Mixing history and whimsy, Top-10 favorite Chevrolets

Inspired by ESPN and Hamilton and our own Favorite Fords, we continue the exercise

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The iconic split-window 1963 Chevrolet Corvette coupe | Chevrolet photo

Inspired by ESPN’s recent promotion of the debut of the Broadway musical Hamilton on Disney+, we recently presented our twist on the Sports Center Top-10 with our Top-10 Favorite Fords. But, hey, we realize we can’t do Favorite Fords and ignore other brands, so here, in the same spirit of history and whimsy, we present our Top-10 Favorite Chevrolets:

1959 Chevrolet El Camino, the car-based pickup truck

10. Chevrolet El Camino — The car-based “ute” may have originated with Ford of Australia, but it was Chevrolet that made such a vehicle widely popular in the United States with its El Camino. Although some said it was the worst of both worlds — not quite a real pickup truck and not quite a real passenger car — the El Camino was in production from 1959-1987 except for a 3-year hiatus in the early 1960s and remains popular with car collectors. 

9. Drove My Chevy to the Levee… — “… but the levee was dry, And them good old boys were drinking whiskey ’n rye, Singing, ‘This’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die’.” Those lyrics are from the chorus of the popular, 8½-minute 1971 ballad American Pie by Don McLean, a sad tale inspired by the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of early rock ’n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.

8. Chevy Chase — Cornelius Crane Chase was nicknamed “Chevy” by his grandmother, not because of the city in Maryland by that name but because of The Ballad of Chevy Chase, a medieval English folk tune about a British hunting party enters Scotland, where it is taken to be an invasion and a bloody battle ensues. Centuries later, young Chevy Chase becomes a comedic actor starring in Saturday Night Live, the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies and Caddy Shack

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7. Small-block V8 — As we noted in our rundown of Favorite Fords, Ford had a great run with its Flathead Ford V8 engine, which was the engine of choice for hot-rodders, at least until the mid-1950s when Chevrolet introduced its small-block V8, which debuted in 1954 and which in LS forms remains in production today. Originally displacing 265cid, it is the 350cid version launched in 1967 that is the standard among both factory- and crate-engine installations.

6. IROC Chevrolet Camaro — Although it may have been less international than when it launched with Porsche Carrera RSR racing cars driven by stars from around the globe, the International Race of Champions became more entertaining when it shifted to Chevrolet Camaros and focused on drivers from Indy and stock car racing. As part of its participation, Chevrolet produced the IROC Camaro fir the street, which was equipped with a ground-effects aero package and suspension upgrades to enhance handling.

Louis Chevrolet bust | Larry Edsall photo

5. Chevrolet brothers — Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet was a mechanic who first emigrated to Montreal and then to the United States, where he drove racing cars for Buick and, with Buick owner Billy Durant, started the Chevrolet Motor Co. and designed the first Chevrolet passenger car, the Classic Six. 

He was joined in the U.S. by his younger brothers Arthur and Gaston. After selling the rights to the family name to Durant, the Chevrolet brothers launched the Frontenac Motor Corp. producing high-performance parts for Ford engines. 

Louis Chevrolet drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times, Arthur twice and Gaston won the race in 1920 in one of their Frontenacs. 

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4. National Corvette Museum — While there are Chevrolets in the GM Heritage Center in a northern Detroit suburb, the collection is not open to the public. However, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, just across the road from the assembly plant where Corvettes are produced is the National Corvette Museum and, just across the interstate highway, the new NCM Motorsports Park, so you not only can learn the history of America’s sports car, but where you can take the wheel for a few laps at certain times of the week.

3. See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet… — … “America is asking you to call, Drive your Chevrolet through the USA, America’s the greatest land of all,” Dinah Shore sang each week on her televised and Chevy-sponsored variety show from 1957-1962. The song dated to 1949 and was performed by Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy on their TV show before becoming the Shore show theme song, ending with her throwing a kiss toward the camera. 

The song also aired during telecasts of Los Angeles Dodgers games in the 1960s, sung by the unlikely duo of catcher John Roseboro and pitcher Don Drysdale.

2. She’s Real Fine My 409 — The “small-block” Chevy V8 was great for powering passenger cars, but more power was needed for trucks, so in 1958 the company unveiled its 348cid “big-block” V8. Four years later came the 427 version, and in between literally and chronologically came the 409, which was immortalized by the Beach Boys with their song, by Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, released in the fall of 1963.

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As Usher wrote, “Nothing can catch her… She always turns in the fastest times.”

The 8 generations of the Chevrolet Corvette | Chevrolet photo

1. Chevrolet Corvette — Either GM designer Harley Earl came up with the idea while attending post-war auto shows in Europe, or maybe it was a comment that Briggs Cunningham made to Earl during an early race at Watkins Glen, or perhaps it was a suggestion from sports car racing pioneer Gen. Curtis LeMay, or maybe Earl simply wanted to build a car for his sons, Jim and Jerry. Regardless of your favorite theory, late in 1951 Earl assigned his designer to create a European-style 2-seat roadster that would have a body made not from steel or aluminum but from fiberglass.

For inspiration, Earl parked a Jaguar XK120 in the studio.

In January 1953, Chevrolet unveiled the Corvette at the GM Motorama show in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. 

Though the car looked sporty, it was handicapped by an inline 6-cylinder engine and 2-speed automatic transmission. A few years later, just as the Corvette experiment was about to end, Ford introduced the Thunderbird, Chevrolet created its “small-block V8” powerplant and a European-born engineer and auto racer who had been a spectator at the Motorama in 1953 was hired by General Motors. 

With Zora Arkus-Duntov as the Corvette’s chief engineer, the sporty car became true sports car and the rest, as they say, is history. And that history has just opened a new chapter with the eighth-generation Corvette with its V8 engine mounted behind the cockpit, which is right where Arkus-Duntov wanted it oh those many decades ago.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Very nice, but I would have found a place for the Impala, ‘specially the SS versions.
    Dad spent his entire working life as a union GM employee of the Delco-Remy plant in Anderson, IN. I was born in ’59, and my earliest memories of Dad always include his: ’61 Impala 2dr hardtop, not an SS but a 348/4spd, 2x4s (loud enough to make Mom ask for and get a Corvair) in black, white painted top, and black/grey/white interior;
    the Anniversary gold/gold vinyl interior ’62 Impy SS 4bbl 409/4spd that I inadvertently drove down the local sledding hill by playing “drag race” and popping it out of gear… the emergency brake proved inadequate, but a two-handed grind into second got it stopped (butt’s still sore from that experience).
    And the built, new 396 stick, arrest me red ’65 Impy SS that my Dad & his older brother street and track raced (shout out to Madison Ave, Raymond Street Expressway, and Indianapolis Raceway Park!) that was so far beyond my first grade comprehension I just begged rides. Being slammed back as the body twists… and the glorious sound of built things doing what they were built for still twists me up.
    First car was a ’67 Impala SS (of course), 327/275 with the Quadrabog 4bbl and a PowerGlide, in Honduras (or Madiera) Maroon and black. Great cruiser, spin the right rear til the tire went, back seat for drive-in action to make mothers nervous… but slow. ’67’s still my fave body style; drop front a couple of inches and run 15×7 Chev Rallys fr, 15×8 rear, with the flat “police caps”/ no rings, skip the fake cowl induction hood, drop the 3” exhaust at about 45° just behind the rear tires no tips- oh, yeah.
    I moved on to GTOs. Dad lives in me through my fondness for Impalas.
    Wish you could’ve found a place for ’em- my belief is that the Impala is second only to the ‘Vette in impact for Chevy; look at the market now!
    Thanks.

    • Ryan: I like your well-thought comments on our stories. This series of lists includes a large element of whimsy and includes such non-automotive selections as Chevy Chase and even ‘Drove My Chevy to the Levee…’ Were the list restricted to only actual Chevrolet vehicles, I’m sure Impala would have been among the 10. And thanks for sharing your family story about them. — Larry

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