Leno: The mid-engine Corvette is everything great about American innovation

To quote Mark Twain, I’m in favor of progress—it’s change I don’t like. In the months leading up to the reveal of the new C8 Corvette, I was thinking the same thing as probably a lot of people: Chevy will continue to produce the C7 at an affordable price, and the C8 will be a top-of-the-line car for, maybe, $180,000, and not many people will buy it. When they announced the C8’s base price of $60,000, it totally changed my mind about the car. I’ve got a newer Acura NSX, and although it’s a terrific car and I love it, it was $205,000 out the door.

Things have shifted so much in the industry. I remember when people would come out to visit from Detroit and they were all marketing guys who didn’t know anything. “Well, hello, Jay, let me show you this new GT package with the stripes. It’s really going to be something.” It was all phony; there was no real performance there. Nowadays, everyone I meet is an engineer. You talk to the Corvette’s team leaders, Tadge Juechter and Ed Piatek, and they are engineers’ engineers, putting in 18-hour days to literally shave everything to the bone, looking for any place they can save and scrimp without sacrificing the engineering. Check out the C8’s beautiful chassis. You could hang it on the wall as art, and they spent the money to develop a bespoke transmission for the car. Yet the price point is unbelievable.

The C8 reminded me that one of the things I love about American companies is they have always been able to figure out how to make good products much faster and cheaper than the other guys. Remember, we didn’t win World War II just because we had the best soldiers. We won the war because at Willow Run they were building a bomber every hour, faster than the enemy could shoot them down.

An example of what I’m talking about is this Australian company called Carbon Revolution, which came by five years ago to show us its carbon-fiber wheels. At the time, they were $20,000 apiece—and obviously for Ferrari and Lamborghini guys and other members of the more-money-than-brains club. We tried them out on a Porsche, and you could tell a difference, but $80,000 for four wheels is crazy. The guy said the company was working with an automaker on an original-equipment deal, but he couldn’t give any details. Then a couple of years ago I bought a Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R, and it had their wheels on it. The car cost $62,000. So, for 20 grand less, I got the carbon-fiber wheels plus an entire car. The manufacturing technique had been so perfected that they could get it down to this price point. That is amazing to me.

I also give General Motors a lot of credit for making such a big change to the Corvette, which a lot of young people see as a grandpa’s car. I think the last time GM took a chance like this was with the Corvair. People considered that car a failure because Chevy sold only 1.8 million of them. (Today, you’d be made president of the company for selling that many of anything, but the Mustang made the Corvair seem like a loser.) Anyway, GM might get some heat from the Corvette faithful, but the day I drove a C8, I saw a C7 in the parking lot, and it just looked old fashioned, like yesterday’s news. And the C8 cockpit reminded me of when I was 13 and the new Stingray came out with the radio in sideways. It seemed so space age.

Years ago, when the Dodge Viper debuted, then Chrysler president Bob Lutz told me half the people loved the car and half thought it was a cartoon. I asked him what he was going to do about the people who think it’s a cartoon. He said, “Half like it! We don’t care about the other half. They’re not going to buy it anyway.” The lesson was that you want to build cars that elicit an emotion. I don’t think even the most ardent car enthusiast, if you handed that person a pen and paper and offered him or her a thousand bucks, could draw the new Camry. But they could sure draw the new Corvette.

The article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe to our magazine and join the club. 

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