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Living in the Corvette’s Shadow
THE OTHER AMERICAN SPORTS CARS
FEW AUTOMOBILES ARE AS THOROUGHLY
woven into the fabric of America as the Chevrolet Corvette. A front-engine, rear-drive two-seater with a manual transmission may seem like something of an anachronism in today’s automotive reality, but it’s a testament to the ’Vette’s longevity: For more than six decades, the Corvette has cast a long shadow. It is “America’s Sports Car,” hulking and rumbling, a totem to vitality and the undisputed horsepower-per-dollar king. But there have been others, most notably Dodge’s brutish Viper, which, in little more than two decades, has established itself as another American icon.
The cars presented here are less celebrated but no less worthy of notice.
BEWITCHED BY DARRIN
Of all the sporting post-war Americans, it may be the 1954 Kaiser Darrin that most catches the eye of hindsight. Among the spindly Crosley Hot Shots and brutally serious Cunningham C-3s of the time, it was the Darrin that, along with the Corvette, combined approachability, performance and style most cleanly.
And what style. Designer Howard “Dutch” Darrin saw the potential of fiberglass at the same time as Chevrolet and used it to craft his car’s body. Jet Age stuff, indeed. But he did the ’Vette one better in the novelty department by designing pocket doors that slid forward into the fenders, a neat little party trick. Incorporating the doors meant long fenders and an extended, arching nose. As the hood rises, the lines of the front end converge into a “pucker grille,” a bud-like chrome shield that looks like the car’s blowing you a kiss.
Toward the rear, the car has sleek but pronounced haunches rising from the designer’s trademark “Darrin dip,” a variation on the sort of cleft reminiscent of the cut that gives the Shelby Cobra and Triumph Spitfire their sporting stance. Taken as a whole, it’s a lovely, fluid shape, both very ’50s and very American despite the lack of fins. The colors no doubt help; because conventional paint couldn’t be baked onto the fiberglass, the Darrin was finished with lacquers in red, white, yellow or green. Seen today, a well-kept example exudes a soft, period luster that pins it in time.
So the Darrin certainly looked the part. Getting production underway, however, wasn’t as pretty a process. Attempts to convince Oldsmobile to supply Rocket V-8s broke down at the pricing stage. Early modified versions of the engine from Kaiser’s own Henry J sedan were too finicky and too fragile. Eventually, a six-cylinder F-head Hurricane engine was used, leading to grumbles, not unfounded, that the Darrin had a Jeep powerplant. Those weren’t the only grumbles, as the Darrin fell a few clicks short of 100 mph at the top end and needed almost 16 seconds to hit 60 mph. On this front, even the Corvette’s “Blue Flame” six had it beat. But response was good, and while it sounds like faint praise, the car was not overpowered for its suspension — an independent front and torsion-bar rear setup that was nimble enough for vigorous cruising but tended toward understeer if leaned on.
While the Corvette had GM’s corporate might behind it, the Darrin had only Henry J. Kaiser’s willingness to take a chance on a sporting roadster. For many buffs, it’s enough that it was built, and built well enough that many of the 450-some examples are still with us. While it took three years to sell them all, it did give a discerning minority of sports car buyers a second fiberglass option.
ANOTHER INDEPENDENT VISION
Not long after the last Darrin left Dutch’s showroom, the 1960s were upon us. Split-Window coupes, Grand Sports, pop-up headlights, Zora Arkus-Duntov and all the greatness that defined early Corvettes happened here. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. From the all-conquering Cobras to Bill Thomas’ insane sawed-off Cheetah, your average sports car buyer was awash in options before his head could even be turned by the emergent muscle and pony car varieties. It’s strange, therefore, to say that as the decade wound to a close, the best of the Corvette competitors was an AMC.
Whether or not you buy into the image of AMC as a company that, despite some innovative ideas, couldn’t do anything right, and whether or not you’re one of the people who call the AMX the “Kenosha Korvette,” you have to agree: The AMX is a handsome car. Designing a shortwheelbase hardtop two-seater is not easy. Small cars amplify styling miscues, and the potential to make your sports car look “hatchbacky” is always there, but the great Dick Teague nailed this one. The AMX looks purposeful, understated, muscular and unique. It’s simple but not boring, with a nice, quiet menace to it — not bad for what is basically a cut-down Javelin.
And the engine? Well, it wasn’t too bad, either. AMC’s 390-cid V-8 may not have been a colossal tower of power like the era’s meanest small-blocks, but 325 horsepower was enough to do 0–60 mph in 6.6 seconds and go slightly under 15 seconds in the quarter-mile. And you could get a decent BorgWarner four-speed manual. Power couple Craig and Lee Breedlove were turned loose with a pair of AMXs on the five-mile banked test track in Laredo, Texas, and set a marketing-department-claimed 106 speed records, including an undisputed 24-hour average of 140 mph. Heady numbers for 1968. Things were looking sporty for AMC, which must have driven the family-oriented dealers a bit crazy.
Sporty on the surface, at least. Underneath, well, the AMX suspension simply couldn’t keep up. The front was independently sprung — basic but okay; at the rear, it was dire, with leaf springs and tube shocks. True enough, it was subject to all the handling woes you might think. The rear stick axle tramped and stepped out, the front end plowed and the short wheelbase gave darty, choppy feedback to the driver. Once the car started to go out of shape, it was harder than most to get back. Throw in the slow, somewhat rubbery recirculating-ball steering, which aided stability at the cost of precision and feel, and we’re getting further from sports car land and into muscle car territory.
Which is where AMC eventually decided it wanted to be. Later editions of the AMX got more power but no mechanical refinements aside from bigger brakes and a better shifter, thanks to Hurst. The writing was on the wall, and in 1971, the AMX turned back into a Javelin. AMXs did well enough in drag racing, but once the model was canceled, interest faded. More than 7,300 examples were built with the 390 V-8 and manual transmission. Still, among AMC fans’ biggest regrets — and there are many — is that the lovely but underdone AMX never went road racing, particularly in the SCCA Trans Am series, where Penske Racing followed by Roy Woods Racing eventually made the Javelin shine by winning outright in 1971 and ’72.
In the coming decades there were stabs at making a sporty car. There were Lasers and Capris and EXPs and Fieros and whatnot, all of which failed through some sort of lack of conviction, in either concept (not really sporty) or execution (a rearmid-mounted Iron Duke, Pontiac? Really?) The Corvette went unchallenged on its own turf for many years. The successful exception comes to us as the long, colorful history of the Viper, one that’s still unfolding. Well, that, and the Pontiac Solstice.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PONTIAC
GM’s roadster was announced at the Detroit Auto Show in 2002 and looked like what it was — a not-ready-for-primetime parts-bin special. The curvaceous convertible body was attractive enough; the rest was kind of all over the place. No way, folks said, were they going to make this turkey. It’s just another show-off move by Bob Lutz, trying to impress us.
Fast-forward two years and, well, let’s just say that Bob Lutz is one hell of an impressive guy. The 2004 Detroit show featured the Solstice, not from the parts bin but built on the Kappa platform, developed by GM specifically for the car in just over two years. Suspension! Proper double-wishbones all around. The 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder shelled out only 170-odd horsepower, but that meant the consumer was going to shell out only about $20 grand in the showrooms, so that was acceptable. And the road car looked almost exactly like the show car — always nice when that rare trick can be pulled off.
The problem, though, was where problems usually lie for cars these days: weight. The Solstice hit the scales at about 2,900 pounds. If you’re wondering where the Corvette fits in this discussion, well, it only weighed a couple hundred pounds more. And while everyone hates it when the M-word creeps into the discussion, it must be said: The Solstice was 400 pounds more than the Mazda Miata, which, given the shared drop-top and two-seater style, was always going to be its closest competitor. In side-to-side tests, those pounds were telling, and they erased much of the power difference.
So Pontiac played to its GM strengths and brought out a 260-horsepower turbo model. Now, American sports car fans said, now we are talking. Except the convertible continued to suffer in the weight and chassis stiffness department. Pontiac offered an ECU reflash to 290 horses and gamely brought out a targa-topped coupe model, which cured some of the handling woes… but added even more weight. Plus, the targa top couldn’t be stowed in the trunk. Too bad, since the cockpit was dark and cramped with the top on, a side effect of a roadster interior repurposed for coupe duty. Doubly too bad, because in hardtop form, the Solstice was a looker.
No doubt, everyone said, many of these problems will be solved in the next generation. After all, the Solstice is the bestselling roadster in the U.S.! True, said GM, but that doesn’t mean its sales are, you know, huge. And we’re very sorry, but we’re canceling Pontiac altogether after 2009, having built just 1,152 examples of the Solstice. A shame, because in the manual GXP coupe, they came close to nailing it.
A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
Yes, Bob Lutz is a known automotive madman, and sometimes you need a madman. Consider, for instance, the Panoz family. Paterfamilias Don leveraged the invention of the nicotine patch into a motorsports empire, running the erstwhile American Le Mans Series and owning several notable circuits (including Road Atlanta and Sebring) before selling them to NASCAR’s France family. But Don’s son Dan decided to do things the hard way. He wanted to build sports cars.
The Panoz Esperante has gone through many different configurations since its introduction as a Ford-powered, two-seat, aluminum-bodied roadster. But even that early car was nimble, fast and distinctive-looking; 15 years on, it’s striking how much the front end looks like that of a Porsche Panamera, and also striking how many arguments that statement will get you into. The Esperante went for about $80,000, and no one was sure how long it’d be around.
But it hung in there. Using Ford powerplants had obvious advantages, letting Panoz concentrate on things like handling and refinement. Mostly handling, but give them a break; small manufacturers have to control what they can, and the Esperante’s coilover setup let them control the car supremely well. Unlike a lot of small manufacturers, Panoz was paying attention and delivered a car that drivers wanted. In the meantime, the Esperante gained enough of a reputation for quality that magazines began inviting it to comparison tests.
Would we have bought one over a C6 Corvette 10 years ago? The Esperante was hand-assembled, allaluminum, and all-American. But it was also nudging up near $100,000.
Would we buy one now, against a C7? Because Panoz is still with us. At the last SEMA show, the Esperante Spyder GT 25th Anniversary Edition debuted in all its ultra-exclusive glory. You can now get yours in a carbon fiber body, with a “skinnable” (graphically configurable) digital dashboard, composite aero bits everywhere and side exhausts blasting out 560 horsepower from a supercharged 4.6-liter V-8. You’ll need $205,000, and don’t even bother figuring out how many times you could divide that by the price of that C7 you’ve configured online. It’s hardly the point once you get up into the Esperante’s rarified atmosphere, is it?
Of course, none of these cars has matched the Corvette’s success, either in sales figures or nameplate cachet, which is a great compliment to GM’s two-seat sporting standby. Be it the Kaiser Darrin’s fundamental similarities or the Solstice’s distinct lack thereof, the Esperante’s quasi-exotic flare or AMX’s Detroit Iron approach, nothing has quite captured America’s collective aspirations like the Corvette.
Still, these are all brave endeavors, each interesting in its own right and well worth a look back. Alongside the ’Vette, we get a larger, more complete picture of the nation’s enthusiast landscape. Here, we can see different approaches and attitudes toward what an American sports car can, and should, be. Are these “others” overlooked? Sometimes, but hardly forgotten, and rightly enjoyed by collectors and drivers for good reason. Because, as anybody who has driven or owned one of these cars will tell you, standing in a long shadow is often the coolest place to be.