10 Best Corvettes of All TimeChevrolet's Most Spectacular Two-Seaters
Over the past 60 years Chevrolet has built more than 1.3 million Corvettes across six generations. Most of them have been good cars. A few of them have been lousy cars. And at least 10 Corvettes have been truly great.
Great as in a car that in the middle of the day while at work, you just think about driving it. Great as in a car that resets the standard for awesomeness among teenagers for decades. Great as in a car that is the subject of outlandish posters, intricate scale models and carefully crafted scotch decanters.
But for sanity’s sake this list is restricted to regular production Corvettes. So great Corvettes like the John Greenwood road racers from the early 1970s or the C5Rs and C6Rs that have taken multiple wins at Le Mans aren’t on the list. And movie cars like the right-hand-drive custom machine featured in Corvette Summer aren’t here either. Surely they’ll get their own lists soon.
These are the Corvettes that Chevy dealers sold to anyone who could qualify for a loan. And that’s kind of a mind-boggling thought in its own right.
10. 1970 Corvette LT-1
When the muscle era was reaching its performance peak, the meanest Corvettes were the big-block monsters with 427- and 454-cubic-inch beasts under their hoods. But just when it seemed that all ‘Vette glory was going to be earned with cubes, along comes the sweetly balanced, nicely detailed and still dang quick LT-1 powered by a 370-horsepower, 350-cubic-inch small-block V8.
Actually, that 370-horse rating was likely an understatement. The solid-lifter, 11.0:1 compression ratio, four-barrel carbureted LT-1 engine (also used in that year’s Camaro Z/28) likely made closer to 400 hp. But with insurance rates rising, there was no reason to shout about such details. And by 1971, impending emissions regulations and low-lead and unleaded gasoline meant that compression ratios dropped and solid lifters became more problematic. In 1971 the LT-1’s rating dropped to a realistic 330 hp and the last LT-1 built for 1972 ran at a claimed 255 hp.
Incidentally, the LT1 name (minus the hyphen) returns with the new version of the small-block V8 that will be used in the new-generation 2014 C7 Corvette. That 6.2-liter engine (about 378 cubic inches) has an 11.5:1 compression ratio, direct fuel injection and a projected 450-hp rating.
9. 1953 Corvette
The greatness of the original Corvette lies in that it was the very first of its species.
When the first Corvette debuted at the GM Motorama in New York City on January 17, 1953, it was an instant sensation. It wasn’t because the mechanical bits were exotic — the engine under the hood was a slightly tweaked, 150-hp version of the Chevy “Stovebolt” inline-6 that had been around since 1941, the transmission was a two-speed automatic and the suspension was lifted straight from the Chevy sedans — but the fiberglass body was gorgeous. It was a two-seater that exuded confidence without looking European or fragile. It was a robust American at a time when the most popular sports cars of the day were spindly contraptions like the MG-TF.
Based on crowd reaction, Chevrolet immediately ordered the Corvette into production. And 300 examples of the new 1953 Corvette were hurriedly built — all painted Polo White.
A great start. Or at least good enough.
8. 1957 Corvette Fuel Injection
With Zora Arkus-Duntov guiding Corvette development as chief engineer, Chevrolet’s two-seater finally comes of performance age with the addition of Rochester mechanical fuel injection for the 1957 model year. Thanks to the precise fuel distribution, the 283-cubic-inch small-block V8 is able to make 283 hp — a startling 1 hp per cubic inch in an era when most engines were often only half that efficient.
A development of the injection system fitted to John Fitch’s 1956 B-Class winner at Sebring, it was a sophisticated system that became instantly iconic. Chevrolet built 6,338 Corvettes for 1957 and of those, just 1,040 had the “Ramjet Fuel Injection” system.
Road & Track tested a ’57 Corvette running fuel injection and a 4.11:1 rear gear set. According to its test the Corvette ran zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. That’s still pretty good today.
7. 1984 Corvette C4
By the early 1980s the Corvette was something of a joke. The C3 generation had been introduced way back in 1968 and grown increasingly soft as the years rolled by. The Corvette could no longer run with Porsches and Ferraris, but had become a mushy boulevard cruiser — the left seat for the middle-age driver, the right seat for her lap dog.
The new C4 generation was astonishing in appearance and radically more capable than the C3. The curves of the C3 were tamed and sharpened into a knifelike profile. A big clamshell hood opened to expose not only the engine, but gorgeous cast-aluminum suspension links. The wheels were now a massive 16 inches in diameter and wrapped in Goodyear Gatorback directional rubber. And the interior was even a little spacey, with a digital dashboard that lit up like a game of Frogger.
What initially held the C4 back was a lackluster “Cross-Fire Injection” version of the 5.7-liter small-block V8 that only made 205 hp, the crude Doug Nash “4+3” manual transmission, and a suspension tuned brutally stiff. But the new Corvette could run away from some Porsches and was an instant winner in showroom stock racing. It was a real sports car again.
6. 1967 Corvette 427 L88
Stand next to an L88 Corvette when it starts and you can practically feel the big Holley 850 carburetor fighting to pull the air out of your lungs. After a few moments, the engine settles into a vicious idle and the heat coming from the exhaust begins to roast your nostrils. There have been faster Corvettes than the L88, but none more uncompromisingly aggressive.
There was a label on the L88 that carried this message: “Warning: Vehicle must operate on fuel having a minimum of 103 research octane and 95 motor octane or engine damage may result.” It was necessary because the aluminum heads capping the iron 427-cubic-inch big-block V8 had combustion chambers running a startling 12.5:1 compression ratio. Chevrolet officially rated the L88 engine at 430 hp, but most observers figured it was making at least 550.
Only 20 of these race-ready L88 supercars were made. And each one was equipped with all the best that General Motors had to offer in 1967. Except, that is, either a heater or a defroster.
5. 1997 Corvette C5
While the C4 generation Corvette was capable, it wasn’t until the C5 came along in 1997 that Chevrolet finally produced a Corvette that mixed both performance capability and true touring comfort. The C5 was the first Corvette that was as comfortable crossing the country as dicing for position on a racetrack.
The trick to the C5’s uncanny balance was that the balance was engineered in from the beginning. The C5’s basic structure was an all-new backbone frame that positioned the transmission between the rear wheels so its mass could offset the engine’s mass up front. The result was better weight distribution.
Pushing the C5’s advantage even further was the brilliant all-new LS1 5.7-liter V8. The first all-aluminum V8 used in a volume production Corvette, and GM’s first all-new small-block since 1955, the LS1 produced 345 hp and a seamless ribbon of torque. And it was quick, too. With the four-speed automatic transmission it would run from zero to 60 mph in just over 5 seconds. With the six-speed manual, that time would drop to just under 5 seconds.
4. 1955 Corvette
At first glance the 1955 Corvette doesn’t look much different from the ’53 or ’54. That’s deceiving because while the body and chassis didn’t change much, for the first time there was a V8 engine available under the hood.
That V8, of course, was the classic and brilliant Chevrolet small-block. Initially displacing a mere 265 cubic inches (4.3 liters) the first small-block was only rated at 195 hp. But those horses could pull, too, with the V8’s torque production suddenly making the Corvette a truly viable sports car.
No, the ’55 Corvette wasn’t that fast. But it’s the Corvette that made fast Corvettes possible.
3. 2009 Corvette ZR1
The numbers are simply overwhelming. A supercharged 6.2-liter version of the LS-series V8 rated at 638 hp rockets this Corvette coupe to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds and obliterates the quarter-mile in 11.5 seconds at 128.3 mph. Top speed is beyond 200 mph. Massive tires allow it to stick on a skid pad beyond the force of gravity. And it’s the first factory Corvette to carry a six-figure price tag.
But despite all that insane performance ability, the ZR1 is also among the most civilized Corvettes yet built. It’s a car that can be used as a regular commuter during the week, and for setting low lap times at any road course in the world on the weekends.
Even as the ZR1 was leaving production just as 2013 began, it was still winning comparison tests and burning down tires befitting the legend it had established. This is the fastest, most capable Corvette ever built.
2. 1990 Corvette ZR-1
The Corvette goes high tech with the Lotus-designed, Mercury Marine-built, DOHC, 32-valve LT5 V8 under the clamshell hood of the wide-hipped ZR-1. Opening the LT5’s throttle body at 70 mph in 4th gear would unleash a fury that would break the P315/35ZR17 rear Goodyear Eagle GS-Cs traction and produce a blue-gray haze. And it remains the only factory Corvette not powered by an overhead-valve engine.
According to Motor Trend, the last 1995 model-year, 405-hp edition of the C4-based ZR-1 would burst down the quarter-mile in only 13.0 seconds at over 117 mph. Zero to 60 mph? That takes only 4.9 seconds. But the LT5’s forte was actually midrange punch; the ZR-1 would rip from 60-100 mph in just 4.8 seconds. Those are all astonishing numbers in the context of the 1990s.
The C5 and C6 Corvettes have chased and surpassed the old ZR-1. But that doesn’t diminish the achievement the ZR-1 represents.
1. 1963 Corvette Fuel-Injected Coupe
A full half-century after its debut, the 1963 Corvette coupe remains one of the most alluring automotive designs ever conceived. Razor-sharp fender shapes, a tapered tail and a sharklike mouth make it both gorgeous and aggressive. This was the first fixed-roof Corvette coupe and it remains the most beautiful.
It’s not just the looks that separate the C2 generation from the original, solid-rear-axle C1. The chassis was all-new, with all-independent suspension incorporating transverse leaf springs that instantly made the Corvette competitive with sports cars from around the world in both comfort for daily use and on-track competition. In particular, the Corvette was once again competitive with Shelby’s new Cobras.
For 1963 the best engine available in the Corvette was the highly developed, 360-hp, “L84” 327-cubic-inch small-block V8 capped by Rochester mechanical fuel injection. Despite being the most powerful engine in the range that year, it was also easygoing and flexible. And if the buyer wanted to get the most out of that engine, he could opt for the Z06 option which stiffened the suspension, tightened the ratios in the Muncie four-speed manual gearbox, beefed up stopping power with bigger drum brakes, added a huge 36.5-gallon fuel tank and fit a set of spectacular finned, cast aluminum, center knock-off wheels.
The 1963 Corvette coupe was the only one fitted with a split rear window, but what made it great was the standard it set for every subsequent Corvette.
Published John Pearley Huffman