Being here for the unveiling of the next-generation Corvette was like attending the long-awaited return of Jesus Christ. Well, not really, unless you were one of the true Corvette faithful.
And of those, there is no shortage. "Greatest Corvette ever," said one fan as he gazed upon the 2014 Corvette Stingray. "Better than a Ferrari."
You could argue with him, of course. Unlike a Ferrari, the Corvette still uses some throwback technology (like a front-mounted, pushrod V-8 motor) but that would be like saying that the Eiffel Tower is inferior to the CN Tower because it uses iron instead of concrete. The Corvette's engine design and location are defining aspects of the car, in the same way that a white robe and mitre are defining aspects of the Catholic papacy.
Sneer if you must, but the Corvette is a survivor. It has been on the market for 60 years (10 longer than Porsche's iconic 911) and shows no signs of disappearing. If you were in Detroit for the car show last week, you could understand exactly why Chevrolet continues to build the Corvette, even though it accounts for only a tiny fraction of company sales. This is not so much a car as a corporate flagship and an article of mechanical faith, freighted with the collective hope of millions of enthusiasts who still believe in the U.S. car industry.
Like countless others, I wondered what Chevrolet would do with this latest Corvette, code-named C7 (it's the seventh major iteration of the Corvette design.) We got our answer at an invitation-only event held in a pre-war industrial building – the new C7 rolled out onto a floodlit stage, a polished, blood red spear of a machine.
The C7's technical specs were impressive: carbon and aluminum chassis, a 450-horsepower motor with direct fuel injection, seven-speed manual transmission with computer-controlled rev matching, brake cooling ducts, and a race-worthy suspension with cast aluminum A-arms and monotube shock absorbers.
Is it beautiful? At first glance, I thought so. The C7 crouched on its steamroller tires like a race car. Its profile evoked a slightly flattened Aston Martin coupe. Then I took in the C7's overwrought tail end, which made me think of a Batmobile that had been mated with a Camaro. Oh well.
From the beginning, the Corvette has been a study in American style and, occasionally, American excess. The Corvette first arrived on the market in 1953, a year that also saw the debut of Playboy magazine and Elvis Presley. The car was the brainchild of Harley Earl, a GM designer with a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist – just five years earlier, he had captured the spirit of the missile age and launched the tail-fin craze with his design for the 1948 Cadillac.
Earl got the idea for an American sports car after noticing elegant two-seat English roadsters like the Jaguar XK-120 on U.S. racetracks and college campuses. Earl wanted a car that could compete with foreign cars and serve as a calling card for an upcoming generation focused on style and personal expression. Although the inaugural Corvette was an attention-getter, its mediocre mechanical underpinnings couldn't deliver the performance promised by its looks: the suspension was unremarkable, and the engine was a workaday "Blue Flame" six-cylinder that produced just 150 horsepower. Only one transmission was offered: a two-speed Powerglide automatic.
Sales were disappointing. Within a year, Chevrolet was making plans to kill the Corvette. The Corvette was saved by an unlikely arrival at General Motors: a Russian-born engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who would become known as the Father of the Corvette.
Arkus-Duntov was a daredevil car buff whose style and demeanour contrasted sharply with the dull, middle-America style that typified GM in the post-war era. Arkus-Duntov was a race driver with looks that were compared to Paul Newman's. His wife was a professional dancer. And he was obsessed with the Corvette. In 1954, Arkus-Duntov wrote an impassioned memo to senior GM management, begging them to keep the Corvette in production and heighten its appeal through increased style and performance.
"If the value of a car consists of practical values and emotional appeal, the sports car has very little of the first and consequently has to have an exaggerated amount of the second," he wrote, "... nothing short of a mating call will extract $4,000 for a small two-seater."
That memo, now enshrined at the Corvette museum (and cited in author Paul Ingrassia's book Engines of Change) crystallizes the Corvette's value proposition. Under Arkus-Duntov's direction, the Corvette became a cool, lusted-after machine. In 1963, Chevrolet issued a second-generation model known as the Sting Ray, a car that would go down in history as a design icon.
In 1968, the third-generation (C3) car debuted with a pinched waist and swollen fenders that made it known as the Coke bottle Corvette. The C3 is one of the most overtly phallic cars of all time, making it the perfect ride for fictional porn star Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson's classic 1997 film Boogie Nights. (In the movie, Diggler buys a competition-orange 1977 Corvette to celebrate his adult-entertainment success.)
The 1970s were a chequered era for the Corvette. Quality was uneven, and the V-8 engines were choked by government-mandated emissions-control equipment that cut power in half. And the overwrought style of the C3 would go down in history (not in a good way).
By the time the C6 Corvette came to market in 2005, Chevrolet's engineers had turned the car into a genuine world-beater, with power and performance that could best Porsche and Ferrari when the right driver was behind the wheel. As always, the Corvette relied on a proven, all-American formula – a big, powerful motor and huge tires that helped Corvette compete with lighter cars around corners.
Recent Corvettes have been performance-car bargains, with an enviable race track record and a price tag that undercuts foreign competition. But on the downside, Corvettes have always been criticized for their relative crudeness: a pushrod motor may get the job done, but it lacks the Rolex sophistication of multiple overhead camshafts. And countless reviewers have compared the Corvette's interior to a rental car.
The 2014 C7 is a more sophisticated machine – direct fuel injection, carbon roof and hood and carbon and aluminum chassis are among the features that move it forward. And yet it is not the quantum leap that some had hoped for.
Up until the time of his death in 1996, Arkus-Duntov evangelized about making a radically different Corvette, with its engine mounted in the middle of the car. The mid-engine layout, which dominates the European exotic sports-car market, improves handling by reducing what's known as polar moment of inertia.
In 2007, the Corvette engineering team designed a mid-engine Corvette that could have become the C7, but the project was scrapped. Although no official reasons were given, it was most likely due to the cost of developing the new components the mid-engine car would require.
Then again, it may simply have been decreed heretical. The Corvette has been with us for 60 years with a front engine and pushrods. You can call the Corvette many things, but it's a survivor. Darwin has spoken – at least for now.
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