Corvette History

Auction season is in full swing with Paris’s Le Grand Palais being just one of the latest. As always with these events the cars combine rarity and beauty along with eye-popping prices. I have one simple strategy when it comes to any kind of auction – don’t! It really doesn’t matter too much what is being auctioned and, what’s more, they’re all pretty much above my pay grade!

That said, here’s my choice from the line up at Le Grand Palais.

Citroen DS21 1968 Citroen DS21

At an estimated $190,000+, this is probably the cheapest car at the auction and I still couldn’t afford it! Oozing all of the Gallic charm it can muster, the DS series was iconic of Citroen. I remember ads on TV declaring “Citroen DS for the sheer joy of driving.” a captivating idea that stays with me even now. Driving – just for sheer pleasure. Years later my first real car was a Citroen Xantia, direct descendent of the DS series and a car enjoyed by both myself and my wife.

Jag D-Type1955 Jaguar D Type

As a British lad, how could I not be entranced by Jaguar who have produced some of the most beautiful and highest performing cars in the history of the automobile. The D-Type brought innovation in chassis design and was one of the most successful sports cars in Jaguar history winning the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1955, 1956 and 1957. Look at those curves! Estimated price? An eye-watering $5-6 million. Continue reading

I just received the latest copy of Vette magazine and it was nice to see a multi-page feature on the C4 generation of Corvette, including (of course!) the legendary ZR-1. There’s scant coverage of the C4 these days and it sometimes feels as if I own “The Corvette That Time Forgot.”

The article discusses the history of the C4 including the reintroduction of the convertible in 1986, certainly a momentous event. However Vette mistakenly says that Dave McLelland designed the C4 vette with a convertible in mind and due to this, minimal changes were needed to encompass the roofless model. This doesn’t line-up with Dave’s own account in his book “Corvette From the Inside.” The real story is even more amazing. Continue reading

The big hot topic at the moment is the imminent arrival of the new ZR1. 6.2 liters, supercharged, 600bhp: what’s not to like? (Well if I were to be churlish I could say the fact that it’s still a wide-mouthed grinning frog C6!) Seriously though, there is a lot of technology in this car and a lot to admire about it (though the cheesy see-through hood does smack of an 11-year-old chief designer with a ‘Hot Wheels’ fixation).

Grinning frogs

Many owners of the older LT5 ZR-1 have given the car a lacklustre reception – myself included – after all we owe allegiance to the older ‘King’. Some have been pleased because they feel it will shine more of a spotlight on the special quality (and value) of the 90s car and many others have welcomed it as a sign that GM still loves the older cars and respects their position in history.

Sadly, I feel that the latter idea calls for more suspension of disbelief than I can honestly muster.

The new ZR1 and the older ZR-1 (careful with that hyphen!) have no real commonality, certainly not in terms of parts, but not even one of philosophy either.

The LT5 ZR-1 was a tour de force in engineering, the engine design – a masterpiece of mechanical efficiency and finesse born out of a maelstrom of blood, sweat and engineers’ tears. And not just the engine: the body work on the car was completely re-engineered from the doors back to give room for the extra wide tires. This wasn’t just the simplistic bolt-on wheel flares/body-coloured spoiler affair but a complete (and subtle) re-working of the entire vehicle. The transmission was selected from the best available rather than slapping in yet another GM off-the-shelf part originally intended for a granny-wagon. The tires were specially designed and constructed by Goodyear. It was, and is, an automotive work-of-art.

The new ZR1? Slap in a supercharger, rivet/glue on a couple of flairs and a tail spoiler, change out the ‘gills’. No one struggled to get this car off the block; no one did anything clever to make it happen. The only real question was – what’s the cheapest way to make even more power? GM has built this car for one reason and one reason only – they have learned that they sell every single Corvette they make. It’s the ultimate cash-cow for them.

And that, right there, to me is the big problem – not just with the new ZR1, but with pretty much every car that has been coming out of ‘Detroit’ since the 90s: the single biggest emphasis has been more and more power – to the point where the ZR1 (sans hyphen)  is beyond anything really practical for the street.

It’s a strange position perhaps, coming from a person who owns one of the legendary all-time fastest vettes around (180+ is NOT slow), that cars can have too much power, too much speed. But it’s not as incongruous as it first seems.

When the ZR-1 came out and I read all about the engine and the power, it undoubtedly tweaked my youthful testosterone strings. But that wasn’t the whole story. I was lapping up the stories of these, simply beautiful, cars grand touring all day through winding mountain roads. And in among all of this was the amazing fact that this car was not only powerful and extremely fast, but also efficient. As recalled in the ‘Heart of the Beast’ by Anthony Young, when Bob Schultz, General Manager, was informed that the LT5 met the new ‘gas guzzler’ tax, he responded, “You’re telling me we’ve got a 400 horsepower engine that can meet gas guzzler, and we’ve got a 245hp engine that can’t?”

Power. With efficiency. A completely different and infinitely more sophisticated approach than is usually the case in US car manufacturing. That was why I loved the car so much. There is an inherent beauty, a technological harmony present in something that is efficient, over and above any notion of sheer power. It’s the difference between a brawler and a master of the martial arts, or a hoodlum with a machete versus a graduate from Domenico Angelo’s l’Ecole d’Armes.

Making power has never been that hard. Auto-engineers have known how to do that since the very early days. The simplest way? Just make it bigger. This in fact was the ‘prime directive’ all the way up until the 70s and that was precisely what GM and every other manufacturer did. It wasn’t particularly clever; it didn’t have a lot of finesse. The maxim was simple: “there ain’t no substitute for cubic inches”. Sadly we seem to have been left with the legacy of this mentality even now, nearly forty years later.

It seems that nothing was learned from those black days of gas station line-ups and rationing. As soon as the artificially-inflated gas prices settled back down, what did Detroit do? They went back to the old ways of pumping out cars that were bigger, fatter, more powerful and less efficient.

Take the Corvette as an example. According to the standard testing procedures a base model 1990 Corvette made 16/25 mpg (19 combined), while a 2008 model gets 15/25 (18 combined). This is even using the new ‘cooked’ formula by the EPA designed to make the efficiency ratings look better. So the fuel efficiency of the Corvette has actually decreased (the 1990 ZR-1 was even more efficient) while the need for said efficiency has increased. Would anyone care to suggest that our oil supplies are somehow higher now than they were 30 years ago? That global climate change is less of a problem?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Performance. That same 1990 Corvette made 245bhp; the 2008 base model makes 430bhp. Slice it anyway you like: that looks like a 70 percent rise in power to me. (looking at fuel consumption figures for all vehicles Bezdek and Wendling showed, in a recent study for American Scientist, that average fuel economy for all new vehicles has declined from 26.2 mpg in 1987 to 24.7 mpg in 2004 – so the 6% drop is across the board.)

So a 6% fuel efficiency decrease, coupled to a 75 percent power increase. That certainly seems clear to me where GM’s priorities have been. Remember too, that’s the base model; if you look at the Z06s and the new ZR1 these figures will look even worse. Also worth noting; these fuel economy figures are in a vehicle now approximately 500kg lighter – making them even more unpalatable.

Look too at the LT5 engine in the ZR-1. In ’93 Lotus reworked the engine to produce 405bhp. It still made the same mileage but the power differential between that engine and the new base model is only 6%. What’s more, Lotus also had a 450bhp engine in the wings ready to go. GM essentially threw away a highly efficient engine design in favour of a ‘Billy Bob’ special.

With the new fuel economy regulations that the US will introduce – 35mpg (by the rather laughable target year of 2020) – it seems likely that the Corvette in its current form will not survive. There is much talk about reducing power but lightening the car to retain comparable performance. All of which could have been done twenty years ago. And if GM and the other car manufacturers can find a way of getting round the new regulations, they will. One look at the exemption on the old CAFE standards for trucks – the most populous vehicles on our roads -shows just how cynical Detroit is about such things.

GM has now to all practical purposes abandoned the old ZR-1. They support their flagship vehicle of just 17 years ago not one iota. Despite people paying the highest prices ever for a GM vehicle (taking inflation into account) they have thrown the owners to curb. The people who do own them, who should be some of GMs biggest supporters, are instead its biggest critics.

And as for the new ZR1 itself? It seems probable that it, like its earlier somewhat namesake, will have a short life. It is being pitched once again as an exclusive, high-priced vehicle for the elite with lots of money. The result seems obvious to me even now, before the car goes on sale. But as my favourite author, Robert Heinlein, once said: “If the lessons of history teach us anything – it’s that nobody learns the lessons that history teaches us.”

The latest copy of ‘Corvette’ magazine has a feature on the ZR-1 and exploring its demise in the kind of derogatory tones that I’ve gotten used to seeing quoted in far too many places.

The resounding idea from the article is that the car’s engine, the mighty LT-5, was too expensive and that it became obsolete and unnecessary because good ol’ Yankee ingenuity made the aging small-block Chevrolet almost its equal.

As an example of this, it tells the story of how the GM engineers developed reverse-flow cooling systems for the small-block that allowed them to create more power from the engine without the heads melting.

Traditionally, engine cooling feeds cool water from the radiator in at the bottom of the engine, this works its way up and the hot water is sucked out of the top. Hot water naturally rises, aiding the flow and all is well.

Except, by the time the water gets to the cylinder heads (the area most in need of cooling as that’s where combustion takes place) the water has been heated in its journey through the rest of the engine block, making the cooling effect less effective and constraining the power levels achievable.

With reverse-flow, as you might imagine, the cool water is introduced at the top through the heads where it can be most effective and is forced down by pressure, where it is removed at the bottom. This gives more cooling up top and allows more heat (power) to be generated without having to suffer lots of unpleasant things such as detonation or combustion chamber meltdown.

A great refinement. Good engineering. A deft solution to an old and stubborn problem.

Perfected by Lotus engineering on the development of the LT-5.

Continue reading

This story starts over thirty years ago when, at the age of around seven, my parents bought me an assortment of ‘Matchbox’ cars. In among the typical boxy british stalwarts such as Minis and Ford Escorts, was a shape unlike any car I had seen in my then short life.

It was smooth and swoopy in appearance, with flared wheel arches and a sweeping back window. Painted in black and silver, it had a menacing – even threatening – anamalistic apearance. It was simultaneously, the car from Hell and the car of my dreams.

The vehicle in question turned out to be the Mako Shark II, which was the show car used by General Motors to promote the release of the new third generation Corvette. Inspired by an actual shark caught by then head ‘vette designer Bill Mitchell, the car was a massive styling tour de force, though many features proved completely impractical.

The release of the C3 Corvette unhappily coincided with a time of trouble for car owners generally, but especially owners of high performance cars like the ‘vette. With the fictitious ‘gas crisis’ looming and increasing safety legislation, the engineers scrambled to keep pace with fuel efficiency and safety standards. This led to the ‘sharks’ being progressively detuned & increasingly heavy, both on the scales and in looks as a variety of ‘soft bumpers’ gorged the once clean lines.

In 1984 came a new animal. The C4 Corvette did away with all the legacy technology that had hampered the earlier generation, much of which was 30 years old by the time the design was finally retired. The new car was sleek, nimble and looked like a car of the future, while still retaining a supple lithe quality that said unmistakably ‘Corvette’. Though the cars had no better engines than the late ’70s/early 80s models, that was about to change.

First came the L-98 small block in ’85. This delivered an honest 230hp, an increase of of 25 and 330lbs of torque! Almost on a par with the good old days of the muscle car era.

In 1990, the world-wide motoring press exploded with the arrival of the new ZR-1 ‘option’. This gave the Corvette an all-aluminium, quad overhead cam engine delivering 375bhp and 370lbs of torque. The biggest power increase since the introduction of the big block engine in 1965.

Not only that but with a new gearbox and newly refined handling, the new ‘King of the Hill’ could take on, and beat, some of the best amd most exotic of its European rivals that cost three or four times as much. A true world-class supercar at a bargain price.

I was hooked.