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The Corvette has a fascinating place in Americana. At the end of World War II in 1945, the post-war generation fell in love with the first Corvette, and that affair is obviously still going strong.
Servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II found the nifty and sporty British MG quite appealing. Even though ownership of the 2 seater sports car was limited to a small, elite group, it was hot in America. Lucrative war contracts had left General Motors mightier than ever. They reasoned that a sports car tailored to American driving conditions and comforts an affluent population wanted in their cars would sell well. It would also boost the stodgy image of Chevrolet.
When Ed Cole became chief engineer at Chevrolet, he immediately tripled the engineering staff. Harley J. Earl, founder and head of the firm's arts and color section, also felt the time was right for an American sports car. Earl picked Robert McLean, a young sports car enthuasist with degrees in engineering and industrial design, to come up with a basic layout for this secret project, nicknamed "Project Opel." McLean started from the back of the car with a rear axle as a reference point, and placed the passenger and engine compartments as close to it as possible. His goal was to have a 50/50 weight distribution, which creates optimum handling in a sports car.
In 1953 General Motors introduced the Chevrolet Corvette, the first American made sports car. Available only in white with red interior, it sported a $3,490 suggested retail price. In its Jan. 4, 1954 issue, Life Magazine reported, "Owners will like its lightness and ease of repair: if the tough plastic is punctured in an accident it can usually be patched like new with a blowtorch for a couple of dollars."
In its first two years of operation, Corvette was not an unqualified success. Sports car enthuasists did not like automatic transmission and were shocked to find only detachable windows that couldn't be rolled down. Ford broke the market wide open with the introduction of the Thunderbird. Debates accelerated then (and now) over which vehicle was the most powerful.
Zora Arkus-Duntov was hired by Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer in 1953 and later became Corvette's chief engineer. Without his help, Corvette production would have been halted in 1955. The fact that Thunderbirds outsold Corvettes by a 23 to 1 ratio in 1955 caused Arkus-Duntov to "come out swinging" in 1956.
In 1956 and 1957 the Corvette had more prominent headlights, "coves" indented on each side, squarer fenders, and conventional winding windows. From whatever angle the car was viewed, there was no mistaking that the car was a Corvette. However, there were few changes and limited promotion of the Corvette between 1956 and 1962.
In the early 1960s Harley Earl retired, and new ideas came with new leadership. Bill Mitchell, GM's new chief of design, had an incredibly successful idea: Stingray! Tradition was broken as the totally redesigned Corvette was offered as a coupe or a convertible with 4 engine choices. Both featured a streamlined appearance and improved passenger accommodations. The American public loved 1963-1967 Stingrays because they were fast machines that looked supersonic even when parked. They remain the most collectible Corvettes today.
By the 1970s engines had to be de-tuned to meet emission limits and had to be designed to run on unleaded fuel. In 1974 seatbelts were standard.
In 1978, Corvette's 25th year of production, there was another dramatic change. The fastback roofline, a wide expanse of glass wrapped around the car's sides, added a feeling of more interior space and gave the ‘Vette a fresh appearance.
The biggest Corvette news of the 1980s was the transfer of production from an old facility in St. Louis, Missouri to a state-of-the-art plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Because of this move, no 1983 Corvettes were made, and few cars have been more eagerly anticipated than the 1984 Corvette. GM met the challenge with technical sophistication and true style. In 1986 the convertible returned after a 10 year absence. The Corvette ZR-1 option was the automotive event of the 1990 model year. The one millionth Corvette, a white convertible with red interior to match the first car produced in 1953, was made in July, 1992.
The growth of Corvette's popularity led to the formation of about 700 national and international clubs for Corvette enthusiasts. A non-profit foundation representing most of these clubs opened the National Corvette Museum in 1994. It is located next to the General Motors Corvette Assembly in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Those traveling I-65 between Nashville, Tennessee and Louisville, Kentucky notice its circular shape topped by a yellow cone roof. Inside, dynamic exhibits tell the Corvette story - past, present and future.