/How the Chevrolet Corvette Was Saved from Extinction—Twice

How the Chevrolet Corvette Was Saved from Extinction—Twice

Back from the brink once and again thanks to a few bold, passionate leaders.

JULY 2018 BY GARY WITZENBURG MULTIPLE PHOTOGRAPHERS  29 COMMENTS

Chevrolet’s Corvette may now be America’s sports car, but it barely survived its first few years. From its 1953 debut through that decade, it continually flirted with cancellation as its sales never rose above four figures. Yet it stayed alive—and enjoyed generally strong sales through the mid-1980s—mostly thanks to ace chief engineers Zora Arkus-Duntov and Dave McLellan.

But in 1992, when Dave Hill took over from the retiring McLellan to become the third Corvette chief engineer, Chevy’s sports car was about to be toast. With the fourth-generation C4 selling poorly and General Motors flirting with bankruptcy, the company’s brass had reluctantly canceled the next-gen C5 program to free up money for higher-volume products.

Not on my watch, thought Joe Spielman, a passionate enthusiast who was running the mid-size-car division at the time. “I just couldn’t let that happen.” He asked Chevrolet boss (and fellow enthusiast) Jim Perkins for help. Perkins met with GM president Lloyd Reuss, who told him, “We need the capital and engineering resources to do the new full-size sedan [platform]. So we can’t do Corvette.” The resources instead went toward the 1992–1999 Pontiac Bonneville, Buick LeSabre, and Oldsmobile Eighty Eight; not exactly a murderers’ row, that.

GM president Lloyd Reuss told Perkins, “We need the capital and engineering resources to do the new full-size sedan. So we can’t do Corvette.” The resources instead went toward the 1992–1999 Pontiac Bonneville, Buick LeSabre, and Oldsmobile Eighty Eight.

Desperate Times

Spielman then asked Russ McLean, director of manufacturing for GM in Mexico, to return to the States to “save the Corvette.” McLean’s responsibilities as a platform manager were similar to those of GM’s current vehicle line executives (commonly known as VLEs) and included product engineering, manufacturing/plant engineering, purchasing, quality, service parts, and finance. “When I took over in February 1992,” McLean told Car and Driver, “the C5 program was not approved. We were at the bottom of the heap on quality and customer satisfaction and [were] losing a significant amount of money on each car built.”

McLellan’s team was already working on a revolutionary replacement for the aging C4 with a longer wheelbase, a rear-mounted transaxle, and a much stiffer backbone structure. To keep that work funded and on track, Perkins clandestinely tapped his Chevrolet marketing budget.

“Jim came up with a million dollars out of his advertising budget,” Spielman says, “and I looked across the rest of my organization and found half a million here, a hundred thousand there, and put enough together to build a working mule with a new structure under the old car.” Lifting money out of his marketing budget for Spielman to keep the C5 project going was a potentially career-ending risk for Perkins, but he went back to that well twice more for a total of $2.5 million. The C5 program was on its way to being saved, but much work still needed to be done.

“We desperately needed to build a vehicle,” Hill says. And they needed it in time for the North American Strategy Board (NASB) Concept Approval meeting, just 90 days away. “We didn’t have time to do it inside the company, so we had to use an outside shop.”

The mule car was built with a hydroformed backbone structure and the rear transaxle, all disguised under a “raggedy” C4 body. “We were driving it at the Mesa, Arizona, Desert Proving Ground,” Perkins says, “and everybody was blown away with what we had. For example, when you ran over ripple strips with the old car, you got memory shake that would rattle your teeth. But the C5, even with that old C4 body on it, just settled down and—burrrr—ran over it.”

Going Aboveboard

Then Perkins got a meeting with Reuss and some other top execs and had “a nose-to-nose, heart-to-heart talk about that car and why we should continue it.” He won a grudging okay to continue development, then worked with Spielman and Hill to get as many high-level people and NASB members as possible into the mule car before the Concept Approval meeting.

Then, as Perkins recalls, when he presented the business case, “I had had our guys go back and tally up all the Corvette magazine covers we had since 1953, and it was more than 800!” He also lectured the NASB that the Corvette was the purest example of what GM and America could be proud of, “an American icon that they had no right to cancel.”

Perkins lectured board members that the Corvette was the purest example of what GM and America could be proud of, “an American icon that they had no right to cancel.”

Through a focused effort to improve the C4 Corvette’s performance, quality, customer satisfaction, and profitability, McLean’s team “earned the right to request approval for the C5 Corvette,” he says. “The C5 financial projections were 250 percent better than C4, and, as a result, no one could deny Corvette being placed back on the corporate product program. After I prepared the proposal and completed several reviews, I received C5 approval from [new CEO] Jack Smith and his executive committee.”

When the Strategy Board decision to revive the program and take it to production finally came in 1994, the U.S. car market and GM were fortunately in much better shape. That C5 Corvette turned out to be one of GM’s most successful programs of the 1990s, and the more refined and stylistically clean C6 built on that success. But when it came time to start work on the next-gen C7, GM was spiraling toward bankruptcy—again. And so the Corvette was killed one more time.

The Struggle for C7

When engineer/racer Tom Wallace succeeded the retiring Dave Hill as Corvette’s fourth chief engineer in 2005, he shared a burning desire with its first, Zora Arkus-Duntov, to do a mid-engine Corvette. He also soon realized that assistant Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter—who also wanted to explore mid-engine designs and was working on a prototype—was the technical brains behind the Corvette. “So we promoted Tadge to chief engineer, North American Corvette,” Wallace relates, “reporting to me as global chief engineer and VLE.”

But by 2008, the U.S. economy was plunging into a deep recession, vehicle sales were cratering, GM was spiraling toward insolvency, and new-vehicle programs were being reviewed, delayed, or killed. The last two on the block were the Corvette and the full-size truck, and going into the October board of directors meeting, vice chairman and head of product development Bob Lutz told Wallace, “I’ll fight to keep the new full-size truck and C7 programs, but I don’t know if I can keep Corvette.” And he couldn’t. The Corvette was dead. So Wallace took early retirement.

“I’ll fight to keep the new full-size truck and C7 programs, but I don’t know if I can keep Corvette,” Bob Lutz told Tom Wallace in 2008. And Lutz couldn’t. The Corvette was dead. So Wallace took early retirement.

But Juechter and his team kept working, even after GM declared bankruptcy in June 2009. “We were really worried about GM collapsing in a quick liquidation where we would just be shut down, and the Bowling Green plant and the tools and the brand would be sold at scrap value,” he recalls. “We even put a Corvette phone book together with home phone numbers, so if the worst did happen and everything collapsed around us, if someone wanted to buy Corvette and Bowling Green, we had a team ready to sign up and go to work.”

Participating in a conference call one day with the “task force” put together by the U.S. Treasury Department to consolidate GM manufacturing operations, Juechter was planning to advocate passionately for Corvette and its small, special plant: “We went around the room introducing ourselves, and when I introduced myself as Corvette chief engineer, one consultant said, ‘What can you tell me about C7?’—the same question we were getting from our customers. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy knows the lingo and wants to know about C7. He may get it.’ They got into our books and saw that Corvette made money, so getting going on a new one was on the to-do list coming out of bankruptcy. It was spared as an extremely valuable brand that is known globally, and the Bowling Green assembly plant was also spared.”

“When I introduced myself as Corvette chief engineer, one consultant said, ‘What can you tell me about C7?’—the same question we were getting from our customers. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy knows the lingo and wants to know about C7. He may get it.’ ” — Tadge Juechter

Yet still, as GM was emerging from its government-guided bankruptcy, nothing was happening on C7. Then Juechter saw Fritz Henderson, who had succeeded Rick Wagoner as GM CEO, on the Autoline Detroit TV program. “People were phoning in questions,” he recalls, “and one asked, ‘When are we going to get a new Corvette?’ Fritz said, ‘We’re working on one right now. We’re doing an evolutionary but major change off the C6.’ Which was wrong. He was either misinformed or wishfully thinking.”

The next day, a friend of Henderson’s who decided to buy a Corvette emailed him some questions. Henderson passed them along to Juechter for answers. Which gave Juechter the opportunity to say that he had seen Henderson on Autoline Detroit, and they were definitely not yet working on a new Corvette. Henderson responded, “Well, we’ll see about that.”

Less than a week later, direction came from GM product planning to greenlight the C7, which Juechter and his team engineered and developed into easily the best Corvette ever. With that generation preparing to ride into the sunset on the might of the beastly ZR1, the team behind America’s Sports Car soon will realize Duntov’s, Wallace’s, and their own mid-engine dreams when the C8 officially breaks cover.