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Highway to Heaven: Corvettes

Like Its Ancestor on TV's "Route 66," a New Breed of Corvette Is Prowling the American Road
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98

(continued from page 1)

A snake slithers slowly across the heat-soaked asphalt--no rush, for it could be an hour before another car comes by. The thermometer on the wall of the old gas station stretches, pleadingly, towards the sky, the temperature rising by the minute as the sun climbs over the horizon. It's not even 10 a.m., and it's already topped 100. But Walt Wilson doesn't seem to notice--or care. His muscular, deeply tanned arms are crossed tightly across his chest, a foot resting on the tailpipe of an old motorcycle. Eyes asquint, he slowly surveys his domain, Amboy, California, a pinprick at the center of the map of the

Mojave Desert. "They say 20 people live here," he relates with the vaguest flicker of a smile, "but I can only find 16."

Another time, same place, and Amboy was a bustling oasis--that "last gas for 90 miles," a cold Dr. Pepper, a soft bed in a row of whitewashed cabins. A bit of civilization in an otherwise untamed desert. The traffic moved more steadily then, like the snake on the tarmac, heading west, ever west along the Mother Road. There are other highways that run cross-country. U.S. 1, from Maine to the Florida Keys. Route 2, tracing the rugged Canadian border. Highway 61, linking the Midwest to the Deep South. Yet there is something about Route 66. Just say the name and you hear Nat King Cole's dulcet voice crooning how "it runs from Chicago to L.A." More than two thousand miles all the way, across vast plains and rugged deserts. Through ghost towns and tourist towns like Oatman, Arizona, where, for $1, they'll sell you a skimpy bag of carrots to feed the donkeys set free when the mines were closed after the Second World War.

Collective memory etched itself in the national consciousness long after the feds officially decommissioned the narrow artery, which by then had already been bypassed by a network of expansive freeways. My own vision of the Mother Road was formed late at night on a small DuMont television screen, the image flickering and fading in and out as a pair of modern-day cowboys roamed through the still Wild West of the early 1960s for an hour every Friday night on CBS. They'd traded their horses for a convertible, an exotic piece of machinery--low, sleek, with a wedgelike hood and scooped doors, unlike anything anyone drove in my neighborhood. I wanted to be Buzz. I wanted to drive Route 66.

And I wanted a Corvette convertible. Like the one I'm sitting in. Well, not quite. This one's a new '98. It's a lot faster, a lot more nimble, than the one Buzz and Tod drove. But it's the same "ticket-me" red. Gassing up at Amboy, passing a few moments with Wilson and his sister, I have a few moments to pause. But not too long, for the sun keeps rising and the heat makes a long train running down the Santa Fe tracks shimmer like a ghost. Obeying a primal urge, I stomp on the gas pedal, launching the car in a shower of gravel, as the cooling wind begins to whip through my thinning hair.

The Corvette and the Mother Road. Somehow they seem as inextricably linked as peas and carrots, cowboys and Indians, tourists and tourist traps. I've dropped in on the last leg of a long convoy. It set out from Chicago nearly two weeks ago, and I've hitched on for just the last 500 miles, which, for me, is the romantic leg through the towns with the syncopated names: Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

But William Ball is going the distance. The retiree cruised from his home in Lewisburg, North Carolina, to Chicago in a '79 "Shark" Corvette. There, Martin Milner, "Tod" on the old TV show, waved the flag to begin the Route 66 rally. "It's a dream--it's part of the American Dream," Ball says during a break in the long drive. At first, you're not sure whether he's talking about the Mother Road or his Corvette. It's both. "There's something that pulls you like a magnet. Once you get the car, you feel the draw to drive the road--just to say you made the trip."

For Chevrolet, "Route 66" was a seminal marketing breakthrough. It hit the airwaves during an era of unbridled optimism and exuberance, a time when nothing gave us greater personal identity than the cars we drove. For the "Leave It to Beaver" generation, the station wagon was the ultimate embodiment of suburban life. But for those who saw America as a land of limitless opportunities and vast open spaces, it was an open roadster and a road trip out West that spelled personal freedom. The Oakies had driven the Mother Road in whatever jalopy would run. But the Dust Bowl days were over. And now there were folks ready to make the journey for its own sake. There were plenty of cars competing for their hearts, minds and pocketbooks: the Ford Thunderbird, the Studebaker, even a few odd imports, like the tiny little Triumphs, MGs and Bug-eye Sprites. But Hollywood put Buzz and Tod behind the wheel of a Vette, creating an indelible image that Chevrolet couldn't have created for itself despite its massive marketing power.

"When I was a kid, little girls were supposed to be at home, playing with dolls or having babies and baking bread. But the way they depicted the open road, I got itchy feet. I wanted to be on the road," Bonnie Samson says with a sigh, as she strokes Haggis, the year-old West Highland White Terrier that's taken over the shotgun seat. For Samson, the open road has always been spelled C-O-R-V-E-T-T-E. She bought one of the first '98 convertibles to roll off the assembly line, and now she's clocking miles fast. Her husband is back home in Branford, Connecticut, and Bonnie confesses that he's not even sure where she went. Nor is Bonnie quite sure what she'll do when the trip is over, but for now it doesn't matter. "When I have the top down and a full tank of gas, that's the real feeling of freedom for me," she says.

Mile after mile we drive on, past towns with no names, and names that no longer have towns. Restaurants and old motels built long before the era of homogenized convenience, their cottages built of adobe or shaped like little teepees. The names suggest a more prosperous time, when their owners still had aspirations of success. Yvonne's Paradise. The Oasis. There's a For Sale sign on the Roadrunner's Retreat, but the way it hangs loose, banging in the breeze, it's obvious the owner long ago gave up hope. There's not even an exit here for the freeway running just a few miles to the north.

There aren't many folks driving the length of the Mother Road these days. But there really isn't that much of the old route left. There are large chunks missing where Route 66 has been subsumed by one of the newer interstates (I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 or I-10). Elsewhere it's been torn out of the earth entirely and erased from the atlases. But Ball took an old, faded map with him, and at one point in Oklahoma he parked long enough to walk down a hill, to where he could see a few clumps of the original pavement, overgrown with weeds. "There was a broken-down old car sitting there with its doors missing and a bumper sticker that said California or Bust," he says. "I guess they went bust."

In so many ways, this primal road serves as a metaphor for the Corvette, for just as Route 66 can never be erased from the American stream of consciousness, so, too, did General Motors fail to pull the plug on America's oldest surviving sports car. Not that it didn't try. Only a few years ago, it looked as if all the Buzz and Tod wanna-bes would have to settle for something with a German or a Japanese accent.

All the statistics seemed to argue against the Corvette. Since its golden era in the 1970s, the American sports car market had all but dried up. From a 1979 peak of 53,807, Corvette sales plunged to a 1992 low of 20,479. And the Vette was by no means unique. Sales of the Mazda RX-7 peaked at 56,203 in the mid-'80s. That number had dwindled to a mere 1,399 by the 1990s when the Japanese automaker stopped shipping the car to the States. The Nissan 300 ZX, the Dodge Stealth, the Porsche 944--one after another, the nameplates were vanishing from the market. The analysts had all sorts of explanations: rising prices, tougher enforcement of speed laws, higher insurance rates. "Americans are becoming more pragmatic," says automotive analyst John Casesa, of the New York investment bank Schroder & Co. "People are willing to trade in sports-car styling for four-door practicality." Would Buzz and Tod be driving a sport-utility vehicle today?

"Making a business case [for the Corvette] had become a lot different than it was 10 years ago," explains John Heinricy, a total vehicle integration engineer for Corvette. This is all the more accurate considering the hard truths that have beset General Motors Corp. There was a time when GM controlled more than half the American new car market, and Justice Department antitrust lawyers were actively trying to break the behemoth up into two companies. But what Justice couldn't accomplish, Japanese competition could. Between 1979 and 1990, General Motors dropped roughly a dozen points of market share--a loss equal to an automaker the size of Chrysler.

It takes time to sink a battleship, especially one that's well camouflaged, and, desperate to shore things up, the management team running GM in the 1980s used more and more smoke and mirrors to balance the ledger. But by the time of the Gulf war recession, it had become obvious that the ship was taking on water. By 1992, the year before the new Vette was originally scheduled to debut, GM's losses were running into the billions. At one point, insiders privately confirm, the automaker came within a week of filing Chapter 11. Frantic, GM's newly emboldened directors staged a boardroom coup. And their hand-picked new management team was handed an unambiguous mandate: if it didn't make money, it had to go.

Corvette has seldom, if ever, turned much of a profit. For years, it was propped up under the category of "goodwill." And clearly, shows such as "Route 66" and the various successful Corvette race programs had a halo effect that helped sell more mundane Chevy products. But by the early 1990s, it was clear that the then-current Corvette model, known internally as the C4--short for fourth generation--wasn't cutting it anymore. Despite its sexy skin and tire-spinning V-8 engine, it was desperately outdated. So the Corvette team started laying out plans for the next generation, a product they promised would match the technical sophistication of the Japanese and deliver the high-speed performance of the Germans.

But in GM's new world, that wasn't enough. To justify the program, Corvette assistant brand manager Fred Gallasch concedes, the company would have needed to capture 25 to 40 percent of the U.S. sports-car market, which he said was running between 50,000 and 55,000 at the time. There was simply no way to make the numbers add up. And so, in one of his final acts before being ousted, GM's president, Lloyd Reuss, declared that the Corvette should be allowed to die a "natural death."

For Dave Hill, being transferred to the Corvette team in December 1992 was a questionable career move. "There was hardly any money to spend on frivolities like the Corvette," project manager Hill recalls as he stretches out in the paddock of the Road Atlanta race track in Braselton, Georgia. "There were bread-and-butter cars that needed to be replaced. Our budget was squeezed so tightly we could barely afford to run our computer tubes." Still, the team wasn't ready to give up. It began meeting off-site, cloaking its efforts in secrecy, as much to sidestep what was then a dysfunctional GM system as to avoid media scrutiny. In his book on the car's comeback, All Corvettes Are Red, author James Schefter recalls GM's clumsy attempts to codify a four-phase product development process. It "had five phases. The last of them was Phase Three."

Chevy general manager Jim Perkins, an ebullient Texan with a winning smile and a powerful handshake, ran interference. He was determined to keep the car in the Chevrolet fold, even if it meant staring down a GM auditor who was convinced that Perkins had embezzled $1 million from the company. The money had been quietly diverted to build a "mule," the handmade prototype needed to test the technology being developed for the new C5 Corvette.

"We needed the cars. It was that important," Perkins recalled in Schefter's book. He told GM's security staff at the time: "And if I have to resign my job and find a way to pay you back out of my own pocket, I'll do it." They backed down.

"It was a very hush-hush project, done in the dark of night," says Gallasch. "The guys worked day and night and finished it in 20 days." Doing it the official way might have taken close to a year. But what mattered more was the way the prototype, dubbed CERV, rode. Impressed, GM managers authorized enough money to keep R&D work going.

But in the spring of 1993 there were still plenty of challenges to overcome. The team had to build a business case based on realistic sales projections, a steady 20,000 cars year after year. Engineers were told to simplify their designs and remove unnecessary--and costly--components. They adopted a new technique called hydroforming, where water pressure, rather than million-pound presses, is used to mold metal parts. It allowed up to 24 stamped pieces to be combined into one. All in all, they cut 1,500 parts out of the C5's bin--a third of the old car's total. This not only lowered purchasing costs but simplified assembly operations and improved the odds that the car would hold together. "Think of it as 1,500 possible things that could go wrong that aren't there anymore," says quality engineer Rod Michaelson.

Quality was one of the things previous Corvette owners had complained about most. With "bulletproof" competitors such as the Acura NSX, they weren't going to tolerate any more squeaks and rattles, or the Corvette's traditional buckboard ride. The C5's suspension had to tame rough roads yet handle corners as if the car were on rails. With the sports-car market shrinking annually, Chevrolet needed to broaden the Corvette's appeal to win over new buyers, especially women.

The C5 was going to get an all-new aluminum 345-horsepower V-8 engine, more than enough to rocket it to 178 mph. But the car also had to be easier to get into and out of, friendlier to sit in and less difficult to drive at 65 mph. There had to be room inside to hide a purse and enough room in the rear for luggage. The last-generation Corvette coupe could barely squeeze in an overnight bag for one. The new convertible can store a stack of suitcases, even with the top down. The interior still needed to say "high-tech," but it had to be more user-friendly. So the flashy but difficult-to-read digital gauges were replaced with clear, bold analog readouts. Stylists came up with a variety of intriguing solutions, such as the "soft-touch" power-window buttons that blended neatly into the door fabric.

It was early 1996 when the team finally felt that it had the right package. And the bottom line was a price tag of just $250 million. For GM, it was a budget breakthrough. The numbers compared well with the competition as well. Ford Motor Co. had spent nearly three times as much to redesign the Mustang several years earlier, a project that wasn't nearly as extensive. And it meant Corvette could turn a profit even in a weak market.

By fall, the first cars were rolling off the assembly line. Reporters were invited to check them out, flogging the coupes around the Road Atlanta race course. Reviews were heavily, if not unanimously, positive. Perhaps the only serious criticism was directed at the exterior design. Corvette stylists had been pulled in two conflicting directions. They wanted to maintain some of the old car's traditional cues, such as the four round tail lamps, yet inject some of the flourishes that have come to symbolize a world-class sports car, such as the air scoops on the fifth generation's doors. The look is a bit off-balance, with a massively oversized rear end. But it's by no means an unpleasant design. And it takes only a few minutes behind the wheel for the new car to justify its existence.

Not that it has to with Joni Young, a dentist from Salem, Oregon. She's run the Route 66 rally in her '87, and she has two other Vettes and a new '98 convertible waiting when she gets home. Young has been hooked ever since she was 12, when her dad, a mechanic, pointed out the first Corvette she had ever seen. "I told him, 'That's the car I'm going to own,'" she recalls. Remembering her days as a student battling with the books, Young adds, with a wistful smile, "I kept a model on my desk. It kept me in school." When she is told that the Corvette almost went out of production, she just shakes her head. Impossible, she replies. "It's part of the myth. It goes with the show. It's part of the American Dream."

Paul Eisenstein runs The Detroit Bureau, an independent automotive news service, and publishes The Car Connection, an Internet magazine, at www.thecarconnection.com. A Brief Corvette History

The C1 (1953-1962)
The first Corvette made its debut in early 1953 at GM's then-annual Motorama show held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. It was the talk of the show, and six months later Chevrolet put the fiberglass-bodied two-seater into production. Initially, only 300 were produced, all in Polo White with Sportsman Red vinyl interiors. The big complaint? An underpowered 150-horsepower V-6. In 1955, the Vette got a small-block V-8, and demand took off.

The C2 (1963-1967)
The second-generation Vette was christened Sting Ray, and in its first year the fastback coupe came with a split rear window. The Sting Ray is the model enthusiasts often dub the most beautiful of all Corvette designs. With the engine growing larger--reaching 427 cubic inches and 425 horsepower in 1966--the Corvette became a force to reckon with on the race track.

The C3 (1968-1982)
The longest-lived design in Corvette history saw relatively few design changes. Despite a pair of oil-price shocks, demand topped 50,000 in 1977, setting an all-time record. The convertible was abandoned in 1975. Buyers had to make do with the T-top, produced since 1968. In 1981, production shifted from St. Louis to the current plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The C4 (1984-1996)
The car's swoopy curves were softened to make the car more aerodynamic, but it was still clearly a Corvette. The new model was loaded with technological updates, including a digital instrument panel and, later, antilock brakes and air bags. In 1986, the convertible returned. The "ultimate," the ZR-1, joined the lineup in the early 1990s. Dubbed the "King of the Hill," it boasted a Lotus-tuned, twin-cam V-8 churning out a blistering 375 hp. In July 1992, a year short of its 40th birthday, the millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line.

The C5 (1997-?)
The fifth-generation Vette was supposed to debut in 1993, and came within a heartbeat of being scrapped. But the new car is being hailed as a world-class competitor, and initial sales have more than met GM's expectations. For the 1997 models, only a coupe was offered. A redesigned convertible debuted with the '98 models last fall. The '98 coupe starts at $38,060 and the convertible starts at $44,990. --PE

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