It was a Corvette moment. Here we were on Carmel Valley Road, just over the hill from the Monterey Motorsports Reunion and the Pebble Beach concours, and Chevrolet had not only put all seven generations of the Corvette in front of us but also invited us to drive each one.
Think of it, the story of the Chevrolet Corvette right from the beginning, and they were just going to hand us the keys to each one. Really, who gets to do such a thing? Seven at one blow! We felt a little bit like Mickey Mouse in The Brave Little Tailor. Maybe we could get a belt made or something.
Everyone in America has a moment when the Corvette gets his attention in a kind of supernatural way. It surprises or awakens them, and they are never the same afterward. These moments come to all of us. You don't even have to be a particular enthusiast of the Corvette (we're not). All you have to be is an American.
It's like being drafted into the Marines
Mike Yager's moment came as a kid, when he caught sight of this magical sports car when his brother drove by the old Corvette assembly plant in St. Louis. When Yager had grown, he started selling Corvette license-plate frames out of the trunk of his car at swap meets. Now Mid America Motorworks, Yager's massive distribution facility for Corvette accessories in Effingham, Illinois, is the destination for 15,000 people every fall who come for a kind of Corvette picnic. He says each one has a story to tell about a Corvette.
On the day of our high school graduation, we drove a Corvette for the first time. Larry showed up with his uncle's 1965 Sting Ray C2 roadster, which had been set up for autocross. With its 327-cu-in V-8 (lake-type exhausts in the rocker sills!), four-speed Muncie transmission, independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, wide Goodyear tires and sleek yet scientific bodywork, it was the most high-tech car on the planet. It wasn't like our father's Chevy Corvair at all. (The Corvair wasn't so bad; it taught us about trailing-throttle oversteer on the way to Ann Scholey's house one afternoon.)
Met Zora Arkus-Duntov once. He was the chief engineer of the Corvette for the C1, C2 and C3 generations, though it's really the C2 that is his car. We probably didn't exchange ten words. He liked to drive too fast and he liked to chase women. There's probably some kind of lesson in that. It's amazing think that the Corvette C3 has become collectible. Drove a 1977 model up along the Hudson River, and its emissions-strangled V-8 was wheezing and its fiberglass body panels were flapping. C/D's Don Sherman said the next Corvette should be like the mid-engine concepts developed in the late 1960s by Duntov and Chevrolet R&D's Frank Winchell. (He's still saying that, as a matter of fact.)
What would the Mad Men drive?
When you see an early Corvette C1, you can't help but think of its origins as one of GM design director Harley Earl's show cars at the 1953 GM Motorama, which was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. At the time, the Mad Men of advertising on Madison Avenue were driving cars like the Jaguar XK-120, and Earl thought they should be driving a Chevrolet instead. In fact, the C1 started out as a kind of XK-120 – lots of style, a six-cylinder engine, and that's about it. Trouble was, it was priced like a Ferrari, so it was almost sales-proof.
Designer Robert Cumberford acknowledges that the 1958 Corvette is his, even though it's widely acknowledged as the ugly one. He says it would have been even worse if he hadn't been there to keep Harley Earl from adding even more chrome. Cumberford also did the SR-2, a car that came about because Earl's son wanted to race a Ferrari, and the big man wasn't having any of that. At the time, just about every Corvette designer was a graduate of Cumberford's high school in California, Hollywood High. Harley Earl grew up in Hollywood himself and designed cars for movie stars.
The Corvette finally got serious when Duntov put a V-8 into it for 1956. Every road-racing driver of the 1960s has told me stories about racing one. Dan Gurney once drove a car for a guy who was famous for buying Corvettes, reporting them stolen, and then building them into racing cars with the insurance money. Bob Bondurant is a fanatic about sitting close to the wheel, but maybe it's because the C1's driving position didn't give you a choice. And the C1 V8 car is so nose-heavy that you have to trail-brake into the corners like Bondurant to get the thing to find an apex.
An overnight success at last
We visited the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the first time because it had become the start of the annual drive in which we select Automobile of the Year. (The Corvette assembly plant is across the street.) We remember coming to the part of the display that discussed Corvette advertising in the 1950s and 1960s, when a one-page advertisement would tell a new story about the Corvette every month. They were stories that shaped the car enthusiasm of people across the nation in a way that still resonates today. The display made a big deal about two of the most important and well-known copywriters of the time, David E. Davis, Jr. and Jim Ramsey. And then we turned around and there they were, part of the usual cast of characters at Automobile Magazine, standing just a few feet away.
The Corvette C4 was introduced at Riverside International Raceway in California, only it was winter, so a rainstorm blew down all the displays the day before we showed up, plus the track was supposed to be plowed under in the next ten minutes to make a shopping mall. When they showed us the C4's bare chassis at the crummy old Holiday Inn, it was beautiful. Gleaming with aluminum bits here and there, it was a rigorously intelligent and tightly integrated masterpiece, the very essence of American industrial design. The Corvette C4 not only reinvented the Corvette as a legitimate sports car but also set every carmaker in the world back on its heels.
Our friend Bill Cooper raced about everything during his decades as Bondurant's chief driving instructor, and he found his way to the Corvette C4 in 1985 for the Corvette Challenge, a racing series formed because the SCCA said the car was too fast for regular showroom-stock racing. And like that, Cooper became a champion. He said a Corvette is so easy to drive fast, he wondered why everyone didn't race one. He still says the same thing about his 600-hp Corvette C5 hill-climb racer.
Time, speed and distance
It seemed pretty ridiculous to drive a bunch of sporting cars to New Orleans from Detroit, an Acura NSX among them. But somewhere in Illinois, it became clear just how great the Corvette ZR-1 could be on the road, It was comfortable, yet its Lotus-engineered, Mercury Marine-built DOHC V-8 made it brilliantly fast. A ZR-1 set a record by averaging 175 mph over 24 hours, traveling over 5,000 miles in the process. (Bill Cooper was there.) Corvette experts are telling us that this ZR-1 is the last undiscovered collectible Corvette, a relatively affordable car with a big increase in valuation not too far ahead.
Designer Jerry Palmer had a great vision for a mid-engine car with his Corvette Indy concept car, but there was no money for a new platform, so instead his beautiful shape had to be squashed onto the C5's front-engine platform. Yet this long-wheelbase improvement of the C4 became enormously significant, starting a trend toward longer, wider cars that were better able to cope with 150-mph speed.
When we're on the road out there in America, we always see a couple of Corvettes. We almost never see a Porsche 911 or even a Nissan Z-car. A Ferrari is seen only on a trailer. Apparently a Corvette is meant for travel in a way that other sports cars are not. Maybe this is some kind of cultural memory of Route 66, a famously artistic television series of the early 1960s in which two guys traveled the famous highway between L.A. and Chicago in search of America while driving a red Corvette C1 V-8.
As it sat there in the courtyard of GM's West Coast design studio in trashy North Hollywood, the brand-new Corvette C6 didn't look too different. We were pretty disappointed. And then you noticed that every little sub-system of the car had been improved. It made us realize that this is the way that racing cars are improved, as time is soaked from every little thing, not just one big thing. And then we remembered that Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Porsche had been forced to build special cars to counter the Corvette's speed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And we were content.
The car that came through
When GM North America president Mark Reuss climbed the stage to present the Corvette C7 to the throng gathered just before the 2013 Detroit auto show, we braced for the usual lights-and-flashes theater. But instead Reuss told a wonderful story about driving to the Corvette shop on the GM proving ground as a little kid while sitting next to his father Lloyd Reuss, an engineer and enthusiast of leading-edge technology in his own right as well as later the president of GM.
It was Mark Reuss's own Corvette moment, and you could feel the pride he felt in the effort from all the people at GM to come through bankruptcy and create this car. No excuses, it's the best we can do, and never mind all those people who said we wouldn't achieve great things ever again.
It's hard to say why the Corvette has such power over us. You think that it's just another car, and then you realize that there's something about it that defines you as a car enthusiast, both the things that you love and the things that you hate. Whether you like it or not, we're all Corvette people.