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The CorvetteAuthor: Irving Robbin
(Article orginally published 1960)
Once upon a time there were three Chevrolet brothers, Louis, Gaston, and Arthur. They were no babes in the wood, but neither did they end as financial princes.
As experienced mechanics they came to America from France in 1900, got jobs, and immediately began to plan careers as racing drivers. They succeeded. The three Chevrolet brothers became the daredevils of the American tracks, but it was Louis who managed to out-drive the great Barney Oldfield in several races. His exploits attracted a man who can now be regarded as the big bad wolf, or the fairy godfather, depending on the point of view. He was William C. Durant, master of financial intrigue, born promoter, and one of the legendary figures of the automobile industry.
In 1908 he organized the General Motors combine by acquiring Buick and adding Oldsmobile and Cadillac. But by 1910 his devious financial schemes and tricky stock transfers resulted in an invitation to leave the budding industrial giant. Undaunted, Durant set up a new automobile company and hired Louis Chevrolet as chief designer. The first Chevrolet reached the market in 1911, sold phenomenally well and Durant began to scheme again. This time he worked on a long range plan. With the proceeds of the new firm he slowly began to purchase and acquire control of large blocks of General Motors stock, and in 1920 he had enough to regain control of the combine he had started more than a decade earlier. But Durant could not stop himself from manipulating the finances of the firm, and it was not too long before he was shown the door again. Left behind at General Motors was the Chevrolet Company which began to produce one of the great American cars.
Racing was never a policy of the huge corporation and the exploits of the hard-driving Chevrolet brothers were soon forgotten. The cars that bear their name sold steadily through the decades as basic trans portation. Then in 1952 a great light burst upon the executives of General Motors. This light was kindled by the tremendous success of the European sports cars. The Chevrolet Division was assigned the task of building an American sports car. In time-honored Detroit fashion the planners started from sales appeal and worked toward engineering. Some years earlier the stylists of the division had designed a fiberglass body with bulging curves and exhibited it at various automobile shows as a "car of the future." This became the basis of the Corvette. It never occurred to the policy makers to start with an engine and chassis. They were more interested in catching the eyes of the public than they were in engineering advances, so they ordered their engineers to design a set of mechanical components to fit the "dream car" body. This backward approach resulted in the first Corvette. For a sports car it was a big, clumsy, underpowered machine and was promptly dubbed the "plastic bathtub." What really filled sports car addicts with scorn was that the car used the standard Chevrolet Powerglide automatic transmission.
As the years passed, however, the Corvette improved. Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov installed a brand new V-8 engine, a four-speed gear box, reliable brakes, and an efficient fuel injection system. The Chevrolet V-8 engine that powers the Corvette became an extremely potent piece of machinery. As a matter of fact, these engines are used widely for many backyard "specials" and often appear as replacements in the larger European sports cars.
In addition, the Corvette began to look more like. a legitimate sports car. The body design became a little sleeker: the fake louvers in the hood and the stick-out taillights disappeared. Corvettes began to appear at all the race tracks. Many of them won, and the Detroit machine was recognized as one of the fastest stock sports cars in the world.
But when the racing record of the Corvette,is examined closely, the list of victories is not so impressive: The big (almost five liters!) engine is far out of class and most of the Corvette wins were chalked up against machines with smaller cylinder capacity. There are hardly any other sports cars with engines as large as the big V-8, so in actuality the Corvette races against itself. Even though it has so great an advantage in power, Corvettes are often beaten by three- or four-liter European machines.
Many serious racing fans would like to see the Chevrolet Division turn out a smaller engine with the same efficiency that Ferrari and Mercedes build into theirs. Then the contest would be equal and the Corvette could be evaluated properly. There are other criticisms, mostly from the purists. As a sports car, they feel, the Corvette is too big, too heavy, too plush. It is odd to realize that so large a roadster seats only two - there seems to be too much body. On the race track the Corvette is criticized for poor handling ability. It does wallow a bit in tight corners and the control is not as precise as it could be, but no one denies the blinding speed and brutal acceleration that a Corvette shows in the straights. No matter what the pros and cons add up to, there is one inescapable fact - no European car can offer the performance available in the Corvette at a similar price. Only by doubling the cost of the Corvette can one purchase a European machine with the same acceleration and top speed.
As a long-distance touring machine the Detroit car is at its best. The seats are exceedingly comfortable and the huge trunk can store an ample supply of luggage. The cockpit is weather-tight and the occupants enjoy a flock of fancy American gadgets. But all this is a compromise with the lean, quick handling, precise machine that a sports-car fan prefers. Because of this compromise the Corvette is becoming the center of a continuing controversy among car lovers.
What is most interesting about the battle is that both sides want the Corvette to succeed. Since the days of the Stutz there has not been an American car that could compete equally with European sports machinery. Thunderbird gave up the fight. Briggs Cunningham could not afford to continue, and Lance Reventlow dropped the sports Scarab to design a pure racing car. Everyone wants Detroit to produce an American winner. The Corvette is not yet that car, but it shows great promise and is the first true sports car Americans have made since the early thirties. While drivers and racing fans argue the relative merits of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov works quietly in Detroit improving his creation year by year. Perhaps some day we will regard him with the same awe we reserve for Bugatti, Porsche, and Duesenberg. Meanwhile we can allow our memories to turn back to the Corvette's racing forebears - Louis, Gaston, and Arthur Chevrolet.