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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

The Chevrolet Corvette: an American icon that outlived the space race

We celebrate the sports car's 65th birthday by getting our hands on a rather special version

It must have been an exciting time to be alive in the United States in the mid-1950s, as the modernity of the post-war world began to take hold and humankind embarked on its first tentative steps towards exploring space. The Chevrolet Corvette was born in 1953, originally as a show car for the New York Auto Show. Americans loved it so much that, 65 years ago this month, the car was put into production.

The early astronauts were so infatuated with this space age-looking sports car that almost all of them owned a Corvette. The first American to go into space, Alan Shepard, started the craze when he drove his to astronaut training; the tie-up was eventually made semi-official, with adverts, endorsements, deals and special access to pre-production models for the astronauts. The relationship continued well into the 1960s and is even immortalised in Oscar-winning Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13.

The crew of Apollo 12 with their Corvette Stingrays in 1969. Getty
The crew of Apollo 12 with their Corvette Stingrays in 1969. Getty

It was a perfect fit. And while the lines of the modern-day Corvette aren’t quite as startlingly futuristic as those stunning early models must have seemed at the time, when I get my hands on a rather special edition – the Callaway Corvette – it’s clear this is still a car that can stop traffic. Quite literally, in some cases, as you attempt not to scrape up its aerodynamic extremities on speed bumps.

The debate over whether the Corvette is a muscle car or a sports car continues more than six decades on. And while the consensus is usually the latter, Callaway’s Dh431,000 supercharged conversion makes something of a case for the former.

My SC627 – that number a reference to its brake-horsepower figure – is based on a Corvette Grand Sport, yet has almost as much power as a Corvette Z06. There is also a Stingray version of similar prowess. What Callaway basically does is “level up” Corvettes – it also offers the SC757, which puts a Z06 into ZR1 territory.

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Callaway’s history doesn’t stretch back quite as far as the Corvette’s, but the Connecticut-based company celebrated its own milestone last year: 40 years ago, American car enthusiast Reeves Callaway turned his love for tuning cars for his pleasure into a bona fide business. Since then, the company has tweaked everything from Alfa Romeos and Aston Martins to Range Rovers. Its current range centres on the General Motors family, however, and the Corvette is probably its best-known ongoing project, after more than 30 years tinkering with the sports cars.

The pinnacle of that was the SledgeHammer Corvette, a monster with 898 horses that could hit 410kph. Callaway himself dictated it should also be docile at slow speeds. While it is a couple of hundred horsepower down on that leviathan, the SC627 that I drive maintains the ethos of being manageable in traffic. And when not set to stun in Sport or Track modes, the two more refined options – Eco or Tour – make it almost a daily driver.

It’s an all-in upgrade, with everything from the rear, flanks and sills to the key fob bearing the Callaway name. Lurid turquoise flourishes on the exterior and all across the interior, in addition to the reptilian, hot-rod-esque bonnet bulge above the pumped-up 6.2-litre V8, make it clear that this isn’t any ordinary ’Vette. In case you were in any doubt, the little embossed, numbered “collector edition” logo, featuring an outline of the car, beneath the infotainment system seals the deal. That infotainment system’s highlight, incidentally, is a retracting touchscreen that slides down at the press of a button to reveal a cubbyhole with USB slot.

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Plentiful Alcantara in the cockpit pushes the general above-stock feel of the Callaway, although a few pieces of interior trim drop the ball. Specifically, the carpet covering the sides of the central console and the “boot” – more realistically a glorified back shelf that will just about suffice for your weekly supermarket shop, if you should be so inclined to use your 600hp-plus Corvette for such trivialities.

I don’t even want to try out the Bose sound system, because the mechanical soundtrack is glorious listening. Acceleration comes in two levels of forward momentum: go gentler and there’s a sucking of air as the Corvette picks up pace; bury your right foot and the quad exhaust positively explodes as you’re thrown towards the near-distance at a most enjoyable/terrifying pace – delete as applicable depending on if you’re the driver or passenger. The 0-to-60-kph time is 3.4 seconds; the next model up, the SC757, does that in a supercar-bothering 2.8 seconds. All of that is kept on terra firma by 20-inch low-profile tyres and rather Herculean brakes.

It is difficult to continue bettering a classic. Only a handful of carmakers have ever really managed it while maintaining the spirit of the original. The Corvette may no longer be the unrefined hunk of all-American metal that endeared it to so many in its native country and beyond, but after six-and-a-half decades, that is to be expected. So long as it is accompanied by the rumble of a big V8, however, the spirit of the car is living on well into a 21st century that must have seemed light years away to those early space travel pioneers.

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Read more:

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Why the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 might be the finest muscle car of all-time

The end of an era: the death of the Dodge Viper

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