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Hammond drives the icons: Chevy Corvette
There will be some for whom the appearance of the 1958 Corvette’s vast, red bulk is enough to signal that it’s time to leave. That’s fine, it’s not for everyone. But GM’s first two-seat sports car has something about it, even if only scale; something has to account for the sheer presence of this thing. Strangely, for something so unashamedly, even wilfully enormous, it’s a very feminine car. The curves, the shapes, all of that stuff, tap into some set of inbuilt receptors that have the brain thinking of the sort of voluptuous but feline and mischievous beauty that darted across cinema screens in the Fifties. It certainly does nothing to suggest that this is a taut, aggressive racer. And it isn’t. It really isn’t. In order to make its first two-seater, GM didn’t think much further, it seems, than removing two seats from a four-seater. It certainly didn’t feel compelled to lighten, stiffen or simplify a car to turn it into a roadster.
The 4.6-litre V8 stirs itself to deliver 283bhp with a filthy, lazy noise. It’s glorious. The red interior on this one really is incredibly red; I’ve never seen so much red in one place. This car is a movie star - it drips Fifties Hollywood glamour. I’ll be honest: I’m not expecting much from the drive, and it delivers according to expectations. It’s heavy, and the power comes in lazy slugs, but I simply don’t care. How many of those Fifties movie stars could do much anyway - including acting, if we’re honest. And despite the movies they made and the roles they played, they weren’t really cowboys or gangsters - they were good-looking people who drew viewers into the screen and their fantasy worlds. And that’s what the Corvette is about. Those sculpted flanks and the incredibly pretty rear are the planes and angles that give it such devastating looks - they’re certainly not the hardened, form-following-function lines of a serious racer. Rolling it around our track, perched behind the futuristic dash and the heavily curved windscreen, I could feel the positivity pouring out of it. Whatever was really going on in the world in 1953 when the first Chevrolet Corvette arrived, the car was about hope and blind, crazy optimism. We were all going to be driving hovercars and living on asteroids with robot butlers. It didn’t matter that the Corvette couldn’t really go into space - it looked like it could, and that’s what was important. There are no brakes to speak of, it wiggles, lurches and rolls through corners and, despite the noise and the fury, that huge V8 doesn’t do much to overcome the car’s bulky inertia. It was about the style, about the looks, the glamour and looking like it could go into space or blast through a desert at a million miles an hour - that was enough.
To be fair, all of this stuff is best appreciated with the benefit of hindsight and viewed through very thick rose-tinted spectacles. The first Corvette wasn’t enormously well received in 1953, perhaps because people rather saw through those dazzling looks and felt the car didn’t deliver. So at the time, it was far from an enormous and immediate success. But even a really good American car from the Fifties will handle and ride like a drunken tanker by today’s measures, and so only now is it possible to wallow in the nostalgia and glamour and forgive the far-from-dazzling dynamics. They got better, they got faster and even grew to handle reasonably well and, in recent years, the Corvette name has been attached to sports cars that can hold their own against European offerings. But at the beginning, it was, perhaps, a car built to be appreciated best from a distance in time. Like about 60 years, when it can float about looking gorgeous and being forgiven for the leaks, the wobbles and the brakes. When a Fifties Corvette rumbles into a car park or down your street, you absolutely have to smile. It’s the law. And that, perhaps more than anything else, gives it its iconic status. It’s rock and roll, man, rock and roll.
Chevrolet Corvette 1958
Engine: 4638cc V8, 4spd
Power: 283bhp, 289lb ft
Top speed: 122mph
This article was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Top Gear Magazine