America’s sports car

My birthday in June dawned without a Chevrolet Corvette in front of my house. (The Corvette at the top of the page was featured at the 2007 Greater Milwaukee Auto Show. The copilot is my oldest son, Michael.)

Which isn’t surprising. I have three young children, and I have a house with a one-car garage. (Then again, this would be more practical, though a blatant pluck-your-eyes-out violation of the Corvette ethos. Of course, so was this.) The reality is that I’m likely to be able to own a Corvette only if I get a visit from the Corvette Fairy, whose office is next door to the Easter Bunny.

(I hope this isn’t foreshadowing: When I interviewed Dave Richter of Valley Corvette for a car enthusiast story in the late great Marketplace Magazine, he said that the most popular Corvette in most fans’ minds was a Corvette built during their days in high school. This would be a problem for me in that I graduated from high school in 1983, when no Corvette was built.)

The Corvette is one of those cars whose existence may be difficult to understand within General Motors Corp. The Corvette is what is known as a “halo car,” a car that drives people into showrooms, even if the potential buyer is looking for something less expensive and more practical and useful than a Corvette. (Chrysler Corp.’s counterpart is the Dodge Viper, which reportedly may be on its way out in the next couple of years.) It is an oddity within Chevrolet, which has made most of its reputation on practical, though, dull cars, at least until the Corvette arrived in 1953 and the Chevrolet V-8 hit showrooms two years later. And yet, the 35 years the Corvette has been in existence, in good and bad economic times, has generated its own cult, with millions of fans backed by businesses geared toward preserving and restoring them.

The Corvette, in its firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and now sixth iterations, started as GM’s response to the British and Italian sports cars, usually two-seat convertibles, that soldiers coming home from World War II were bringing with them. Over the years, Corvettes became stuffed with more power than their steering, brakes and handling could handle, adopted the most out-there styling perhaps in American automotive history, were nearly strangled by emissions regulations (the standard engine on the 1975 Corvette had just 165 horsepower), had killed and then brought back the convertible, and, by now, have the best combination of power and refinement for the price in the world — truly a world-class car, but not at world-class prices.

The first Corvette I remember seeing belonged to a neighbor down the street — a dark green 1970 coupe with the base engine, automatic transmission and AM/FM radio. It was, frankly, a scary looking car, sitting incredibly low to the ground and, to a six-year-old, looking as though it was going to bite you. I got a couple of rides in it, with my brother sitting in the passenger seat with me and the younger son of the car’s owner sitting on top of the console. (Can’t do that anymore.)

The first Corvette I drove was a 1969 coupe, but with a (conservatively rated) 435-horsepower V-8 that ran on racing or aviation gas and a four-speed transmission known by car buffs as the “rock-crusher.” It was a beast, particularly due to its lack of power steering and brakes and its ability to transfer prodigious amounts of engine heat into the cockpit. My ride in this car reached (I believe I can say this since the statute of limitations has passed) speedometer-indicated speeds that are multiples of existing speed limits. (During this ride, it occurred to me, as the scenery was going by at a really rapid rate, that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt. A moment later, it occurred to me that my lack of seat belt didn’t matter because if we hit anything at that speed, the authorities would be scraping up whatever was left of me from whatever we hit with a putty knife.)

The current and previous generations of Corvettes appear to be the best of the various worlds the Corvette has represented over the years. Styling is always an arguable point (I prefer the C5, built between 1997 and 2004, to the C6, which has been built since 2005; then again, if you really like a modern version of the C1 or C2, companies can now accommodate your wishes), but today’s Corvettes can go as fast as any that have been built before now. The difference is they handle and stop much better than any that have been built before now, and the obvious creature comforts — air conditioning, upper-end sound system, power leather seats, air bags — are either standard or, in the case of a navigation system, optional. With more than 5,000 Chevrolet dealers in the U.S., if something breaks, parts are much easier to find than for such brands as Porsche or Ferrari. (That’s not to say I don’t like Porsches or Ferraris — different strokes for different folks.)

For those who haven’t driven a Corvette, when you’re my height (6-foot-4), the overall effect is something like what driving a luge must be like. The first two generations were more conventional in design, but every Corvette since the C3 (based on the Mako Shark show car) has kind of wrapped around the occupants, which was initially criticized because that prevented the traditional American driver position of resting your left arm on top of the door (with window rolled down, of course), unless you’re tall enough. In every C5 or C6 convertible I’ve sat in at car shows, I look straight at the driver’s-side sun visor, so evidently I have to move the power seat to its lowest possible position to be able to drive the car. The result of that is that getting out requires what I had to do with my mother’s 1985 Chevy Camaro (which she owned when I was half my present age) — put my hand on the ground to brace myself to exit — or do a 90-degree left turn, stick my legs out and then get out legs first, with a limbo motion to clear the roof and stand up. (The current Corvette is about two-thirds of my height, and the seats are a long way down.) Clearly the Corvette is not a car in which to run errands.

If you like driving, this is it. It’s unquestionably a stiff-riding car, but much better than the older versions, and, as noted before, while it flies down the road like few other cars, it also will stop like few other cars. This is hyperbole to say this, but I wonder if anyone really can have a bad day if it begins and ends with a Corvette drive from your home to your office.

The Corvette hangs around GM in large part because it makes money and positive attention for GM. (Not until 1958, five years after it was introduced, did the Corvette make money for GM; in fact, Chevrolet made just 700 Corvettes in 1955.) The Corvette V-8s are found in several other GM cars, including the Pontiac G8 GT, plus several Australian Holdens (also available from Vauxhall in Britain and in the Middle East) and the upcoming Cadillac CTS-V (based on the CTS, a sedan that may be coming out in two-door and station wagon versions) and Chevrolet Camaro, assuming they actually build the Camaro. The Cadillac XLS is a Corvette under the body, although with the Cadillac Northstar engine instead of the Corvette’s.

Part of the reason for the Corvette’s popularity is the V-8 engine found in all but the first two model years. (V-8s sound much like V-twins, which is, I think, one reason for the popularity of the Harley–Davidson motorcycle over its Japanese and European competition.) Even though the first two years of Corvettes had a six-cylinder engine instead of a V-8, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Corvette without a V-8. The Corvette V-8 isn’t even the state of the art in V-8 technology (without getting too technical for non-gearheads), and yet the standard Corvette engine is rated at The 2009 Corvette ZR1, with 638 horsepower, is EPA-rated at 26 highway miles per gallon, 2 miles per gallon better than the 2008 Corvette ZO6, whose owners must make do with a mere 505 horsepower. (You can also save yourself $25,000 and purchase thebase model Corvette, which, at 430 horsepower, costs $109.19 per horsepower, a better bargain than the ZO6’s $142.82 per horsepower.)

The ZR1 is supercharged, which is how you can get 638 horsepower and yet 26 mpg if you keep your foot out of it some of the time. (Remember: The most gas is used in acceleration, not at speed.) Future Corvette V-8s are likely to have more advanced engine technology and lower horsepower, but if the next-generation Vettes are lighter, they’ll have the same power-to-weight ratio, and possibly even better gas mileage. (As it is, the base Corvette gets better fuel economy than the four-cylinder Honda S2000 and the six-cylinder Nissan 350Z.) That makes it hard to imagine that any Corvette in the foreseeable future won’t have a V-8.

The Corvette generates interest that far exceeds its annual sales. In its biggest production year, 1979, Chevrolet sold 53,807 Corvettes, and in 2007 Chevy sold 40,561 Corvettes. Motor Trend magazine has a history of Corvette “scoops” (for instance, the breathless late 1973 announcement that there would be two Corvettes, both with rotary engines) that turn out to be way off base, but sell tons of issues on the newsstands anyway. Motor Trend predicted late in 2007 that the next-generation Corvette will arrive in the 2013 model year, one month after it predicted that the next-generation Corvette will arrive in the 2012 model year.

A substantial component of Corvette fans want Vettes to be more exotic, with, for instance, a mid-engine layout. (Most cars are, of course, front-engine, while a few, including the old Volkswagen Beetle and Porsche 911, are rear-engine; a mid-engine car has the engine mounted generally between the axles, usually in front of the rear axle.) A mid-engine layout seems unlikely because, for one thing, that would take the Corvette’s price well beyond $100,000, which doesn’t really fit into GM’s product portfolio. What’s more likely is that, as now, Chevy will make two versions — a “mainstream” version and a more exotic version with, for instance, lightweight materials and all-wheel drive, for perhaps twice the price of the base model.

Not everyone understands the appeal of Corvettes. (John McCain does; his first new car was a new 1958 Corvette. Former presidential candidate Joe Biden got a 1967 Corvette as a graduation present, and he still has it.) Think of Corvettes as a demonstration of what American free enterprise can do, even with federal government regulations, pressures from rising oil prices, and those nags who can’t grasp why someone might need more horsepower than the nag thinks you need. The Corvette’s overseas competition costs significantly more money, and that was even before the recent sinking dollar. American business has put together the best performing car for the money on the planet, and that’s something worth celebrating — say, on National Corvette Day June 30, celebrating the day the first Corvette drove off the assembly line in St. Louis. That would be three days after June 27, Drive Your Corvette to Work Day.

8 thoughts on “America’s sports car

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