I must confess that for years I had trouble accepting the Corvette. Sure, I knew it was the only car made in America that could justifiably be called a sports car, and that it offered flashy acceleration that rivaled a Ferrari's at one-third the cost. Sure, I knew that every 17-year-old male in the nation would trade a weekend in Maui with his prom queen for equal time at the wheel of one. And sure, I knew that the Corvette was one of the most famous automotive brands in history. But I still had a lot of trouble lusting after this all-American automotive icon.
Perhaps it can be traced back to 1957, when I discovered that the upstart machine with its brutish V-8 could suck the headlights out of my father's twin- cam, very thoroughbred Jaguar XK120. The outrage of it, a car from the Midwest made out of plastic humbling all that hand-formed aluminum and traditional British craftsmanship. Was nothing sacred?
The Corvette struck me as low rent -- too brash and proletarian to deserve an elevated status. My misgivings, along with those of other purists of the day, were swept away in a tide of enthusiasm for the Corvette, but only after an agonizingly slow start.
The Corvette was introduced in 1953 with three memorable components -- a fiberglass two-seat body, an automatic Powerglide transmission and Chevrolet's tepid Blue Flame inline six-cylinder engine. The flabby performance offered by the last two components, further handicapped by the prodigious weight of the body, made the early Corvettes bad jokes in the world of sports cars.
Sales were so dismal that the car was nearly taken off the market in 1955. Then new life came with the Chevrolet "small-block" V-8, which by 1957 had been fitted with fuel injection and generated an impressive 283 hp (the same basic engine remains in the car today, 30 years later).
The car possessed enormous straight-line speed but was blighted by primitive road manners. A rocket ship on the drag strip, it was; a Formula One car on the road course, it wasn't. But for all its failings as a sophisticated sports car, the Corvette was nevertheless purely American -- noisy, bulging with confidence and bordering on the gauche. Moreover, it was a booming success for the Chevrolet Division of General Motors and operated not only as a profit center but also as a performance symbol around which more mundane machines could be marketed.
By 1983, the aging critics of the 'Vette, who had been carping about its sloppy road manners and overblown styling, were driven into hiding by a world-class version of the car. The new Corvette, sold as a 1984 model, was created by a small, devoted staff of sports-car enthusiasts at Chevrolet who totally redesigned the car. Its new all-independent suspension gave the car cornering powers equal to or better than anything from Porsche or Ferrari. Its four-wheel disc brakes were enormously capable, and its lightweight, fuel-injected, 5.7-liter V-8 engine generated gobs of power and torque. Better yet, the specially constructed Chevrolet manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Ky., was devoted solely to Corvette production. Claims were made that the sometimes spotty quality of manufacturing would be upgraded to match the car's engineering excellence.
Even skeptics like myself were impressed. America had at last produced an automobile that could match the world's best. In the first 18 months of production, 51,547 of the new, rakish, understated beauties hit the streets. During the 1985 model year, 39,729 Corvettes passed into the hands of eager customers, all of whom unloaded more than $25,000 for what had become one of the most desirable sports cars in history. That was 1985.
Two years later, the sales situation is quite different. It came to me a few days ago, when I was passing one of those immense Chevrolet dealerships that look like crosses between the Parthenon and the Kennedy Center. Out front were 20 Corvettes. Twenty of America's favorite sports cars lined up like a pack of leftover Chevettes.
I checked inside with a young, fresh-faced salesman in a nicely cut gray worsted suit. He said Corvette business was slow. "General market conditions," he offered. He could do me a terrific deal on a new '88. In fact, I could be the proud owner of a loaded Corvette for $24,000 -- nearly $4,000 below the sticker price.
The current supply to the dealer network is 155 days (60 days of inventory is considered proper), which means that three times as many Corvettes are sitting around in dealer lots as there are potential buyers. This is not the fault of the automobile, which remains a very sophisticated package. It is the fault of mindless overproduction, an endemic Detroit weakness. High- quality, limited-production prestige cars should always be in short supply. But from 1953 through 1987, Chevrolet sold 882,527 Corvettes. Exclusivity is a critical component of the joy of ownership, and that cannot be maintained when the market is glutted.
Porsche, another high-marque sports car, is also selling slowly and the company announced two months ago it would cut back production. Chevrolet management followed suit a few weeks ago, but I wonder if a lesson has been learned. The tactic in Detroit always is to overproduce, forcing cars on dealers who then end up with overloaded inventories that must be sold at discount prices. That may work with overstocked Cavaliers and Celebrities, but the Corvette ought to be exempt from such tactics. After all, when was the last time you saw a "sale" sign at a Ferrari dealership? ::