The current Corvette debuted in 2005. Above, the 2006 Corvette Z06 on Woolsey… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
As he prepared to unveil the seventh-generation Corvette this weekend — an event akin to the naming of a new pope in the sports-car world — General Motors executive Mark Reuss told a story familiar to legions of Corvette faithful over six decades of production.
Reuss coveted the car as a teenager, back when the 'Vette versus Porsche debate ignited the same fury as disco versus rock. He bought one in his 20s, a used silver 1969 model with a big-block 427 engine, and took his future wife on their first date. Then he married and sold the two-seater to make room for a family.
Such nostalgia is pervasive among Corvette buyers. The car's heritage means even more to GM as it attempts to rebound from the bailout-and-bankruptcy era.
PHOTOS: Six generations of the Corvette
In a once-a-decade event, Chevrolet will unveil the redesigned 2014 Corvette on Sunday night at a preview to next week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. As with every 'Vette since 1953, the new model will serve as the standard bearer of the brand's engineering, a laboratory for technology that trickles down to mainstream models. The dynamic extends to marketing, as the Corvette embodies the soul of the brand, the aspirational "halo" car that GM hopes will rub off on perceptions of its entire lineup.
"When you see a Corvette in a showroom, most know that Chevrolet embodies performance, value and is unapologetically American," said Reuss, president of GM's North American operations.
Corvette redesigns have historically boosted sales of the sports cars, often by 50% or more. But some question how much a new Corvette can do to shore up Chevrolet's sagging U.S. market share.
"The negative is that, in the minds of Corvette owners, it is a Corvette before it is a Chevy," said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. "It is not like you go look at the Corvette and walk out with a Cruze. If they took the money they spent on Corvette development and spent it on a couple of marketing campaigns, they would get more bang for their buck."
Others aren't so quick to write off the premium sports car's benefit to the larger brand. Larry Dominique, former vice president of product planning at Nissan, saw marketing benefits in play from the Japanese automaker's series of Z sports cars. Consumers believed that Nissan's other vehicles shared the same DNA, which the company underscored in pitching its Maxima as the "four-door sports car."
"There is an awareness and consumer draw," Dominique said. "That's why Chevy dealers put the Corvette on the turntable out front."
The Corvette has often served as a barometer of the company's fortunes. Many view the mid-1960s Sting Ray version as a golden era of the 'Vette's might and sex appeal, a tangible representation of GM's corporate power.
A decade later — after GM got caught flat-footed by the oil crisis — the Corvette morphed into a sports car for posers, poorly built and agonizingly slow.
As a premium car, the Corvette naturally sells in low volumes, particularly through the battered economy of recent years, when sales plummeted from more than 40,000 in 2007 to less than 12,000 last year.
Even in good years, Corvette sells as many copies in a year as Toyota's Camry sometimes sells in a month.
But the economy is on the mend, and whatever the Corvette does for the larger Chevrolet and GM brands, the car will turn a substantial profit on its own, Reuss assured.
"This makes as much money as any of the top-profit models in our company," Reuss said. "That is why we do it."
Even as GM works to make Chevrolet more of a global brand, the Corvette remains an American affair.
"From a business case, the car is done for North America first," Reuss said. "Anything else that happens because we made a fundamentally sound car is extra benefit."
Reuss also hopes to speed up the timeline for Corvette redesigns, which have averaged nine years and once stretched to 15 years. The current Corvette debuted in 2005. Corvette fans, he said, won't have to wait so long for the next version.
"We went through an obviously distressed time as a company, and it is hard to do everything all at once. This was one of the cars that a little more time didn't hurt it," Reuss said. "But expect the cycle time to decrease now."
A rival to Porsche
General Motors developed the car in the early 1950s as America's answer to the graceful European roadsters of the age. It made only 300 in the first year.
But the car gained notice for its lightweight fiberglass body, round tail lamps, symmetric cockpit and distinctive tail. As its engines and performance improved in later years, it went head-to-head against the European marques.
"When you ask people to name their favorite sports car, it's usually a tossup between Porsche and Corvette," said Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum.
There's little crossover among loyalists of the German and American coupes.