It could be argued that the first generation Corvette ushered in a fresh era of motoring in the U.S. It was the first modern American sports car — the fenders were flush with the rest of the body and the body enveloped the frame (rather than sitting atop it). The ‘Vette made such a personal luxury statement that Ford was caught flatfooted and responded two years later with the Thunderbird. They quickly diverged though, the Corvette remaining true to its European gentleman-racer roots.
While the C1 laid the foundation, the second generation came to exemplify the Corvette. The C2 also represented a shift in design, generally, and within GM, having been designed right after the styling leadership changed (Bill Mitchell replaced the aging Harley Earl). Design transitioned from voluptuous to sheer and raked. Mitchell’s tenure saw GM cars become less ornate and more futuristic. He also killed that symbol of the 1950s, the tail fin, which reached its zenith in 1959 in one of Earl’s last production cars — the Cadillac Eldorado.
The Corvette's overall proportions didn’t change much from the first gen. It maintained the traditional long hood/short trunk shared with most other sports cars. But the surfacing became much tauter with the second generation. The 1950s were essentially an extension of the art deco era that favored a rounded aerodynamic look (fenders) with speed lines for accent (think of the C1’s bumpers and grille teeth).
As the decade drew to a close, the Corvette had been steadily moving away from its slightly pudgy beginnings toward the beautiful, lithe form it acquired in 1963. Under Mitchell’s stewardship, designer Larry Shinoda began with the ’62 Corvette’s light-looking ducktail rear end and picked up on the 1953’s chrome character line and brought it up, tangential to the tire tops and terminating in the ducktail. Everything below the beltline reflects the ground, giving the car a very lean, low, planted look. The gesture of the beltline is carried through the bodyside, giving the car a dynamic, athletic appearance.
Detail-wise, Mitchell did away with many of the chrome tidbits of Earl’s era, but the 1963 C2 was still festooned with a variety of doodads — hood vents that only served a visual purpose, B-pillar scallops, and divided backlight. While the scallops remained for a few years, the hood vents and two-piece backlight (split-window) were nixed the following year.
The reason the C2 is the prototypical Corvette is because it’s clean and purposeful. It wasn’t conservative, it was a bold risk taker. It was designed to speak to an American aesthetic when traditional-looking MG’s and Porsches were beginning to appear on our shores in greater numbers. All of the surfacing and details were designed to make it look like the gutsiest, fastest racecar on Earth. The first generation made the Corvette’s success possible. But it was this car, the 1963 Corvette, that defined what a ‘Vette is.