Looking back, it's hard to imagine that Chevrolet's fiberglass two-seater came perilously close to a premature demise. Or that it might have evolved into a baroque showpiece of tailfins and chrome, perhaps with sharp angles replacing the familiar rounded contours. Had some of the early proposals for 1958 restyling been followed, what sort of Corvette might have emerged? And would it have survived to evolve into the stunning Sting Ray of the Sixties?
Through the 1950s, concept vehicles were playing an increasingly vital role in establishing basic design trends. And like it or not, those trends included fins and brightwork, the latter virtually ladled in place "with a trowel," as Bill Mitchell -- who replaced the legendary Harley Earl as head of GM styling in 1958 -- once described the decorative process. Shoppers loved the GM Motoramas with their lavish displays of dream cars. The very first Corvette, after all, started life at the '53 Motorama. At the 1956 exhibition, GM displayed its titanium-bodied Firebird II with a gas turbine engine; a plastic-bodied Impala hardtop; a Buick Centurion with a TV screen replacing the rear-view mirror; and Pontiac's Club de Mer with a retractable fin. But it is Oldsmobile's Motorama offering that concerns us here: the futuristic Golden Rocket, with a jutting shark-like countenance, lift-up roof panels, and sharply finned rear.
Mounted on a 105-inch wheelbase -- just three inches longer than the Corvette's -- the Golden Rocket was a tight and low two-seat coupe, inspired by the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing. A narrow vertical grille slot was barely noticeable on the Rocket's massive, sharply-angled nose, which looked ready to leap off the front of the car. Complementary front fenders swept in an unbroken line all the way back to torpedo-like rear fender tips, while small, sharpened fins ran halfway back from the rear roof pillars.
Gullwing-like "flippers" cut into the roof, raising when the door was opened. A large, split rear window wrapped both downward and around, highlighting the tapered roofline. Divided by a body-colored bar, that window style was destined to appear later on the '63 Sting Ray.
Corvette sales hadn't exactly excited GM's accountants, even after the second-generation restyling for 1955-56, which added such niceties as roll-up windows. In those two seasons together, barely more than 9800 Corvettes had gone on sale. However, enthusiasts raved about the 265-cid V-8 that debuted in 1955. Its 283-cid successor, introduced for 1957, drew even more raves, especially since one of its five incarnations involved "Ramjet" fuel injection and an output of the near-mythical "1 h.p. per cubic inch."
GM management liked the Corvette enough to authorize preliminary work toward a '58 model, which entered the planning stage in September 1955. Top choice for a starting point was that Golden Rocket show car, then several months short of its initial appearance.
Explained Corvette author Karl Ludvigsen: "The clay model that was completed [in the winter of 1955-56] retained the Golden Rocket's general lines and proportions but had a completely different front end, with four headlights -- the rage that was then sweeping the industry, led by GM -- above two large oval nostrils as air inlets." A fiberglass model was finished by March 1956, after which "much more engineering work remained to be done ... before such a radically changed [Corvette] could be readied for production. A crisis in the manufacturing development of a new Chevy truck line drew away the needed engineers, as did the heavy workload demanded by the all-new 1958 [passenger-car line]. Corvette as Son of Golden Rocket was shelved for 1958, and as it turned out, for good."
In addition to the development of the '58 models, Chevrolet engineers had plenty of work ahead in designing the rear-engine compact Corvair -- a car that really would break all the rules. The Golden Rocket appeared again at the 1957 Paris auto show, but its far-out form was destined to become just one more footnote -- another Corvette concept abandoned because of lack of development time, suitable technology, or adequate budget. Fortunately for Corvette fans who appreciate the car's logical design evolution, General Motors retreated from Rocket-related thoughts.
Also abandoned were thoughts of a possible switch to an aluminum body, and plans for unitized construction. For now, the Corvette would have to get by with an evolutionary facelift -- a revamp that some branded heavy-handed, and a step backward from the "classic" look of 1955-57. Nevertheless, the modifications helped lead the sports car into the black on the account books.
A conservative alternative didn't materialize out of thin air, but had been prepared as a backup to the proposed radical design. Ludvigsen explains that this alternate "was clearly aimed at giving the Chevy sports car more external glitter and gloss, which ... was felt, at that time, to [be vital for] the successful selling of cars."
Though admittedly heftier -- and yes, a tad overblown -- the third-generation Corvette didn't deserve all of the derision it earned. Subsequent enthusiasts have learned to appreciate its unique charms, and its role as the last 'Vette to continue the original theme.
The clean, rounded lines of the 1956-57 generation were still evident, but made a trifle tacky by the addition of simulated hood louvers, fake air scoops alongside the grille and in bodyside "coves," and twin chrome bars running down the trunklid. The front end took a cue or two from the Corvette SR-2 prototype racing car, but tossed in plenty of glitz. Quad headlights led the way -- par for the course this year -- wearing thick chrome bezels that met bright strips, which continued back atop the fenders. Stylists rejected a suggestion to replace the grille's distinctive teeth, but did reduce their number from 13 to nine.
Author Ludvigsen explains that "two nostrils that had been the sole air inlets of the original planned new car became smaller inlets flanking the main opening, which kept the characteristic oval outline. All three openings had heavy chrome surrounds. Simple grille patterns were tried, honeycomb designs and fine mesh, but ... the familiar 'teeth' were again featured." Not until the spring of 1956, he adds, did the reworked Corvette suddenly begin to expand its complement of add-on doodads. "If the objective was, as one designer said at the time, to make the Corvette look like a Cadillac," summarized Ludvigsen, "that aim was certainly achieved." Of course, GM wanted all of its cars to look more like Cadillacs, so the choice wasn't exactly a surprise.
At a glance it's not so evident, but the '58 Corvette added 9.2 inches in overall length, now reaching 177.2 inches. Width grew to 72.8 inches, and weight increased by some 200 pounds. Road & Track bemoaned "the corrosive influence of the 'stylists,'" but beneath the hefty new body lurked some genuine improvements. Bumpers, for example, were no longer attached to the body but to the frame. All gauges (except the clock) now sat ahead of the driver, countering criticism of the original's scattered instrument layout. Perched on the steering column, ahead of the big 160-mph speedometer, sat a 6000-rpm tachometer. A vertical console held heater controls, clock, and the optional "Wonder Bar" signal-seeking radio. The passenger had a grab bar to hang onto while seated on the new "pebble-grain" fabric upholstery.
Extra bulk didn't impair the Corvette's potent go-power and agility by much. The top "fuelie" with its 10.5:1 compression ratio and Duntov camshaft actually added a few horses, now eager to unleash 290 of them at a rousing 6200 rpm. Other engine selections were the same as before, ranging from 230/245 bhp with a single four-barrel carburetor to 250 bhp with fuel injection, and 270 bhp with twin four-barrels. Nearly half of all Corvette customers opted for the base engine, while a thousand took the 290-bhp plunge. A full load of goodies, including the hottest engine ($484), heavy-duty brakes/suspension ($425), and four-speed gearbox ($188) added about $1200 to the car's $3631 base price.
Sports Cars Illustrated's 250-bhp test car ran the 0-60 dash in 7.6 seconds, with a four-speed gearbox that was "at least the equal of any box we've ever tried, [bringing] to mind the old metaphor about a hot knife and butter." In the opinion of veteran racer Sam Hanks, who tested four 'Vettes for Motor Trend, "Chevrolet designers ought to be proud of the style of the Corvette and their engineers should be proud of a fine sports car."
Customers obviously agreed, helping the Corvette turn a profit for the first time as production rose to an impressive (for Corvette) 9168 units. America languished in the midst of a sharp recession, and the Corvette was one of the few domestic models (other than Rambler and the four-seater Ford Thunderbird) to post a sales increase. Those who criticized the styling excesses had only to look at other U.S.-built cars and be thankful that GM hadn't wandered a lot farther off the no-nonsense track.
An edict from the Automobile Manufacturers Association had stifled company participation in racing, but that didn't keep Corvettes from taking some impressive victories, including the SCCA B-Production crown and the GT class at Sebring. Ads played down this aspect of the Corvette story, however, suggesting instead that customers take note of the "silken cyclone of a V-8" and the "beautifully compact body," atop "a chassis that clings to the road like a stalking panther."
It didn't take much to change the minds of critics: just delete some of that surplus chrome, led by the useless hood louvers and decklid strips. That's what happened for 1959, prompting Road & Track to call the result "a pretty package with all the speed you need, and then some." Sports Cars Illustrated said, simply, "Good riddance."
Inside, armrests and door handles were repositioned, seats reshaped, and a shelf added. Sunvisors became optional, concave instrument lenses reduced reflections, and a T-handle lockout for manual gearboxes prevented accidental engagement of reverse. Powertrain choices remained the same, but the rear suspension now incorporated trailing radius rods, softening the ride as they helped counteract rear-axle windup from the bountiful torque of the most powerful engines. Road & Track blasted its 290-bhp 'Vette to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds, hitting 96 mph.
Not long after stylists had taken the Golden Rocket as a starting point, they were pondering yet another radical possibility. Under development since 1957 was the "Q-Corvette," which would have been a smaller, lighter two-seater. Boasting highly streamlined styling, it might also have had an independent rear suspension, all-disc brakes, and a transaxle derived from the one being developed for Chevy's new rear-engine Corvair.
Q-Corvette styling by Bob McLean featured peaked fenders, a long nose, and a bobbed tail. Because the pointy nose couldn't hold quad headlights, pop-ups were devised -- later to see service on the Sting Ray, as did the split rear window that appeared on one Q-Vette design. Corporate executives had considered offering a full line of large, rear-engine "Q" sedans for 1960, with which the Q-Corvette would share major mechanical components. When that passenger car was scrapped as too radical, and attention had to be focused on the forthcoming Corvair, the Q-Corvette likewise evaporated. A similar transaxle with swing-arm rear suspension wound up on the 1961 Pontiac Tempest, which turned out to be a horrid handler. So perhaps it's just as well that the concept died at the Corvette level.
GM Design had additional ideas in mind, including a retractable hardtop. By decade's end, too, rumors of an imminent mid-engine Corvette began to surface. Such a concept was indeed in the experimental stage, but destined never to become reality -- though such rumors resurfaced every time a new generation was about to arrive.
Back in the real world, the Corvette's price jumped to $3875. Demand was stronger than ever, though, as buyers eagerly snapped up the 9670 units produced during the 1959 model year. On the other hand, this was still far below the 21,380 Thunderbirds that were built in the last year of Ford's two-seater "personal car."
In any case, production edged upward to 10,261 units for 1960, even though that model was virtually identical to the '59. However, solid lifters and a towering 11.0:1 compression boosted the most potent fuelie to 315 bhp at 6200 rpm. But Powerglide couldn't handle that kind of torque, so only the manual shift was available with fuel injection. That gearbox got new aluminum clutch housings, saving 18 pounds, and a thermostatically controlled fan also became optional. In addition, a larger-diameter front anti-roll bar and new rear bar helped yield a smoother ride and more neutral handling. This model year also marked the debut of a Corvette on the popular TV series Route 66, driven around the country by actors Martin Milner and George Maharis. And even though it seems like only yesterday, suddenly America became Corvette-conscious.
Around 1960, whispers again began about an entirely new Corvette, bolstered by the competition debut of a dramatic Stingray special, "privately" entered by GM design chief Bill Mitchell. Many Corvette fans were certain that the Stingray signaled the shape of things to come. The car was certainly dramatic, with lines adapted by stylist Larry Shinoda from the stillborn Q-Corvette. But the all-new 'Vette, like many of the rumors that had preceded it, never happened.
Not much changed for the final two seasons of this 'Vette generation, largely because Chevrolet had other priorities particularly the Corvair and, soon afterward (prodded on by the success of the Ford Falcon), the Chevy II. Nevertheless, the tasteful touch-ups that deleted some of the Corvette's chrome and geegaws made these latter editions particularly sought-after today.
An all-new, flowing "ducktail" rear end was borrowed from Bill Mitchell's Stingray racer, adding luggage space as well as aesthetic appeal. Small round taillights sat alongside the central license-plate recess, while a modest creaseline extended through the traditional round medallion. Simple bumperettes bracketed the license plate, and dual exhaust pipes now exited separately, below the body. Body-colored bezels helped clean up the quad-headlight nose. Gone for good were the long-lived grille teeth, replaced with a horizontal-mesh insert.
More than 7000 customers paid $188 for a four-speed manual gearbox, now aluminum-cased. An aluminum radiator boosted cooling capacity, but weighed just half as much as the prior copper-core unit. As before, five flavors of the 283-cubic-inch small-block V-8 were offered.
Road & Track was "greatly impressed by the combination of a very good ride coupled with little roll on corners." Sports Cars Illustrated noted that the '61 was "one of the most remarkable marriages of touring comfort and violent performance we have ever enjoyed, especially at the price." Production rose to 10,939 for the model year, despite a price hike to $3934.
The top news for '62 was under the hood, as the 283-cid engine was bored-and-stroked to a displacement of 327 cubic mches. Even the mildest 327 pumped out 250 horsepower, while the sole fuelie reached a ferocious 360 bhp. A 'Vette so equipped could hit 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and consume the quarter-mile in as little as 14.5 seconds.
A final cleanup deleted the chrome outline around the bodyside coves, which also shed their triple chrome accent spears. Two-tone color schemes were no longer available, either, further enhancing the unified look -- as well as the end of the fins-and-flash era. Another sign of the times was that the grille mesh switched from chrome to black.
By this time, purists may have been disheartened by the Corvette's transformation from a spartan road-and-race sports car into a civilized tourer. But "everyday" customers -- the ones who counted when GM tallied up the dollars and cents -- were happily paying to get a Corvette for their garages.
Signaling the end of an era, the '62 introduced the first of the decade's new Corvette engines, a 327-cid V-8 with horsepower ratings that started at 250 and peaked at a robust 360. Unarguably, the car had made real progress. Faster, better handling, more neatly styled, and more civilized than any previous Corvette, it hadn't lost the charm of the original. More important for the future, the Corvette was beginning to pay its way, with 14,531 two-seaters ready for buyers in 1962, up some 40 percent over the previous year. After a decade of life, the original concept had run its course. Both GM and an enthusiatic drivership were ready for the bright new Sting Ray generation to come.