Viewed with suspicion by many Europeans, the Corvette is in fact highly capable. It sounds and looks fantastic, and it has a fine competition history
Some cars command your attention for reasons that are variously good, bad, interesting, hilarious or downright impressive. In this particular instance, a 1958 Chevrolet Corvette – in yellow – against a backdrop of rain-sodden Kent back roads commands all of them at once.
It’s a contradiction. The noise is thrilling, the handling treacherous (at least in the wet) and performance downright ridiculous for its vintage. When you consider that to some the greatest sports car ever made in America was the Ford GT40 – and that, some argue, was British – five minutes gamely clinging to the tiller like your life depends upon it (which it does), only adds weight to this assumption.
Except that would be to miss the point entirely. In Detroit-speak, this is a sports car and, if you consider that the main constituents of a truly classic example of the breed are performance, charisma and a competition pedigree, the Corvette ticks all the boxes. It’s just that a certain level of cultural imperiousness stops many – we’ll call them snobs – short of accepting the fact. The thing is, it’s rather good.
First, this 1958 car looks amazing even if it does appear a mite out of place in Blighty. Somehow storming sleepy desert border towns, sending contrails of dust swirling around in its wake, seems far more appropriate for the Corvette than gingerly avoiding puddles in Snodland in winter.
The styling is brash, memorable and utterly captivating in an ‘it ain’t done ’til it’s overdone’ sort of way. Design deity Harley Earl and his team of starry-eyed futurists certainly realised their own take on the sports car theme: you’d never mistake this for anything emanating from Coventry or Maranello.
It also feels very well made. Though the Corvette was not America’s first glassfibre sports car (that was the Glaspar G2, née Brooks Boxer, but you had to assemble it yourself), the Corvette doesn’t have that ‘staying together by means of prayer and bailing twine’ vibe proffered by so many British specialist sports cars of the period. This particular car has had over 40 years worth of calloused European asphalt thrown under its wheels and it still feels tight and together.
It’s powerful, too. To date, there have been six generations of Corvette from C1 through to C6. Concentrating on the C1 years – 1953 to 1962 – the model only really got serious after the insertion of the small-block V8 in 1955. Hitherto, the first three seasons worth of ’Vettes had been powered by middling, truck-derived ‘Blue Flame’ straight sixes. Trumpeted by Chevrolet’s advertising bods (in 1957) as being the first mass-produced engine to attain one horsepower for every cubic inch, the 4.6-litre 283 cubic inch bent eight transformed the car from sitting duck to big fish in a small pond. And it does sound very good indeed – all pent-up fury and snarling aggression.
All very groovy, even more so when you – to borrow an Americanism – stand on the gas. Acceleration, traction permitting, is of the singularly visceral kind. It probably sounds quicker than it actually is, the gloriously misleading 160mph speedo only heightening the sense of drama. The rev counter, mounted atop the steering column, is calibrated from 0-7000rpm but it’s red-lined at only 5500. Not that piling on the revs is necessary: it’s all about torque. You don’t really need to swap cogs too often as urge is instant regardless of gear. Which is a definite boon, as the actual lever action is a mite vague. It’s not that it’s unwieldy, but
it’s not much else either.
Booming along narrow country roads, the car’s size is all too obvious, the body sides seeming to spill over a good half a foot beyond the side glazing. It’s not intimidating, but there’s none of the sense of intimacy found in European sports cars of the period: the seats are wide and shapeless, the steering wheel vast and slippery; but there’s no banging or crashing over rutted topography.
Which is to be expected. Consumers in the home market were, to some degree, conditioned to demand decent driving comfort, roominess and plenty of low-down grunt for speedy getaways. Non-existent ground clearance and
filling-loosening ride stiffness would invariably have met with customer resistance: the biggest of Detroit’s big three would never have got away with it. Compared to the concurrent Ford Thunderbird, it’s light years more sporting (really: pushing a T-bird hard on switchbacks is like trying to steer a water bed over a rockery).
The Corvette’s ride is supple as opposed to soft. Even on undulating roads, it irons out most of the bumps without the expected eerie floating sensation. It’s the corners that prove a mite tricky. In the dry, Corvettes of this period can be hugely entertaining, your angle of exit being greatly influenced by the amount of throttle flexed. You do tend to hunch yourself over the wheel for greater purchase, being quick to catch the tail once it starts flaying. It rolls predictably, but feels a heavy car and the front end washes out before the rear. Tighten your lock, abruptly back off or equally stomp on the accelerator and initial understeer is swiftly transformed into eye-widening oversteer.
It certainly makes you appreciate the early SCCA Corvette racing heroes like Dr Dick Thompson, Jim Jeffords and Bill Pollack who pedalled these solid-axle beasts so convincingly. In the wet, conservatism rules.
You have to respect the Corvette on so many levels. To European sensibilities it’s entirely alien, but remember that outside the US it was more than capable of inflicting the occasional upset result. Briggs Cunningham’s three-car team rocked up at Le Mans in 1960 as outsiders, but the lead car driven by John Fitch and Bob Grossman finished an astounding eighth overall and won its class. Chevrolet’s legacy in the endurance classic is a compelling one, the latest strain having won the GT1 category in five of the last six events. And that’s before you consider John Greenwood’s multi-winged warriors, with their stars and stripes livery, that thundered along the Mulsanne in the ’70s at a colossal lick.
It really is a classic. Just sitting in the Corvette, dazzled by the Jetsons-meets-Wurlitzer dash, is enough to make you laugh, and even more so on start-up.
It’s visually alluring in a chrome-laden manner, and both fast and engrossing. Driving one is never boring. For these reasons and more, you cannot simply dismiss the Corvette. Just picture Dave MacDonald terrorising Riverside in Max Balchowsky’s ‘OO’ Corvette Special, or Betty Skelton’s record-breaking runs at Daytona Beach. You can almost smell the tortured rubber and hear the bellow of a race-prepared ‘eight’ approaching valve bounce.
It’s heady stuff.
Thanks to Tom Falconer at Claremont Corvette. Tel: 01634 244444; www.corvette.co.uk