San Diego Automotive Museum Report

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by Michael Harris

The SDAM “60 Years of the Corvette” display opened in October. With support from local Chevrolet dealers, the history of the Corvette, America’s only mass-produced sports car, will take you through seven generations of the Corvette from the 1953 C-1 to the current 2014 C-7. The new ’Vette is considered a revolutionary departure from previous designs. In standard form, the new car is said to cover the quarter mile in 12.0 seconds from a standing start, to corner at greater than 1.0g, and still average 29 miles per gallon of high test gasoline on the open road. Starting price is $51,995 for the 1LT model coupe. The 1LT coupe is no stripper. Basic equipment includes a 6.2 liter/376 CI displacement direct injection V-8 that produces 455HP at 6000RPM. A seven speed manual transmission is standard. Standard stereo is a 9-speaker Bose system with XM satellite free for three months. Leather GT seats with 8-way power adjustment are standard. Keyless entry with push button start is also standard. There are also two 8” HD dash displays. If you want a little more performance, add the Z51 performance package for an additional $2,800 that includes an aero package, larger wheels and performance tires, dry sump oil system, limited slip differential, performance shocks and springs, differential and transmission oil cooler, heavy duty cooling system, slotted disc brake rotors and the same 6.2/455hp motor with seven speed manual. That is a lot of car for under $55,000. Yet performance and appearance are said to rival Porsche and Ferrari, although the Corvette still seems to have a boy-racer type look.

The Museum graphics are eye-catching. The entire color scheme is red, white and black. Fifteen Corvettes are currently in the display. The first Corvettes (C-1) cars were built from 1953-1962. There is one 1954 and one from 1959, both in white. The C-2 cars are a breathtaking 1963 split window coupe, a replica 1963 Grand Sport, a 1965 roadster in race car trim, and a last year 1967 big block 427 CID roadster. C-3 cars are represented by two race cars and two clean roadsters, a 1969 and a 1971. The C-3 class represents the longest run for Corvettes, being Stingrays built from 1968-1982. The body style was derived from the Mako Shark show car. This period saw a tremendous change in the automotive industry due to the implementation of federal safety standards commencing January 1, 1968; the requirement for increased auto protections imposed by federal law in 1974 resulting in the “Federal bumper” and more, and ever increasing smog restrictions and mileage increases that resulted in lower horsepower numbers and greater weight to protect drivers and passengers. The C-4 was a total change and upgrade for Chevrolet and was released in 1984. GM simply could not gear up for such monumental changes in the Corvette effective 1983 and early cars were destroyed by GM with the first C-4 being sold in March 1984. The car was completely new with a 350 CID V-8 with 9:1 compression, and a cross-fire throttle body fuel injection system that produced 205HP. The car weighed 3,164 pounds. The cars were attractive and nice drivers, but the injection system was not great and the cars were underpowered, according to many owners. Production on the C-4 models lasted until 1996. In 1997 Chevrolet introduced a new model, the C-5, which lasted through 2004. Performance was back and the cars were very nice-looking. The C-6 came out in 2005 and continued until 2013. These cars were good performers and very attractive. Chevrolet was serious about international racing again and the cars competed and won at Le Mans and other circuits around the globe.

The C-7 was introduced in 2013 as a 2014 model, and from first impressions, they will sell a jillion of these cars.

The genius behind the original Corvette was Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov was born in Belgium in 1909 and educated in Germany. He fled Germany because of the Nazi regime and came to the U.S. He was an engineering genius who developed a set of aluminum heads to modify flathead Ford V-8s into OHV engines and thereby greatly increased the engine’s power output. Hired by GM in 1953, the free spirited Duntov was at odds with conservative GM management. He raced and won for Porsche at Le Mans in 1953 and 1954 in the small engine displacement category. In 1953 Chevrolet built and sold a European-style sports car, named Corvette. Although the Corvette looked European, it was powered by Chevrolet’s reliable but underpowered six cylinder motor with two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Chevrolet was ready to introduce a small, light, compact OHV V-8 engine displacing 265CID in their passenger cars, and Duntov asked Chevrolet to install the same engine in the Corvette. In 1956, Corvette also installed a three-speed manual transmission which further transformed the Corvette from a cruiser to a real sports car. Duntov went on to create a modified high-lift, long overlap, performance camshaft for the Corvette, thereafter referred to as a “Duntov” cam. He also designed performance heads and helped with the Rochester fuel injection system that produced an astounding one horsepower per cubic inch in the 1957 Corvette when coupled with the Duntov cam. In the early 1960s, when Carol Shelby produced the Shelby Cobra sports cars that started defeating Corvettes at the track, Duntov created the 1963 Grand Sport Corvette in response. The Grand Sport looked good and ran well in tests, but GM withdrew from racing and killed the program.

So let’s look at some of the display cars. My favorites have always been the 1956-1962 Corvettes. They were said to be built on a 1956 Chevrolet passenger car chassis and running gear with a fiberglass body. The 1959 display vehicle is a white roadster with 283CID V-8 topped with two four-barrel Rochester carburetors, producing 245HP and a four-speed manual transmission. The hot set up for the ’59 was the Duntov cam and two four barrels producing 270HP or with the Rochester fuel injection and cam that produced 290HP. The ’59 and ’60 Corvettes were the only two years for C-1 models that were identical. Mark Donahue, Roger Penske’s Porsche 917/30 pilot, raced a late 50’s Corvette with the 245HP motor and beat the 270s and 290s. Donahue’s secret was to break the engine in and then do a secondary valve job, according to his biography, The Unfair Advantage.

Next in newness is the 1963 dark blue split-window Sting Ray coupe. This car has been restored to as new condition and has the coveted NCRS award for originality. The car is powered by a 327CID V-8 with 11.25:1 compression, Carter AFB carb, and weighs in at 2,859 pounds. This was the first year for the Sting Ray. Bill Mitchell was running Chevrolet design, having taken over from Harley Earl. The car features the “split window” feature that Mitchell insisted on retaining despite the fact rear visibility was greatly reduced. Reason prevailed and in the subsequent years 1964-1967, when the last C-2 was built, the rear window divider was eliminated.

Next up is a 1967 C-2 big block roadster in maroon. This car contains a 427CID big block motor that produces 390HP. The L36 motor has a 10.25:1 compression ratio with four-barrel carb and hydraulic cam. Originally the car came with the 2-speed automatic but has been retrofitted with a modern 4-speed automatic. A limited number of ’67 Corvettes had the 427 with three two-barrel carbs, solid lifter performance cam, four-speed manual transmission that produced 435HP. These motors have produced far more horsepower on a dyno than Chevy’s advertised rating. All Sting Rays from 1965-1967 had four-wheel disc brakes. The C-2 was designed by Larry Shinoda under Bill Mitchell’s direction. The design was based on the 1959 Mitchell race car and the Mako Shark concept car. The 1967 C-2 Corvette has long been considered one of the best of the Corvettes. The new design C-3 Stingray was supposed to be introduced in 1967 but production difficulties delayed the introduction. Instead Chevrolet made the 1967 C-2 an even better car than earlier models and it was almost defect free.

Next month we will discuss the newer Corvettes’ history and show you the models on the floor, including additional information about the early C-1 model. Next to the 1959 Corvette is a monitor showing early TV episodes of “Route 66” with Martin Milner and George Maharis. Who? What? “Route 66” was a series that always had two young guys driving a late model Corvette from point A to point B until some mishap caused them to stop in some out of the way little town where they would find trouble, and a beautiful damsel in distress. While they fixed their Corvette, they would also settle the trouble and cheer up the damsel. Well, at least the Corvette was neat. Until one found out the Corvette was powered by the basic V-8 with single four-barrel carb and a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Oh well.

Please save the date of Saturday evening, January 18, 2014, at 6:00PM to 9:00PM to help celebrate and benefit the San Diego Automotive Museum’s 25th Year in Balboa Park. The event will be held at the museum and you will have a chance to enjoy the Corvette display as well. In addition to food and beverages, you will have a chance to bid on a car from the museum’s collection, all proceeds to benefit the museum. Please phone (619) 398-0307 for reservations and additional information.