Today, we exclusively showed you what the seventh-generation 2014 Chevrolet Corvette will look like in ZR1 trim. Now, let's take a look back at the design milestones that gave America's Sports Car™ its legendary status, and where it went right — and wrong — along the way.
The Chevrolet Corvette has always been a designer's car. It was GM design legend Harley Earl who pushed Chevy to produce its own roadster, after seeing GIs return from overseas with sports cars in their luggage. In its six generations, the Corvette has seen changes for both good and ill, but it's always been a true American sports car.
Inspired by the Jaguar XK120, Harley Earl spent long hours in his top-secret, private studio at GM headquarters, drawing and re-drawing what would become the C1 Corvette's signature curves. The first result of Earl's fiberglass "dream car" was the "EX 122" prototype. That car was, in essence, the 1954 Corvette.
Introduced at GM Motorama in 1953, the prototype displayed a vision of American sports motoring combining the dreamy shapes of early-1950s American luxury cars with the aggressive posture of a European sports car. The name, taken from that of a highly maneuverable warship, was suggested by Myron Scott, a photographer with GM's ad agency.
Corvette C1 (1956)
But the early Corvette sold poorly, and while other, career-minded designers considered the 'Vette assignment a dead-end, Bob Cadaret stepped up and drew the more aggressive 1956 model. It was the first Corvette to feature those telltale scalloped body carve-outs, known as "coves" behind the front fenders.
Corvette C1 (C2 Preview Rear)
The new design was a success, and Earl's design protégé Bill Mitchell (who would replace Earl as design boss in 1958) soon initiated a contest between GM's design studios to pen up the next Corvette for 1960.
A change in GM leadership delayed the next-generation Corvette, but in 1961 'Vette buyers got a preview of the C2 generation in the form of a redesigned rear treatment, hearkening what would become the Sting Ray design language.
The car that won Mitchell's contest was a coupe penned by Peter Brock (who would leave GM in 1960 and eventually design the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe.) That car would become the Q Corvette coupe, a design prototype built with lightness in mind, using a Corvair transaxle and independent rear suspension.
Larry Shinoda was a California hot-rodder who was kicked out of the Art Center College of Design for being too awesome. Brief stints at Ford and Packard prepared him for his job under Mitchell at GM, working with Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov (who had been championing GM's overtures toward the hod-rod movement) on what would become the 1959 Stingray Racer XP-87.
Using design elements introduced with Mitchell's Q Corvette project — and inspired by the Jaguar E-Type — Shinoda refined the various elements of the prototypes into a new take on the roadster, and added to it the most breathtaking sports-car design the world had seen — the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray coupe. Putting aside its 360-hp V8 and independent rear suspension, the Sting Ray put the Corvette in league with Europe's best creations, design-wise.
Corvette C3 Mako Shark II Concept (1965)
While out deep-sea fishing in the Bahamas, Bill Mitchell reeled in a large mackerel shark, which he had mounted and hung on his office wall. That's part of the story of how the Shinoda-designed Mako Shark II concept car came to resemble both an actual shark and the third-generation Corvette.
With the C3, Chevrolet continued its design-forward approach to the Corvette. In the sports-car realm, the 1968 Corvette's form was purely avant-garde, and it set new sales records.
Seven inches longer and two inches lower than the C2, the C3's design has long been described as a "Coke bottle" — narrower in the center than at the ends — the liability of which was less interior room. It had a sharply cut "kamm-tail" at the rear, giving it a racy, aerodynamic profile. It was the first car to sport T-tops, which made the body more rigid, while offering the hair-blowing benefit of a targa roof.
Sadly, the G3 would be the generation that saw the Corvette's greatest performance decline during the fuel-crisis, emissions-conscious 1970s. It would also see its design neutered by bumper requirements. What started as a beautiful, forward-looking style would become a tired, sad husk of fashion.
The prosperous optimism of the 1980s needed a new kind of Corvette, and in 1984 we got the C4. It was the first 100-percent new Corvette model since 1963.
Jerry Palmer drew the C4 as a pencil sketch somewhere around 1978. He'd been at Chevrolet Exterior Studio 3 since 1974, and took over in 1977 when Bill Mitchell resigned. Palmer's revolutionary, wedge-shaped take on the Corvette was the first radical departure since the early 1960s. Inside, the C4 would be a combination of luxury and futurism, with an LCD-dappled, digital dashboard and a true-targa-top.
Where the C3 represented the Corvette in decline, the C4 represented the Corvette's return to performance. Throughout the C4's run, the 'Vette slowly got its mojo back, going from a 205-hp, attractive but smog-choked Chevy with electrical problems to, by 1990, the four-cam, 32-valve, 375 hp ZR-1, to the 300-hp base model and 330-hp Grand Sport in 1996.
Like the C4, the C5 was a revolutionary Corvette, even if the new body style didn't entirely speak to it. It was the first time designers at Studio 3 had looked heavily to the Japanese for guidance on how to give the Corvette a more appealing, more cutting-edge feel. Designers adopted more curves-within-curves, and recalled the late-C1 car's side "cove" design element, to which it added more prominent fender gills behind the front wheels.
But it was the C5's underpinnings that made it such a departure. The new car was lighter, more powerful, more rigid and had a third fewer components than the C4. When the 385-hp Z06 model arrived in 2001, the Corvette was finally a car that could handle with Europe's best
With a more compact design, better suspension geometry and 400 hp (at the least), the C6 Corvette was finally scratching at the door of pricier sports cars. Despite that exposed headlamps were back, the C6's drag coefficient was better than ever, at .28. It's shorter but has a longer wheelbase than the C5.
With the Z06 and ZR1 models, the Corvette became more than a one-trick sports car. The Z06 introduced an aluminum frame and other weight-saving measures to go along with the voluminous power those cars received. Ultimately, though, the design Corvette paradigm had remained relatively stable for 25 years. The company had forsaken the dramatic swings in styling language it had accomplished in the 1950s and 1960s. Cost control had overtaken wow factor in the Corvette universe, just as incremental performance improvements had defeated the wild swings in unfettered mechanical power seen during the 1960s.
With the C7, we'll again see higher performance in increment and styling in evolution. But will that be enough to make the Corvette relevant to its next generation of buyers?