Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival



Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival


Nicholas Tomkins

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ISBN (hardback) 978-1-4222-4417-3 ISBN (series) 978-1-4222-4413-5 ISBN (ebook) 978-1-4222-7397-5 Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file with the Library of Congress

Developed and produced by National Highlights Inc. Editor: Regency House Publishing Limited Production: Becki Stewart Interior and cover design: Regency House Publishing Limited Text © 2020 Regency House Publishing Limited

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CONTENTS Introduction 6 Chapter 1: Chevrolet Corvette 9 Chapter 2: The Corvette Gets a V8 Engine 17 Chapter 3: The Stingray 25 Chapter 4: A Bright Future For the Corvette 39 Chapter 5: Modern Muscle Cars 53 Series Glossary of Key Terms 74 Further Reading and Internet Resources 75 Index 76 Author’s Biography, Picture & Video Credits 80


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W hat is a muscle car? First of all, let us eliminate what it is not: it is not a piece of Italian exotica, a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, cars which are just too complex and too specialized; nor is it a German Porsche, which is too efficient and too clever by half; nor yet a classic British sports car, a Morgan, TVR, or Jaguar, which could never be regarded as fitting the bill. Sports cars, by and large, are not muscle cars, with two notable exceptions: the legendary AC Cobra of the 1960s, and the Dodge Viper of the 1990s. These followed the muscle car creed of back-to-basics raw power. In effect, muscle cars always were, and always will be, a quintessentially North American phenomenon. The basic concept is something like this: take a mid-sized American sedan, nothing complex, upscale, or fancy, in fact the sort of car one would use to buy the groceries in any American town on any day of the week; add the biggest, raunchiest V8 that it is possible to squeeze under the hood; and there it is.

6 Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival Sports cars are not considered to be muscle cars. The exception is the AC Cobra, the English muscle car.

Dodge has been manufacturing muscle cars for years. This is a modern Dodge Viper.

The muscle car concept really is as simple as that. Moreover, the young men who desired these cars, and most of themwere young and men, though that would change, were not interested in technical sophistication, nor handling finesse, nor even top speed. Cubic inches, horsepower, and acceleration rates were the only figures that counted. Muscle cars were loud, proud, and in your face, and did not pretend to be anything else. They might have been simple, even crude, but for roaring, pumping, tire-smoking standing starts, they were the business. To an American youth culture raised on drag racing, red-light street racing, and hot-rodding, they were irresistible. The “Big Three” manufacturers soon woke to this fact and joined the power race to offer more cubic inches, more horsepower, and fewer seconds over the standing quarter. For a few short years, between 1965 and 1970, it seemed as though the race would never end. The result was often more power than the car (and the driver) could handle safely, but then part of the attraction was making a four-seater sedan go faster than it was ever intended. But the situation could not last. The combination of high horsepower in the hands of young drivers saw accident rates soar, and insurance premiums followed suit. Moreover, the climate of the times was changing, with a whole raft of safety and emissions legislation coming into force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So, even before the first oil crisis made itself felt, the first-generation muscle cars were already on their way out. By the 1980s, however, they were beginning to creep back, first with turbocharged fours, then V8s; by the 1990s, muscle cars were back with a vengeance: more “high-tech” than before, even sophisticated, with ABS, electronic fuel injection, and multi-valve engines. Manufacturers were by then talking virtuously about catalytic converters and air bags, but the truth was that performance was selling once again. Anti-social? Yes. Irresponsible? Of course. But one thing was certain—the muscle car was back.

The Chevrolet Impala was a prime candidate for a beef-up having been downsized in 1961.

Introduction 7

WORDS TO UNDERSTAND homage: expression of high regard, respect, or honor.

mass-produced: made in large quantities, usually by machinery. prototypes: new types of vehicle designs from which other ones are developed.

The arrival of the little two-seater Corvette caused a stir at its launch in 1953.

8 Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival


C an the Corvette really be classified as a muscle car? Conventional wisdom includes V8-powered mid-sized sedans and compacts, or 2+2 pony cars, but not two-seater sports cars. Well, the Corvette was a V8, too, and it always concentrated on delivering a high-performance per dollar rating, a key factor in the muscle car concept. And over a production life of 40 years, it remained faithful to the front engine/rear drive layout, despite endless speculation about mid-engined prototypes . Straight-line performance via American V8 power was always part of that Corvette story: this, more than anything else, makes it a muscle car.

The original “little red corvette,” the C1.

Chevrolet Corvette 9

Corvette C1 According to General Motors, four-million people filed past the first Corvette to pay homage to it. Twenty thousand of these assured General Motors that yes, they would certainly buy a neat little sports car like the one on show. The mood in Detroit was jubilant. Chevrolet had gained an advantage over its competitors (neither Ford nor Chrysler had a sports car on the horizon—even Ford’s forthcoming Thunderbird couldn’t be classed as such) and appeared to be ready to spearhead a great American sports car revival. It was little wonder that management ordered the Corvette into production by the end of June, a bare six months after its Waldorf debut. There was talk of 20,000 a year being sold, though the projected sales for 1954 were later trimmed to 12,000; little did anyone suspect that it would take seven years for the Corvette’s total production to reach five figures. By the summer of 1953, the Corvette now safely in production, Chevrolet had no intention of trying to meet those 20,000 speculative orders all at once, or even to supply a car to every one of the marque’s 7,600 dealers.

The sporty interior of a 1950s Corvette.

10 Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival

The Corvette’s body was made from glass-reinforced plastic.

Instead, general sales manager William Fish decided to supply Corvettes only to selected high-volume dealers, who would be instructed to sell them only to certain local VIPs such as celebrities, local government officials, and businessmen. The idea was to give the car desirable upmarket cachet and keep the longer waiting list of everyday customers hanging on until the mass-produced Corvettes arrived in 1954. Born of necessity, perhaps (with the best will in the world, Chevrolet couldn’t plunge straight into full production of a glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) body), but it was a shrewd attempt to boost the Corvette’s image. After all, this was not planned to be a low-production sports car like the exotic Jaguar XK120; at $3,498 the Corvette was around $1,000 cheaper, though still $1,000 more than the little MG. In theory, it was possible to buy one for less by ordering it without a radio (which accounted for $145.15 off the list price) or heater ($91.40). In practice, every Corvette built came with a heater and radio, so $3,500, give or take a couple of bucks, was the price. Other standard equipment included whitewall tires, a clock, a cigarette lighter, windshield washers, an exterior mirror, and—something of a novelty—a brake warning light for parking. Members of the press were not able to drive a Corvette until the end of September, and even then were allotted just seven miles each, and not on the public road but around General Motors’ Milford Proving Ground. The pressures of production meant that just eight test cars had to be shared among 400 journalists, which could hardly be Chevrolet Corvette 11

HARLEY J. EARL Harley J. Earl was born in California in 1893. He was an American automotive designer famous for his contribution to General Motors, where he was head of design and later vice president. With a wealth of knowledge, Earl understood how to mass- produce automobiles with pioneering designs. His time at GM help to established Detroit as the automobile design capital of the world. Earl started “Project Opel,” which eventually led to the production of the Chevrolet Corvette. Today, he is considered the father of the Corvette. Harley’s accolades are numerous, including the invention of the concept car, the first to use full-size clay modeling and the computerization of cars. He

worked to help women get better opportunities in the car industry and worked with universities to encourage car design. Earl died in 1969.

considered a thorough road test, even though they came away impressed. Here, at last, was an American sports car built for American conditions, a fact stressed by general manager Tom Keating in the press release that marked the car’s official launch. “In the Corvette we have built a sports car in the American tradition. It is not a racing car in the accepted sense that a European sports car is a race car. It is intended rather to satisfy the American public’s conception of beauty, comfort, and convenience, plus performance.” By now, a stunning show car was just six months into production, and all Chevrolet had to do was wait for the customers, a fact underlined by a report

Scan here to take a closer look at the Corvette C1.

in Road & Track, which read: “It is an open secret that the entire contemplated production is sold.” Unfortunately, few of those who had confidently asserted that they would buy a Corvette actually did when the phone call from the dealer came through. By the end of 1953, a mere 183 cars had been delivered instead of the planned 300. Of course, there were no Corvettes sitting around in parking lots, as many were still being used in dealer displays, but dealers found that they had to phone several buyers on the waiting list before they found one who was actually prepared to put their money where their mouth was. Why was this? Well, none of the hyperbole had cut much ice with the real sports car enthusiasts. Sports cars, whomever they were aimed at, were not supposed to have automatic transmissions—they had powerful brakes and 12 Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival

taut handling, and the Corvette had neither; the sedan drum brakes faded under hard use, and the car rolled around corners before slipping into oversteer. In spite of all the hard work transforming the Stovebolt engine into a Blue Flame, moreover, it was too feeble, making the Corvette barely quicker than the smaller-engined Austin-Healey and woefully behind a Jaguar. It hurt, because the Corvette looked as if it should go fast but didn’t. The Corvette’s performance may have been underwhelming, but surely its looks, auto transmission, and convenience features would endear it to the boulevard cruisers? Unfortunately, they hated the leaky, crude sidescreens, the lack of exterior door handles, and the rattles that plagued those very early Corvettes. The triple carburetors also needed careful tuning, and the Corvette’s aerodynamics caused exhaust gases to be sucked forward, staining the lovely Polo White paintwork in which the first 300 Corvettes had been finished. As if that were not enough, the rush to production using an unfamiliar material resulted in uneven body quality, poor panel fit, and stress cracks. By then it was winter, and nobody bought sports cars in the winter, did they? In any case the die had literally been cast, and the St. Louis plant was gearing up to build its 10,000 Corvettes for 1954. Contracts had been signed and parts ordered in, but could the Corvette deliver?

A Corvette C1 in a historic race for classic cars in Gran Premio Nuvolari, Italy.

Chevrolet Corvette 13

The convertible Corvette was very popular with buyers.

TEXT-DEPENDENT QUESTIONS 1. Why is the Corvette not always considered a muscle car? 2. Who was Harley J. Earl? 3. How many Corvettes were delivered by the end of 1953?

14 Corvettes & The Muscle Car Revival

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