GM Moves Engine, Stirs Revolt
Robert Hively has owned six Corvettes. He has lived through numerous changes to the famed sports car’s design over the decades. But he can’t roll with General Motors Co.’s latest plan. It is moving the engine from under the hood to the middle of the car.
GM hopes this will bring the Corvette closer to exotic supercars in Europe such as the Lamborghini and Ferrari. An industry expert says it should appeal to younger drivers. Plenty of Corvette fans are giddy over the move, one that has been buzzed about in “Vette” circles for decades.
But Mr. Hively? “I am to- tally, completely and unequivocally not interested in a mid-engine, European-copycat GM sports car,” said the 61-year-old Florida retiree. “I refuse to call it a Corvette.”
Few cars have inspired the fan fervor built by the Corvette in its 66-year history. With its long, broad hood, low-slung silhouette and growling V-8, the Vette has become a pop-culture icon and a beacon for GM’s Chevrolet brand. It has spawned hundreds of Corvette clubs and been name-dropped in countless songs, including Prince’s 1982 hit “Little Red Corvette.”
This week GM will unveil the Corvette’s most radical redesign ever when the switch to a midsection engine gives it a starkly different look. Camouflaged prototypes show a short hood and prodigious haunches to accommodate air vents to cool the engine. GM wants its most recognizable nameplate to evolve to attract a fresh crop of buyers.
“Finally!” MotorTrend magazine said. Sports-car aficionados say moving the engine to behind the cockpit will create a better-balanced car with more precise handling.
To Frank Goodman, though, the engine switch will completely change the Corvette’s character. “I just don’t like the look of a short front end,” said Mr. Goodman, a 70-year-old retired accountant from New Jersey who has owned three Corvettes dating back to 1968. “From the driver’s seat, the view is akin to driving a bus.”
In the Corvette case, some worry the new model won’t be offered with a manual transmission. Others wonder if GM will increase the sticker price closer to other mid-engine sports cars. GM wouldn’t discuss those specifics ahead of the unveiling.
Then there are the practical concerns, such as where to put the golf clubs on the redesigned car. Mid-engine cars typically don’t have a rear hatch or trunk, just a small cargo hold in the front, often called a “frunk.”
Tom Peters, who has led the exterior design on the past three Corvettes, knows how sensitive fans can be about adjustments. He recalls when Chevy in 2004 had the audacity to change the pop-up headlamps to, well, normal ones.
“I got a lot of hate mail,” Mr. Peters said. “We would go to these Corvette events and people wanted to get physical with me.”
GM designers tested traditionalists’ patience again in 2013 with trapezoidal taillights rather than the familiar round ones. There were cries of blasphemy.
Car historian Jerry Burton sees Corvette’s overhaul going over well with the younger drivers Chevy is courting. “These later generations are used to playing videogames with Lamborghinis and exotic-looking cars,” said Mr. Burton, who has written three Corvette books and does creative work for Chevy’s ad agency. “Corvette had to make this change to stay part of the conversation.”
The Corvette is just a sliver of business for GM. The company sells around 35,000 Corvettes in a good year, less than the big pickups it sells in three weeks. But sports cars stoke excitement for employees, dealers and customers, Mr. Burton said.
Mr. Peters concedes that fan backlashes can be unsettling. But “I have no question whatsoever this dramatic configuration change will be successful,” said the designer, who retired this spring.
At a Corvette Club of America meeting in suburban Baltimore, members were generally enthusiastic about the new engine setup, with some distinct holdouts.
Art Bell, who has owned nine Vettes since 1986, expects we will see a faster and more nimble car. “It’s new. It’s now,” said Mr. Bell, 77, adding he is No. 1 on the waiting list at a dealership.
Kirk Ferguson, who has owned 12 Corvettes, said he is interested in only one thing— how it drives. “Looks are only skin deep,” he said.
College student Devin Streight is the type of young enthusiast Chevy wants to attract. But Mr. Streight grew up around his father’s 1969 Corvette, and he loves older models’ heritage.
The news that Corvette would move to a mid-engine layout, the 19-year-old said, was like “a punch in the gut.”
He said prototypes he has seen online look more like a Ferrari. “It doesn’t look like that typical Corvette,” Mr. Streight said.
“And no manual? That would kill me.”