The Real American Revolution: Saying farewell to the last of the front-engined Corvettes

with photography by Sydney Cummings

The Corvette is dead. Long live the Corvette. 

This current generation of Corvette, the seventh generation, has been with us for five years now—not quite an eternity in the grand scheme of model longevity, but enough for the world to slip by, too. The styling is still contemporary, the racing successes have been world-class, and most importantly, it’s still fast as hell. 

But sports car enthusiasts will wax on and on about nostalgia, tradition, and purity of design ad nauseam: why does the Porsche 911 have its engine all the way in the back? Why do BMWs stick with straight-sixes? Why did the British stop building sports cars? So on and so forth. And to that end, the Corvette has always had its certain traditions to uphold; namely, a big honkin’ V8, right there up front, two seats in the middle, surrounded by fiberglass, and precious little to get in the way of the noise and the power. 

But nothing is sacred. When the replacement C8 will roll around in less than a month, it will be firmly entrenched with a V8 mounted between the occupants’ shoulder blades. Right in the middle, like any true supercar—but not like a Corvette at all. Not the kind we’ve been familiar with since 1953. 

We are on the cusp of the greatest change to the Corvette ever since it gained a V8 engine in 1955. Chevrolet itself calls it “the most anticipated Corvette ever,” and after teasing mid-engined Corvette concepts for, oh, the past 55 years, it’s finally happening. 

Here, we pay tribute to the end of an era.

To celebrate the last of the front-engined Corvettes, we trekked out to Mohegan Sun casino in southern Connecticut to watch the automotive circus that is the Barrett-Jackson Northeast Auction. There, under the bright lights and gleaming bleachers of the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena, we would watch the auction of the very final C7 to roll off the production line. 


But from Hartford, two hours away, we had to get there first. GM rolled out a bevy of Corvettes for us to sample like hors d’oeuvres: from the base Corvette with the vaunted Z51 handling package, to the Z06, the Grand Sport, and finally the megawatt ZR1. 


The ZR1 is the greatest expression of the Corvette ethos: the most powerful production Corvette ever built, whose supercharger whine resembles an air raid siren, whose big downforce energy and carbon-fiber bits embody the principles its engineers developed from two decades worth of racing success. For rah-rah devotees of the last American sports car, it is the track-oriented monster to take on the world. 


There’s a lot to love about any Corvette, including the ZR1 and this eye-searingly yellow Z06, that have precious little to do with 755 or 650 horsepower (respectively). For one, the Magnetic Ride Control has been nailed down to offer fantastic ride quality for what are supposed to be, both, track-day cars. One’s kidneys, residing right above the heavy indented bolsters of the thin racing buckets, never feel like they’ll need dialysis. Grip is immense; both cars are equipped with 335-section tires in back. And on the ZR1, the supercharger’s hood bulge takes up nearly 1/3 of the view out of the front windshield, a constant reminder of potency and danger, especially when you can’t see over it. 


And then, the power. Even on the Z06, as seen here, that supercharged LT1 V8 rips (A plaque in the center console, right above the shifter, helpfully reminds you that you are toying with 650 horsepower and 650 ft-lbs of torque.) On the ZR1, the instantaneous shove from the lag-free supercharger is a gut punch that squeezes the air out of your lungs. 


There are flaws. The steering is heavy, offering the illusion of precision, but almost entirely devoid of feedback. The manual shifter is short, yet rubbery; the clutch at least is evenly weighted. On the automatic ZR1, the eight-speed torque converter system is showing its limitations; since the next Corvette will have a dual-clutch automatic—possibly the only transmission, sadly—it seems like Chevrolet’s engineers are way ahead of us. 


The world moves fast. Since the C7-generation Corvette, there have been two new Ferraris, three variants of the Mercedes-Benz AMG-GT, one new Porsche 911, and one new Aston Martin Vantage, the Corvette’s greatest rival in GT racing. All of these near-supercars overlap each other in technology and overall refinement, but it’s evident that the Corvette has always had a chip on its shoulder, written off as a blue-collar muscle car, a burnout machine and little much else. A mid-engined layout will more than improve the Corvette’s dynamics; it may just add the credibility that the Corvette has deserved for years. 


Out with the old, then, and in with the new. The Barrett-Jackson auction is equal parts a sporting event, a rock concert, and a political rally, the kind aligned with your affiliation. It is where senses come to be overloaded. The constant machine-gun fire of the auctioneer’s voice, the sporadic shouts of the crowd, punctuated by the booming voice of the television announcers—televised from 2pm til 8pm, which lasts longer than Judge Judy—and plastic cups of cheap beer and the smell of cigarettes and high-test that causes your throat to feel all scratchy. It is where, under an American flag the size of a helipad, you can buy monkey bikes, vintage Batmobile kiddie rides, a Lone Ranger horse ride, and meticulously restored gasoline pumps for $16,000. Collectors, evidently, eat that stuff right up. 


This isn’t the final C7. No, it was all a bit of a ruse: the last one won’t be built until September, with the exact same spec as this model. What was onstage shares the same specifications as the projected final version: a black Z06 coupe, with black wheels and a Spice Red interior. More importantly, it comes with the 7-speed manual and every package option, exactly how we would spec it ourselves. The black car onstage that afternoon at Mohegan Sun will live on to be used for unspecified marketing purposes. 


FIrst and last editions sell for big bucks these days, which is a boon to automakers, who traditionally have squirreled them away in basements, or otherwise crushed them for prototype testing. Here, the collector gets to keep the plastic wrap on the seats, the car becomes an investment, and the money goes to charity. Barrett-Jackson taking no cut of the proceeds, it claims. And the automakers receive some self-congratulatory publicity out of the deal. There’s possibly a tax break in there somewhere, as well. 


For the final C7, Chevrolet’s charity of choice is the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a charity that assists wounded veterans. More specifically, the money goes toward the Smart Home Program, which builds and upgrades homes to be handicap-accessible to disabled veterans, provided without mortgages. In 2017, the charity built or upgraded 75 homes. It aims to build 200 across the country and in Canada. 


The more money gets thrown around, the harder the crowd cheers. Hey, it’s not their money. In 2018, Chevrolet sold the first production Corvette ZR1 to NASCAR honcho Rick Hendrick, for $925,000. 


With a tweedy, yet booming, Jersey-tinted voice, charity president Frank Siller gave a fiery speech. “You better buy GM cars, I’m telling you. You see these veterans up here?” The crowd gave the two wheelchair-bound men a standing ovation, slowly yet eagerly shuffled to their feet. In a blue plaid suit, from a box overlooking the auction floor, CEO Craig Jackson pumped his fist. 


Within seconds, the bidding shot up to $400,000. There was no time to react. The crowd kept applauding, hooting and hollering, taking photos on their phones. It takes a car 90 seconds on average to sell onstage—three minutes, at most. This final C7 lingered for the television cameras. When bidding reached one million, the announcer whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and the crowd responded like it was a wrestling match, keeping the energy alive well toward the two-million mark, when the crowd was rejuvenated again. At $2.3 million, the auctioneer grunted audibly into the microphone. At $2.7 million, it was over.


The winning bid was a charity record for Barrett-Jackson. It was not the most expensive car ever sold by the company—that would be the original Batmobile, driven onstage by George Barris himself in 2015 and selling for $4.62 million. But a record is a record. For a touch of good press, according to Chevrolet, the money raised could provide five more homes for the Foundation to build. According to a Chevrolet press release touting this recent success, it’s raised over $10 million for the foundation in five years. Yet compared to the first ZR1, it’s clear that the last triumphs over the first. 

The winning bidder came in through the phone, and according to a marketing manager, he was an auction regular, a “top ten.” The second bidder? He was the man who had bought the first 2020 Toyota Supra, back in January at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale, Arizona auction. He paid $2.1 million. 


To summarize: return with us to the halcyon days of 2004, when the C6 Corvette was launched with a slick new ad campaign, a Super Bowl ad by no less an attention-grabbing auteur than Michael Bay, and a new tagline: An American Revolution. Get it? Americans are no strangers to their own myths. But as changed the sixth-generation was, all it revolutionized in Corvette tradition was axing the pop-up headlights. This C8 could have been an entirely different car, a case of sibling rivalry, but the Corvette is too valuable, too much of a flagship, too eager to aim at the heart of the near-supercar fray to be squandered. Some things are sacred. By the end of the month, we’ll be reminded that Corvette still holds onto certain traditions.

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