"Shut up," my teenage daughter said as I showed her how the lap belt worked. "I've been on rides at Disneyland before."
She'd been reaching for the nonexistent shoulder belt, just like I'd done the first dozen times I'd climbed aboard our 1966 Chevrolet Corvette. A mere 37 of the 27,720 Sting Rays produced in 1966 were equipped with that option. Ours isn't one of them.
A mile later as we cleared our sleepy neighborhood, I laid into the throttle and ran it through the first three gears. The car lurched through each upshift, and the thundering side exhaust echoed off the flat roll-up doors of our local fire station. She broke into a wide grin and laughed, "It's basically Autopia."
She doesn't know how right she is.
Today in Tomorrowland
It would be a gross understatement to say that much has changed in the 50 years that separate our 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray and a new 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Advances in engineering techniques, materials technology and production methods (not to mention the steady march of safety and emissions-control requirements) have led to massive change.
You'd think the result would be unrecognizable, but the basic Corvette recipe has varied little between our C2 second-generation and C7 seventh-generation end points. Mount a high-output V8 engine up front under a long hood between prominent fenders and send the power back to the rear tires. Scoot the two-place cabin as far back as is reasonably possible to help balance the chassis and let it ride on four-wheel independent suspension. Stir in exotic materials and racing exploits to taste.
And they're roughly the same size, too. Today's C7 Corvette stretches but 1.8 inches longer and crouches just 1 inch lower than the veteran. Headroom and legroom have changed little, and our scales tell us that only 193 pounds have been gained (3,352 vs. 3,159) despite a raft of added equipment and the most visible dimensional difference, a 4.3-inch increase in width.
Our C2 second-generation 1966 Corvette was developed about the same time as NASA's Gemini program, and the dramatically creased showcar styling brought the excitement of the space race to the showroom. Hidden quad headlights hadn't been seen before, and this was the first Corvette available in coupe form — though the famously collectible split-window design turned out to be a lame idea that only lasted through the initial 1963 model year.
The C2 was built on a traditional steel ladder frame, but the side rails were wide set so the floor pan of the bolt-on fiberglass body could nestle between them instead of perching on top. Double wishbones and variable-rate coil springs supported the front end, but this was the first Corvette with independent rear suspension, and it employed a transverse leaf spring concept that persists to this day.
Drum brakes moved aside for four-piston fixed-caliper disc brakes in 1965, but our 1966 example is among the 80 percent that were not equipped with the optional power assist. But this isn't as necessary as you might think, because the laughably skinny 15-by-7.75 bias-ply pizza-cutter tires were only 5 inches wide at the ground — not enough to conceal an iPhone, let alone execute a panic stop without major lockup.
Those skinny bias-ply tires were the C2's eventual undoing and gave it the dubious honor of being the shortest-lived Corvette generation. The very same sharp body side creases that overhung the wheel openings and defined its look also made the fenders incapable of accommodating the wider bias-belted tires that came into being as a stopgap before Chevrolet reluctantly adopted proper radials in the 1970s.
Our 2015 Chevrolet Corvette was developed after America got bored with hiking around on the moon and sending space shuttles into orbit to build floating dormitories. Today, NASA is better known to enthusiasts as a road-racing sanctioning body.
Aluminum is now the dominant frame material, but the C7 is not quite a unibody design. A prominent central transmission tunnel gives the frame immense strength, and fixed windshield pillars and door posts allow individual plastic body panels to be hung in place. It's nothing like the C2's one-piece body with attached hood and doors, which made it similar to a giant plastic model kit.
The transmission was moved aft to become a rear-mounted transaxle when the C5 debuted in 1997, which helps our 2015 Corvette place 51 percent of its weight on its 11-inch-wide P285/35ZR19 rear tires. Its transverse rear leaf spring is now a one-segment fiberglass monoleaf that acts on double wishbones made of aluminum. P245/40ZR18 tires and aluminum double wishbones do the work up front, and they're supported by a second transverse monoleaf spring that appeared when the C4 came into being in 1984, a prediction Orwell failed to make.
Computers control everything, of course, including the electric rack-and-pinion steering, which varies the ratio as you turn the wheel. It starts at 16.4-to-1 around center to make it less nervous while driving straight, then quickens to 12.0-to-1 as you add lock to give it quick reflexes. The C2 has variable-ratio steering, too, and you have your choice of 20.2: 1 or 17.6:1. Choose carefully, however, because you must unbolt the tie rods, reconnect them to different holes in the steering arms and then have it realigned.
Line 'Em Up
Each of our test subjects is fitted with their base engines and most popular transmissions. For the 1966 Sting Ray that means a 327-cubic-inch carbureted V8 that allegedly makes 300 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. The old "SAE gross" measuring yardstick was famously flawed, so that's more like 240 and 280 in today's money. Meanwhile, our base 2015 Stingray has a 6.2-liter direct-injected V8 that makes an honest SAE-certified 455 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque without the benefit of the optional performance exhaust or the Z06's supercharger.
Manual transmissions dominated Corvette sales in 1966 to the extent that 91 percent of them were so equipped. Ours has the optional M20 wide-ratio four-speed manual instead of the standard three-speed. There's a close-ratio M21 four-speed, too, but you had to buy the high-compression 350-horse 327 or a big-block V8 to access that option.
Why just 9 percent for the automatic? It was a woefully slushy two-speed unit that stirred more hydraulic fluid than emotions.
Fast-forward to 2014, early on in C7 sales, and pundits like us were amazed that the Corvette's manual share was about 40 percent. Now, however, 70 percent of C7 Corvettes sold are automatics. Early C7 autos had six gears, but our 2015 example has the new eight-speed automatic — with paddle shifters and everything. Observant mathematicians will notice that's exactly twice as many gears as our 1966 test car and four times the ratios of the vintage automatic.
You know where this is headed. It can only go one way. Our base 2015 Corvette Stingray with an automatic thoroughly demolishes the 1966 Corvette Sting Ray. There isn't a single performance number that goes the C2's way. But how bad is it?
At the strip, the new kid destroys the oldster to 60 mph, 4.2 seconds versus 7.9 seconds. The C7 crosses the quarter-mile stripe in 12.1 seconds at 118.4 mph, while the C2 trails behind in 16.0 seconds at 83.5 mph. It wins the 60 mph panic-stop contest, 104 feet to 165 feet.
With steering inputs added, the spanking-new 2015 generates 0.96g of lateral acceleration and slices through the slalom at 71.0 mph. Then the 1966 relic takes its turn and manages 0.70g around the circle after wobbling through the cones at just 55.4 mph.
Do we need to keep going?
Yes, we do. We also took them both to the Streets of Willow Springs. The slaughter continued, of course, with the new Corvette orbiting the 1.6-mile course in 1 minute, 27.4 seconds compared to 1 minute, 44.8 seconds for the vintage collectible. Think about that: 17.4 seconds faster works out to more than a full second advantage for every tenth of a mile. If that's what 50 years of progress will do for you, sign us up.
Here's the Thing
And yet, everyone who lapped the C2 Corvette climbed out with an ear-to-ear grin plastered on their face. They giggled and chortled, they said things like "Did you SEE that?" while making vigorous hands-crossed-up demonstrations.
Bias-ply tires, particularly the earlier skinny ones, demand a lot of slip angle to make them work, which is another way of saying you have to really drive the C2 and let the ass end hang out to hustle it around a corner. It likes to slide, in other words. It needs to. And in the process you find out what the term "sawing at the wheel" means, because you're doing it constantly to keep it from swapping ends.
Our 1966 Corvette is nothing but pure magic on the track, even if it is dog slow and makes you sweat gallons. But it takes a leap of faith to get there. Our test driver noted that, "It starts being fun when you stop being afraid of it."
Make no mistake, it will kill you if you screw up in the wrong circumstances — like on a public road with other cars around. Lesser speeds aren't much tamer because the skinny squared-edged tires latch onto seams and tramline like nothing you've ever experienced. And the indifferent recirculating-ball steering makes you realize that the exaggerated "Hollywood Steering" you see in old movies was no exaggeration in 1966.
And then the V8 exhaust rumbles off passing buildings as the shift knob buzzes in your hand. You start grinning like a kid on Autopia for the first time.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Chevrolet Corvette's 17.4-seconds-per-lap thrashing obviously wasn't enough. It was so thoroughly glued and composed that it turned everyone into a whiner.
"The eight-speed automatic transmission doesn't respond to the shift paddles fast enough. The traction control cuts in too early when I roll onto the throttle. We should have gotten the Z51 package and the E-diff."
These are legitimate gripes, and a Z51 Stingray with the seven-speed manual is indeed a more engaging version of the C7 that hands more control to the driver. It's the one to buy, the one to marry. As for the 1966 Corvette, you simply have to experience it, if only once. Speed and lap times do not add up to a soul, and this match-up proves it.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds with the 2015 Chevrolet Corvette for the purposes of evaluation.