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Chevy's icon stays the course

The Corvette has been tweaked over its 50 years, but it never veers from the accessible sports car concept that has made it a popular and distinctive brand.

June 18, 2003|Rick Popely and Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

In an industry known for changing its mind more often than a politician running for reelection, the Chevrolet Corvette has steered the same course for 50 years, becoming one of the world's most recognizable automobiles.

Whether it's the original 1953 roadster, a 1963 Sting Ray split-window coupe or a 1993 ZR-1, most people instantly know it's a Corvette.

Only a handful of other model names have survived longer, among them the Chevrolet Suburban, which dates to 1935, and the Cadillac DeVille, which arrived in 1949.

Scores of other cars have disappeared or morphed into something else, while Corvette has stayed true to its roots as a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive sports car.

Corvette has cruised through two fuel crises, survived attacks by safety advocates and the insurance industry and outlasted a procession of domestic and foreign rivals.

Ford followed Corvette with the 1955 Thunderbird, which soon took a different route. Within three years the Thunderbird grew from two seats to four to broaden its appeal, and later added four doors. Eventually the only link to the original was the name.

Ford resurrected the Thunderbird roadster in 2001 as a luxury cruiser, but sales failed to meet expectations, and the car is destined to retire again in a few years.

Corvette, meanwhile, rolls along as an automotive icon. Chevrolet built the 1 millionth 'Vette in 1993 and will unveil the sixth generation in January at the Detroit Auto Show.

"There are three things that keep Corvette alive after 50 years," said Dave Hill, the Corvette's chief engineer since 1992. "One is value. Corvette still has outstanding value for what you get. The others are its tremendous performance and a passionate design that is timeless. It doesn't wear out quickly."

Since its inception, it has been a blue-collar Ferrari, priced well above run-of-the-mill Chevrolets. It is within reach of the modestly affluent, yet alluring enough to appeal to the very rich.

"We have owners who have worked a lifetime to be able to afford a Corvette, and we have those who can afford to buy anything they want," Hill said.

Base price for the 2003 Corvette coupe is about $44,000. The "extreme performance" Z06 is $52,000 versus $81,000 for the Dodge Viper, its main domestic rival. Hill said Chevrolet has no plans to move into Viper price territory with the next generation, expected next year as a 2005 model.

"When we introduced the Z06 in 2001, we forecast it would be about 15% of sales, but it has turned out to be 25%" of Corvette sales, Hill said. "People who want the best are willing to pay more, but we're not going to get giddy and really move the price up because of that."

One concern is volume. Jacking up the price would put the car out of the reach of more buyers and make it harder to justify Corvette, which has sold 30,000 to 34,000 units in each of the last four years.

Another reason for the price ceiling on Corvette is that the sixth generation, internally designated C6, will share major engineering features with the upcoming Cadillac XLR, a $76,000 two-seat roadster. Maintaining a significant price gap makes it less likely that one will steal sales from the other, what the industry calls cannibalizing.

The 2005 Corvette will share its basic design with the XLR to reduce costs and generate higher volume from the same platform. That idea was kicked around as a cost-saving measure more than 20 years ago, when John DeLorean was in charge of Chevrolet.

"DeLorean tried to find a joint platform to build the 'Vette on and suggested the 'Vette, Camaro and Firebird be built off the same platform," recalled Dave McClellan, Corvette's chief engineer from 1975 until he retired in 1992. "But they were different and distinct cars that didn't meld together and his idea didn't work, and it never happened."

Long before then, when Ford bulked up Thunderbird to a four-passenger car in the quest for more volume and profit, some within GM suggested similar treatment for the Corvette. GM even showed a four-seat Corvette Impala coupe concept car in 1956.

However, McClellan said, GM's top management recognized Corvette's role as a "halo" sports car that cast a glow over the rest of Chevrolet's lineup and rejected ideas to make it more mainstream.

"No one gave us a hard time because they recognized that low volume and a limited audience was a given, that this wasn't a Cavalier for heaven's sake, that it was meant for sales of 25,000 to 40,000 annually and not 1 million units," McClellan said.

"As for profit, oh, yeah, they complained about that, but the only way to solve the profit problem was to cut cost or raise the price. So over the years, we raised the price and that settled down complaints about profit by a bit."

GM unveiled the Corvette at its 1953 Motorama, a traveling display of dream cars and technology, and the racy-looking roadster with a toothy grille and fiberglass body received rave reviews.

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