The Corvette was many people’s teenage dream car, but things have changed in the automotive world so fast that it finds itself between two generations that aren’t that interested in the car. That puts Chevy’s flagship in a precarious spot, but it’s one the company might have avoided if it fully followed through with honoring the legacy of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of the Corvette.”
There have always been better sports cars than the Corvette, but that’s not the point.
My group of friends when I was a teenager were mostly car people, but we didn’t have a lot of money. I drove a Fiero GT. My cousin drove a Mustang. Other friends and cousins had Camaros, Challengers, Chargers, and an old busted BMW. My dad ran a transmission shop when I was a kid, and several other parents were either current or past mechanics, or had worked in dealerships. We couldn’t afford anything expensive, but we did have access to good tools in good garages, and added a lot of “sweat equity” to our cars.
I mention all this because we had an interesting relationship with the Corvette. Most of us saw it as the “attractive but accessible” high-end sports car. We didn’t kid ourselves about the future. We knew we weren’t likely to make it big and buy a Ferrari or Lamborghini, but a Corvette, especially used, is something that seemed obtainable. One of my cousins has one in his garage today. The rest of us probably could have bought one, but went in different directions as we grew up and had families.
As the odd one out who drove the Fiero, the Y2K teenage part of me is really excited to see the Corvette finally put the engine where it belongs — behind the driver. That’s where Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of the Corvette,” said it belonged, after seeing a race go poorly in 1957. For decades, he kept pushing GM to create a mid-engine Corvette, even building a number of prototypes. GM, on the other hand, wanted to take the “American” approach and refused to build it the way he wanted. Decades after he died, they finally did it.
Pushing for a mid-engine Corvette is far from Arkus-Duntov’s only contribution, though. He was an innovator, and was constantly pushing the Corvette into the future. Harley Earl invented the car, but Arkus-Duntov had mixed feelings about it that prompted him to write a letter to General Motors. This led to GM hiring him, and before long he was in charge of GM’s performance cars.
He was always after the best and the latest technology. He got rid of the anemic inline six (a traditional Chevy design), replacing it with a better V8 that he had massively improved. He had GM put fuel injection in the Corvette, long before most cars had it. Then, the car got 4-wheel disc brakes, instead of the common (but awful) drum brakes of the day. At one point, he was even pushing for a rotary-powered version of the car because it would have been faster.
He retired in 1975, but remained an influential voice in the Corvette world right up until his death in 1996. Decades later, with the introduction of the mid-engined 2020 Corvette, he was still on everybody’s mind, and was even mentioned at the reveal.
Don’t get me wrong, though — the C8 Corvette is an impressive design. GM is taking advantage of advances in metallurgy, suspension design, and computers are a big part of the whole car, from production to driving it. In many ways, it’s the pinnacle of Corvette design. With its two very tall overdrive gears on a dual-clutch transmission, it will likely even have the highest highway mileage of any Corvette thus far.
At the same time, though, I can’t help but wonder what Zora would think. He always wanted the latest for the Corvette. He wanted the car to have every advantage on the track — tradition be damned if it was getting in the way. If a new technology gave his car the advantage on the track, he wanted it, and (with the exception of a mid-engine layout) often got it.
If he had been around today, what would he think of electrification? I know many ICE (internal combustion engine) purists would assert that he’d prefer a Small Block V8 in his car, but he only wanted that because it was better than what had come before. My theory, with little to back it, is that he would probably have come up with something more like the NSX than what GM had come up with. He might have even leaned more toward what Tesla is doing with the new Roadster. Either way, I think he would have probably gone with whatever took the car around the track faster.
If anything, I think GM is probably doing what it’s always done: stick with tradition instead of embracing better things. It took decades for GM to abandon front-engine designs, but the company arrived at better things a day late and a dollar short. For the ICE purists, the car is no good because it abandoned tradition, and isn’t even available with a manual transmission. For younger people, at least those interested in electrification, it’s nothing new, or at least not new enough to be worth any interest.
There’s still time for GM to release more versions of the car with various levels of electrification. I just hope it doesn’t take decades for the Detroit giant to get the message and strive further into the future — after it’s entirely too late.
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