The 1 millionth Corvette, a white LT1 roadster with a red interior and a black roof–the same colors as the original 1953 model–rolls off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Kentucky on this day in 1992.
The Corvette, America’s first all-fiberglass-bodied sports car, made its splashy debut in January 1953 as part of General Motors’ traveling Motorama display at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. It went into production the following June, with a base sticker price of $3,760 (around $30,000 in today’s dollars). Despite its sleek, aerodynamic exterior and the fanfare that announced its arrival, early sales of the Corvette were unimpressive. Many sports car enthusiasts scoffed at this American response to the flashy, high-performance European models, with its standard family-car components–including “Blue Flame” six-cylinder engines, two-speed Powerglide automatic transmissions and drum brakes from Chevrolet’s regular car line–and its lack of a stick-shift option.
By contrast, the Corvette’s primary American competitor, the Ford Thunderbird, was an immediate hit when it debuted in 1955, selling more than 14,000 that year (compared to just 700 Corvettes). Faced with the Thunderbird’s success, Chevrolet made significant improvements to the Corvette’s performance, including adding a V-8 engine in 1955. By 1961, the Corvette had become America’s favorite sports car. Annual production of the Corvette peaked at 53,807 in 1979; after that, yearly numbers dwindled due to increasing competition from foreign-made models.
The ceremony celebrating the production of the 1 millionth Corvette on July 2, 1992, featured a prominent appearance by Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Russian engineer and race car driver who was credited with turning Chevrolet’s “dream car” into a classic. Arkus-Duntov had seen the original Corvette prototype at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1953, while he was working for a British racing car company. Struck by the gulf between the car’s innovative design and its relatively lackluster engine, he applied for a job at Chevrolet. He subsequently spearheaded efforts to add ever more powerful engines to the Corvette, which jumped from 150-horsepower in 1953 to 283 by 1957.
Arkus-Duntov also introduced a fuel-injection system that later became standard on many vehicles, and the first four-wheel disc brakes to be used on a mass-produced American car. Wanting the Corvette to rise to the level of Porsche, Ferrari and Mercedes, Arkus-Duntov created the Corvette Grand Sport Program in 1963, bringing Corvette to the highest levels of international competition. Arkus-Duntov retired from GM in 1975; he died in 1996, at the age of 86.