The Best Corvettes Ever Made
Unveiled on January 17th at the Autorama in New York City a whopping 67 years ago, the Corvette grew from an underpowered answer to Europe’s sports car-making powerhouses to become one of the most famous cars ever manufactured in the United States. Often referred to as ’America’s Sports Car’, it now broke into the supercar arena with the release of the eighth generation. It’s, thus, a good moment to take a look back at the finest Corvettes ever made including Callaway’s finest moment.
The Corvette is such a household name in the automotive industry that few people would picture the vessel that lent its name to Chevrolet’s first foray into the world of sports cars when you say the word ’Corvette’. All but a sub-brand, the Corvette built its reputation both on the road, as a friendly grand tourer engineered to cope with the hardships of everyday driving, and on the track where it raced against and beat the Europeans and everyone else in between. Sure, there were some duds along the way including, should we say, the original Corvette C1 with that uninspiring inline-six engine but there were also many brilliant ones and here are our top 10 picks in no particular order.
1955 Corvette V8
The Corvette was born out of GM’s desire to go head-to-head with the likes of Jaguar, MG, or Porsche at a time when American automakers were focusing on building larger and larger sedans. Nash had been the first to build something close to a sports car in 1951 with the Nash-Healey, a car designed by Donald Healey who later found success with Austin.
The 1953 Corvette looked more like a proper sports car from the outside and the use of fiberglass for the body added to the falsity as the original C1 lacked the pedigree of a true sports car. Powered by the 3.9-liter ’Blue Flame’ inline-six mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic (because no manual in GM’s arsenal could cope with more than 150 horsepower at the time), the Corvette was tame. To add insult to injury, it also leaked and, sometimes, the windowless doors would refuse to stay shut.
Only in 1955 quench its customers’ need for speed with the introduction of the 4.3-liter V-8 that was immediately put in the Corvette. On top of that, the ’55 Corvette could also be had for the first time with a manual transmission. The combo of a V-8 and the three-speed manual allowed for much more spirited getaways with the 0-60 mph time dropping from 11.5 seconds to just 8.5 seconds. By 1957, the Dual Quad ’Vette would go from naught to 60 mph nearly two seconds quicker.
1963 Corvette Grand Sport
Belgian-American Zora-Arkus Duntov, affectionately referred to as the ’Father of the Corvette’, had a thing for racing and, arguably, the Corvette would’ve been an entirely different beast had he not been so infatuated with motorsports. In fact, he wanted to take the Corvette to the track so bad that he built multiple race-ready Corvettes under the nose of GM’s boffins effectively ignoring the corporation’s ban on all things motorsport issued in 1963.
Five years prior to that, however, the top brass in Michigan was in better spirits and Harley Earl had the Research Studio build a Jaguar D-Type-beating sports car resembling the production C1. The end result was the ’Super Sport’, a one-off machine that only took the start in one officially sanctioned event, the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring. The SS was followed by Bill Mitchell’s Stingray Racer, a machine whose racing forays were paid for by Mitchell himself and that crucially influenced the C2.
By ’62, the bulk of America’s finest road racers was in the Corvette camp. They were all shocked by the arrival of a diminutive sports car called the AC Cobra Roadster that was better in almost every area than the Corvette. Bewildered by the way the tides had turned, the Research Studio scrambled for an answer.
Dubbed the ’Grand Sport’, it was smaller than the road-going C2, significantly lighter, and, with the 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood, immensely powerful at over 500 horsepower. GM put an end to the project in 1963 but, by then, five chassis had already been built and the message had been heard by Shelby himself who, in turn, rushed to develop the Cobra 427.
1963 Sting Ray "Split-Window"
While the C2-based Grand Sport couldn’t stop the Ford-funded Cobra juggernaut, it’s undoubtedly sure that two moments can be considered pivotal in the Corvette’s history. The second one’s got to do with the much-lamented switch to a rear-mid-engine layout with the new C8 but the first is just as important. It’s the move from the first to the second-generation Corvette, Bill Mitchell’s gorgeous Sting Ray with its equally iconic Split Window design that was gone already by the second model year.
We say the C2’s introduction was a landmark moment because the C2 was an all-new car, top to bottom: it was underpinned by a new chassis with all-independent suspension with transverse leaf springs and could be had with a variety of go-fast bits like the Muncie four-speed manual gearbox, stiffer springs, and bigger brakes - all part of the Z06 package.
The 5.35-liter L84 V-8 available in the ’63 Corvette was good for 360 horsepower and that was with carburetors, the optional fuel injection that’d been available on Corvettes since 1957 adding even more oomph. As little over 21,000 Corvettes were sold in ’63, these things will only get more and more expensive as the years roll by.
1967-1969 Corvette L88
The ’67-’69 period has been considered by many to be among the best Corvette years. It’s during this time that Corvettes racked up an impressive amount of national victories and titles as well as a healthy amount of international victories. When Chevy’s sports car returned to Le Mans following a five-year hiatus, the C2 Coupe entered by Dana Chevrolet was powered by an L88 engine and, despite being almost entirely stock (even the chromed bumpers had to be re-attached before the race), the Corvette was by far the fastest GT car in the field and there’s a good reason for it.
Chevrolet jumped on the big block bandwagon two years after Ford with the introduction of the L36 V-8 for the 1966 model year. Its 390 horsepower power output was subsequently bettered by the L68 and the L72 that cranked out a respectable 425 horsepower. Then there were the 435 horsepower L71 and L89 7.0-liter mills but there was also a third 7.0-liter engine capable of 435 horsepower on offer up until 1969 although only 216 people ever bought it.
That’s because not many people knew that getting an L88 ’Vette was akin to getting a factory-prepped race car that just happened to be road legal. Duntov, in another one of his cunning attempts to circumvent the motorsport ban, grossly underrated the L88 to make it seem way less threatening than it was. Those who know, say the real figure was closer to 550 horsepower. It’s easy, then, to see how Dick Guldstrand managed to reach 171.5 mph down the five-mile-long Mulsanne Straight.
Read our full review on the 1967-1969 Corvette L88
1969 Corvette ZL1
Halfway through the second year of the Corvette C3’s lifetime, Chevy saw fit to allow customers to order the ZL1 V-8, an engine that topped even the mighty L88. The ZL1 was, in short, an L88 engine with an aluminum block, stouter connecting rods, and open-chamber heads. On par with the L46 small-blck in terms of weight, the ZL1 was said to make 435 horsepower. But it didn’t. Oh, no, it most definitely didn’t. While it’s unclear how much power it did make, it was more powerful than an L88 with some quoting a 585 horsepower figure as being accurate.
With so much power on tap, it’s natural to think such a car had no business driving on the road and, indeed, only two Corvette ZL1s were sold through GM’s network of dealerships. At over $10,000 in 1969 (well over $72,000 today), it was more than twice as expensive as a standard Corvette Coupe making it probably not the best Corvette for the money even considering the insane output figures. Wealthy racers afforded to pay the $5,267.15 price tag of the ZL1 package and, as such, 94 ZL1 engines were made but it’s not known how many have survived the trials and tribulations of life at the tracks.
1988 Corvette Callaway Sledgehammer
Did you know that, for over two decades, a Corvette held the accolade of the fastest road-legal car in the world? It wasn’t, mind you, a standard Corvette but, just like any other modified ’Vette built by Reeves Callaway’s company, it could be bought through a Chevy dealer and serviced at one too. The car, appropriately named ’Sledgehammer, squashed Ferrari’s new F40, the previous speed king.
Officially, the F40 with its 473 horsepower twin-turbocharged V-8 was effortlessly capable of reaching 201 mph making it the first production car to break the 200 mph barrier. That same year, Porsche tuner Alois Ruf unveiled the CTR, a modified Porsche 911 that was said to go from naught to 60 mph in just 3.65 seconds, much quicker than the F40. With en empty stretch of the German Autobahn in front of it, the CTR was supposedly capable of reaching 213 mph or 2 mph more than the Porsche 918 Spyder.
The Ruf was road-legal, at least in native Germany where Ruf was and is registered as an independent manufacturer, and Road & Track’s 1987 group test proved it could exceed 210 mph. But the Sledgehammer could squash a Ruf too. In October 1988, a Callaway Corvette Sledgehammer was clocked at 254.7 mph.
With the bespoke Callaway Aerobody package in place that added downforce, improved suspension, bigger rims, and extra-grippy Goodyear rubber, the Sledgehammer just about kept itself in one piece when the 898 horsepower and 772 pound-feet of torque from the twin-turbocharged Nascar-spec engine was let loose.
1990-1995 Corvette ZR-1
It was in 1970 that Chevy first introduced the Corvette LT-1, the meatiest of all small-block C3s. With about 400 horsepower on tap, it could manage a quarter-mile run in just 14.2 seconds, impressive considering the arrival of stiffer emission laws. 20 years down the road, the Corvette C4 was finally made good. All it took was for GM to buy Lotus and, with the help of its engineers, develop the LT5 V-8 that ended up powering the high-performance ZR1 version.
The aluminum block, 32-valve, four overhead camshaft engine put out 375 horsepower at first but, by ’93, that figure was up by 30 horsepower and torque was rated at 385 pound-feet. Going from naught to 60 mph in just 4.4 seconds en route to a top speed of 180 mph, the ZR1 was just 5 mph shy off a Ferrari Testarossa and just as fast as a 911 Turbo. It could also go fast for a long time as proved by a series of long-distance speed records - it averaged 175.8 mph over 24 hours of continuous running in multiple stints on a closed course. If you’re after a used Corvette C4 this should be your go-to version although it’s not the best used Corvette for the money as you’re looking to pay about $30,000 for a fairly good one.
2000-2004 Corvette Z06
The fifth-generation Corvette significantly improved the breed while staying true to the Corvette recipe as it had been since the mid-’60s. This was the first Corvette to come with an aluminum chassis, a transaxle for better weight distribution, and it was also the first Corvette to be powered by the now-ubiquitous LS engine, namely the 345 horsepower aluminum block LS1 V-8. This was the first new small-block engine that GM made available in over 40 years and evolutions of this push-rod design still power the ’Vette to this day.
In 2000, a quicker Z06 version was introduced, incorporating some of the knowledge Chevy had gathered racing the C5 at Le Mans and in the American Le Mans Series. With 385 ponies from the get-go, the LS6 was a fast car and that statement only became more evident in 2002 when 20 more horsepower were extracted from the LS6 engine. Torque was rated at 400 pound-feet.
While many find faults with its cabin and the seating position as well as the fact that it only came as a hardtop coupe, the Z06 is arguably the best used Corvette for the money. If you can find one that hasn’t been thrashed on the race track, you’re buying into the best Corvette Z06 for the money, a true performance bargain. A good one will set you back about $25,000 but if you’re ready to tackle a fixer-upper, there are examples out there for as little as $11,000.
Read our full review on the 2000-2004 Corvette Z06
2009-2013 Corvette ZR1
The Corvette ZR1 returned after a 14-year hiatus in 2009, four years after the introduction of the Corvette C6. Corvette fans who were familiar with just how fast the C4 ZR1 of the ’90s used to be, were more than likely disappointed with Chevy’s decision to not offer a ZR1 version during the C5’s lifespan but the automaker made amends with its performance-craving customer base as the C6 Z06 and the C6 ZR1 were proper track and drag strip weapons.
The C6 was the first Corvette that got rid of the pop-up headlights and many hail the sixth-generation model as the one that hit the sweet spot, maybe the best Corvette that combined the best tricks of the old and the new school. If the 505 horsepower Z06 was enough to get your blood pumping pretty fast on an average day motoring around town, then the ZR1 was enough to get the blood pumping faster through the heart of the Lambo driver next to you.
With 638 horsepower at its disposal, 133 horsepower more than the Z06, the ZR1’s mission was to "shock and awe" and it went right down to the stylistic details such as the little window in the hood allowing you to take a peek at the supercharged, 6.2-liter LS9 V-8. With a 3.4-second 0-60 mph time and a top speed of 205 mph it was the fastest Corvette ever and it pushed the performance envelope further on track going faster around the Green Hell than many of its peers including the robot-like GT-R R35, dipping into the 7:26s - insane when you consider that the C5 Z06 had barely gotten below the 8-minute mark less than a decade prior. Probably not the best Corvette for the money given thee $60,000 MSRP of the Corvette C8 but an exhilarating brute nonetheless.
Read our full review on the 2009-2013 Corvette ZR1
2019 Corvette ZR1
The Corvette C7 marked the end of an era, the end of the front-engined Corvettes and thus it’s fair to say that the 2019 Corvette C7 ZR1 is the best Corvette, at least the best at going fast around the track as it’s been honed and improved for years upon years. Just think about it, when the 2019 model year C7 ZR1 became available, Corvette Racing had been out making a name for itself on the world’s most famous tracks for two decades and it shows.
Its aero package is the most aggressive to date on a front-engined ’Vette with a big wing in the back and ultra-low splitter for better airflow and more downforce. The supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 made in this iteration a whopping 755 horsepower and 715 pound-feet of torque. To put it in perspective, a 2019 Porsche 911 Turbo S had to make do with just 641 horsepower while Ferrari’s 488 Pista delivered just 710 ponies. With all that power, a C7 ZR1 could easily blast through the quarter-mile in 10.5 seconds with a sub-10-second time possible with some mods. The 0-60 mph time of 3.1 seconds was also below what Porsche could muster.
Read our full review on the 2019 Corvette ZR1