Australians are only now receiving the first factory right-hand drive Chevrolet Corvettes, but the story goes way back to 1953.
The original was a fairly crude fibreglass-bodied six-cylinder convertible, named after a small naval vessel. It was built largely from parts from other Chevy models, and its low power output and two-speed automatic transmission helped keep reviews lukewarm and sales low.
There was little inkling the Corvette would make it to a second generation, let alone survive 69 years and be recognised as the archetypal American sports car.
Things picked up with arrival of a V8 option, but the Corvette really came into its own in the 1960s with the radically styled Sting Ray coupe. It was inspired by a 1959 Chevrolet show car known as the Sting Ray Racer, in turn inspired by the shape of a mako shark caught during a fishing trip by GM head designer Bill Mitchell.
The man who now holds Mitchell’s job is Australian Mike Simcoe. The former Holden design boss now runs the show in Detroit and is a particular fan of that first coupe. When we spoke to him a few years ago, he was hunting for his ideal example: a 1963 “silver-over-red split-window, injected” version. Alas though, his office confirmed he still hasn’t found this rare beast.
GM gave a 1962 model to Alan Shepard as a “thanks” for being the first American in space. For the next 10 years or so, almost every US astronaut drove a ’Vette. It wasn’t just the styling and performance, GM had a lease deal – reputedly set at a highly competitive $0 a month – for those with “the right stuff”.
Sting Ray would become Stingray, and the Corvette would go through many iterations, with coupe, convertible and targa roof versions, all using fibreglass/plastic composite body panels.
For most of its life, the Corvette has been powered by a big V8 engine mounted up front. This reached its zenith, in capacity terms, with the 7.44-litre big block 454 of the 1970s. The combination of exotic looks, near-supercar performance (at least in a straight line) and sharp pricing has kept it a best-seller in the American market.
The C8 name attached to the current model – the first mid-engined ’Vette – denotes that it is the eighth generation.