Concept that changed the world

By Thomas Geiger

The Chevrolet Corvette has become a treasured automotive icon

The Chevrolet Corvette was America's first home-grown sports cabriolet after World War II. Photo / Supplied
The Chevrolet Corvette was America's first home-grown sports cabriolet after World War II. Photo / Supplied

When it was first shown to the public as a concept at a New York hotel in January 1953 nobody expected the creamy, tail-finned Chevrolet Corvette to become a treasured automotive icon.

It went on to be one of the most successful sporting cars of all time.

After a smooth debut at the Waldorf Astoria as part of General Motors travelling "Motorama" exhibition 60 years ago, the car ran into some serious production snags.

GM had pinned its hopes on the Chevrolet Corvette which was designed by Harley Earl and originally known by its codename XP-122.

The car giant wanted to produce America's first home-grown sports cabriolet after World War II to show the nation and beyond that US engineers could compete with European sports-car manufacturers.

Until then North American makers were best-known for heavyweight limousines often referred to disparagingly as "yank tanks".

Although strapped for development cash, Earl was determined to shave weight off the Corvette. He opted for bodywork made from glass fibre.

Enthusiasts are grateful to this day for the far-sighted decision since fibreglass does not rust, ensuring that many Corvettes have survived.

The first few hundred Corvettes were bought straight from the showroom floor and customers were hungry for more. Unfortunately, fashioning the fibreglass body was more complicated than at first thought. The performance of the car also left much to be desired.

To cut costs Earl had used a six-cylinder pick-up engine of prewar design.

The unit boasted 3.8 litres of displacement but "only" 150 horsepower. The Corvette was hard pressed to top 170km/h which left it literally far behind premium European sports cars such as the Jaguar XK120.

The euphoria was short-lived and although the first six month's worth of production was sold out, only two years after introduction, the Corvette faced the axe.

New, more powerful engines were the answer and they ignited what was to become one of the quintessential US muscle cars. A V8 was offered, initially with 4.3 litres. Straightline performance went up to more than 200km/h and sales took off.

A spin in one of the original Chevy roadsters is like a trip back in time to an era when music blared out from jukeboxes and MP3 players had not been even thought of. The driver takes his place in a tiny leather seat before snapping back the softtop, adjusting his sunglasses and turning the ignition key.

The motor bursts into life before settling down to a deep, rumbling tickover. Getting under way is not so easy. The footwell is amazingly narrow and the fragile gearstick has to be carefully threaded into place.

Once first gear is engaged the Corvette surges forward.

Thanks to its low kerb weight of 1300kg and excellent roadholding the Corvette can be thrown into curves with abandon - provided the weather is dry.

Current models have all the driver assistance gizmos but the early cars have none and these can be a handful on wet roads.

Accident damage can be very costly too. A well-kept Corvette C1 is worth around $125,000.

The Corvette is now in its sixth edition and the seventh incarnation will weigh in at this week's Detroit auto show. Details are still sketchy but one thing is for sure. The car will feature two seats and a zesty engine with eight cylinders.A

-AP

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