A 6.2-liter engine, 450 horsepower, zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds, and a redesigned exterior that exudes cool from bumper to bumper. It’s not a foreign car with a funny-sounding name and a price tag with as many digits as the federal debt. It’s a domestic model guaranteed to pry some respect, no matter how begrudgingly—and maybe some admiration—from even the most ardent Ford and Chrysler fanatics.
Yes, that’s right. It’s the car known for having fiberglass body panels.
It has been 60 years since General Motors rolled out its first Corvette. From a 2013 perspective, the 1953 model doesn’t look all that sporty, but if you put it up against the sedans of the day, it looks pretty good. Borrowing the name of a lightweight, maneuverable class of warship, GM gave it a moniker that would prove to be iconic and timeless. Like most, if not all, automobiles, the Corvette has gone through both incremental and radical changes. The 1956 design had some styling changes that gave it an updated look from previous models, but the first big change came in 1963. GM thought the new look deserved a special name, so they christened it Sting Ray. That name went into dormancy in 1967, but was resurrected as Stingray for the revamped 1969 model year. The name was retired again after 1976, and after all this time, many probably thought we’d seen the last of the Stingray name.
Not so fast.
The 2014 version is such a departure from the current edition that it shares just two parts with the 2013 Corvette. While the body style isn’t as distinctive as it was back in 1963, and some critics say the design team borrowed too much from the Dodge Viper or the Chevrolet Camaro, it’s still a cool look and uniquely Corvette. The crossed-flag emblem is updated, the gills have returned, and the interior received an upgrade. GM used quite a few strategies to keep the weight down, such as a hydroformed frame, a carbon fiber hood, and quite a bit of aluminum instead of steel. Vroom!
Whether it’s a metaphor for the resurgence of automobile manufacturing is a matter of opinion. It’s no secret that the industry as a whole is rebounding. According to www.wardsauto.com, North American vehicle production peaked at 16.3 million units in 2005, then fell to about half that (8.8 million units) in 2009. It rebounded to 13.5 million in 2011. So far, so good, but what’s going on at GM?
The company was the world’s largest automaker from 1931 to 2007 and in the early 1960s commanded more than 50 percent of the U.S. market. Cheap gasoline and the proliferation of muscle cars, each model easily distinguishable from the others at a distance, made the late 1960s and early 1970s the heyday of U.S. automobile manufacturing. Regrettably, GM’s management structure was a bloated, cumbersome, bureaucratic mess, unable to respond to abrupt market disruptions such as oil-price spikes and waves of fuel-sipping imports. Since then GM’s U.S. market share has eroded to less than 18 percent. Redeveloping a single niche vehicle won’t turn the company around, but it does show the company’s willingness to put the necessary resources into a high-profile research and development project.
I got a big chuckle out of a blog titled “GM’s work ‘totally irrelevant’” which came out the day the Corvette was introduced (Jan. 13). The blog implies that the company’s problems started when it entered a government-backed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. No way. Its biggest problem is its entrenched bureaucracy, which is a cultural legacy that goes back 100 years. The founder, Billy Durant, bought 39 companies but didn’t weave them together to make a single, streamlined unit. Each company was run separately, a structure that persists today. Sure, the government holds a 20 percent stake in the company, but this wasn’t the beginning of the end of the company. It was a strategy to preserve the workers’ jobs, and the only way to do that was to somehow keep the company afloat.
Getting back to the 2014 Stingray, it would be ridiculous to think that a single vehicle might return the company to its former glory, but it’s equally ridiculous to write off its latest effort as ‘totally irrelevant.’