Corvette owners compare versions of 55-year-old American classic

Published on Thu, Sep 11, 2008
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Corvette owners compare versions of 55-year-old American classic

by Jack Kintner

The year 1953 was a significant year in history.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mt. Everest, the Korean War ended, Stalin died and both the Salk polio vaccine and the H bomb were successfully tested.

That year the Chevrolet division of General Motors unveiled a two-passenger fiberglass “sports car” they called the Corvette, after small and maneuverable seventeenth-century warships.

Since it was American made and had an automatic transmission, purists weren’t sure that it qualified to join the ranks of MGs and Morgan Plus-Fours, classic British sports cars, but history has proved the critics wrong.

The Corvette quickly became an American classic, partly due to the bland offerings from other manufacturers but mostly on its own merits. It almost died in infancy. Chevrolet’s first V-8 was still two years away in 1953. The thought of a small 150-hp six-cylinder car brings to mind the mid-80s compact Chevette but not the marquee that more than any other American car defines the raw power of what a classic American muscle car can be.

But in 1955 Ford came out with the Thunderbird. Chevrolet countered by putting a 4.3 liter V-8 under the hood and offering a three-speed manual transmission, and the car that the name brings to mind was off and running.

That change was engineered by a Belgian-born Russian named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who saw the first Corvette at its unveiling in New York. He liked the body but was disappointed to learn that underneath it was totally a stock ’53 Chevy. The first few examples off the production line wouldn’t even start since engineers forgot to provide a way to ground a non-conductive plastic body.

Since then the car has gone through many changes and has a history as complex as that of any other valuable if slightly arcane antique, like certain china teacups.
Three examples owned by local drivers gather recently at Semiahmoo for a photo session and together spanned almost the entire 55-year history of the brand. John Crabtree drives a very early black and white 1956 convertible that sports a 283 cubic inch displacement (CID) 270 horsepower engine. Monte Nieuwendorp’s black 1965 Sting Ray that he’s had for 25 years has a 327 CID 365 hp engine that also has disc brakes.

Martin and Lorrie Conyac’s 2009 yellow coupe is a “ZO6,” and shares only two things with the earlier versions, the way it’s built (largely by hand, especially the engine) and the name. Under the bright yellow body it has more in common with high-tech fighter planes than it does with its ancestors.

Its 427 CID engine puts out 505 net horsepower. On-board computers not only control the engine, giving Conyac twice the mileage of his earlier versions of Corvettes (this is his seventh) even though it also has twice the horsepower.

When asked about mileage, all three owners just grinned. “Well, let’s just say it’s worth it,” said Nieuwendorp. “You don’t get into this to save money on gas.”

Computers also control the handling, Conyac said, a safety feature at regular speeds that becomes essential if he were to ever bring it up to its 190 mph top speed.