GM’s other Corvettes

I have written a lot in this space about the Corvette.  (And by the way, my birthday is one month from today.)

The Corvette is a car that by conventional business standards probably should have been discontinued after its third year, when just 700 of them were sold. But 1955 was the year the Corvette got an actual engine, Chevy’s first V-8, after it got an engineer who actually cared about the car, Zora Arkus-Duntov.

The rest, as they say, is history. Except that GM’s other divisions wanted Corvettes too, or at least cars like Corvettes — two-seat sports, or sporty, cars. (Well, except GMC, although one could easily put together a two-seat pickup truck with a big V-8 and manual transmission. Styling might leave something to be desired, though, but imagine the cargo space.)

Every other GM division apparently got the two-seat bug in 1954. The list begins with the Pontiac Bonneville Special …

… powered by a bored-out Pontiac straight-eight.

One of the remaining Specials sold for $2.8 million. That is not a misprint.

That same year, Oldsmobile trotted out its own two-seat concept, the F-88.

The F-88 was designed the same time as the initial Corvette, but was powered by an Olds V-8 of 250 horsepower, 100 more than the initial Corvette six. After it appeared in GM’s Motorama, it became the personal transportation of the legendary Harley Earl, GM’s chief designer of the time. One of its duties was to represent GM at the grand opening of Road America in Elkhart Lake in 1955.

The lone surviving F-88, by the way, sold at an auction for $3.24 million. That is not a misprint.

Buick’s contribution was the Wildcat II, slightly smaller than the Corvette, and again with a stronger motor, a Buick 322 V-8.

The Wildcat is in the foreground; the F-88 is in the background.

Cadillac had multiple efforts at its own two-seater. In 1954 Cadillac unveiled the El Camino coupe …

1954 Cadillac El Camino

… and La Espada convertible …

1954 Cadillac La Espada

… both powered by Caddy V-8s. Each was 200 inches long, or a full two feet longer than the same year Corvette, so they weren’t intended as Corvette competitors, but they weren’t designed for production either.

Cadillac LaSalle II coupe concept

One year later Cadillac created two LaSalle II concepts — the pictured roadster and a four-door with suicide doors, a few inches longer than the ’55 Vette. The engine was an experimental aluminum V-6. The first GM V-6 was in a Buick nearly a decade later, and by the time Cadillac got a V-6, well, recall the difference between wanting something and finally getting it.

None of these cars reached production; none was ever intended to reach production. The Bonneville became the top-of-the-line Pontiac (my mother-in-law owns the last Bonneville); the Wildcat became a sporty full-size Buick; the El Camino became, of course, a Chevy cartruck, or “coupe utility”; and despite numerous proposals, Cadillac never used the name “LaSalle” for one of its models.

That more or less ended Olds’ and Buick’s attempts at Corvette-style cars. A decade later, however, Pontiac put together a car smaller than the Corvette, powered by Pontiac’s overhead-cam six, the Banshee. Motor Trend Classic sets the scene:

Imagine yourself as the general manager of Chevrolet in 1966. You’re at the wheel of the largest division of General Motors, with total passenger car production in excess of 2 million units under your watch. Things are good, right? Not so fast. In 1966, Chevrolet was taking a beating on several fronts, and there was a sense that the competition was beginning to eat USA-1’s lunch. The greatest hit came from Ford’s Mustang. Without any direct competing model to consider (the Camaro was still a year away), a million Mustang buyers skipped past Chevy showrooms, where boxy Chevy II Novas and reputation-tarnished Corvairs were the only lines of defense.

In this context of mounting hostility from Ford and the rest of Detroit, the last thing Chevy wanted was more competition from within General Motors. And that seems to be where the story of the Pontiac XP-833 begins — and ends.

The sleek silver two-seat Banshee sports car on display was poised to enter production in 1966, but obviously never reached that goal. Some say its demise was a direct result of complaints from Chevrolet that it would bite deeply into Corvette sales. That assumption makes sense in light of the fact the XP-833 was a fiberglass-bodied two-seater, just like the Corvette. And with annual Corvette sales in the low 20,000-unit range, there wasn’t much room for competition.

This car was at an Iola Old Car Show during a tribute to Pontiac (R.I.P.). It is smaller than any Corvette, and powered by a six, not a V-8. John DeLorean (yes, that John DeLorean) headed Pontiac at the time.

Should the Corvette team have been frightened by Pontiac’s proposed lower-cost sports car? The likely answer is yes. While it would have snared a good number of potential Mustang buyers, its similar theme would have also been attractive to the lower end of the Corvette buyer demographic. Adding the XP-833 to Pontiac showrooms nationwide, especially at the height of GTO mania, would have resulted in excitement you could have seen from outer space. And with the possibility of options like disc brakes, performance-suspension goodies, and that big 421 riding the XP-833’s miniscule 91-inch wheelbase, maybe the 427 Corvette (half a foot longer) wouldn’t have seemed so hot after all.And so it was when DeLorean, [Pontiac engineer Bill] Collins, and the rest of the team unveiled the XP-833 to top GM executives in mid-1965. Permission and funding for further development were denied; the XP-833 program was over. …

The Banshee offers a rare glimpse of what might have been. And if any comparison to the nearly 66,000 Solstices sold between 2006 and 2009 can be made, perhaps Pontiac’s concept of an affordable two-seat sports car wasn’t off base after all.

The Solstice, and the companion Saturn Sky, were smaller-than-Corvette two-seaters. There was, however, a Cadillac “Corvette,” the XLR, built on the Corvette platform, but with the 32-valve Northstar V-8 (and, disgracefully, an automatic) instead of the Corvette small-block. Where the Corvette has sold in the tens of thousands every year, the XLR sold in the thousands.

Before that was the Cadillac Allanté, another two-seater that was more like a Mercedes–Benz SL than a sports car.

So why did the Corvette avoid inside-GM competition, let alone GM’s usual badge engineering? Part of it was perhaps corporate politics. Corvette has always had high-level backers within GM’s Byzantine management structure. Part of it also was perhaps GM’s realization of how much money the Corvette, even with  five-figure yearly production levels, made for GM, and GM was therefore reluctant to create an in-house competitor that wouldn’t have necessarily made more money for GM.

Chevrolet (which was purchased by GM 95 years ago yesterday) has always been the most-things-to-most-buyers division of GM. The 6,000 or so Chevy dealers in the late 1970s sold everything from the minicompact Chevette to the land yacht Caprice, plus trucks and SUVs. The Corvette by rights should have been built by Pontiac, the “excitement division” (though it wasn’t when the Corvette was built), or even Cadillac for exclusivity. It’s been suggested more than once that Corvette should be split off into its own division. (Only about one-third of Chevy dealers are reportedly getting the new Corvette.)

The other reason is that, for all the occasional criticism of way-out-there styling (the C3), the Vette’s being more expensive than other Chevys, and Chevy’s refusal to green-light a mid-engine Corvette, Chevy actually got the Corvette right as an affordable (by the standards of the genre) supercar. Consider this from Corvette Online:

Some interesting facts:

  • Most expensive Corvette in constant dollars? The 1989 C4, at $59,216
  • Least expensive? $24,004 for the 1954 Corvette
  • Over its lengthy run, the MSRP of the C3 nearly quadrupled, and even adjusted for inflation, it still rose more than $10,000
  • The switch between C3 and C4 saw the biggest run up in real cost, jumping 15.5% from 1982 to 1984
  • On average, the adjusted cost of buying a Corvette has gone down since the dawn of the C4 era, from the mid-$56,000 range to $51k for the C6

If not for Zora Arkus-Duntov, who turned the Corvette into an actual sports car, and Bill Mitchell, who designed the most recognizable Corvettes, perhaps the Corvette would have died after a few years. Or perhaps the Corvette would have  died after faring badly against inside-GM competition. Instead, the Corvette remains America’s sports car.


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