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Corvette still owns the open road

AS anyone who has any experience with social media knows, automotive manufacturers love to make the most of any big reveal.

AS anyone who has any experience with social media knows, automotive manufacturers love to make the most of any big reveal.

And so it was, on 01/13/13, that my Facebook, Twitter, email, and whatever else one uses in these days of interwebby communication exploded with wave after wave of pictures and information on the new Corvette.

Most of the pictures, it has to be said, were terrible. While the iPhone is an excellent way to waste time and avoid communicating with your family, it does take some pretty shoddy photos in low-light conditions, and the warehouse where GM chose to reveal the latest iteration of their world-beating sportscar was gloomier than Mordor.

Thus, every one I knew in the industry kept sending me these smudgy blobs accompanied by "OMG" and other useless comments like that.

Some time later, once the frenzy had calmed, we got our first proper look at the new 'Vette. Personally, I'm a little on the fence: sure it's very aggressive and angular and has a quad-exhaust setup that looks like a converted church organ, but it's not exactly pretty, is it?

Of course, there are those who would say that the Corvette isn't about beauty; it's about speed above all else - raw, unbridled, powerful, kind of a handful. And, so the stereotype goes, a little rough around the edges. Looks the business at a racetrack, but doesn't know which fork to use at the fancy restaurant, so to speak.

This new one does seem more polished than the previous generation and its plastic-fantastic trim (the old interior is much improved upon). Even so, with 450 horsepower coming from a 6.2-litre small-block V-8, you just know it's going to be a sledgehammer in many ways. Expect to see the automotive magazines put this C7 up against all manner of sacred cows - and expect big-dollar front-runners to get taken down a peg or two.

It wasn't always like this. Six decades ago, a very different Corvette debuted.

First of breed, the 1953-'62 C1 is still an American icon without peer. Check the specs though, and it'd be hard to see where the lineage comes from: with a medium displacement straight-six and a two-speed automatic transmission, the original 'Vette was a chrome-laden aristocrat in white - and a slug on the road.

But the crowds loved it - and why wouldn't they? GM vice president Harley J. Earl had created an American sports car to rival the Europeans, at least in curb appeal. Unique-for-the-time touches like a hideaway folding convertible roof gave the first 'Vette a sleek shape, befitting its name.

Earl reportedly rejected 300 potential appellations before settling on Corvette, the term for a small, fast warship. Small it was, nimble is stretching things a bit. Fast? Certainly not.

Then, in '55, a small V-8 became an available option, giving the 'Vette a little go to match the show. Experts will endlessly debate when the 'Vette actually became "good," but I'd mark the point at late 1957, when fuel-injection and a four-speed manual became available.

Truth is, the story of the Corvette might well be titled, "My Two Dads." Harley J. provided the impetus and the shape. Belgian-born engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov provided the heartbeat of America.

Captivated by the sight of the original '53 Corvette, Zora was reportedly very disappointed with its performance specs (and rightly so). He would know - aside from a colourful childhood spent faffing around with motorcycles and racecars in Belgium, Zora founded a company that designed the performance heads that took Ford's Flathead V-8 over 300 h.p. He was a competitive driver as well, co-driving an Allard sports car in Le Mans in '52/'53, and achieving class wins behind the wheel of a Porsche 550 RS Spider in '54 and '55.

While training the 'Vette from sluggish pony up to thoroughbred racer, Zora thrashed a prototype up the treacherous Pikes Peak, cracked 150 miles per hour in the flying mile at Daytona, and founded the Grand Sport racing program.

Now a fully realized sports car, the Corvette's first major redesign came with the 1963 Stingray. As streamlined as the deadly fish from which it took its name, this second-generation Corvette would see further advances like fully independent suspension and ever-increasing power. Those who were looking for drag-racing bragging rights could option all the way up to a 427 cubic-inch (7.0-litre) engine by 1966, and those who wished to blow the doors off E-types and Porsches at the track could opt for handling packages like the Z06 option with uprated brakes and stiffer suspension.

Fuel was cheap. Business was booming. America was great, and so was the best car it made. When the third generation Corvette debuted in 1968, U.S.A. was busy proving that even the sky wasn't the limit.

For kids of the late '60s, space-race fever was the order of the day. Everybody wanted to be Alan Shepard or Dick Gordon: clean-cut, deeply tanned, utterly fearless. Oh yeah, and Corvette owners too.

Nearly every astronaut drove a Corvette (apart from family man John Glenn, who bought a Chev station wagon), kicking off with Alan Shepard showing up to training camp in a 1957 'Vette. Later, he and Gus Grissom would duel in their cars, racing deep out in the desert to blow off steam from the gruelling training.

It's an enduring part of American mythology, and one kept going by both GM PR and an astute local dealer, who allowed short-term 'Vette leases to astronauts, all through the moon missions. The preferred chariot of Apollo will forever be a Corvette.

The Corvette, now a sweeping-fendered mako shark of a machine, rode this questing wave of optimism smack into the unyielding wall of the fuel crisis, the counter-culture movement and the near-fatal wounding of the American dream. In 1969, the ZL1 engine option would produce an estimated 560 h.p. and thrust the C3 'Vette through the quarter-mile in less than 11 seconds. By 1975, base model Corvettes were putting out just 165 h.p.

Tough times indeed, and the shadow of these eviscerated cars still tarnishes the 'Vettes proud heritage somewhat. And yet, Chevy kept makin' 'em and people kept buyin' 'em.

The C4 Corvette began a return to form, with 300 h.p. coming by the early '90s. More conservative than the sleek machines of the '60s and '70s, the C4 is best exemplified by the straked lines of the ZR-1. Powered by an all-aluminum V-8 (designed with assistance from Lotus), the 1990 ZR-1 had 385 h.p. and was once again capable of going up against the best the world could throw at it.

The late '90s saw the aging C4 replaced by a fifth generation car that clearly benchmarked Japanese sportscars like the Nissan 300ZX and Mazda RX-7. Designed to be a convertible right from the get-go, its formidable LS1 V-8 will go down in the annals of engineering as a durable, relatively lightweight powerhouse.

Currently, the sixth-generation Corvette is best represented by the insanely powerful ZR-1 model, which makes a feature film appearance in an upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger flick. Chevy also released a 60th anniversary package for most of its 'Vettes this year, and brought back the iconic 427 badge on a manual convertible which I was fortunate enough to test in the summertime. It was a little bit like driving around in a controlled explosion that someone had fitted with a steering wheel.

And now, this latest Corvette, a re-emergence of the old Sting-Ray badging and a look to the future. It's the same old V-8 recipe, but now cleaner burning and a little less wild. All indications are that performance cars like these are dinosaurs, that the future will be autonomous transport, electric propulsion, networked vehicles with automatic accident avoidance.

Even so, there's a place out there in the desert where the blacktop shimmers in the heat, where the twisting two-lane snakes up into hills marked only by spotty scrub-brush. It's empty, barren - not a destination, but merely the blank space on the map between where you're going and where you're coming from.

Now, and always, it'll be the best place to find yourself behind the wheel of a Corvette - the V-8 roaring, the rear dancing around like a skittish horse, the sound and the fury echoing down 60 years of legend.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail. com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.