By: Jerry Burton
Chevrolet often uses the Corvette to introduce new technology, features and marketing concepts. Here are a few attempts at breaking new ground that did not work out.
The original Corvette was supposedly rushed into production a scant six months after it was shown as a concept car at the 1953 General Motors Motorama. More likely, the actual decision was made at least a year or so earlier; still, this is a very short development period for a sports car. The side curtains were one of those concessions to a tight production schedule. To say the least, they leaked. Die-hard Corvette owners who tried driving their cars in the rain usually kept a coffee can nearby to bail out rain that gushed in even when the side curtains were in place.
The curtains were actually a set of see-through plastic windows with chrome frames. Posts at the lower edge were inserted into holes at the top of the door panels. The problem was, they just didn’t fit very well. They were replaced by roll-up windows in the 1956 redesign.
They seem so 1968, but the original idea had merit. These were the invention of Gordon Buehrig, who designed the original Art Deco-influenced Cord 810/812. Buehrig’s idea was to provide a convertible-like feel without having to resort to a canvas top. And in fact, T-tops quickly became so popular that they might have hastened the demise of the convertible by the mid ’70s. But T-tops later became more famous for leaking or rattling. T-Tops were replaced with a removable roof panel on the Gen Four Corvettes, a weather-tight solution that stopped the rattles.
Most Corvette enthusiasts agree that the mid-1970s were the car’s performance nadir, a result of new emissions laws that required unleaded gas. But perhaps the surest sign of the dire times was a cost-cutting move that Corvette drivers could look at every time they drove: the switch to a molded vinyl steering wheel in ‘76. Former Corvette chief engineer David McLellan wrote in his book, Corvette From the Inside, that the wheel came from the Chevy Vega compact and was ordered by a senior GM official to save money. Thankfully, the vinyl wheel lasted only one year.
The C3 Corvette was in its 15th year of production in 1982, an excessively long time for any car. While everyone knew the C4 was coming, Chevrolet had to do something to help sell the lame-duck 1982 models. That something was the Corvette Collector Edition. In a halfhearted attempt to maintain interest, Chevy added Cross-Fire throttle-body fuel injection to the 5.7-liter small-block V-8, raising total output to an underwhelming 200 horsepower – and then eliminated the manual transmission option. The exterior featured a metallic beige color and finned wheels.
By the early ‘80s, the venerable four-speed manual transmission was being supplanted by five-speed manuals, some with overdrive gears that offered better fuel economy. When the C4 Corvette debuted, a four-speed manual was standard, but later in the year, a 4+3 transmission built by Doug Nash, a supplier of racing components, with three overdrive gears became available. The gearbox was an evolution of the Borg Warner T-10 four-speed manual. The transmission was fine for normal driving, but was sensitive to the vigorous driving that Corvettes are subject to – and poor reliability and durability. According to one journalist, Hib Halverson, “The gearbox section was a pretty good piece, but the overdrive unit was a disaster.”
The car was technologically sophisticated and its performance impressive. But is this the biggest bust ever for the collector car market? It would seem that way. The “King of the Hill” Corvette was rumored for years, and when it finally burst onto the scene in 1989 it owned virtually every car magazine cover in the world. It was a genuine supercar for the era, though its 385 horsepower (later 405) produced by its Lotus-designed LT5 32-valve V-8 pales in comparison with many cars today. The ZR-1 never caught on, though; the $30,000 the ZR-1 option cost may have been the reason. Production declined and price increased, and fewer people were willing to pay for an engine option that cost almost as much as a conventional Corvette alone. Some speculators bought new ZR-1s to put in storage, expecting to be rewarded years later with huge monetary appreciation. That never happened.
Corvette Indianapolis 500 Pace Car replicas are a highly subjective thing, especially when it comes to whether you really want all the attention that parking one in your driveway might bring. The 1995 version, with its combination of a white lower body and a purple-maroon upper, was garish, but the 1998 C5 version may have topped it. Its purple-and-yellow exterior was accentuated by yellow wheels and yellow inserts in the seats. A few folks loved it, others not so much.