Jan. 13, 2013 at 6:59 PM ET
They were the darkest of days, all the more so in the design studios at General Motors where a small team had been assembled and given the less than humble task of building the world’s best sports car.
True, the Chevrolet Corvette has always been an icon of American design, but this time, Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter and design director Tom Peters had to take things the next step, producing a vehicle that could challenge and beat the best the Germans and Italians could throw at it.
There was only a few problems: the U.S. economy was in meltdown, the automotive market was facing its worst downturn in more than half a century and General Motors was rapidly running out of cash and seemed all but certain to declare bankruptcy. And when it did in June 1, 2009, the lights went out. Even with the likelihood of a federal bailout, it was anything but certain the long-awaited C7 Corvette would ever make it to market.
But on Sunday night, at a well-attended ceremony at an old warehouse in a run-down section of Detroit, Juechter and Peters will get the honor of pulling the wraps off a 2014 Chevy Corvette that is already being hailed as the best American sports car of the past half century, perhaps the best ever.
And as the car that has always served as a showcase of GM’s capabilities, the new ‘Vette could put a much-needed halo around a company whose critics still tend to dismiss it as “Government Motors.”
TheDetroitBureau.com has spent a significant amount of time in recent months talking to the various members of the Corvette development team – and getting a rare look at what is known to aficionados as the C7, shorthand for only the seventh-generation model since the first fiberglass-bodied ‘Vette rolled off the assembly line in 1953.
The original C1 was a project of the legendary Harley Earl, the man usually credited with creating the very concept of automotive design. It debuted at GM’s private annual auto show, Motorama, in 1953 and the response was so intense 300 hand-built convertibles, all in polo white, were produced for the 1953 model-year.
The original car was primitive, with a solid rear axle and a grossly underpowered straight-6 engine. But there was nothing like it in the U.S. market, certainly nothing coming from Detroit.
Soon, the Corvette was to become a symbol of American prowess. It was the real star of the TV series, Route 66. The Mercury 7 astronauts each drove one, Corvettes often appearing in official NASA photos alongside mockups of the Lunar Excursion Module or Lunar Rover – the latter also developed by GM.
But over the decades, even as each successive generation was given more power and better performance, the Corvette continued to slip further behind competitors like Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini. By the time work began on the C7, there was no more room for excuses unless GM was ready to acknowledge it really couldn’t create a truly world-class sports car.
“There wasn’t going to be a Corvette if we couldn’t do better,” recalls Juechter.
But, starting in late 2007, there didn’t look like there was going to be a Corvette anyway. The project was halted for about six months that year because of GM’s financial problems. “Then we stopped again in (late) 2008 as we were going into bankruptcy.”
Even when the project got going again, following GM’s rescue, the maker had turned gunshy and it seemed to some that top management might back off on its promise to build the best sports car possible.
For styling chief Peters, the frustration was tangible when he was told to go with an evolutionary design not much different than the outgoing C6 that had been around since 2005. It was the best Corvette ever in terms of pure performance and had roughly the same footprint as a Porsche 911. But it wasn’t going to really change the game, the design director complained.
“Ed was willing to listen,” Peters says, referring to GM’s corporate design czar Ed Welburn. “He told me to go back, keep working on the design I wanted and prove I was right.” Given the chance – and actually benefiting from the project’s delay during the GM bankruptcy, Peters finally found the right formula and got the go-ahead for the design he desperately wanted.
Those familiar with the current Corvette will recognize the new model, whether spotting it front or back. There’s the long nose, the steeply raked windshield that flows into a fast hatchback cabin. Quad tail lamps and exhaust pipes anchor the rear.
But the distinctive new LED accent lights give the nose a more modern and refined look, with a mean-looking grille below the bumper split by a sleek chromed bar. The louvers on the hood are now functional, as are the ports behind the bulging front wheel wells. A crisp accent line darts rearward from the front wheels and leaves a spectator with the sense the car is constantly in motion.
There are new rear quarter windows, something the Corvette hasn’t featured in decades. And the tail is crisp and precise with a higher belt line and deck that seems poised to pounce on the nearest Ferrari.
As striking as the body may be, team members agree that perhaps the most significant change comes inside. GM global design director Ed Welburn tells TheDetroitBureau.com that it was his personal mission to transform the traditionally clumsy and unrefined Corvette interior into a modern showpiece.
The new design features an 8-inch reconfigurable display that can rapidly be shifted to read out critical data in the mode a driver wants. There’s a second large screen for operating infotainment and other vehicle functions – though interior design team members point out they maintained a few buttons for commonly used features, such as tuning and volume control.
“For the first time,” says Juechter, “we decided to spend the money to design two different seats,” so those who want to spend time on the track don’t have to compromise with those who’ll never drive much harder than they would when blasting off from a stoplight.
There’s one thing the new Corvette does reach into the past for. A closer inspection will reveal the word, “Stingray” on the fenders. That designation has been reserved for only the most powerful and exclusive Corvettes ever produced. And it’s back for the first time since 1967.
In some ways, team members will tell you, it may have worked out perfectly to have the C7 Corvette postponed until now. While it will bear a 2014 designation it actually will reach market almost precisely 60 years after Harley Earl’s original debuted.
And, adds Juechter, “There’s some truth that the longer you wait the better technology you have available.” The C7 is the showpiece “gearheads” long had to turn to foreign makers for.
Ultra-light, super-strong carbon fiber accounts for a significant portion of the new model’s body panels, though there’s still plenty of fiberglass, as there has been since the original ‘Vette debuted.
There had long been rumors that the new sports car would mimic its European rivals and migrate from the classic Corvette small-block V-8 to a turbo or super-charged V-6. In the end, GM stuck with a large eight-banger, though the newly designated LT1 features all the latest technologies, such as Direct Injection, variable valve timing and displacement on demand.
By shutting off half of its cylinders when demand for power is light, the engine essentially becomes a 3.1-liter V-4 and, asserts Juechter, “We wind up getting better mileage than if we had gone for one of those smaller powerplants.”
At the same time, the 2014 C7 Corvette will deliver an estimated 450 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque, which will make it the most powerful “base” model ever – and the fastest, with 0 to 60 times expected to come in at or under 4.0 seconds.
And that’s just the beginning. There are other versions of the ‘Vette quietly under development, likely to include the step-up Z06 and the next-generation ZR1, which likely will reach well beyond 600 horsepower.
Pricing won't be announced until close to launch, later this year but, hints Juechter, "Our business case was based on the idea if you can afford the current Corvette you can afford this one."
Chevrolet officials have kept an unusually tight lid on the 2014 Corvette and it’s likely to be a while before they’re ready to give out the first rides for reviewers. Production won’t begin until mid-year, though a largely hand-built model is reportedly going to be featured during the upcoming Super Bowl – and then given to halftime superstar performer Beyonce.
But if initial reactions are any indication, the C7 could be the vehicle Chevy and GM desperately have needed, a sports car that truly pushes the proverbial envelope and threatens to leave even the most vaunted European competitors worrying when they see one racing up in their rearview mirrors.