James R. Healey, USA TODAY
DETROIT - The Chevrolet Corvette is 60 years old this week, and that's a miracle. Many miracles, in fact.
The iconic American sports car has survived a troubled birth, quality problems and development delays. it has overcome threats from recessions and regulations. And it has outlasted waffling by Chevy parent General Motors over whether such a car should exist at all.
It appears, through all that, to have become younger than ever.
After a few VIP sneak peeks in the past weeks, Chevy unveiled the 2014 Corvette Sunday night? at a reception here for an estimated 2,000 reporters, editors, Corvette buffs and auto insiders. In a melee almost extinct from modern auto unveilings, the car was greeted with fierce applause and shouts of approval and, once executives were done talking, a rush to get near the car onstage.
The new car is a radical, high-tech overhaul of an already exotic machine, and makes its offical debut Monday at the first media-preview day for the Detroit's North American International Auto Show.
The redesigned sports car is the seventh-generation Corvette, the so-called C7, and Chevy is reviving, for the base model, the Stingray name first used on a 1959 race car, then on the radically redone 1963 Corvette.
More than an exotic indulgence by an automaker rescued from ruin by U.S. taxpayers, Corvette is an international symbol of GM's status as a top-tier automaker - the kind of credibility that GM needs as it continues to rebound from its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization.
"A company like General Motors has to have a car like that. A world-class manufacturer has to have a sports car," says Bill Warner, a businessman who founded The Amelia Island Concours d' Elegance classic car show in Florida in 1996. Warner also is a veteran racer, auto journalist and car hobbyist, who got a peek at the C7 before the unveiling.
At its best, the Corvette provides "a sense of pride" for Chevy, GM and the U.S , a message that "America can still achieve, do great things with technology," says Craig Jackson, whose Barrett-Jackson auction will sell the first C7 for charity on Saturday. "It's a leader for GM, using technology that trickles down through the other cars."
Indeed, "There's a little Corvette in every Chevy," former Chevrolet chief Jim Perkins used to say. He ran the brand for seven years, starting in 1989, and spent a fair amount of his time fighting for Corvette's place in GM's and Chevy's budgets.
Corvette, named for a small, fast warship, "is incredibly important to GM. It is a halo car. It gives you a thrill to drive; people look, they wave," says Martyn Schorr, longtime Corvette buff, owner of a 2007 C6 Vette and founder in the mid-1970s of Corvette Quarterly, now a monthly called Vette.
"It's able to deliver performance of cars costing twice or three times as much. That's a real accomplishment for a car maker," Schorr says.
The introduction comes almost 60 years to the day after the original, 1953 car was unveiled at the GM Motorama show in New York on Jan. 17, 1953. GM will host an event in New York that day, exhibiting that original 1953 Motorama car alondside the C7.
The C7 Corvette will go on sale in the third quarter this year, Chevrolet says.
Corvette's impact is not about sales. A good year for it is just 30,000 sales, or about what GM's full-size pickups do in three weeks. Still, Corvette's shine is so bright that even GM itself was afraid to compete with the Corvette by trying to highlight redesigned versions of its much more important pickups at the same time.
To avoid that, GM went to the time and expense of a lavish unveiling for the 2014 Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra big pickups a month ago in Pontiac, Mich. That way, GM reasoned, the new trucks would get attention befitting their significance as the company's best-selling and most-profitable vehicles, before they had to share the stage here with the Vette.
Hard to imagine Chevy without Corvette -- "Through good times and bad, there's always been Corvette," GM's president of North American operations, Mark Reuss, said at the Sunday showing. But the Corvette almost got the axe at a tender age.
The 1953 was unveiled as a Motorama "dream car" come true and GM made a mere 315 that year. Production jumped to 3,640 in 1954, Warner says, but only 2,780 of those were sold.
In 1955, production fell back to 700 and even then there was a backlog, Warner says. Rival Ford had launched the '55 Thunderbird, a two-seat hardtop that had conventional roll-up glass windows instead of the Corvette's removable side curtains and leaky convertible top.
Automakers always look for "segment-busters," cars that break out from the pack. The original Corvette, certainly a segment-buster, was created to answer the question, "Where is America's real, two-seat sports car like the ones the Europeans make?"
Early sales made it seem, though, that not many outside GM were asking that question.
"You can see why GM was doing some soul-searching" about whether Corvette was worth keeping, Warner says.
Forceful GM engineer Zora Arkus Duntov took over as Corvette chief engineer and the 1955 Vette got a V-8 to replace the six-cylinder. Duntov insisted on a four-speed manual transmission, to replace the two-speed Powerglide automatic. And he pushed for, and got, fuel injection starting in 1957, replacing the industry-standard carburetors. Fuel injection can deliver more power on less fuel but back then it was a costly and exotic system.
By the mid-1970s, in Schorr's view, the car "started getting soft; bigger, heavier, emasculated." Some of the small pickups of the time, with stick shifts, were more fun to drive, he says.
Chevy's Corvette history acknowledges that the C3, built from 1968 - 1982, was battered by "an upheavel in the auto industry." At the start of its run, C3 had a big-block V-8 rated 435 horsepower. By 1975, it was a pale shadow, featuring a small-block V-8 rated a paltry 165 hp, about 20% less that the Duntov's original 195-hp small-block V-8 in 1955.
The mandated change to unleaded gasoline and the goverment's then-new clean-air regulations cut the performance hearts out of many engines of the time. It took Detroit years to master the technology to cope with the changes and still provide good performance.
After surviing the ignomy, it looked for awile as if the Corvette finally would die at the hands of GM's bean-counters.
To save money during the period leading up to GM's spiral into bankruptcy reorganization, halts were ordered to development work on the C7.
The postponements amounted to "more than two years," says Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter. "We actually stopped (C7 development completely) in 2007 when the C6 was selling well.
The C6 Corvette found 33,685 takers that year, a modern high-water mark for sales, though still off the 40,000-plus tallies in the 1970s.
A silver lining in the delays: "Some of the technology might not have been there" had C7 work progressed on schedule, Juechter says. The extra time allowed his team to refine ways to use carbon-fiber and other lightweight materials in the C7.
The new Corvette's body continues to be made from exotic composite materials, but uses more lighter-weight carbon fiber, same as in race cars, to trim weight from the top and the front of the car, for better handling and greater stability. The roof panel, for example, drops to about 13 lbs. from about 20 lbs. on the C6.
The C7 will use foam sandwiched between rigid layers for floor panels, lightre and stiffer than the unconventional balsa wood sandwich in the C5 and C6.
The car will be no featherweight, though, because additional standard features and hardware to meet new regulations added back some of the weight that was trimmed.
In fact, the weight of the base car "will be slightly up," Juechter says.
Because the on-sale date still is months away, GM won't discuss pricing. Juechter gives this hint: "The business case is based on, 'If you can afford today's Corvette, you'll be able to afford this one.' "
The 2012 Vette ranges from about $60,000 for the base coupe to more than twice that for a loaded ZR1.
Juechter won't give precise sales forecasts but says "we expect to get back to normal volumes of 30,000" annually. That'll be a big jump. Last year, Corvette sales were just 14,132, up 7.4% from 2011's 13,164, according to Autodata.
As dream-inducing as the fast, agile two-seater has been, quality and reliability have been inconsistent, and Schorr doesn't see that changing immediately: "There will be problems at first; it's a fact of life."
He also forecasts huge dealer markups likely to turn off eager buyers.
Jackson, the auto-auction executive, has a too-typical Corvette story.
As a reward for good high school grades in 1977, his dad bought him a well-used 1968 Vette, a version that had retractable headlights. He devoted himself to repairing it and trying to turn it into a shining example of the breed.
"First time I went to drive at night, one headlight went up, the other goes down. It rained and the wipers don't work. Mine overheated all the time" - though he admits his engine hop-up modifications could have contributed to that - and trim parts came loose.
His reaction to all that was just as Corvette-typical: "I actually loved that car."
The old and new Corvettes by the numbers:
2014 C7 base model/2013 C6 base model
Length 177 in./174.6 in.
Width 73.9 in./72.6 in.
Height 48.6 in./49 in.
Wheelbase 106.7 in./105.7 in.
Torque 450* lb.-ft./424 lb.-ft
Manual transmission: 7-speed/6-speed
Automatic transmission: 6-speed/6-speed