I can still remember the day when the Corvette ZR-1 first appeared on the cover of my school library’s copy of Motor Trend. This was big news. Huge. The LT5 engine was developed by Group Lotus in England. It was an aluminum block V-8 with four overhead camshafts, 32-valves and a raunchy 375 hp. A "valet" switch below the gearbox let you reduce that power to 250 hp, which was the coolest thing since I learned how to double-side a floppy disk with a single-hole punch. Most of all, the ZR-1 did the 0-to-60 in 4-point-something and hit 180 mph. And it had square taillights.
For some reason, those square taillights completely changed the character of the Corvette. Gave the C4 body a design edge it didn’t have before. Sounds crazy now, but it’s true. And if someone gave me $30,000 to blow on a car back then, there was a solid 3-to-2 chance that I would have bought, in descending order of desire…
3. Toyota MR2 SC
2. Toyota Celica GT-S
1. Mazda RX-7 Turbo
The ZR-1 didn’t register at all. Sure, I drooled on the pages of a magazine test drive, but that’s where the lust ended. And we all know why.
It was still a Vette. And since I didn’t own gold chains, chest hair or Ted Nugent records, it didn’t blip my radar.
You see, in a magazine, the Corvette could hide behind the numbers, the 0-to-60s, the top speeds, the quarter-mile times. But out in the real world, the car had baggage. Lots of it. And the funny thing is that even now, while the Corvette CR5 bodyslams Aston Martins and dominates Le Mans, it still carries that baggage like a big gold Italian horn.
The first time I drove a Corvette, it was a C5 Z06 and I was blown away by the torque. I gave Back to the Future rides to all my friends. You know… 0-to-88 mph blasts. In the Z06, I barely broke Third.
I had the car for a week and it was in Sixth gear for a total of maybe 10 seconds—only when I shifted up just to see what it was like. I didn’t need it. From inside, the car felt fast, low to the ground, and tight on the corners—like any respectable sports car. But my friends still laughed. I tried to explain the performance, the acceleration, the handling. But in the eyes of my generation, it was still… a Vette. I got a similar response when Chevrolet gave me a C6 for a week earlier this year. Like the Z06, it was fast and handled great. So why did I feel like a poser?
My first memory of the car came from the ’70s, which were a low point for the Corvette. What’s so low about power oversteer? you ask. Here’s the thing… Back in the ’70s, Vettes didn’t even have that going for them. Look it up. The 1975 Vette came with a 360 cu-in engine putting out 200 hp. 0-to-60 in 7.8-seconds.
That wasn’t even the worst one. The ’81 Vette had 190 hp while weighing over 3,200 lbs. Sure, we were in a fuel crisis, but still… very pathetic. I think you can pretty much trace the origins of the stigma to this period, when the car had neither looks or personality. But since I’m hardly an expert on this era (or the Corvette, in general), I emailed my friend Jeff last week for his point of view. Jeff used to be the feature editor at Hot Rod magazine. Currently, he’s the West Coast editor of Hemmings Muscle Machines. And from ’93 to ’96, he was an editor on Vette magazine. Here’s his take:
“Corvettes of that era have the same image as Trans-Ams do from the same era: gold chains, disco, divorced orthodontists, too much Hai Karate. It’s as if people who couldn’t get performance anymore wanted the LOOK of it. Where were these people in 1973? That’s what I never understood. The Trans-Am in the Muscle Car Era was an also-ran in terms of sales. By the late-’70s, there were almost more TAs than base Firebirds. Surely, Burt Reynolds and
his pornstar ‘stache couldn’t be responsible for ALL of that growth? Boomers seem to move the market, so … was the late-’70s too early for mid-life crisis?
“Boomers born ’45-’54, buy muscle cars ’64-’72, get married, buy Olds Cutlasses, have families, then either get divorced of hit their mid-life crisis and decide they need a fun car to remind them of their misspent muscle car youth. But no used cars please, they’re too unreliable. What’s around? Precious few options with V-8 power. Think Trans-Am. Think Corvette. (Z28 was gone for a year and a half in the ’70s and the Mustang was just a tarted-up Pinto back then. Only other thing was the Dodge Li’l Red Express truck and that was awful heavy and kinda weird.)
“Look at those cars, particularly the ‘soft-bumper’ cars from ’73 to ’82. That massively long hood, the undulating fender blisters, a relatively tight cockpit and a round little hinder that (from ’80-’82) kicked off into a ducktail. The ’68-’72 chrome bumper cars looked like aggressive animals or threatening fish, fenders bulging around their bias-ply tires, vents looking like gills and harkening back to the Mako Shark theme of ’65. But the soft-bumper cars? Totally phallic, the most overtly so since the original E-Type.”
It’s got nothing to do with Vette sales. There are enough diehards guys out there to snatch up every one that’s made. This is about image (and maybe a little about sales).
The Corvette image hasn’t changed in decades: front engine, rear-drive, two-seats, push-rod engine, wide tires and not a single ounce of sophistication in its big fat frame—and therein lies the doomed individual. The Corvette may perform well on many different levels, but in terms of image, it’s entirely one-dimensional. Chevy doesn’t help the cause with its “Best Bang for the Buck” PR push, which only feeds its image as a poor man’s supercar. This may keep the core customers coming back, but it’s not the kind of standard to reel in a new generation of drivers who’d happily fork over two Gs for a set of Volks.
What’s the big deal? Who cares if the Vette isn’t my style? The problem here is that the Vette isn’t just a sports car. It’s also the halo car for Chevrolet, a position that carries all sorts of burdens. It’s like batting cleanup for the Yankees. If your cleanup guy can’t slug the long ball, then what’s the rest of your lineup like? Same thing with Chevrolet. If we don’t desire the Vette, Chevy’s halo car, then why would we desire anything underneath it? The Vette’s image of being cheap and unsophisticated trickles down to every car in the brand. And Chevy has been too busy pandering to its core Corvette customers that it seems to have forgotten about its future, which just might have different tastes.
There is a way to attract both. Slim the car down. Take a chance on the engineering and design. You only have to jump the Atlantic to find an example…
Earlier this year, the British brand Marcos relaunched with an all-new sports car, the TSO R/T. The couple version—TSO GT2—is powered by a 5.7-liter C5 Corvette engine and sits on a chassis developed and tuned by Prodrive. The car has simple lines and seems to be everything the Corvette is not. Classy and nimble, the TSO GT2 weighs in at around 2,300 lbs. The engine has been bumped up to 475 hp and the car goes to 60 in 4 seconds. That’s something Vette owners and non-Vette owners can get behind.
Anything wrong with that?
Richard Chang also writes columns for AutoWeek and Racer magazines. Fumes appears the first and third Tuesdays of every month. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org