Trickle-Down Tech, Pioneered by Corvette
Have you ever wondered how Chevy’s lowest-volume postwar car managed to outlive all of the brand’s other passenger-car nameplates? While some might say it’s divine intervention, a more likely explanation is that a Corvette halo effect shines brightly on every mainstream Chevrolet, a two-seat sports car burnishing the image of family-friendly Impalas and Malibus.
But equally significant is that Corvette has been the tip of GM’s spear, a car that pioneered so many new technologies through the years that its existence was readily justified. Corvette was not always the first with these breakthroughs, but it often refined and popularized advances that had been in limited use. More important, it helped bring these improvements to the mass market. Here are just a few examples.
1953: Composite Body
The Corvette’s body has been made of fiberglass since day one. GM called it glass-fiber reinforced plastic (GRP). The introduction of the material was a breakthrough for automotive design, allowing many new shapes not possible with conventional metal stamping. But sometimes fiberglass worked to the car’s detriment, with problems in color-matching composite bumpers or poor fit and finish. Those problems have been solved over the years, and it’s now commonplace for cars to have some sort of composite body panels.
1955: Small-block V- 8 engine
The small block V-8 debuted as a 265-ci powerhouse in 1955 Corvette and Chevrolet passenger models. It was a strikingly modern jewel, so lightweight, so high-revving and so reliable that more than 100 million have been built to date. It literally became the soul of the Corvette – a distant cousin still powers Corvettes today – and has since powered millions of Chevy cars and trucks.
1957: Fuel Injection
Yes, Mercedes-Benz used this technology on its exotic 1954 300SL Gullwing. But Chevrolet pushed it into the mainstream, offering it on both the Corvette and family sedans for 1957 models. This was a mechanical system that developed as much as one horsepower for every cubic inch of displacement. It was developed by Rochester Products Division with a little help from the Corvette’s patron saint, Zora Arkus-Duntov. Today, electronic fuel injection is universal.
1963: Independent Rear Suspension
While independent front suspensions have been around since prewar times, an independent rear was exotic stuff in the early 1960s; most cars of the era had solid axles. Independent suspension offers better handling, and ride quality improved as a result of lower unsprung weight. Zora Arkus-Duntov adopted the independent rear from the CERV1 concept car in creating the IRS that arrived with the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.
1981: Fiberglass Leaf Springs
These chassis components were introduced on the 1981 Corvette rear suspension and were added to the front in 1984. Mounted transversely, they were 70 percent lighter than an equivalent steel spring and much more durable. They are also corrosion resistant and functioned as a partial stabilizer bar. Fiberglass springs are still used on the seventh-generation Corvette.
1998: Active Handling
Also known as StabiliTrak, this technology appeared on the 1998 Corvette. When the system detects that a vehicle is breaking traction with the road, it provides braking to individual wheels to help bring the car back under control. Stabilitrak has become standard today on most GM cars. Similar systems have since been developed by many other manufacturers.
2003: Magnetic Selective Ride Control
The first use of this technology was seen on the 2002 Cadillac STS. Corvette quickly adopted it for the 2003 50th anniversary models and really put it on the map. Developed by GM’s Delphi Division, it makes use of ferrous particles in the shock absorber fluid that can be magnetized to provide stiffer resistance when needed. A much-improved system will arrive in the 2017 Corvette. Magnetic Ride Control has spread across GM and is now being used by several Ferrari and Audi models.
2006: Aluminum Frame
The aluminum spaceframe arrived on the C6 Z06 model and became standard across all Corvettes with the C7 model. It was a major breakthrough, saving 136 pounds compared with the hydroformed steel frame of the standard C6. Yet it was 57 percent stiffer. That’s a high return on investment. Today the aluminum frame (with non-structural composite body panels) is still in use on Corvettes as well as on models like the Audi A8, BMW i8 and the new Acura NSX.