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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 2)

"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.


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