When you're in Detroit and someone from GM pulls you aside and says something along the lines of, "Not many people know this, but we have one of every generation of Corvette stashed away over on Belle Isle. You wanna drive 'em?" there are certain things you have to do. Like explain to your boss why you won't be at work the next day.
With a rescheduled flight and the promise of a veritable sea of Corvettes, I headed to Belle Isle where, sure enough, seven beauties sat in a row, all polished up, keys in the ignition, ready to roll. I drove every Corvette ever made, all in a row, and this is what I learned.
A quick note on nomenclature: Corvette generations are all based on the letter C, so C1 is the first Corvette, C2 is the second, and so on.
When you're driving the C1 (first generation), you have to remember that it has manual steering; you basically have to crank the wheel like you're piloting a cruise ship. The two-speed Powerglide transmission feels like...well, nothing, really. With only two gears, you're not constantly shifting, so it's both very smooth, and a reminder of how inefficient the olden days were. And then there's the brakes. When you step on the brake, you can't really feel a thing. There's a firm pedal, and very little deceleration, thanks to not only a complete lack of power assistance, but the fact that there are drums at all four corners.
It is, as you might expect, an experience completely unlike driving anything on the road today. But once you go faster in the C1 it feels better. Driving it at 10 mph in a parking lot is horrifying. The faster you go with it, the more the whole car starts to make sense, the more you realize it's from the day when guys drove cars. You have to grab the wheel and tell the car what to do.
"I never realized just how much of a 'sports car' that original Corvette really was."
GM's not stupid—they didn't let me go too crazy in it—but it was fast enough to realize that driving the car at speed truly was a sporting event. I never realized just how much of a "sports car" the original Corvette really was.
Getting behind the wheel of the C2, you realize just what a huge step forward it is. It's more than just an evolution from the 1950s to the 1960s.
This one had a 427 under the hood, and once you start it up, you feel all the physical connections that we don't have in cars today. You feel your right foot pull on a cable to open the throttle, which results in air and fuel being sucked into the engine and converted into all sorts of greenhouse gases that are bad for the Earth, but great for sounds and vibrations that you hear and feel.
When you go to shift, you feel the cable mechanically pulling the clutch open. You feel how everything is so connected in this car in a way that's been virtually wiped off the map with modern cars' technology.
If you want to talk about what cars do and don't have soul, the second generation 'Vette's as good a place as any to start, because that's basically all the car is.
Then I climbed into the third generation car, the C3, and I was honestly surprised to see that same soul still intact. It retained all those intangibly good aspects of the C2, but everything was just a little bit better.
This is where Corvette starts to feel like a modern car. It's a transitional point: the steering still feels a little yacht-like, but at the same time, it's a yacht that can corner. That's not to say the earlier 'Vettes couldn't, necessarily, but the C3 does it so much better.
Into the 1980s C4, which is one of poster cars for the Hasselhoff-era. The car feels like a space ship, not because of outright speed, but because whoever designed the gauges rejoiced in that purely digital 1980s glory.
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, the squared-off lines of the interior and the all-digital dash were the dated hallmarks of an overly optimistic car. Now, though, they're brilliant. A sort of presage to the instrument panels of today.
It was in this car where I first noticed a trend among the dashboards in Corvettes. As the original seemed like a 1950s, jet-era, Harley Earl-designed rocket ship, the C2 and C3 are more or less the cockpit of a fighter jet that you sit in and drive. The C4, in an odd way, is a combination of both, and when you study them, you'll see that the C5, C6, and C7 all continue that to this day.
Putting thoughts of dashboards aside, it's time for the C5.
Driving it right after the C4, you realize that it truly feels like a properly modern car, and one that's immediately familiar in terms of how much vibration you feel, at least when compared to the C2. It's a little softer, but it's also much easier to drive, and that's always been the trademark of the best performance cars.
"The C5 is softer and easier to drive. Trademarks of the best performance cars."
From an evolutionary standpoint, it's the biggest step between any two Corvette generations aside from C1 to C2. This is where the Corvette goes from being a good, old-fashioned American car with a big engine and a (quite frankly) basic frame, to a performance car that uses aluminum frame rails shaped by highly pressurized water as the basis of a genuinely advanced car capable of taking on the world's top sports cars for the first time since the 1960s.
Like the C2 to the C3, the C6 is an evolution of all that goodwill the C5 has. This is where Corvette crosses from damn good to very damn fast. It's still easy to drive, but my overwhelming impression—in the context of driving every generation back-to-back—is that the C6 is history repeating itself. It's faster and more refined than the C5, though the feeling is fundamentally the same.
And then there's the current Corvette. The C7. As you probably know, this one has all the bells and whistles as well as all the technical advancements befitting a new sports car. That leads directly into the quandary that sends every car guy spiraling into an existential crisis: the rise of the automatic transmission.
For decades, more Corvettes have been sold with automatics than manuals, but whereas that was a source of derision in the 1980s and 1990s, today it's clearly a benefit. The Corvette's automatic can do the job better than you can. Period. That's not to say there's no place for manuals. This particular one had a third pedal with automated rev matching and I got the distinct impression—as I blasted past the gorgeous C2 without using much throttle at all—that the car needed the automatic transmission to keep up with the technical advancements and the futuristic interior that it carries through to today.
Does the current model still feel like a Corvette? Obviously. Does it feel like the vastly different C1? Yes, it really does, albeit in a weird and screwed up way that took me a long time to find the right words for. In any tangible sense, the C7 feels absolutely nothing like the original. Somehow, though, it still feels like every single one of its ancestors—that's the entire point of the intangibles automakers love to call a car's DNA. Granted, it feels a hell of a lot more like a C5 or C6 in the things you actually can feel, like steering and braking, but that's because every step has been an evolution.
The C7 is over 60 years removed from its great-great-great-great grandfather, and on paper, the only thing the two have in common is some fiberglass in the body. Yet the engineers and designers somehow managed to make sure you can feel a little C1 in there. Driving each generation of Corvette back-to-back made me realize what kept the innate Corvetteness a constant amidst all the changes.
I guess it's true what they say: The more things change, they more they stay the same. And that's amazing.
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