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60 years of Corvette innovation

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By Larry Printz
Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

As automotive events go, the arrival of a new Corvette is a rarity; just six generations have appeared over 60 years. A new one is slated to debut Sunday in Detroit, and although it's considered an American sports car, its birth was GM's answer to European cars such as the Jaguar XK-120.

General Motors design chief Harley Earl created a concept car code-named XP-122, one of several concepts to debut in January 1953 at the GM Motorama show held in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Response to the car was so enthusiastic, it was put into production basically unaltered.

The rest, as they say, is history.

• 1953-1962: The first Corvette looked fast, but used a six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission from the family car. Each year brought improvements. In 1955, Chevy's small block V-8 became standard. In 1956, the Corvette gained a three-speed manual transmission, roll-up windows and door locks; in 1957, fuel injection and the first Corvette race car, the SS. Design updates were made in 1956, 1958 and 1961.

• 1963-1967: The 1963 Corvette is most iconic, due to its split-window design, which lasted a year, and hidden headlights. While engines carried over, the Corvette gained an independent suspension and, in 1965, four-wheel disc brakes. Power continued to grow. By 1967, the 427-cubic-inch V-8 was rated at 430 horsepower, but said to be closer to 550. Still, the 1963 Grand Sport, with 550 horsepower, would be the last factory-built Corvettes race cars for decades.

• 1968-1982: Development problems delayed the release of the 1968 model. It was an omen. This longest-lived of any Corvette model fell victim to increasing government regulation. Styling suffered; horsepower plummeted to 165 in 1975 from 465 in 1970. The convertible was axed for 1976; the Sting Ray name in 1977; the manual transmission, in 1982; the car itself for 1983. But 1984 would mark a rebirth.

• 1984-1996: The 1984 model debuted in spring 1983 as a coupe, the first all-new Corvette since 1963. Horsepower grew. Anti-lock disc brakes became standard in 1986, the year the convertible returned. In 1990, with help from British sports car maker Lotus, Chevrolet introduced the ZR-1 with a 375-horsepower V-8. It would last through 1995.

• 1997-2004: Counting the modest design updates in the 1950s, for only the sixth time in 44 years, the Corvette was totally redesigned. An all-aluminum V-8 engine, mated to a six-speed manual, produced 345 horsepower. The coupe was followed by a convertible in 1998 and a fixed-roof coupe in 1999. In 2001, the Z06 debuted with enough horsepower to reach 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. CR-5 race cars reappeared, racking up impressive class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring and others.

• 2005-2013: The 2005 Corvette, the first since 1962 with exposed headlights, came standard with 6.0-liter V-8 and a healthy 400 horsepower. The high-performance Z06 debuted in 2006 with 505 horsepower. For 2009, the ZR-1 returned with a supercharged 638-horsepower V-8 and a 0-60 mph time of 3.3 seconds, GM's fastest production car ever with a top speed of 205 mph.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk;

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