I’m just about to compress six decades into not much more than an hour and a half. It feels like a remake of Back to the Future, but with the role of the time-travelling DeLorean being usurped by all seven generations — yes, every single one — of the Corvette. There’s no sign of Michael J Fox (Marty), nor the ‘Doc’, but who cares? Lined up before me is everything from a pristine 1954 C1 ’Vette to the latest C7 Stingray. And rather than being in the fictional town of Hill Valley, we’re on the picture postcard-worthy Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River, with the GM Renaissance Centre (seven interconnected towers that are commonly referred to as the ‘RenCen’) looming in the distance.
However, a stiff challenge lies in store as I’ll soon need to elbow my way past the large throng of international media who are also angling for wheeltime in each of the seven Chevys. Pleasantries are quickly dispensed with as we each dive into the cockpit of whichever Corvette happens to be the closest at the time. Ideally, I might have liked to drive them in chronological order, but today that’s going to be impossible as the scene virtually resembles a medieval battleground, with motoring hacks from all over the world descending on the ’Vettes with the murderous intent of a horde of barbarians. Well, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but commando-like decisiveness and urgency is required if I’m to get the job done today.
As it turns out, the first car I leap into is the latest C7 Corvette Stingray. This is no bad thing as, somehow or other, this car has eluded me to date, even though it’s been in our market for over a year now and the rest of the wheels crew have all had their way with it back in Dubai.
Our test loop is essentially just a large open paddock with a roughly rectangular course marked out by witches’ hats, so it’s hardly a venue where detailed feedback can be extracted. That said, it only takes a solitary squirt down the straight and rounding one set of cones to glean that the C7 is a superbly well-resolved sportster — much more so than I had imagined.
This particular example has the optional sports exhaust, which liberates 460bhp from the 6.2-litre LT1 V8. It sounds so tasty that I feel like eating the darn thing. Its meaty, full-bodied bark resonates around the paddock as the C7 devours each of the short straights with great appetite. The seven-speed manual (alas, a non-starter in our region) is slicker than a snake-oil salesman, making it a joy to row through the ratios, although there’s no possibility of slotting it into anything higher than third gear today.
Unlike its ancestors, the C7 isn’t solely a straight-line bully. Rather, it feels so well tied down that I have to remind myself this is, in fact, a ’Vette and not something rolled out by one of the European sportscar purveyors. The optional Z51 suspension fitted to this car obviously helps, but there’s no doubt the basic recipe is beautifully fettled. Considering it starts at just under $56K (Dh206K) in its home market, it’s a veritable performance bargain.
I go back a generation — quite literally — with my next ride, which is a white C6 with less than 200 miles (320km) on the clock. It’s a 2013 example, which means it’s only two years older than the C7 I’ve just hopped out of, yet it feels positively antiquated by comparison. Granted, the C6 debuted in 2005, so it’s essentially a decade older in conception than the C7. But it may as well have surfaced two or three decades earlier as it stacks up as a primitive offering next to its descendant. The 6.0-litre LS2 V8 is 60 horses down on the C7’s output, but even this doesn’t account for how sluggish the car feels. I check to see if I’ve left the handbrake on. I haven’t. The C6 wallows around each of the four corners that make up the impromptu circuit and it provides a stark reminder that, yes, this is what American sportscars traditionally felt like. Again, I don’t want to overstress this point, but it’s further proof of what a mighty job Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter and his team have done with the C7. They’ve effectively advanced the car by three generations in one hit.
Next up, I plonk down behind the wheel of a 1972 C3 convertible. Its classic Coke-bottle shape makes it one of the better lookers here today (this is perhaps why it’s the longest-serving ’Vette to date, with a model cycle that ran from 1968 to 1982). The fact that the example rolled out for us is an early C3 is a bonus as far as I’m concerned, as in later years the elegant metal bumpers were replaced by an all-fibreglass schnozz and derrière. For me, that ruined it visually.
The interior also has bags of character, with a thin-rimmed steering wheel and a classic Seventies dashboard with a heavily recessed speedo and tacho, with an additional five dials housed in the centre console. Nestled below this is an old-world radio with chrome push buttons to select your desired radio station. The gear lever for the four-speed manual has a little diagram adjacent to it, helpfully showing you where each of the four gears (plus reverse) are located in the H-pattern — as if you could forget. The gearbox is hardly the slickest, but having muscled the lever into first, the C3’s 350-cubic-inch (5.7-litre) V8 propels it down the straight with moderate rather than jaw-dropping pace. There’s plenty of shimmying and shaking from the flex-prone topless bodyshell, and there’s a generous amount of din (not altogether unpleasant) from the small-block V8. To be honest, it’s pretty awful to drive. It’s a case of wrapping your fingers around the spindly wheel and twirling it vigorously to get the car around the course. If I owned this car I’d spend far more time gazing at it than actually driving it.
Having gratefully escaped the C3, I end up going forward in time to a 2001 C5 (the last Corvette with pop-up headlights), and the fact that this particular car is a Z06 means it’s equipped with a 385bhp 5.7-litre LS6 engine (the standard model came with a 345bhp LS1 motor), as well as upgraded brakes and suspension.
The C5 Z06 also had a fixed-roof configuration to make for greater rigidity, and it scored weight-saving measures that included a titanium exhaust, thinner glass, lighter wheel rims, reduced sound-proofing and a lighter battery.
This car proves a pleasant surprise, with the LS6 motor and reasonably tactile six-speed manual teaming up effectively to provide a decent shove in the spine. The titanium exhaust spits out a pretty pleasing note, too. Factory performance figures suggested the C5 Z06 sprinted to 100kph in just over 4.0 seconds (tidily quick for the early noughties) and that doesn’t sound too far off the mark based on my seat-of-the-pants impression.
Truth be told, the C5 Z06 is a much better drive than the decade-newer C6 I had pedalled about half an hour earlier. So it seems GM managed to effectively go backwards with the generational change in this instance — clearly a case of R&D dollars not well spent.
With these thoughts still circulating in my noggin, I step into a 1987 model-year C4. This was the car that dispensed with the Corvette’s formerly curvaceous lines in favour of an angular, wedge-like profile that was so typical of the Eighties. Nestling down in the sofa-like seat, I’m faced with a digital dashboard (again, a reflection of the era it was born in).
The C4 pulls away from rest with such a degree of smoothness and refinement that I begin to wonder if I’m in a Cadillac rather than a Corvette. The 350-cubic-inch (5.7-litre) V8 serves up decently brisk performance, but the whole character of the car seems well removed from the ’Vette ethos. It lacks the raw, brutish charm that’s synonymous with the nameplate, so it seems to me the R&D department lost the plot when conceiving this car too. Someone clearly failed to instil in them what a Corvette should feel like.
Finally, I manage to get my paws on the white 1966 C2 Stingray that I had been ogling from the moment I had arrived here. Is there a more iconic iteration of the Corvette? I think not. A split-window version (sold only in 1963) would have been nice, but I’m not about to split hairs. To my eye, the shark-like nose and muscular haunches of the C2 make it one of the aesthetically pleasing cars to have emerged from the Sixties — even more so than its Jaguar E-Type contemporary.
Having got myself comfortably situated behind the wheel, I take a moment to savour the artistry of the cabin. The wooden steering wheel with its brushed alloy spokes, elegant chrome-ringed dials, stylish knobs and metal-faced glovebox all gel together nicely and there’s a real sense of occasion about simply sitting in this vehicle.
Once on the move, it’s immediately clear the C2 Stingray is a real man’s car. Neither the brakes nor steering have servo assistance, so you need to really flex your quadriceps, forearms and shoulders to heave the thing around. This particular car has the 427-cubic-inch (7.0-litre) big-bloke motor, which thrashes out enough torque to uproot an oak tree. The biggest challenge is getting all that grunt to the tarmac as the only contact patches with terra firma are skinny cross-ply tyres with about as much grip as socks on polished floorboards. If I owned this car, I’d ditch the dodgy rubber and replace it with a decently chunky set of radials. However, given that it’s now almost 50 years old, the appeal of the C2 Stingray lies not in trying to hustle it around, but rather in gliding through corners, giving it a squirt on the straights, and taking in the aroma of well-aged vinyl and hot oily fumes that waft through from the engine bay. There’s also a barrage of sounds to keep you entertained. The 427ci engine coughs and sputters at low revs as the four-barrel Holley carburettor does its best to chug down the go-juice, and there’s an assortment of creaks and groans from various parts of the bodywork and interior. It all adds up to a character-filled experience that leaves a lasting impression.
Perhaps fittingly, I end up in the C1 (this particular one is a 1954 model) after having driven all the other six generations, but it certainly doesn’t prove to be a grand finale.
The 235-cubic-inch (3.85-litre) ‘Blue Flame’ inline-six doesn’t sound particularly good, nor does it make for anything resembling sporty acceleration. What’s more, it’s not helped by the Stone Age-like two-speed Powerglide auto.
Perhaps it’s just as well the C1 isn’t particularly quick as it’s not very good at stopping either. The non-assisted drum brakes provide little in the way of retardation even if you stand on the brake with all the energy you can muster, so the best bet is to prop your elbow on the windowsill and simply go cruisin’ because the chassis is even worse than the powertrain and brakes.
Driving the C1 puts it all into perspective though. Sixty years of progress is amply reflected by how far removed the razor-sharp C7 is from its unwieldy Fifties ancestor.
It’s the reason why the Corvette nameplate still exists — and prospers — backed by a lineage that predates even Porsche’s enduring 911.