Since 1953, the fire-breathing Corvette has been a firm root in the General Motors family tree. Even though it doesn't sell all that well, the 'Vette occupies a sacred niche at the company that nobody questions. But they should, because its time has come and gone. If there was ever a time to wave goodbye to this relic of the muscle car era, this is it -- as GM considers the new C7 model and announces a more than $130 million investment in the Corvette's Kentucky factory.
GM's future is with fuel-efficient cars that establish a new forward-thinking global tradition for the company, not with retro rockets that mine its past with ever-diminishing results. It's great that GM's recovering, but it's doing so largely on the basis of new compacts like the Cruze, which are finally competitive with small cars from the rest of the world. How does the Corvette fit into that future?
A niche car, always
In 2011, Chevrolet hopes to sell 20,000 Corvettes, but it sold just 12,194 in 2010. The peak year was way back in 1979, when 53,000 were produced, and the numbers have been declining since 2007. It's a car many people admire, and car magazines gush over endlessly, but -- year after year -- it hardly makes a dent in the showrooms. It's less than one percent of GM's annual sales, and the company sells fewer 'Vettes in a year than it moves Cruzes in a month.
Why? Because the Corvette, with room for two and barely enough storage space for an overnight bag, is completely impractical for anything other than breaking traffic laws and showing off.
I know what you're going to say: The Corvette is an icon, the longest-running U.S. nameplate, an American Ferrari. In the high-performance ZR-1, GM has a $100,000 prestige car that beats the Italians at their own game. The small sales don't matter, because the Corvette is priceless to GM in terms of enhancing Chevrolet's brand image, building excitement, yadda, yadda.
But the V-8-powered, rear-drive Corvette is a symbol of the old GM, the company of former vice chairman Bob Lutz, who never met a muscle car he didn't like (I know he championed the Chevy Volt, but read his new book). The Corvette, despite its techie aura, looks back, when all of GM's time and attention should be focused forward on building 40-mpg cars that people will want to buy.
Don't touch the formula, or else
Early reports are that the 2013 C7 will be no big departure from the lusty 18-mpg combined gas guzzler GM produces now. The smart thing to do would be to monkey with the format to improve that dismal fuel economy -- front-wheel drive! A V-6! There's been talk of just such innovations, including a mid-engine layout, a smaller car based on the defunct Pontiac Solstice chassis, and even that sacrilegious V-6 (albeit with twin turbos, as in the ultra-high-performance Callaway 'Vettes.)
But in the end GM knows it's dealing with the heavy hand of tradition here, and any format change would bring the 'Vette loyalists down on its head. The car won't change much, and may even feature a split rear window, in a homage to the '63 Sting Ray -- very nostalgic.
GM's Kentucky investment is a big gamble
GM on Wednesday authorized a $131 million investment at the Bowling Green, Kentucky factory that has long made the Corvette. It's happy that $7.5 million in state incentives come with that, but that's still a huge bet on a car that's never going to be any kind of profit center. GM once had 1,000 employees in Bowling Green, but a wave of layoffs beginning in 2008 cut that number in half -- downsizing that reflects not only the recession but a drop in Corvette demand.
GM has no plans to deep-six the Corvette, and I'm likely to draw outraged responses for even suggesting that this star-spangled heartbeat of America should be in museums, not showrooms. And, hey, I'd love to own one -- make it a '57 convertible with a four-speed floor shift, please. I already own a '63 Dodge Dart ragtop, and it's a lot of fun. But I'm sure it doesn't point the way forward for Chrysler.