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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)

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.

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