No car is more uniquely American than the Chevrolet Corvette. It’s a sports car, but with its big, overhead valve V-8 engines, it attacks high performance with a blunt edge instead of the scalpel-like precision of traditional European sports cars. Put it on a track, though, and it will compete with the best of them.
On the eve of the introduction of the seventh-generation Corvette, the so-called C7, we thought it would be a good time to look back at great Corvettes over its 60-year run. Here are six of our favorites, one from each generation.
1953 Chevrolet Corvette
The first Corvette wasn’t a very impressive performance machine, but it began the legend. The Corvette made its debut as a concept car in January 1953 at the GM Motorama in New York. A production car followed that summer, but only 300 were built that first year. Problems forming the fiberglass bodies meant the cars had to be handbuilt. All 300 1953 Corvettes were painted Polo White and featured Sportsman Red interiors. The 235-cubic inch inline 6-cylinder engine made a modest 150-horsepower (no V-8 would be offered until 1955), and the only transmission was a two-speed Powerglide automatic. Zero to 60 mph arrived in a leisurely 11 seconds, but by 1957 that number would drop to just 5.7 seconds.
1963 Corvette Sting Ray Split-Window Coupe
For many automotive fans, the Corvette hit its design zenith in its second generation, which ran from 1963 to 1967. The C2 generation was the first to take on the Sting Ray moniker and it kicked off with the most beautiful Corvette of all time, the 1963 split-window coupe. It was the first coupe in Corvette history, and today it’s one of the most collectible. The split-window design was dropped after just one year, incidentally, due to issues with rear vision. The 327-cubic-inch V-8 put out as much as 360-horsepower when ordered with fuel injection. In addition to its good looks, the 1963 Corvette handled and rode better, thanks in part to a new independent rear suspension. It also featured more creature comforts, including air conditioning for the first time.
1968 Corvette L88
The “shark” generation of the Corvette ran from 1968 all the way to 1982. The C3 debuted during the peak of the muscle car era, and Chevrolet offered a Corvette to meet or beat the best performers of the day, the L88. Designed for racers, the L88 package came with stiffer suspension settings and heavy duty brakes, while deleting comforts like a radio, air conditioning, and even a heater. The 427-cubic-inch V-8 featured aluminum heads and a 12.5:1 compression ratio. It was rated at 430-horsepower – but it likely closer to 500-hp – and it helped Corvette win racing titles at Daytona and Sebring. Only 80 L88s were built in 1968, making them hugely collectible today.
1990 Corvette ZR-1
Due to their perceived lack of sophistication, Corvettes have often been looked down upon by fans of European sports cars. The 1990 ZR-1 was developed as an attempt to change that perception. The greatest leap in technology was found under the hood. Developed with Lotus and built by Mercury Marine, the all-aluminum LT5 5.7-liter V-8 eschewed the traditional overhead valve design for a more modern dual overhead cam configuration. It made 375-horsepower compared to the base Corvette’s 250 horses. Period road tests proved the ZR-1 could set some blazingly fast numbers: 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds and a 13.4-second quarter mile. Chevrolet built the ZR-1 through 1995. While its performance has since been eclipsed, the ZR-1 is notable for being the only factory-built Corvette powered by an overhead cam V-8.
2002 Corvette Z06
Chevrolet redesigned the Corvette for 1997, adding the now-familiar rear transaxle and much-improved power and handling. The highlight of the ‘C5’ generation Corvette was the Z06, which arrived for 2001. Under the hood, it featured the new 5.7-liter LS6 V-8 that churned out 385-horsepower in its first year and 405 horses thereafter. Zero to 60 mph took just 3.9 seconds, more than a half-second quicker than the ZR-1. As the Corvette’s high-performance leader, the Z06 featured a stiffer suspension, sticky Goodyear tires created specifically for the car, and the rigid and lightweight coupe body style. A more powerful Z06 would be added for the next generation Corvette, but its performance would soon be eclipsed by the meanest Corvette of all time.
2009 Corvette ZR1
After a 14-year hiatus, Chevrolet revived the ZR1 model for 2009, making it the fastest, most powerful Corvette ever. A new performance model required a new engine, and Chevrolet responded with the LS9 6.2-liter V-8, which spun out a whopping 638-horsepower. The LS9 was the first supercharged engine in Corvette history, and it delivered supercar performance numbers: 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, the quarter mile in 11.5 seconds, and a top speed of 205 mph. But the ZR1 wasn’t just about straight-line speed. Carbon-fiber body panels cut weight, aluminum suspension components and a specially-tuned version of the Magnetic Ride Control suspension aided handling, and carbon ceramic brakes provided racetrack-ready stopping power. The next version of the ZR1, based on the brand-new C7 Corvette Stingray, promises to be even wilder and quicker.