by GM were carried out by the Corvette since that date.

Championed by GM engineer and road racing veteran, Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette entered into the fray of LeMans racers in 1963. Riding on a completely redesigned chassis with a fully-independent rear suspension, the Corvette finally abandoned the solid rear axle and journeyed into European sports car territory. The second generation Corvette received a new name thanks to its all-new angular body, the Sting Ray.

Meanwhile, the rift between mainstream American performance cars – which had gravitated heavily towards the large displacement engine married to an intermediate-sized coupe – and the exotic sports cars hand-built by Italian and British coach makers had broadened to chasm-like proportions. Nowhere was this more relevant than with the historic showdown of the Ferrari GTO and the newly-coined Pontiac GTO in 1964.

The pairing of the Italian 250 and John DeLorean’s brainchild was a landmark one. Apart from the acronym name, the two shared nothing else. Although the results were murky given the questionable nature of both cars, the impact of the comparison was felt around the world. For a brief moment, the Corvette, which had been General Motor’s darling for so long, was overshadowed by upstart Pontiac’s new kid on the block.

As GM’s intermediate cars began receiving engines and transmission combinations that were previously reserved for the Corvette, the lines between the sports car and the larger sedans-turned-street performers blurred. While the Corvette’s brand-sibling, the Super Sport Chevelle shared Muncie 4-speeds and 396 big blocks, the similarities ended there. Everything that made the Chevelle a muscle car separated it from the Corvette.

From then on, only the crème de la crème of Chevrolet’s engines were made first available in the Corvette. The 425-horsepower 396 was replaced by the woefully underrated 430-horse 427 L88 and triple-carb’ed L89. As 1967, the final year of the “C2” closed, the future Corvette weigh heavily on performance enthusiasts’ minds. The following year didn’t disappoint as the C3 ‘Vette (rechristened the “Stingray”) featured longer, lower lines and new under-pinning architecture.

The Tri-Power 427 returned, but accompanied with an all-aluminum doppelganger, coded the ZL-1. The power output was nowhere near the reported 430hp, rather, making closer 560. Unapologetic and brutish, the Corvette was becoming more of a handful that Zora could ever had imagined. The LS6 454 was the height of the Corvette’s quest for ever-increasing cubic inches, but curiously detuned from the previous year’s Chevelle SS.

Languishing throughout the 1970s and into the 1980’s, the Corvette withered both in performance and innovation, relying solely on the car’s stale racing heritage to bolster sales. Meanwhile, European automakers had a new class to contend with, the super car.

Although regularly used throughout the 1970s and 80s, the phrase “super cars” was never precisely defined but came to be synonymous with the “GT” or Grand Touring style cars. Originally accredited to British motor journalist L. J. K. Setright and his assessment of the mid-engine Lamborghini Miura during the mid-1960s, super cars came to be defined as “a very expensive, fast or powerful car with a centrally located engine.”

By 1984 and the introduction of the fourth generation Corvette, its proper classification was further blurred. The American muscle car was all but dead, and by no means would the mid-80’s Corvette mistaken for a super car. Diluted and watered down, the Corvette was never more tepid than during this period, but still managed to remain the solitary dedicated two-seater sports coupe built by an American automaker.

The Corvette stirred to life with the introduction of the ZR-1. Equipped with a Mercury Marine-built DOHC, four-valve 5.7-liter producing 375-horsepower, the original collaboration between GM and Lotus resulted in a five year windfall of positive press and invaluable word-of-mouth. Suddenly back on top and back with a bone to pick with Dodge’s V10-powered Viper, Corvette took their newly designed C5 to LeMans.

Engineers at Chevrolet had toyed with the idea of a mid-engined Corvette, and even went so far as to relocated the transmission to the rear, but since the C5.R continually staved off rear-engine Porsches and mid-engine Audis and Ferraris, the need to move the engine aft became moot.

It was during this hyper competitive period that the Corvette was finally welcomed into the super car pantheon. Despite its forward engine location, the Corvette’s advanced architecture, lightweight composite material body and chassis, and a series of LS-based engines propelled even the most entry-level Corvette into top performer status.

GM – amid the throes of sagging sales and jettisoning axillary auto brands like Saturn, Hummer, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac – pushed to retain Corvette’s stranglehold on the international performance market. By employing innovative technology and utilizing the best in engineering hardware, the Corvette became just as refined as its competitors across the pond.

Unlike its domestic brethren, the Viper SRT10 and the Ford GT, the new generation Corvette had one last secret to unveil, the resurrected ZR1. Unlike its predecessor, the new ZR-1 featured the new “LS9” Eaton-supercharged 6.2-liter plant producing a staggering 638hp. With an asking price on point with an Aston Martin Vantage or a Porsche GT2, the most powerful Corvette production car ever topped off at 205mph.

Standing as a polished example of American sports car craftsmanship, the highest-end ZR1 featured carbon fiber composite body panels, a signature wide-body stance, a plush interior covered in leather and featuring the very best of electronic cabin controls available through General Motors. On par with the heavy weaponry developed by Italian car makers, today’s Corvette is as much a precision-tuned machine as any super car can be.

Although sharing some of its heavy-hitting DNA with the street machines of Chevrolet’s past, it has remained a lean, trimmed track athlete compared to the middle- and heavy-weight boxers of yesterday’s muscle cars. It’s been an exercise in evolution, but the Corvette is – and always has been – a super car, although it might have taken a while for it to finally get there.

About the author

Kevin Shaw

Kevin Shaw is a self-proclaimed "muscle car purist," preferring solid-lifter camshafts and mechanical double-pumpers over computer-controlled fuel injection and force-feeding power-adders. If you like dirt-under-your-fingernails tech and real street driven content, this is your guy.
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