Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Review 345: The Corvette

THE CORVETTE: Fifty Year History, by Randy Leffingwell. 384 pages, illustrated. Crystalline

In a sort of a cosmic horselaugh, on Feb. 12, 2014, the earth opened up and swallowed the National Corvette Museum at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Somebody doesn't like poseurs.

I was astonished to learn from Randy Leffingwell that the Corvette was inspired by the Jaguar XK-120. It doesn’t show.

A friend in high school had a similar car, an XK-140, and it was a sports car. (The XK-120 was the fastest production car in the early ‘50s.) The Corvette was nothing like that.

The Corvette was basically a Chevy sedan with a fiberglass body: same Blue Streak six, drum brakes, two-speed automatic transmission. As even enthusiast Leffingwell admits, all American buyers cared about were a radio, air conditioning and automatic transmission.

It wasn’t even cheap, despite using workadaddy parts. Buyers stayed away in droves.

When the engineers sought to make the car real, they had to look to Europe. No one in America made disc brakes or even a four-speed transmission. So instead they crammed bigger and bigger unsophisticated V-8 engines into a huge car (it had to be huge to accommodate its primitive brakes).

As noted collector Jay Leno says, Americans like their cars “big and stupid,” and rather slowly the Corvette got a following. Not of driving enthusiasts, since the thing never did handle well, but what might be called accelerationists. Leffingwell speaks admiringly of Corvette’s “tire-melting” and “asphalt-shredding” takeoff speed.

By 1992, a million of them had been sold. In “The Corvette” there are numerous shiny pictures of them, almost all strangely static.

It has always been an ugly car.

They say, and Leffingwell repeats, that racing improves the breed, but it never did much for the Corvette (or for GM’s other cars). In its long run, the only technical innovation the Corvette ever managed was antilock brakes.

And, like all American cars for the past 60 years, it was well on its way to the junkyard as it rolled out of the factory. Car & Driver magazine is attempting to put a 2014 Corvette through its 40,000-mile long term road test.

The engine blew at 6,000 miles. (Something about build quality, the GM engineers muttered to the journalists.) Re-engined, the starter motor failed. Last I checked, Car & Driver had managed to go 16,000 miles.

“The Corvette: Fifty Year History” is sort of like the car: heavy, unwieldy, overblown.

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