This past 18 July I woke up at 3.15 in the morning to drive to Tustin, California, home to two of the largest free-standing wooden structures in the world. They stand 17 storeys tall, are 1000ft long and cover about seven acres of enclosed space. They were built after the attack on Pearl Harbor as hangars for blimps, or LTAs (‘Lighter Than Aircraft’) as the Navy called them. These airships were used to patrol the California coast, looking for enemy submarines. The hangars were built entirely out of wood because steel was in short supply during the war.
I was invited to this historic site because the new mid-engined Corvette was to be unveiled here. The official unveiling was going to be happening 13 hours in the future, but I was given the honour of being the first person to get behind the wheel of this ground-breaking new car. It really is ground-breaking for a number of reasons. Number one is the price, starting below $60,000.
Like most people, I have envisioned that Corvette would become a brand in itself, with a number of cars in its line-up. We have just assumed that General Motors would continue to make an entry-level, traditional Corvette with a front engine and that a mid-engined C8 would be its high-end supercar. After all, isn’t that what most manufacturers do?
Most manufacturers are afraid of alienating their fan base, so they keep making a new version of the same thing over and over. Think Harley Davidson and Porsche, for example. The shock of the new is not something most traditional car enthusiasts crave. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I like progress; it’s change I don’t like. Anyway, we were wrong. It’s going to be mid-engined or nothing. I immediately assumed, given the price point, that it would have some sort of torque-converter automatic transmission, with the usual excuse of ‘we did it because it’s lighter in weight’. But no, the transmission is bespoke and it’s a dual-clutch, just like the big boys have. And if you pull both paddles simultaneously you can rev the engine and dump the clutch.
One feature that I love, and as far as I know nobody else has in such sophisticated form, is a front-end lift which has a GPS connection, and you can programme up to, literally, 1000 different locations to lift the front end automatically as you approach. How cool is that?
My favourite thing about this Corvette launch was that everybody I spoke to, including the CEO, Mary Barra, is an engineer. Hers was a degree in electrical engineering. Mark Reuss, the president of General Motors, has a degree in mechanical engineering and is also head of the performance division. He’s been driving and testing the C8 from the beginning, and not just on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. On the Nürburgring, too.
Talking with executive chief engineer Tadge Juechter and chief Corvette engineer Ed Piatek is like hanging around with your car buddies in Cars ’n’ Coffee. The only difference is that these guys actually know what they’re talking about. There were no marketing guys or PR people listening in over their shoulders, ready to jump in and correct some ‘mis-statement’. Another cool feature they’re very excited about is the electronically adjustable braking. Chevy calls it ‘eBoost’ braking. The driver can adjust the brake feel depending on what mode the car is in. It also saves space and weight by combining the master cylinder, vacuum booster, vacuum pump and electronic brake module all into one unit.
Something I find truly fascinating is that with a normally aspirated 495bhp engine, this C8 is quicker to 60mph than last year’s top-of-the-line, 775bhp, supercharged ZR1. How is that possible? Once again, by some very clever engineering. In the old days it would have been done with cubic inches and massive amounts of brute horsepower. This time it was done with science and engineering. Moving the driver six-and-a-half inches forward and putting the engine behind him/her helps, as well as all-new suspension. Gone are the transverse leaf springs of old (albeit made of high-tech composite in later years), replaced with coil springs. Combine that with the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and some cutting-edge Michelin tyres, and you have an extremely sophisticated sports car to rival the best of Europe’s at a third of the price.
The last time GM moved the engine behind the driver, it was called the Corvair and was considered the most European car America had ever produced. GM is taking a big risk by bucking tradition with this C8. Among the Corvette faithful it has really upset the apple cart. Oh, and the top comes off too. So, how do you like them apples? Is there still Corvette in their cores?
‘GM IS TAKING A RISK WITH THIS C8. AMONG THE CORVETTE FAITHFUL IT HAS REALLY UPSET THE APPLE CART’