Photos by the author, Barry Kluczyk, Jerry Heasley, and Chevrolet.
Categorizing and listing positive things about Corvettes is tough work. There are simply too many spectacular Vettes loaded with great features. It might be quicker to make a list of bad Corvettes, but even that would be subject to dispute. People don’t like Corvettes, they love them.
We’ve assembled a list of what we’re calling the 15 baddest (as in awe-inspiringly good) Corvettes. The thrust of the list is Corvettes with outstanding performance–whether in a straight line, on a road course or even (God help us) on the street.
The one exception is the first pick–the 1955 V-8 Corvette. The introduction of the Chevrolet small-block V-8 is one of the most significant events in automotive history, but the Corvette connection is one of keeping the brand alive. Without the V-8 and some cross-town competition, the Corvette might not have survived to produce the rest of the picks. That would have been bad in the most literal sense of the word.
Now, feast your eyes on some wicked plastic!
1955 CORVETTE V-8
265 CUBIC INCHES
The 1955 Corvette was not a sales success as it sold a mere 700 units, but it makes our list because it can be considered the Corvette that saved the marque. The positive publicity of the Motorama Corvettes and the novelty of a fiberglass body weren’t translating into sales. The future of the Corvette was in doubt, but the arrival of the new 265 cubic inch, small-block V-8 gave new life to the entire Chevrolet product line.
The new V-8 power pointed the Corvette in the right direction, performance wise. The debut of competitor Ford’s new V-8-powered Thunderbird sports car undoubtedly helped, too. The handsome 1956 restyle and even more powerful engines really ignited the Corvette phenomenon, but it was the 1955 V-8 Corvettes that led the way.
1955 V-8 Corvettes can be identified by the large gold “V” in the Chevrolet front fender script.
1957 CORVETTE FUEL INJECTED
283 CUBIC INCHES
The 1957 Corvette “fuelie” is one of the most iconic cars in the world. 1957 was a banner year for great Chevrolets. It was now possible to order a handsome new Corvette with fuel injection and a Borg Warner four-speed manual transmission. The new Rochester Ramjet was available in two power ratings–250 hp and 283 hp. The latter put the Corvette at the magic one horsepower per cubic inch mark.
Positraction rear axles with either a 3.70:1 or a 4.11:1 ratio were available to complete the high performance transformation. With the 4.11 gears, contemporary road tests reported 0-60 times of 5.7 seconds and quarter mile times of 14.3 seconds–very, very quick by 1957 standards.
1963-65 CORVETTE L84 FUEL INJECTED
327 CUBIC INCHES
360 HORSEPOWER (1963)
375 HORSEPOWER (1964-65)
The year 1963 was a milestone for the Corvette as it marked the second generation, an all-new chassis and body, a new coupe body style, and an independent rear suspension. The engines were carryovers, but they were still very potent. The top engine was the L84 360 horsepower, fuel injected 327. The L84 option continued through 1965. The horsepower rating was raised to 375 for 1964 and 1965.
Nineteen Sixty-Five was the last year of the Rochester fuel injection and the first year for four-wheel disc brakes. The improved braking and awesome 375 hp small-block made for one incredibly well rounded high performance Corvette.
1965 CORVETTE L78 BIG-BLOCK
396 CUBIC INCHES
There were many horsepower combinations for the mighty 327 small-block in 1965 (ranging from 250 to 375), but the top number went to the new 396 cubic-inch big-block rated at 425 hp. The mid-year introduction of the Mark IV big-block marked a significant change in Corvette powerplants. From now on the biggest and baddest Corvettes would be big-blocks (it would be a long time before small-blocks topped big-block numbers).
The availability of the big-block 396 and its 415 lb-ft of torque added dragstrip demon to the Corvette’s previous reputation as a very quick sports car. Only 2,157 L78 1965 Corvettes were produced and they all had unique hood scoops, which make them easy to spot without opening the hood.
1967 CORVETTE L-88 BIG-BLOCK
427 CUBIC INCHES
A handful of Chevrolet engine codes are legendary, and L-88 is right up there at the top of the list. L-88 is shorthand for awesome. The L-88 is one of those factory anomalies where the ultra-conservative rating made it look far less potent than it actually was. The L-88 was rated at five less horsepower than the Tri-power L71, but in reality the L-88 made between 500 and 600 horsepower (560 hp is a commonly quoted figure).
The 1967 L-88 Corvette is a great example of a factory racecar produced by a company that was ostensibly not involved in racing. The aluminum head, 12.5:1 compression-ratio engine was topped by a very thirsty 850-cfm Holley double-pumper carb. Only 20 customers anted up the $947.90 surcharge for the L-88 option, but given the incredible value of L-88 Corvettes that sum now seems like a bargain.
1968-1969 CORVETTE L-88 BIG-BLOCK
427 CUBIC INCHES
The ability to order a racecar from the factory continued with the introduction of the new C3 Corvettes in 1968. More racers took advantage of this “expensive bargain” as 80 L-88 Corvettes were produced in 1968 along with 116 units in 1969. The 1968 price remained at the 1967 listing of $947.90, but it took $1,032.15 to get an L-88 in 1969.
The L-88 had aluminum cylinder heads, but there was also an all-aluminum ZL1 version of the L-88 offered in 1969. Only two of these Corvettes were produced. The $4,718 option price was more than the $4,438 base price of a Corvette convertible.
1970 CORVETTE LT-1
350 CUBIC INCHES
Big-block Corvettes were the newsmakers, but that didn’t mean Chevrolet had abandoned potent small-blocks. Corvette owners who valued a well-rounded performance sports car preferred the lighter small-block cars. The baddest of the small-block C3 Corvettes was the LT-1 option. The engine was offered in Corvettes through 1972, but horsepower dropped to 330 in 1971 and 255 in 1972. That makes the 1970 LT-1 the epitome of the engine series.
A key feature of the LT-1 is its solid-lifter camshaft that provided a desirable lumpy idle and helped produce 370 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque from the 11.0:1 compression ratio engine. LT-1 Corvettes were able to dip into the 13-second bracket at the dragstrip, but they really excelled on road courses.
1971 CORVETTE LS-6 454
454 CUBIC INCHES
There was plenty of sibling rivalry among the various GM divisions, and even within Chevrolet. Corvette was always supposed to be the top dog, so the biggest, baddest engines were supposed to appear first in Corvettes. There was supposed to be an LS-7 454 big-block with 460 hp in 1970, but it was cancelled. That left the 1970 LS-6 to the Chevelle, where it was rated at 450 hp. The 1970 Corvette had to make do with the 390 hp LS-5.
The LS-6 appeared in the 1971 Corvette, but the lower 9:1 compression (it was 11.25:1 in the Chevelle) dropped the horsepower rating to 425 hp. It still generated an awesome 475 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The 1971 LS-6 cost a stout $1,221 and only found 188 takers at that price, whereas the $295 LS-5 ended up in over 5,000 Corvettes. The LS-6 was a one-year option and as big-blocks and horsepower ratings waned, the LS-6 marked the end of an awesome era.
1987 CALLAWAY B2K TWIN TURBO
350 CUBIC INCHES
Our list of baddest Corvettes takes a huge leap from the early Seventies to the late Eighties, because high-performance engines took a long nap until well into the C4 era. The 1987 Callaway Twin Turbo represents a unique situation in that it was factory listed Corvette option (B2K), but GM didn’t install it.
The very expensive option ($19,995 in addition to the $28,000-$33,000 base price of a coupe/convertible) drew 188 well-heeled buyers in 1987. The conversion work was performed at Callaway Engineering in Connecticut.
The Callaway Corvettes were expensive, but their performance was explosive. The engines were rated at 345 horsepower with 465 lb-ft of torque. Top speed was 177 mph. These Callaways were offered until 1991. The cost jumped to $26,000 in 1988, but performance was also boosted to 382 hp and a staggering 562 lb-ft of torque.
1990-1995 CORVETTE ZR-1
350 CUBIC INCHES
375 HORSEPOWER (1990-92)
405 HORSEPOWER (1993-95)
Horsepower was definitely on the rise toward the end of the C4 era, but unfortunately prices were also climbing. Base prices for coupes topped $30,000. The Callaway Twin Turbo was still available in 1990 for an extra $26,895, but a new ultra high-performance option (RPO ZR1) topped the Callaway with a $27,016 price tag.
The ZR-1 Corvette put Chevrolet on an equal basis with exotic European sports cars. The heart of the ZR-1 (the model designation uses a hyphen, but the RPO doesn’t) was the revolutionary dual overhead cam, four valves per cylinder LT5 engine. The engine was designed by Lotus and built by Mercury Marine.
The initial 1990-92 models were rated at 375 hp, which was boosted to 405 hp for 1993-95 due to cylinder head and valvetrain improvements. The high revving, all-aluminum engine had its rev limiter set at 7,200 rpm. The ZR-1 looked similar to other Corvettes, but it was actually longer and wider with many unique parts that added to its considerable cost.
1996 CORVETTE GRAND SPORT
350 CUBIC INCHES
Corvette designers understand the importance of the car’s heritage, and that fact is witnessed by recurring themes. The 1996 Corvette Grand Sport paid tribute to the 1963 Cobra killer Grand Sport. The RPO code for the Grand Sport was Z16, a code used previously for the introductory 1965 Chevelle 396.
1996 was the last year of the long-running C4, so the Grand Sport served as a promotional tool and a fitting way to cap a very successful production run. The Grand Sport was only available with the one-year-only LT4 small-block V-8. The LT4 produced 330 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The six-speed manual transmission was mandatory. All Grand Sports were painted Admiral Blue with a large white center stripe and two red hash marks on the left front fender. Only 1,000 Grand Sports were built (810 coupes and 190 convertibles).
346 CUBIC INCHES
The Corvette Z06 debuted in 2001, but we’re not including the 385-hp/385 lb-ft first year cars. In 2002 the cars were lighter, and extra horsepower was gained via a higher-lift camshaft, hollow stem valves, a low restriction mass airflow sensor, and a less restrictive air cleaner. The 2002 Z06 with the LS6 (another nod to the past although it was now a small-block) produced 405 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. The Z06 was only available with the six-speed manual transmission and only in the hardtop body style. The Z06 emphasis was on low weight, high performance suspension, and an incredibly strong engine–a combination that makes the Z06 one of the baddest Corvettes ever.
2006-2008 CORVETTE Z06
427 CUBIC INCHES
2005 was the start of the sixth-generation Corvettes. The standard and sole engine was the LS2, which displaced 364 cubic inches (6.0 liters) and produced 400 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. This was just short of the 2004 Z06, so when the Z06 returned in 2006 it needed a lot more than 405 hp.
The LS7 (again with the heritage references) displaced 7.0 liters. The 427 cubic inches were former big-block numbers, but now in a small-block configuration. The aluminum blocks use steel cylinder sleeves and titanium connecting rods.
One hundred is a nice round number and that’s how much more horsepower the 2006 Z06 produced than 2004 versions. The 505 hp is proudly displayed on the fender emblem. Torque is 470 lb-ft. The C6 Z06 is a dream car–it reaches 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and turns in mid 11-second quarter mile times. If all this performance wasn’t enough, the Z06 is a very tractable, easy to use daily driver. The C6 Z06 is one of the most incredible cars ever produced.
2009 CORVETTE ZR1
376 CUBIC INCHES
We thought we’d run out of superlatives describing the C6 Z06. We should have saved some praise phrases for the 2009 Corvette ZR1. This is a car that is so bad (in the best sense of the term) that it almost defies logic.
As much as we love classic Corvettes, there is nothing from the muscle car era that can touch the 638-hp/604 lb-ft of torque that the 6.2-liter, supercharged LS9 engine dishes out. Top speed is in Ferrari territory at 205 mph, and 0 to 60 mph happens in 3.3 seconds. The ZR1 is a handling superstar that can cover the quarter mile in the very low 11-second range. Everything about it is fantastic (including, unfortunately, the $117,000 price). The ZR1 isn’t just bad; it’s the baddest of the bad.
2010 CORVETTE GRAND SPORT
376 CUBIC INCHES
The Grand Sport is back again, this time as a special 2010 Corvette that’s positioned between the base Corvette and the Z06. The engine is the LS3, which is rated at 430 horsepower with 424 lb-ft of torque.
There is no such thing as an underpowered Corvette these days (the Grand Sport hits 60 mph in 3.9 seconds), so the focus of the Grand Sport is handling. The Grand Sport uses some Z06 suspension and brake components. Unlike the Z06, the Grand Sport is available with an automatic transmission. Six-speed manual transmission cars get the LS7 dry sump oiling system, which is a huge plus for track days on road courses. The Grand Sport has wider fenders and unique wheels to add visual appeal to the great mechanical package.