The Chevrolet Corvette was anything but a performance car when the first one rolled out of a GM factory in 1953, recalls Werner Meier, owner of Masterworks Automotive Services in Madison Heights, Mich., a restoration shop that specializes in Corvettes.
The sleek two-seater was pretty, but also slow, heavy and underpowered. GM used parts from other cars to hold down its development cost and the result was more "show" than "go."
Chevrolet created a stir by planting the first few 'Vettes with movie stars, public figures and high-profile executives, but the car nearly failed. Sales were so slow in 1954, the second model year, that GM nearly dropped the car. The Corvette might not have survived if Ford hadn't ignited GM's competitive fires by launching its own two-seater, the 1955 Thunderbird.
About the same time the T-bird took flight, legendary Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote a prophetic letter to GM's leaders. He argued the company needed a small, sporty, performance model or it would lose the youth market. Arkus-Duntov would end up with a carte blanche to develop the Corvette that was unique within GM.
"By the time Zora was done with it, the Corvette was a race car," said automotive journalist and museum consultant Ken Gross. "He put the car on the map and kept the flame burning."
Arkus-Duntov began a string of performance upgrades and technical firsts that have kept the Corvette at the forefront of American automotive performance ever since.
"The T-bird outsold the Corvette 5-1 until 1958 when the Corvette added a V8, fuel injection and more," said McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in collectible cars and boats. "The Corvette took off and never looked back. It's America's sports car. The new ones have the performance of a super car at one-third the price and the older collectibles are like a blue-chip stock."
Like the '53 that caused a stir as a concept car long before it went on sale, the 2014 Corvette Stingray has been the center of attention since it debuted at the North American International Auto Show last January in Detroit. Everything from the name it's the first Corvette to use the hallowed Stingray name since the '70s to the square shape of its tail lights has fueled debate.
"The Corvette is the best expression of our design, performance and technology," Chevrolet sales chief Chris Perry said. "It's the True North of the brand." The 2014 checks all the boxes with 450 horsepower a 29-mpg fuel economy rating from the EPA and a 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds.
The Viper fills the same role for SRT, Chrysler's new performance brand, and for the whole Chrysler Group, said Ralph Gilles, SRT and motorsports boss and Chrysler design chief.
"In some ways, it's the soul of our company, the pilot light to our mojo," Gilles said of the new Viper, which boasts a unique 640-horsepower V10 engine and a street-racer feel. "It's the cauldron for our knowledge of how to make a car handle and a place to experiment with new materials" like the Kevlar/fiberglass seat backs that replace a heavier metal frame in the new car.
It's safe to assume next year's all-new Mustang timed to coincide with the car's 50th anniversary in the spring will make the same statement for Ford, forging a connection between the company's history and its future.
The first impressions from journalists who tested the 2104 Corvette Stingray in California this week suggest the mission was accomplished at Chevrolet.
"It's a wonderful car that should breathe a lot of new life into the Corvette," Motor Trend magazine technical director Frank Markus said. "It's a great new Corvette."
Mark Phelan: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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