Legendary and Iconic Chevys Through the Decades
Swiss automotive engineer and race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded Chevrolet Motor Car in 1911 with the ousted founder of General Motors. His name lives on in the legacy of one of the oldest, bestselling, and most popular brands in American automotive history.
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The Series C Classic Six is an icon, if for no other reason than because it was the first vehicle from the fledgling Chevrolet Motor Car Co. Big, heavy, and powerful for its day, its 40-horsepower 4.8-liter six-cylinder cast-iron engine — one of the most powerful on the road — was enough for an incredible 65 mph top speed.
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The first of the Confederate series, the ’32 Deluxe Sports Roadster just might be the snazziest Chevy ever built, nearly 90 years on. Powered by a straight-six that was good for 60 horses, it represented Chevrolet’s transition into the higher-end market for more refined — and well-monied — drivers.
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The oldest continually made vehicle in automotive history first appeared in 1935. The vaunted Chevy Suburban was a heavy-duty passenger vehicle built from a station wagon body on a steel pickup truck frame. The game-changing layout would soon be copied by automakers everywhere.
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The 1946 Chevrolet lineup included classics such as the Fleetline sedan and the Fleetmaster station wagon, but perhaps no vehicle epitomized the automotive style of the postwar 1940s like the Chevrolet Stylemaster. Available for just over $1,000, it was big and powerful — 90 horsepower at 3300 rpm — and it embodied the sentiment of the era. Among the first cars ever made after America’s automakers were repurposed as military contractors during World War II, the Stylemaster represented America’s move away from rationing and frugality and toward its status as the strongest and wealthiest superpower in the world.
The first truck made by GM after World War II is still famous for its classic bull-nosed appearance. Powered by a 90-hp straight-six, the Chevy 1947 Series 3100 featured rear and side-corner windows. That might not sound like much today, but the design was groundbreaking at the time. Known as the “five-window” truck, it was one of the first pickups ever to give prominence to features that improved cab comfort and passenger safety. Drivers could now look over their shoulders to see what was behind them instead of sticking their heads out the window as they drove.
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Known informally as “America’s sports car,” the Chevrolet Corvette is now synonymous with performance and style. In 1953, however, the first drop of the vaunted ’Vette bloodline sold just 183 off the 300 original Corvettes ever made. With fiberglass body panels dropped on a standard Chevy chassis, the two-seat roadster’s six-cylinder engine was fine-tuned to create 150 horses instead of the 115 generated by the Chevy sedan.
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In fall 1954, Chevrolet came of age with the release of the 1955 Chevrolet, known forever since as the ’55 Chevy. Although its exterior stylings represented a dramatic break from models past thanks to the now-classic “shoebox” design, it’s what was under the hood that truly set it apart. It was the first successful Chevrolet with a V8 engine, and that V8 was smaller and lighter than those that came before in brands such as Oldsmobile. It would come to be known as the Chevy small-block engine, one of the most celebrated engines in history. It was available as a 150, 210, and most famously, the Bel Air.
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Chevy was out in front at the dawn of the muscle car era thanks to the third-generation Impala. With it came one of history’s great trim packages, the Super Sport option. It included a 360-horsepower 409 V8 engine, which would inspire the Beach Boys song “409” one year later in 1962.
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By 1967, Chevrolet — like every other automaker not named Ford — was reeling from the stunning success of the Mustang, which Ford introduced in 1964. Chevy responded with the Camaro, which was based on the Chevy II Nova and was nearly the same as the GM’s other simultaneous response to the Mustang, the Pontiac Firebird. The first ’67 Camaro, a sport coupe, was sold in 1966 and launched one of the greatest nameplates in pony car history. A half-century later it would serve as the inspiration for the throwback fifth-generation Camaro.
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By 1970, muscle cars had evolved to be so brutish that 400 cubic inches no longer impressed. That year, Chevrolet introduced what is widely considered to be the greatest muscle car ever built, the Chevelle SS 454 LS6. The 454 part comes from the number of cubic inches the monster’s LS6 big-block V8 engine consumed. Although it was listed as 450 horsepower, that was probably understated.
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Before global energy crises and oil embargoes forced every automaker in the 1970s to put their offerings on a diet, Chevrolet did its finest work at the start of the decade, in the twilight of the muscle car era. It’s simply not possible to talk about early ’70s muscle cars without talking about the cult classic car/truck hybrid that is the El Camino. With a history dating back to the 1950s, the El Camino was the answer to the Ford Ranchero, but by 1970, it was available as a Super Sport. Drenched in chrome and similar to the Chevelle inside and out, the world’s most peculiar and practical muscle car was fitted with Chevrolet’s most powerful engine, the 450-horsepower LS6 454 — and, of course, a cargo bed.
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By the early 1980s, the muscle car era was relegated to history and smaller, more economical, and more environmentally friendly cars were in vogue. Imports such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were filling that void, but Chevrolet responded to the moment with the compact Cavalier. The front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder compact sedans were available with two doors or four. They reined in the small-car era and endured through the early 2000s.
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1988 marked the beginning of the fourth and final generation of the Chevy C/K pickup, the longest-running truck in Chevrolet history. The C/K was available as part of a large series with several trim packages (including the high-end Silverado). Launched as a direct challenge to Ford, the fourth-gen C/K was a passenger-conscious vehicle that won legions of former car-people as pickup-truck converts.
On MSRP alone, the C4 ZR-1 was never going to be a Corvette for the masses, but in terms of performance, it became the standard by which all future ’Vettes would be judged. The fourth generation ZR-1 got a Lotus-designed 5.7-liter DOHC V-8 engine that could produce 375 (later 405) horsepower — 125 more than the standard 250-horsepower OHV V-8 found in the 1990 C4 Corvette.
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In 1999, the Chevrolet Silverado inherited the mantle of the long-running C/K line of Chevrolet pickup trucks, taking its name from the top trim package available on the C/K. A mechanical clone of the GMC Sierra, it was a challenge to the dominance of the Ford F-Series and — after more than 12 million units sold since its arrival — is one of the bestselling vehicles of any type in the United States.
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One of the most underrated performance vehicles of the 21st century, the Cobalt SS Turbo lasted only two years, from 2008-2010. As quick on the track as the Subaru WRX STI and the Mitsubishi EVO, it was GM’s first tuner. Thanks to 260-horsepower direct-injection turbo, it packed enough oomph to rocket from zero to 60 in 5.5 seconds with nothing more than a tiny 2.0-liter engine that got 25 miles per gallon.
As the 2000s came to a close and a historic recession nearly swallowed GM whole, the Corvette legacy was still being written. That year’s $105,000 ZR1 became the most expensive Corvette ever built and it was pushed by the most powerful GM engine ever made — a 638-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter V-8. Its numbers seemed impossible. Although it could launch from zero to 60 in 3.3 seconds, it could stop from 70 mph in just 142 feet thanks to features such as carbon-ceramic brake rotors. America’s sports car was now an exotic supercar that could compete with the finest automobiles in the world.
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The Volt was by no means Chevrolet’s first vehicle of the new millennium, but it was the car that put the GM stamp on the 21st century. Discontinued in 2019 as part of a restructuring at GM, the plug-in hybrid Volt was the first real challenger to the much-hyped Toyota Prius and would eventually go on to become the bestselling plug-in hybrid in American history. It would soon be overshadowed by the Volt EV and, of course, the Tesla brand. It served as the most important bridge, however, between the all-gas past and fully electric future and helped to wean more Americans off gasoline than any other vehicle on Earth.
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Although cars such as the Volt were supposed to steer automakers toward a fully electric future, GM was not entirely finished with its muscle car past — and the 2014 Chevrolet SS was the proof. Powered by a 6.2-liter V8 engine that could drum up 415 horsepower, the big sedan could accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds, but was also built for trips to the grocery store.