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When the first Corvette hit the streets precisely half a century ago, it looked ready to take on the world. But as that era's classic doo-wop song went, it was little more than "The Great Pretender." Sure, it had the low-slung fiberglass body, sexy styling and mesh stone headlight guards, but with its underpowered Blue Flame inline-6 and a sluggish 2-speed automatic, it was little more than a stone pony. It didn't take Chevrolet long to recognize the error of its ways, and over the decades to follow, the 'Vette has become one of the most powerful cars on the road, an undeniable American icon.

Tens of thousands of aficionados descended on Nashville, Tennessee, during the final weekend of June to celebrate what was, for most of those years, America's only true sports car. The 50th birthday bash also drew nearly 7,000 Corvettes, many customized or lovingly restored. That included Bruce Fuhrman's '54, which he first fell in love with as a high school student working the local car wash. He finally bought one when he retired, driving in from Camarillo, California, to show it off.

The only thing missing? The top-secret C6, General Motors' code name for the long-delayed, sixth-generation 'Vette. But there is a special, commemorative-edition '04 Corvette available in all three body styles—coupe, convertible and Z06—designed to celebrate the car's long record of success on the racetrack. That includes a unique Le Mans Blue paint. The top-performing Z06 also gets a carbon fiber hood for 2004, the first relatively mass-production application with class-A finish for this superstrong, ultralight composite.

Fanatics appreciate an unquantifiable quality that the rest of us don't: the stare quotient. That is, even people who wouldn't own one love the car. In our test, the bright red car got more honks, turned heads and dreamy looks than befit a 50-year-old.

One friend said, grabbing the keys away, "I have to drive it. I had one when I was 18, and I have to drive that car now." He did, but he wasn't happy to give up the keys at the end of his joy ride.

A red Corvette also triggers an inexplicable urge in other sports car drivers to pull up alongside and rev their engines in some ancient male ritual. But their egos aren't boosted as they watch the 50th anniversary logo vanish before them. The car is quick off the line, and hugs the road as if the tires are glued to the pavement. The public treats this car like an icon, because it deserves it.

Visit www.corvette.com.

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