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"See the USA in Your Chevrolet." That's what popular songstress Dinah Shore sang back in the Fifties, when her TV show was sponsored by Chevrolet. Motherhood and apple pie, that's what Chevrolet was presumed to stand for in those heady postwar years. Chevrolet was a car practically synonymous with mainstream. Yet, the company made countless forays into stimulating automobiles over the years, from the 1957 Bel Air and the Sting Ray Corvette to the hot Impala SS and controversial Corvair.
Named for Louis Chevrolet, the Chevrolet Motor Company was organized in November 1911; but Louis soon departed and the company became part of General Motors. In 1917, Chevrolet produced an overhead-valve V-8, but that didn't last long. GM president Alfred P. Sloan initiated an era of efficiency, including, in 1927, "planned obsolescence." That meant introducing a new model and making it seem like the previous one just wasn't good enough anymore.
To counter Ford's new Model A, Chevrolet switched from four-cylinder to six-cylinder engines in 1929. A Suburban Carryall, considered the first all-steel wagon, debuted in 1935. Other wagons were still wood-bodied.
Right after World War II, Chevrolet was among the first to advertise on TV. A Bel Air pillarless hardtop coupe debuted in 1950, along with a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. Chevrolets got a boxy but handsome redesign for 1955, switching to sharp-pointed fins in the 1957 reworking that created avidly-coveted Bel Air hardtops and convertibles.
Few realized that a phenomenon was in store when Chevrolet launched the first Corvette in 1953, with a fiberglass body; six-cylinder engine, and Powerglide. Corvettes gained V-8 power in 1955, with a "Ramjet" fuel-injection option in 1957. That was good for 283 horsepower, which amounted to the elusive 1 horsepower (gross) per cubic-inch of displacement. Then came the Sting Ray generation in the early 1960s, highlighted by a shapely coupe with a split, wraparound back window.
Meanwhile, a new luxury Impala series emerged in 1958. Two years later, the big news was the compact Corvair, with an air-cooled, horizontally-opposed rear engine and a swing-axle rear suspension. That suspension troubled one safety advocate, Ralph Nader, who published his first book, Unsafe At Any Speed in 1965. A scathing critique of the auto industry with Corvair as prime offender, that book's safety message helped establish the consumer movement.
In 1962, a compact Chevy II with conventional engineering joined Chevrolet's lineup. In 1964, the midsize Chevelle appeared, soon serving as the foundation for a series of muscular machines.
In 1967, the Camaro, cousin to Pontiac's Firebird, debuted as a rival to Ford's Mustang. Soon, Z28 variants went on sale, comparable to Pontiac's Trans Ams, to help capture the youth market with its lust for power and speed. A totally restyled Corvette came in 1968, far less striking than the 1963-67 Sting Ray design. Two years later, the new Monte Carlo coupe wore the longest Chevrolet hood ever. Camaros were redone that year, adopting a larger, less nimble appearance.
Chevrolet joined the subcompact arena in 1971 with a new Vega, which soon earned disfavor due to body and engine problems. In 1973, a thousand Impalas got airbags, which wouldn't see general use until much later. GM's downsizing began in 1977, shrinking each Chevrolet model.
Compact Cavaliers joined for 1982, lasting until 2005. In 1985, Chevrolet launched the rear-drive Astro van-smaller than GM's full-size vans but larger than the new minivans from Chrysler.
Pickup trucks have long been part of the Chevrolet picture. The C/K models gave way to a new Silverado series for 1999. Compact S10 pickups were eventually replaced by the Colorado series of 2004. Minivans came along in 1990, starting with the Lumina and moving into the Venture, but that body style disappeared after 2008.
When Chevrolet issued its first conventional-looking subcompact in 1976, the Chevette, it had rear-wheel drive. Even a diesel engine was offered for a while. Subsequent subcompacts have been front-drive, as have most midsize and larger models. The tiny Metro began life as a Geo model (a separate brand), but then switched to a Chevrolet badge before its 2001 extinction. Chevrolet brought the subcompact Aveo from South Korea in 2004, replacing it for 2012 with an American-made Sonic. Similarly, the compact Cobalt gave way to a comparably-sized Cruze for 2011. On the midsize front, Chevrolet has offered a succession of Malibus, some with hybrid powertrains, along with the larger Impala.
Immense Suburbans and Tahoes have been mainstays for many years. Smaller SUVs and, later, crossovers have arrived at Chevrolet dealerships over the past decade, including the TrailBlazer, Equinox, and Traverse. An occasional curiosity also has attracted a certain following, including the big Avalanche SUV/pickup and the racy 2003-06 SSR, a small pickup with a retractable roof. Also unique is the compact HHR, built to look like a scaled-down panel truck of the past.
Top performer of the early 1990s was the ZR1 Corvette, packing a 375-horsepower V-8. Camaros disappeared after 2002, but a retro-look Camaro re-emerged as a 2010 model. Next up for Chevrolet is the Spark microcar, coming as a 2013 model. During 2012, Chevrolet also will be launching a super-hot limited-edition Camaro ZL1.