A quarter-century after taking delivery of her Stingray, Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking. The title is an uncomfortable reference to the fact that people often cannot help but want desperately to wish a desired outcome into existence. Perhaps the leadership at GM has fallen prey to just such a delusion here, believing that they can have the cake of Corvette’s unique place in America’s heart while also voraciously consuming the profits that will result from slapping the badge on an electric SUV. Or maybe it’s just an April Fools’ joke, delivered too late for anyone to laugh.
It sounds like an April Fools’ article, but it isn’t: Car and Driver is reporting that the Corvette name will be applied to a “crossover”-shaped electric vehicle in about 2025. Think Tesla Model Y, or Mustang Mach-E… or, given the people involved, perhaps an odd cross between the grocery-getting Chevrolet Equinox and the decidedly unloved, apparently fire-prone Bolt EUV. It’s one of three new “Corvettes” on the way to Chevrolet dealers in the years to come; a four-door “coupe” and an all-electric sports car are the other unlikely candidates for the famous crossed-flags badge, now to be a stand-alone brand, with no internal combustion-powered option available.
No doubt the elderly, the timid, and the perpetually confused are positively champing at the bit to buy a battery-powered station wagon with big wheels and then regale social media with tales of “getting a ‘Vette.” But to those of us who have loved the authentic Corvettes through the years, this is more than a pathetic attempt to market a generic automotive box at a usefully higher price. It is both the death of an American icon and an unpleasant commentary on who we, as a nation, have become.
Now in its eighth generation across 70 years, the Corvette sports car moves with such bloodthirsty assurance and unmistakable style that one can easily forget just how close it came to extinction in the past. GM openly discussed killing the ‘Vette during the oil crunch of the ’70s, letting it languish for more than a decade in which the engines got smaller and the styling veered ever closer to self-parody. The fifth-generation car of 1997 was nearly stillborn due to cost concerns. At the same time, many of the young self-styled “marketing experts” at GM thought it should be a Cadillac. (With the Corvette-based Cadillac XLR, those experts got their wish. Predictably, it was a flop.)
By the time the 505-horsepower sixth-generation Z06 model appeared for 2006, however, few could dispute that the Corvette was more than just America’s favorite sports car; it was the one American car that could genuinely meet or exceed the foreign competition, often regardless of the much cheaper price of the American. The ‘Vette was so good at beating Porsches that I sat down with a senior GM engineer five or so years ago to ask the simple question: “Why can’t Buick or Cadillac beat Lexus or Mercedes-Benz the way you guys are humiliating the exotics? ”
His answer was instructive, and it boiled down to: “We benchmark Buick against Lexus in a hundred different measurable ways, and I think we are doing just as good a job in that regard as we are with Corvette.” What he couldn’t see was that sports-car fanatics are very different from luxury-car customers. The former will put up with flimsy plastic and a terrible dealership experience if it means they get around the track, or off the stoplight, ahead of the fellow next to them. But to the latter, the whole experience is important, and it’s not always something you can measure with a caliper or stopwatch.
The Corvette is perhaps the single automotive symbol of American culture. It is for cars what the Rockies are for topology or John Wayne is for actors or the Statue of Liberty is for statuary. For reasons of its exact calibration of price and style and brashness, its life on the screen beginning with Racing on Route 66, and a certain je ne sais quoi, from its debut, it has been the one car on which every class and genre of American could agree. Neil Armstrong owned a 1967 Corvette Sting Ray coupe, as did many other astronauts and test pilots; two years later, Didion would take delivery of what was then called a “Stingray,” without the space. Corvette gatherings take place in parking lots otherwise devoted to Giants, both of the New York and San Francisco variety, and in every Midwestern town between. While there is a certain stereotype that attaches to the car’s owners — think middle-aged, New Balance sneakers, an unhealthy fascination with the arcane arts of leather and paint preservation — the next Corvette driver you meet could be an 80-year-old widow or a 22-year-old soldier.
Much ink and celluloid are consumed in recounting the brief triumphs of Ford over Ferrari in international sports-car competition; the dominance of the Corvette at Le Mans and elsewhere since the mid-’90s has been a few orders of magnitude greater. The car has such a fanatical following in Europe that an entirely separate version of it, unavailable to Americans, is prepared and sold for racing by a fellow named Reeves Callaway, who is also well-known for turbocharging and restyling the fourth-generation cars into 200-mpg sledgehammers.
Any trip to the famed Nurburgring road course in Germany will reveal several Corvettes owned by Germans who yearn for stateside ownership of a Chevrolet the same way Porsche Club of America nerds in the early ’80s would complain about not getting the turbocharged 911 in local dealerships thanks to an overprotective EPA. Back home, a Corvette carried the famous “3” livery in 2001 for the 24 Hours of Daytona, driven by Dale Earnhardts both senior and junior.
The Corvette has many sterling qualities, but foremost among them is this: In a world where branding is a chimeric and slippery proposition, the sports car from Chevrolet has not wavered from its core mission since the Eisenhower administration. A Porsche may be anything from a glorified four-cylinder shopping trolley to a million-plus-dollar hybrid supercar, a Mustang could be a Pinto-based compact or a blobular four-door with an umbilical charging cord, but from day one, a Corvette has always been a sports car, and sporting a base price within the dreams, if not the reality, of our working class. A $250,000 Corvette would not be a Corvette any more than would a pickup truck.
Goodbye to all that. Following a brief period of renewed glory led by contrarian former BMW and Chrysler executive Bob Lutz, the mediocre mandarins of General Motors have set themselves in the post-bailout era to tirelessly chewing, locustlike, through the last remnants of public esteem and goodwill available to them. We have Chinese Buicks, pickup trucks branded as “High Country Silverado” that are made in Mexican assembly plants, billion-dollar boondoggle electric vehicles that must be limited to 80% of their available battery capacity lest they burn down the house in which they are stored, and, finally, this careless slap to the face of nearly everyone who cared about GM’s last untarnished nameplate.
Jack Baruth was born in Brooklyn and lives in Ohio. He is a pro-am race car driver and former columnist for Road & Track and Hagerty magazines who writes the Avoidable Contact Forever newsletter.