Forgotten Places: Corvettes at Carlisle

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Forgotten Metal has a fever, and the only prescription is more Corvettes. It’s a problem for which I only have myself to blame. After more than two years of running this blog, we’ve never featured America’s sports car. So I’ve come to the one place where, for a few days at the end of the summer, they show nothing but Corvettes: Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here- you wanted Corvettes? Have them! Have all the Corvettes! Look at them all! We’ve got Corvettes for days! 

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Corvettes at Carlisle is a funny thing. First and foremost, it’s a car show. It has all the things a normal car show has. There are raffles. There’s plenty of food available. None of it’s healthy. The hamburgers and hot dogs have questionably car-related nicknames, like “Big Block,” “Tail Pipe,” and “Motorhead.” But calling this event just a car show is like calling Bridgegate “a little” suspicious. It’s a car show where you’re only allowed to bring one car. Corvettes at Carlisle is, without a doubt, the biggest collection of Corvettes anywhere in the world. Every year, over 5000 owners from all across the country (and the world, in some cases) undergo a pilgrimage, of sorts, to this expanse of fairgrounds in rural Pennsylvania. Why? Well, that’s what I’m here to find out. With my baseball cap securely fastened and with my running count of “Hillary for Prison” signs holding steady at 12, I enter.

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Something easy to start: this is beautifully kept Corvette C1 from 1958. It’s finished in Panama Yellow, and it’s called a C1 because it belongs to the first generation of Corvette. The Corvette came into being as a domestic response to the popularity of European sports cars following the end of World War II. The origins of the Corvette’s design are varied, with influences being traced back to everything from the Jaguar XK120 to the Buick Y-Job. In January of 1953, the first hand-built, fiberglass prototype was shown at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Those first cars were all hand-built, actually. And you could have 1953 models in any color, so long as it was white (with a red interior). 1954 saw the introduction of a more diverse color palate, but your internals remained the same for the first two years: a 150 horsepower inline-six with a two speed automatic transmission. Hardly a sporting resume then, and that’s an important thing to remember. Anyway, the C1 went through a number of different “looks” before, in 1963, it was replaced by the C2.

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Hey, look at that- a C2. Actually, two C2s. This handily demonstrates one of the Corvette’s most interesting pieces of minutiae. On the left is, as its license plate helpfully points out, a 1963 coupe. The one on the right is from a later year. Have you spotted the difference yet? The ’63 has a split window (quite literally, a back window that’s been split down the middle), and the other car doesn’t. 1963 is the only year Chevy offered the Corvette with a split window. In doing so, they created one of the most iconic pieces of American design- up there with Jackie O, the Chrysler Building and the Baconator. That’s down to one simple reason: jealousy. See, when Chevy switched over to the standard rear window in 1964, owners of the 1963 Corvette felt a little disenfranchised with their now-outdated-looking car. So they hack-sawed the metal divide out of their cars and installed a ’64 window, all in an effort to make their car look newer. That left only a couple of unmodified ’63 split-windows rolling around, which means they’re worth a pretty penny on today’s market (think $80 grand on the low end). Don’t mess with oddities, folks. My collection of novelty marbles is going to be worth something some day, I can feel it.

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Oh, I forgot to mention something. The C2 Corvette was also the first time the Stingray name was used, though on that particular generation it was technically a “Sting Ray.” The C3 came about at the end of the sixties, and in my opinion, represents the widest range of what the Corvette was capable of doing. That is to say there were some pretty awful Corvettes in the seventies. It started out strong: it had the same basic running gear as the C2, and the same engines as well (a 7.0 liter, 435 horsepower V8 was an option). Car and Driver called it “the Barbarella of the car maker’s art.” That’s the car on the right. The car on the left, from much later in the C3’s run, may well have been the Guzmer of the car maker’s art. Federal fuel and safety regulations plagued the Corvette. The chrome of the sixties gave way to huge plastic bumpers. The convertible faded out of existence. Horsepower figures steadily declined through most of the seventies. Emissions standards meant Californians didn’t even get the bigger, 350 cubic-inch V8 for a little while (they had to make do with a 305 that produced a pitiable 190 horsepower). It was 1981 when Corvette production shifted from St. Louis to Bowling Green, Kentucky. The next year, the C3 Corvette was dead.

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There was no 1983 Corvette. In that year, I like to imagine the Corvette realized the path it had chosen. Maybe it traveled to Bhutan in order to learn to combat the injustice of low horsepower, gaudy seventies-ness. Under Ra’s al Ghul it learned how to be faster, nimbler, and more European. It shed the excesses of the previous decade for a sharper, more purposeful design. And just look at those pop-up headlights. No longer was the Corvette a relaxed, overweight boulevard cruiser. The C4 represented a paradigm shift in the car’s mission. Now if you bought a Corvette, you were buying an outright sportscar. For the longest time the C4 was maligned as being the “cheap” Corvette (even Batman couldn’t escape 1980s quality issues). But now the market is beginning to recognize what a special vehicle the C4 is. Which is why it’s becoming more and more commonplace to see one in good condition, like this lovely grey-on-darker-grey example. And that’s nice. The C4 was to the Corvette what season 2 was to Bojack Horseman. It found itself. It solidified the mission. And it was great.

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This is a C5, which took us through the awkward late nineties into the even awkwarder early 2000s. The C5 was an evolution, not a revolution like the C4. But that doesn’t mean it was bad. C5s were vast technological improvements over their predecessors. The transmission was mounted in the back, for instance, which made for better weight distribution. There was also a brand new engine: the LS1 small block V8. That meant the base C5 made 350 horsepower, which propelled the car to a top speed of 181 miles per hour. It even had hydroformed side frame rails, whatever they are. So, a thoroughly modern Corvette, then. Enter stage left: the Z06. The Z06 was the fastest version of the C5 you could buy. It borrowed its name from a particularly zippy version of the C2 (which was a race car even though any common plebeian could buy one). The C5 Z06 was introduced in 2001 with 385 horsepower, but the one you really wanted came about in 2004. By then the Z06’s power had ballooned to 405, and a special “Commemorative Edition” was made available. Not only did the Commemorative Edition feature a nifty, stripe-y new paint job, but it also got a hood made out of carbon fiber, which made it a little bit lighter. The C5 in the above picture is not a Commemorative Edition- it’s not even a Z06- but it is pretty special. According to the owner, this is one of only fifteen 1998 C5s that left the factory in this particular color: Aztec Gold. This is the kind of nerdy, hyper-specific brilliance that you only see at shows like Corvettes at Carlisle. I personally don’t think the C5 is a particularly good looking car, but I really like this Aztec Gold example, and I would have probably never known about it otherwise.

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These two Corvettes bring us to the present day. The blue car is a C6, which was introduced in 2005. While I was technically around for the entirety of the C5’s run, the C6 was really the Corvette of my childhood- due in no small part to this ad (I was ten in 2005, cut me a break). The C6 was smaller than its predecessor, and produced more horsepower: 400 of them to be exact (though in 2008 that figure increased to 430 with the introduction of a new 6.2 liter V8). The Z06 version now made 505 horsepower, but the real star of the lineup was the one seen in the picture above. That’s a ZR1, which is a moniker reserved only for king of the hill Corvettes. Let’s talk numbers: 638 horsepower from a supercharged V8. Zero to sixty miles per hour in 3.3 seconds. A top speed of 205 miles per hour. Oh, and its code name during development was the “Blue Devil” (still can’t beat a Blue Angel though). In short, the best Corvette ever made. That is, until that silver car came into the picture. That’s a C7, which is the current generation of Corvette. It was unveiled in 2014 to screams of horror from people who didn’t like the way the taillights looked. They were square, instead of round. A message to those “purists”: settle down. Things change. The first Corvettes didn’t even have a V8 and were only available with an automatic, which to some people today would be as radical an idea as a bad Harry Potter story, or a woman president. This particular C7 is the Z06 model, which makes even more power than the old C6 ZR1. That can mean only good things for the forthcoming C7 ZR1. Drawbacks? Well, the new Z06 has had its fair share of reliability problems, mostly due to overheating issues. A fix is apparently on the way.

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Let’s talk odds and ends. As I mentioned before, Corvettes at Carlisle is a great way to bone up on your odd/rare Corvette trivia. Case in point: this C3 “Sportwagon.” General Motors never officially sold a Corvette wagon (or Shooting Brake, if we’re getting technical), though they did toy with the idea in the early days. This particular example was made by a high school shop teacher in Lansing, Michigan around 1980. Companies sold certain kits that allowed you to do this, and according to the current owner this is “likely one of the last Sportwagon kits sold.” Again, you don’t get these personal narratives in places like the New York International Auto Show. NYIAS is fun, but clinical. Shows like the Newtown Classic Car Show and Corvettes at Calisle, on the other hand, are personal and welcoming. You get stories, not just statistics. The Sportwagon is one of those stories. It’s a lovable weirdo. I think it’s great. If only I had the $16,000 the owner is selling it for.

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Okay, everyone can calm down now. I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath since I mentioned the C1 Corvette went through different “looks” over the course of its life, and, joy of joys, here’s an example of that. The light green C1 is from the late 50s period, much like the one we looked at earlier. The turquoise one predates that- I’m going to peg it as a 1954 or a 1955 model (’53s only came in white, remember). If it’s a 1955 model you had the option of a 265 cubic inch V8, but if it’s a 1954 you were stuck with that old inline six that no one talks about. Isn’t it peculiar how two cars of the same name-the same generation, even- can look so different? The C1 actually had another design that came between these two that sort of bridged the gap, stylistically speaking, but in the interest of space I’ll show it to you in a link.

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One of the cool things about Corvettes at Carlisle is that, because it has become such a fundamental institution for enthusiasts, Corvette engineers actually show up. This picture was taken in the engineer’s tent, where actual people who design the Corvette for Chevrolet hang out and chat about their latest wares. Kind of like a farmers market for muscle cars. In 2016, the big news in Corvette-land is this: the new Grand Sport. The name isn’t new; they had Grand Sport trim levels on the C2, the C4, and the C6. In terms of the new one, think of it as a Z06 minus the supercharger. It’s part of what Chevy calls “trickle down performance,” only this “trickle down” scheme actually works in the real world. That means it makes 460 horsepower, which is roundabout the same as the base C7 (which, by the way, goes by the “Stingray” name again). But the Grand Sport benefits from all the other go-fast bits on the Z06 though, like certain aerodynamic enhancements and suspension tuning. Handling, not outright speed, is the name of the game for the Grand Sport. Carfection even called it the “Goldilocks” Corvette. So to review, in the Corvette C7’s hierarchy, we have the Stingray at the bottom end, this Grand Sport, the Z06, and then, at the top of the range, the ZR1, which isn’t on sale yet. Confused yet? Great. Let’s move on.

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Another thing about Corvettes at Carlisle is that after a while your brain starts to become attuned to seeing Corvettes every-freaking-where, which has the effect of making the normally extraordinary seem just ordinary. It also means that when something does stand out, it really stands out. For example, this was a bit of a surprise. It’s a 1967 Corvette C2 convertible fitted with a 502 cubic inch “Ram Jet” V8. The thing is, so far as I know, the biggest engine the C2 ever offered was a 427 cubic inch V8, which was a beast in itself. That means this car is currently running a crate motor sold by GM Performance and installed by the owner. I don’t have any confirmed power figures, but I’m sure “ludicrous” covers it sufficiently. And that’s not all. According to that owner, “the glove box includes autographs by Corvette race car drivers, Corvette chief engineers and designers, TV car show hosts and several astronauts.” It has over 550,000 miles on the odometer.

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Remember the C6 ZR1 from earlier? Yeah, this is its dad, the C4 ZR-1 (note the hyphen: C6s didn’t have that). But this dad is actually more like a globalized Frankenstein, in that it had parts shipped in from all over. That metaphor got away from me. Anywho, let me throw some facts about the ZR-1 at you. It’s got a 350 cubic inch V8 developing 405 horsepower, but that engine doesn’t share any parts with other Chevrolet engines. That’s because it isn’t a Chevrolet engine- it’s a Lotus. That’s right: the ZR-1 of the early nineties featured an engine that was designed in England by a British sports car manufacturer and built by  a different company that makes boat engines in Oklahoma. Apparently, this still holds the speed record for a factory car over a continuous 24 hour period. In other words, a C4 ZR-1 was able to maintain an average speed of over 175 miles per hour for a whole day. No wonder only certain dealers could sell these. The ZR-1 (and the newer ZR1, for that matter) is what happens when you weaponize a Corvette. I can’t wait to see what they do with the new one.

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I think it’s high time we wrapped up, so here it is- the car you’ve all been waiting in suspense for. My best in show for Corvettes at Carlisle is this: a 1967 C2 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe with the 427 cubic inch V8. It’s not the split window, I know, but picking a ’63 would have been like ordering a plain glazed donut at Krispy Kreme. It’s the obvious choice. This ’67 model, on the other hand, still belongs to the classiest generation of Corvette, the C2. It’s also a coupe, which isn’t as desperate for attention as the convertible model (though I’d totally plonk down money for a convertible C2. Am I vain?). But what really separated this particular car from the rest was the absolutely faultless condition it was in. I don’t know what it is about Corvette owners in Québec- I saw a couple- but they take exceptional care of their vehicles. In short, this is the best example of the best version of the best generation of America’s great sports car. For me, that’s reason enough to give it the crown.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Last year at Corvettes at Carlisle, they made a literal American flag out of Corvettes. more than 130 cars participated.
  • There’s actually a Corvette museum in Kentucky, right near the factory. In 2014, a sinkhole opened up beneath one of the displays, swallowing 8 cars. They just made an exhibit out of it. If that’s not American ingenuity, then I don’t know what is.
  • I lied a little bit earlier. There were technically 43 (or 44 depending on who you ask) Corvettes made in 1983 as prototype models. Most were destroyed, but one 1983 model survived and was sent to the Corvette museum. It was one of the eight cars eaten by the sinkhole, incidentally.
  • That’s it for what seems to be becoming our yearly visit to the great state of Pennsylvania. For now, it’s back to New York. Hope to see you there.

 

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