Making History: Famous Corvettes


1963 Silver Corvette Grand Sport with Paul Walker and Vin Diesel
Few cars are as iconic - or as well recognized - as the Chevy Corvette. Here, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel share the limelight with a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport during a scene in "Fast Five."

The Start of an American Dream

Since its introduction in 1953, the Chevy Corvette has been recognized as one of the most iconic American sports-cars of all time. While others have shared celebrity with the Corvette – most notably the Ford Mustang, the Dodge Challenger and even the Pontiac Trans Am – no other car in the history of the American automotive industry has been as recognized, or as celebrated, as the Chevy Corvette.

White 1953 Chevy Corvette C1 at the 1953 Motorama
The first Corvette made its public debut at the GM Motorama held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City on January 17, 1953.

When the Corvette was first introduced in 1953 at GM’s Motorama show, the response it received was unprecedented in Chevrolet’s history. The car’s production was fast-tracked by GM, and just 300 units were produced that first year. To further enhance the car’s appeal, sales of the Corvette were limited to VIP’s. Mayors, governors, celebrities and industrial leaders were targeted, and the demand was so overwhelming that not a single Chevrolet dealership received a Corvette that first year.

Since its introduction, and moreover, after its early successes on the race track, the Corvette’s popularity only continued to grow. By the early 1960’s, with America’s determination to put the first man on the moon, the Corvette became synonymous with the space race – and it became commonplace to see photographs of astronauts sitting atop America’s most beloved sports car.

By the 1970’s, the Corvette had already been featured on both the small screen and the silver screen. It had become instantly recognizable by both children and adults and, in a very real sense, transcended the “pop culture” of that era to become an integral part of the “American Dream.”

Today, the Corvette is more popular than ever, and car enthusiasts the world over clamor for glimpses at what Chevrolet has in store for this beloved sports car. It was the first automobile ever to have a museum dedicated solely to the preservation of a single brand. The National Corvette Museum is visited by nearly 250,000 people annually, and has become a destination spot for Corvette Clubs and automotive enthusiasts from across the country and around the world.

To say that the Corvette is famous is an understatement – it is iconic.

However, even as popular as the Corvette brand has become, there are still certain “famous” Corvettes that have been elevated to a special place within global pop culture. Whether famous for their own sake, or made famous by the person that owned them, this article will explore the “elite – best of the best” in Corvette’s sixty-five year history..

On the Racetrack

Corvette race cars.
Corvette has been celebrated on the racetrack since the fifties and continues to be recognized to this day as one of the winning-est production cars of all time.

While the initial allure of the Chevy Corvette was overwhelming when introduced in 1953, the actual car lacked the power and finesse it required to stand out amongst the competition. The car just couldn’t compete – that is, until Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgian engineer who joined Chevrolet in 1954 after seeing the Motorama Corvette in 1953, decided to help transform the Corvette from a “rolling bathtub” (as it was once known) into a racer and street machine that would rival anything on the world stage.

Just as NASCAR drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt (Sr. AND Jr.) are celebrated as some of the most popular sports celebrities today, drivers (and their cars) of the late 1950’s and 1960’s were similarly recognized. Perhaps given the very real aura of danger inherent with driving a race-car, many drivers from that era were as revered as celebrities as any of the actors making movies in Hollywood during that time.

While most of these drivers (with the exception of those driving the NASCAR circuit) hailed from Europe, or other parts of the world, there were drivers from the United States that chose to compete in the Chevy Corvette – and from these humble beginnings – a racing dynasty was born.

The 1960 Cunningham Corvette

the 1960 No. 3 Cunningham Corvette
The 1960 Cunningham Corvette was the first Corvette ever to compete (and win) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In 1960, nobody took the Corvette seriously as a contender on the race track. Remember that the Corvette of the 50’s had largely been dismissed as a conceptual failure after its initial introduction. Grossly underpowered with its “Stovebolt-Six” flat-six cylinder engine, there were many who believed that the Corvette had been a great show car that had been poorly envisioned.

However, thanks to the genius of Duntov and his team, the Corvette was successfully transformed from a slow-and-heavy weekend cruiser, to a powerful and well-engineered driving machine.

In 1960, under the guidance of Duntov, Briggs-Cunningham entered a 1960 Corvette into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Wearing the number “3” on its nose and doors, the Corvette – which was driven by by John Fitch and Bob Grossman – ran a solid race for the first nineteen hours of the twenty-four hour race.

When the car began to overheat, the team simply upped the frequency of their pit-stops and packed the engine compartment with ice. The trick worked – allowing the team to continue driving and ultimately win its class and finish 8th overall in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans! This victory, which was a virtually unprecedented accomplishment for an American Racing team at that time, marked Corvette’s introduction into European Racing. The accomplishment turned heads around the globe, and gave Chevrolet its first foothold on a market that had, until then, denounced American automobiles for their overall lack of quality.

The 1963 Grand Sport

The 1963 Corvette Grand Sport
The 1963 Corvette Grand Sport is one of the rarest of all Corvettes – also making it one of the most valuable/collectible of all time.

Given its early success at Le Mans, Duntov and his team went to work to develop a true race-car variant of the Chevy Corvette. Dubbed “Grand Sport”, the cars were designed specifically to win FIA endurance races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The car was also developed as GM’s response to the Shelby Cobra, which had proven itself time and again as an “unstoppable” competitor on the world racing stage.

Initially, Chevrolet intended on building 125 of the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport coupes. Originally known as “the Lightweight”, Duntov and his team set out to immediately begin fabrication of the sports car, with a focus of having this new Corvette racer ready to compete against the Shelby Cobra at Nassau Speed Week in 1963.

Five of the 125 Corvette Grand Sports were built, and three of these cars were transported to Nassau to compete against the Shelby Cobra. The 1963 Grand Sport Corvettes succeeded in beating their competition, and made a decisive showing throughout the event.

Unfortunately for the Grand Sport race car, legislation was passed that banned manufacturer sponsorship – and GM pulled the plug on the entire program.

While Duntov would not be defeated by this setback, the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport program was abandoned, with just five (though some argue a sixth was manufactured in the late 1960’s) Corvette Grand Sport examples ever manufactured.

However, given the rarity of an original Grand Sport, its celebrity is also recognized the world over. In fact, an original 1963 Corvette Grand Sport is so rare that it is universally recognized as the most valuable and most collectible Corvette of all time.

The 1967 Corvette Le Mans

Sometimes it’s not who wins the race, but how the race was run that matters most.

The No. 9 1967 Corvette Le Mans
The No. 9 1967 Corvette Le Mans is celebrated not for its victory at Le Mans, but for the legendary way that the car arrived at the race.

That was certainly the case for the 1967 Corvette Le Mans.

The No. 9 Corvette was driven in the 1967 24 Hour of Le Mans by Corvette racing legends Dick Guldstrand and Bob Bondurant. The car proved to be a serious contender in the race, due in large part to its ability to hit speeds of 170+ miles per hour down the Mulsanne Straight – an accomplishment that put the driving-duo well in the lead of the 24 hour endurance race. Unfortunately, a broken wrist pin forced the team to retire the big V-8 Corvette halfway thru the race.

Despite this, the team was cheered as they exited the track by fans and competitors alike. Not only had the team driven exceptionally well and achieved unparalleled speed during the first half of the event, but they also showed remarkable sportsmanship and dedication in their actions lead up to the event.

Because Guldstrand and Bondurant had arrived late in France and risked missing qualifying at the track, they instead decided to drive the L88 big-block Corvette racer from the airport near Paris directly to Me Lans for the 24-hour race – a drive that itself takes more than two hours to complete during normal driving conditions. This transcended the drivers – and the Chevy Corvette – into “folk heroes” amongst the locals of La Sarthe, France.

The 2001 Corvette C5.R

The 2001 C5.R Corvette Race Car in Competition Yellow
The 2001 C5.R Corvette Race Car continues to wear the No. 3, keeping with the tradition set by the 1960 Cunningham Corvette.

While the official AMA ban on manufacturer-backed racing was dismissed in the 1970’s, Chevrolet would not “officially” return to manufacturer-backed racing until the late-nineties with the introduction of the 1999 Corvette C5.R.

Within two-years of its introduction, the C5.R – which was manufactured by Pratt & Miller (in cooperation with Chevrolet) – would prove to be a world-class racing contender.

In 2001, the 2001 Corvette C5.R race car dominated the race track both at home and internationally. The Corvette Racing teams would collectively win eight of the ten events that they competed in that year including: the 24 Hours of Daytona, The Grand Prix of Texas, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, Sears Point Raceway, Portland International Raceway, Mosport International Raceway, Mid-Ohio, and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

This decisive racing season would be a game-changer for Corvette Racing as the Corvette had proved decisively that it could once more compete with the staunchest competition in the world – and it is a reputation that Corvette continues to protect and improve upon to this very day.

Famous in Film

Where the engineers and drivers behind the Corvette undeniably played the largest part in the car’s commercial success and rise to fame on the racetrack, it is because of that success that the car garnered the attention of Hollywood. Afterall, regardless of how the car had achieved success, people connected “winning” with the Corvette – and Hollywood recognized that placing this American icon in its films would bolster box office numbers.

Today, Corvettes are famous (and sometimes infamous) for their own sake, but throughout the car’s history, its allure and sex appeal has been markedly increased by its appearance alongside the Hollywood elite.

Is it possible that the Corvette gained a higher degree of celebrity simply because it showed up in film?

Maybe…but consider that Hollywood had been putting automobiles of all types in film since its earliest days. Even so, there are few automobiles as recognized as the Corvette.

Sure there are exceptions – the DeLorean from “Back to the Future”, the 1969 Dodge Challenger from the “Dukes of Hazzard” and even the Volkswagen Beetle from “Herbie the Love Bug.” However, each of these cars are identified as a specific “character” in the movie – and are famous for the role they play – not for being the car that they actually are.

No, with the exception of the Aston Martin in the “James Bond” films, there is no other automotive manufacturer who has been as readily identified as the Corvette in mainstream film.

Need further proof? Check these films out:

Corvette Summer (1978)

Although heavily modified, the third star (alongside Mark Hamill and Annie Potts) of “Corvette Summer” is car is a 1973 Chevy Corvette.

Before he became famous for playing the role of Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars”, Mark Hamill starred in the movie “Corvette Summer.” This film featured a heavily customized 1973 C3 Corvette that a high school shop class rescues from a junkyard and uses at is project car. At the end of the school year, the completed Corvette gets stolen, and Hamill (along with Annie Potts) takes off across country to rescue the car from the thieves.

Although the movie is a lesser-known film these days, most critics agree that the main reason the film still gets any attention at all is centered around the fact that the car featured Hamill and the staying power of the ever-popular Chevy Corvette.

Apollo 13 (1995)

Both Gary Sinise (pictured) and Tom Hanks drove Corvettes in Apollo 13. While some critics speculated it was unabashed “product placement,” it wasn’t. The actual astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission owned Corvettes.

They say that life imitates art – but the opposite is true in this instance.

Since Alan Shepherd drove his 1957 Corvette to astronaut training, the Chevy Corvette and the astronaut program at NASA has shared a special relationship that has reared its head time and again throughout out the space program.

In the movie “Apollo 13” both Astronauts Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) and Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon) are shown driving 1970 Corvette Stingrays.

While many critics might have argued that this was simply clever product placement to enhance the “American-patriot” dynamic of the film, they’d be wrong.

A GM dealer close to the Florida Space Center actually offered astronauts special financing options if they agreed to drive a new Corvette off the lot. As a result, a number of the Apollo astronauts owned and drove brand new ‘Vettes. The movie simply captured this as part of its accounting of the events leading up to the launch of Apollo 13.

Star Trek (2009)

A young Captain Kirk outruns a futuristic police officer in the early minutes of the 2009 “Star Trek” re-boot.  Naturally, one of the most iconic captains of all time is driving one of the most iconic cars of all time. Would you expect anything less?

And speaking of heroes, there are few movie characters as heroic – or as iconic – as Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise!

For the 2009 re-boot of Star Trek, a young Jim Kirk is introduced to audiences everywhere as he commandeers (that’s fancy for “steals”) his step-dad’s 1965 Corvette convertible and takes off across the open (and often dusty) backroads of rural Iowa.

While the car’s appearance in this film is somewhat short-lived, it’s good to know that, even in the 23rd century, the Chevy Corvette will still be celebrated by car enthusiasts – even when we’ve left earth for that “final frontier” out there in the heavens.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

1954 Corvette in Red
“Kiss Me Deadly” from 1955 was the first film to feature a Corvette. Hard to imagine that this iconic car was brand new (and a relative unknown) back then!

Considered one of the finest entries into the film noir genre, “Kiss Me Deadly” also features one of the most memorable Corvettes in the history of the silver screen. This movie is noted as being the first to feature a Corvette – a 1954 C1 in this instance. – It is driven by the male lead, a character named Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) and plays an integral role in the plot of the film.

This movie is considered one of the most referenced movies of all time – including “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Pulp Fiction” and the TV Show “Family Guy.” In 1999, “Kiss Me Deadly” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Maybe it’s just us, but we suspect that it was selected for preservation because it featured a 1954 Corvette!

Owned by Celebrities

Michael Jordan and gold C4 Corvette
Michael Jordan is one of many celebrities who enjoyed driving a Corvette (or several, in Jordan’s case) throughout their career.

As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, there is no question that our society is obsessed with the “comings and goings” of celebrities. Celebrity weddings, celebrity divorces, celebrity homes, celebrity clothes, etc., etc., are definitely hot topics, and we, the 99.9% of the world who are NOT celebrities, dial in to catch a glimpse how that other .01% lives.

For our purposes here at Corvsport.com, when (on those rare occasions) that we dial in, its mostly to see what celebrities are driving….and it should come as no surprise that anyone who’s anyone is driving a Corvette!

Right?

Okay, so that might be a bit of an overstatement….maybe I should say instead that “anyone whos anyone SHOULD drive a Corvette.” Still, even amongst the celebrity elite, there really are quite a few who DO drive a Corvette, and we’ll take a ( brief) moment to recognize those that do.

  • George Clooney – the “Sexiest Man Alive” (twice) states that his car of choice is a Corvette. Not only is he rich and good looking, he’s known for being a really nice guy.
  • Matthew McConaughey – “All right, all right, all right.” He’s known for driving classing ‘70’s era Stingrays and for customizing them to his personal taste.
  • Jay Leno – This should come as no surprise – Jay is a gigantic car and motorcycle enthusiast, and has an incredible collection of automobiles. Jay is well known as a Corvette aficionado, and is known for taking meticulous care of all the ones he owns.
  • Michael Jordan – He is one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but more than that, he is also a true Corvette enthusiast. Like Jay leno, Mr. Jordan is known to collect upscale cars, including both a 1990 and 1993 ZR-1 Corvettes as well as a 1994 model, amongst others.
  • Jon Bon Jovi – This famous singer of the band “Bon Jovi” has two Corvettes – a 1958 C1 roaster and a 90’s era C4.

Of course the list of celebrities is considerably longer than the few that we’ve referenced here. A quick search on the internet will prove that dozens, if not hundreds, of celebrities have either owned or own a Chevy Corvette. And, while the endorsement probably doesn’t influence consumers as much as it might have twenty or thirty years ago, it does demonstrate that the Corvette is still recognized – even by the super rich – as a measure of success and the American Dream.

In Popular Culture

Beach Boys Shut Down Corvette Cover
The Beach Boys album cover featured a second-generation Corvette front and center. Even back then, everyone knew that the Corvette was going to be a super-star!

Some of the most popular Corvettes of all time might not even be “real” Corvettes at all. While the American Sports Car has achieved a great deal of “celebrity” through movies, television, auto racing and many other social venues, it’s the integration of the Corvette into our daily vocabulary that has catapulted the car beyond the realm of just being a popular American icon into something far more visceral.

Few product launches over the past 100 years have become so completely culturally relevant as the Corvette. Yes, there are a few brands – Star Wars, Disney, Marvel, Nike – that transcend the original product(s) and cross over into popular culture in all sorts of crazy and unexpected ways.

Still, for an automobile to have achieved this measure of success in popular culture seems almost impossible. Yet, when we look to popular culture, we find many references to the Corvette in one fashion or another.

Corvettes In Song

In music, many artists have made reference to the Corvette in one fashion or another. The Beach Boys had a 1963 hit song “Shut Down” about a “souped up Stingray.” George Jones also had a hit song called “The Corvette Song” about a little red Corvette (which, by the way, George Jones happened to own.)

Perhaps the most famous song to hit the charts however was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” which really has little to do with the car itself, but is allegory for a one-night stand. How’s that for integration into popular culture!

Corvettes in “Space”

Apollo 12 astronauts (L-R) Charles 'Pete' Conrad Jr., Richard Francis Gordon Jr., and Alan LaVern Bean with their identical 1969 Corvette Stingray coupes.
Apollo 12 astronauts (L-R) Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad Jr., Richard Francis Gordon Jr., and Alan LaVern Bean with their identical 1969 Corvette Stingray coupes.

Throughout the second-half of the twentieth century, the Corvette became synonymous with the American Dream. As referenced briefly above, American astronauts began driving Corvettes at the height of the space program. Alan Shepard, who was the first astronaut to go into space in 1961, received a dazzling white 1962 Corvette from Chevrolet after he returned to Earth. In 1969, the crew of the Apollo 12 mission – Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Al Bean – each received a gold Corvette coupe equipped with a 427CI engine.

While this was the only time that Chevrolet ever gifted Corvettes to astronauts, most of the early astronauts owned Corvettes. Afterall, most astronauts began their careers as test pilots who flew some of the fastest aircraft of the day. It only made sense that they’d also drive the fastest car of the day. At the same time – there are few things more American than a Chevy Corvette – except a Corvette being driven by a true American hero!

Corvettes Collections

Larry Gerig 1958 Corvette Fuelies
Larry Gerig, a successful businessman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, owns one of the largest private Corvette collections in the world.

Finally, when we talk about “popular culture,” we have to acknowledge that people love to collect “stuff.” We collect almost anything: stamps, baseball cards, bottles of wine, McDonalds Happy Meal toys, celebrity autographs, etc., etc…and there is no price too high for those special, one-of-a-kind collectibles that make a collection complete.

Corvettes are definitely NOT the exception.

Both in the U.S. and around the globe, there are car collectors who will “pay any price” for a unique, ultra-rare Corvette. In fact, the Corvette has become such a collectible car, they routinely sell at auctions like Barrett-Jackson and Mecum for hundred-of-thousands to MILLIONS of dollars.

A study done in 2013 by Hemmings, the World’s Largest Collector Car Marketplace, showed that the Corvette made their “Top 100 American Collector Cars of All Time” list a total of five times:

  • The 1953 Corvette (ranked 46)
  • The 1963 Corvette (ranked 75)
  • The 1967 Corvette L88 (ranked 85)
  • The 1970-72 Corvette LT-1 (ranked 95)
  • The 1990-95 Corvette ZR1 (ranked 100).

To help lend some perspective, a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette L88 (ranked 85th in overall collectability by Hemmings) sold in 2015 at a Barrett Jackson auction for $3.85 million dollars! It was the most expensive car sold, outperforming every other car that crossed the auction block that year – a list that included two other Corvettes: a 1969 Corvette Rebel Race Car that sold for $2.86 million (and was No. 2 overall that year) and a 1968 Corvette L88 that sold for $880,000 (No. 8). It also outsold a 1991 Ferrari F40, a 2008 Bugatti Veyron, a 1963 Shelby Cooper Monaco King Cobra and a Ferrari F300 F1 Racer.

Ironically, it’s not just the “classic” Corvettes that command these astronomical prices.

1955, 1956 and 1957 VIN 001 Corvettes at the Barrett Jackson Auction
Rick Hendrick purchased a collection of three VIN No. 001 Corvette (1955, 1956 and 1957) at the Barrett Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona for $1.65 million dollars.

In January, 2013, Rick Hendrick (of Hendrick Motorsports fame) bid on, and won, the first 2014 C7 Corvette Stingray at the Barrett Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. The price? Mr. Hendrick paid $1,050,000 for the car, and for the privilege of owning VIN #0001.

Rick Hendrick is a self-made billionaire. Between owning a successful chain of automobile dealerships throughout the southeast, and also by owning one of the most successful NASCAR teams – Hendricks Motorsports – in the history of the sport, Hendrick can certainly afford to drop large sums of money on anything he chooses.

It just so happens that he chooses to spend a good deal of his fortune on Corvettes. Since his acquisition of the 2014 Stingray VIN #0001, he has also purchased the first 2014 C7 Corvette Stingray convertible for $1 million (at a different Barrett Jackson auction later that same year) and, the first 2015 Corvette Z06 Stingray for $1 million at the 2014 Barrett Jackson auction in Palm Beach.

Keep in mind that these high-priced, one-of-a-kind acquisitions are in addition to the 100+ Corvettes he already owns in his private collection, to say nothing of the many other automobiles (nearly 200 total) he keeps securely locked away in his private motor sports facility in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Most Famous Is Yet To Come?

Nobody really knows for sure what Chevrolet has in store for the future of Corvette, but many enthusiasts anxiously await the arrival of a mid-engine version of America’s beloved sports car. The anticipation of a mid-engined Corvette – which dates back almost to the beginning of the cars sixty-five year history – may prove to be the most anticipated and most sought-out Corvette of all time.

This much is certain, when it comes to automotive celebrity, there are few automobiles as celebrated or as immediately identifiable as the Chevy Corvette….and that’s just the way we like it!

Little Red Corvette, Prince
While we don’t want to end on a somber note, we felt that this image – perhaps more than any other in this article – expresses just how famous the Corvette has become in its sixty-five year history.  Chevy produced this timely tribute to Prince following the singer’s death on April 21, 2016.  This simple, well-executed image, which ran first on Twitter and then as a national press ad, represented a graceful blend of history, brand and a powerful moment in popular culture. The image says so much without the use of many words….and shows, once again, just how integral the Corvette is as part of our culture and our society – not just in the U.S., but around the world.

 

 

 

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