by Don Sherman / hagerty.com
Two days dicing three Corvettes on California’s heavenly Highway 33 north of Ojai is as close as any mortal will come to a taste of the afterlife. Three Hagerty scribes and a photo crew binged on this banquet of lefts, rights, climbs, and dives on the impeccable asphalt meandering through the Los Padres National Forest and the Topatopa Mountains. Ravines were dabbed in brown, green, and fire-ravaged black, peaks were crowned with sunbeams, and we enjoyed glimpses of the sky-blue Pacific. That old chestnut, "…to die for," was surely coined here.
The mission was to put the already well-publicized 2020 Corvette Stingray into historical context and thereby determine if the new car is indeed a true Corvette or, as some cynics would have it, just a cut-rate Ferrari pretender. Over eight generations of production, the American dream machine has endured, through 67 years of station-keeping and also moments of radical change. Surely relocating the engine behind the seats qualifies as the latter. So we gathered up a new C8 as well as two generations of Corvette that were also turning points in the model’s bloodline. An immaculate 1956 C1 stood in for the first Corvettes to get V-8 engines, while our well-preserved 1986 C4 represented GM’s first all-in effort to give the Corvette truly modern performance through a whole-car approach to chassis rigidity and suspension tune.
With our two veterans flying in formation with the C8, we hoped to glean answers to our burning questions: Was moving the engine behind the cockpit wise? Has advanced technology drained fun-to-drive from the Corvette’s soul? Is this newbie a legitimate heir to the Corvette throne?
Let’s start with a spoonful of history. Like every worthy performance stride, the mid-engine movement began in motorsports. A 1925 Benz Tropfenwagen piloted by Adolf Rosenberger was the first mid-engine Grand Prix winner, followed by Dr. Porsche’s indomitable Auto Unions in the 1930s. After World War II, single-seaters by John Cooper and others revolutionized Formula One before modernizing Indy. The seminal mid-engine sports car for the road was the Mercedes-Benz 150H, twenty of which were sold in 1935-36. Thirty years later, Lamborghini invented the supercar with its stunning transverse mid-engine Miura, while the Lotus Europa served as the supercar-lite archetype. The Toyota MR2, Pontiac Fiero, and many more mid-engine two-seaters followed. Today, front-engine sports cars are a dying breed.
Corvette patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov joined the club in 1957. After his front-engine, magnesium-bodied Corvette SS racer cooked driver John Fitch’s feet at Sebring, Arkus-Duntov concluded the "heat source [the engine] must be behind the driver." The Auto Union victories he witnessed before WWII, and his 1954 class win at Le Mans driving a mid-engine Porsche 550 Spyder, also shaped his thinking. Before retiring from Chevrolet in 1975, Arkus-Duntov built half a dozen mid-engine prototypes; after his departure, like-minded GM engineers and designers created six more. Unfortunately, the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" mindset ruled GM then, delaying the mid-engine Corvette for decades.
Finally, in 2005, the year the C6 Corvette launched, assistant chief engineer Tadge Juechter convinced his superiors that the front-engine gambit was tapped out-that adding more power up front accelerated nothing but the generation of tire smoke in back. Although bosses Tom Wallace, Bob Lutz, and Rick Wagoner all became believers, GM’s bankruptcy would delay the arrival of the mid-engine Corvette another 15 years.
Physics is what drives engineers to the mid-engine format. Shifting engine mass rearward improves acceleration by increasing rear-wheel propulsion traction. During hard braking, vertical loading shifts forward, allowing all four tires to contribute more equitably to the deceleration cause. Another important variable is the polar moment of inertia about a vertical axis through the center of gravity. Minimizing the polar moment by locating heavy engine and transmission parts near the center of gravity expedites turn-in and diminishes the tire force required to straighten the car exiting a bend.
But such science wasn’t part of the equation way back when GM’s designers sculpted the 1956 Corvette bodywork over chassis and powertrain parts sourced from Chevy sedans of the day. The fact that rack-and-pinion steering, disc brakes, power assists, and electronic gadgets were far in the future didn’t matter, because these creators knew beauty when they drew it. So they made the second iteration of the first-generation Corvette an art object, with alluring proportions, attractive details like the famous side scallop, and a sporting mien. Their reskin, extinguishing the Blue Flame six-cylinder engine and adding power to the new 265-cid small-block V-8, didn’t do much to dent Ford Thunderbird sales, but the 1956 update did set a performance-oriented course that has served the Corvette well for decades.
Hagerty father/son members Harry and David Bogosian, of Santa Clarita, California, have owned this Arctic Blue ’56 for only four months. It has enjoyed a frame-off restoration, an engine rebuild by California’s Corvette Mike, a stunning base-coat/clear-coat paint job, and two upgrades from factory specs: a four-speed manual transmission (up from three) and the installation of 205/75R-15 radial tires.
Hagerty magazine editor Aaron Robinson’s preliminary assessment of the C1 says it all: "America’s Jaguar XK120 is lovely to look at, but the driver seems to have been left out of the design equation." Indeed, cockpit entry by today’s drivers is a challenge. Even with the seat slid fully back, scrunching is required to slip behind the wheel and to wriggle lower limbs through the tight door opening. The vinyl-clad seats are, in essence, solo benches lacking any hint of a bucket’s lateral restraint.
The Bogosians’ 210-hp V-8 topped with a single four-barrel Carter carburetor murmurs contentedly, delivering satisfying spurts of torque. It’s easy to see why V-8s became America’s ultimate gift to the motoring world. The old Corvette loafs along with snorty grunts best enjoyed with the top stowed. At 50 mph in fourth, the tach registers only 2100 rpm.
This Corvette’s dirty little secret, however, is the "praying mantis" driving position, with forearms cocked and your chest only a few inches behind the steering wheel. It was deemed necessary back then because the steering effort, especially at parking speeds, is abysmally high. Once you get rolling, there’s steering slack to deal with, which makes us wonder how drivers like Bob Bondurant enjoyed so much success racing Corvettes in the ’50s.
Finding first in the H-pattern was a challenge, but the synchros worked as intended and shift efforts were light. Our drivers reported smooth clutch takeup and reasonably good braking performance, and they enjoyed wrapping thumbs around the plastic steering wheel spokes in cruise mode. There was no hint of brake fade when this veteran Corvette had to hustle to keep pace with its descendants. Our man Cameron Neveu observed: "This Vette handles like a sedan with some body roll and noticeable pitch when you brake hard for a tight bend."
It’s clear the Corvette’s engineers and designers weren’t sitting on their hands during the 30-year span between our elder test cars. Though the Stingray badge was collecting dust on the shelf in 1986, every pore of Chevy’s fourth-generation sports car was crammed with notable advancements: Tall peripheral frame rails for major improvements in chassis rigidity. More precise power rack-and-pinion steering, instead of the manual worm-and-roller gear. Fat radials supported by a fully independent suspension system, with fiberglass leaf springs at both ends of the car.
Realizing they had a weapon capable of fighting sports cars from Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, and Porsche, Corvette engineers used showroom stock road racing to develop the Corvette’s brake system. As such, meaty disc brakes with Bosch ABS were part of the package. Two transmissions were offered: a four-speed Doug Nash manual with a two-speed electric overdrive, and a four-speed automatic with overdrive top. The convertible was back (after a nine-year hiatus) and the base coupe had a removable roof panel. The fully electronic instrument displays were reoriented to improve direct sunlight legibility.
Hagerty father/son members Vince and Armen Kachatorian of Glendale, California, have owned the C4 we enjoyed on Highway 33 for 14 months. It’s an original California car powered by a 230-hp 350-cid V-8 and the automatic. The most notable option is the Z51 performance handling package, which includes 16-inch radials; stiffer springs and anti-roll bars; firmer Bilstein dampers and stiffer suspension bushings; quicker steering; and an engine oil cooler.
Next to the pierced, winged, and scooped C8, the C4 is a composition of simple, elegant forms. Its long nose has few curves or creases. The basket-handle Bpillar rises proudly over the sweeping lower body. There’s ample glass to provide occupants with a clear view of their world. Compared with the C8, the C4 is a tidy two-seater: its wheelbase is 11 inches shorter and its overall length is 5.8 inches less. The fourth-generation car is 5.1 inches narrower in width, and it’s 1.9 inches shorter from road to roof. Our calibrated eyeballs rated the C4 "tiny" in comparison with its C8 successor. "Today’s cars-not to mention the people they transport-are, in my opinion, just too damn big," read one logbook entry.
The 1986 Corvette’s handling doesn’t bowl you over after you’ve driven the C8, which benefits from more than three decades of improvement. The steering lacks linearity, and there’s minimal road feel. When you’ve pushed the C4 to the point when its tires are howling, you’re not sure which end of the car is about to break loose. Though the transmission holds each gear to 6000 rpm, the power-to-weight ratio (13.4 lb/hp) isn’t that terrific, and I was surprised to find the brakes less impressive than I remembered from my days racing them in the SCCA. This car clearly illustrates just how far Corvette speed and agility have advanced.
Others thought the C4 felt good considering its age. "Flat in the turns, solid grip, reasonably fast," said one logbook note. "While the Las Vegas light show instrumentation is fun to look at, it’s tough to read at a glance." The tall sills and a center tunnel that dominates the cockpit make this interior feel small and cramped.
Out of the box, the C4 Corvette was a handler, thanks to new rack-and-pinion steering, low-profile radials, and vastly improved suspension geometry.
Emissions controls had taken the edge off the original exhaust note, so the Kachatorians fitted smaller cans to the back. The melody they produced provided all the more reason to remove the roof when possible. There’s surprisingly little cockpit turbulence when the sun shines in.
The preproduction 2020 Corvette loaned to us by Chevrolet came loaded with practically every available extra-cost upgrade: the top 3LT trim, the Z51 performance package, magnetic dampers, nose-lifting equipment, competition seats, spiffy wheels, and more. Options totaling $23,830 drove the $59,995 base price to $83,825, which still undercuts a base Porsche 911 Carrera by nearly $15K.
Moving 500 pounds of engine back several feet and shuffling 250 pounds of transmission parts aft of the rear axle yields a front/rear weight bias of 40/60, a notable improvement over the C7’s 50/50 disposition (a rear weight bias is better for handling). Even in the car’s "burnout mode"-which disables traction control and engages the clutch in first gear at the 6500-rpm redline-there’s precious little tire spin accompanying the head-yanking forward acceleration.
Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter is deathly afraid of lift-throttle oversteer, the result of trauma he experienced riding with a fighter pilot father who owned Porsches. So, in spite of the C8’s rear weight bias, we noticed no hint of loose-tail shenanigans on Highway 33. Even lifting late into bends and tromping the right pedal hard upon exit won’t disrupt this Corvette’s secure grip. We saw several 1.1-g readings in the g-meter that is part of the head-up display, and without sensing much under- or oversteer. The steering feels almost telepathic. The driver picks a spot on the road where she wants to be, commands the car through the steering wheel, and is instantly locked onto the heading of her choice with no second thoughts or corrections required.
The magnetic dampers are simply magnificent in how they contain body motion without imposing harshness, and the car gives the driver a choice of modes depending on his mood. It can seem a lot smaller and lighter at speed than it looks. The steering and brakes both feel organic, and the chassis digests the road with unflappable competence. The squirming and porpoising that testers once felt in previous Corvettes are absent.
Surprisingly, no one griped about the lack of a clutch pedal and shift lever in the new Corvette. The transmission interacts with the shift paddles in so many ways that there’s really no loss of entertainment with the new powertrain. As you attack Highway 33 flat out, your hands and thoughts are fully occupied, so we found it a relief not to have to deal with clutching, rev matching, and shifting procedures. With eight ratios to choose from, the dual-clutch automatic is astute at serving up the right gear for practically every occasion.
Even though the C7-to-C8 weight gain is roughly 70 pounds, the fortified LT2 small-block feels energetic at work. The combination of enhanced traction and slightly improved power-to-weight ratio (7.21 vs. 7.25 lb/hp) yields 0-60 acceleration below three seconds and quarter-mile trap speeds topping 120 mph, according to Chevy. That’s enough to meet or beat a 911 in straight-line acceleration. Nonetheless, our logbook reflects mixed emotions about the latest small-block: "The engine is quiet and subtle back there, but the discordant clicking of injectors is audible, and the 6500-rpm redline feels low in a supercar that isn’t turbocharged."
Still, there are inevitable trade-offs between low-end punch and top-end verve. GM’s engine team has wrung an amazing amount of vitality out of its 6.2-liter small-block without the added expense and weight that the overhead-cam, multi-valve alternative would impose. In other words, given the $60K base price, a buyer should be very happy with everything the small-block and dual-clutch pairing brings to the Corvette party.
The cockpit is riddled with switches, but we all came to terms with it quickly. Outward visibility, however, was another matter. Some of us couldn’t believe GM thought the huge over-the-shoulder blind spots would fly. "It’s not driving, it’s spelunking," commented one wag. One problem is the vast sweep of bodywork behind the B-pillars over the engine bay. The other is that the hatch glass tapers aggressively toward the rear and is angled so close to horizontal that reflections yield a largely opaque view.
To solve this dilemma, a two-way center mirror is standard equipment. One setting provides a conventional look through the two glass panels between the cockpit and the outside world. The other setting is an HD camera view unobstructed by the aforementioned reflections. The downside with the second mode is that your eyes need a split second or two to focus in on the electronic look at what’s behind the car.
There is no such complaint about the C8’s overall quality, however, especially as fitted with the $11,950 3LT trim. The stitched and ventilated leather, the nappy suede, the polished metal accents, and the matte-black display frames are impeccable, while color-keyed hard plastic tactfully guards the door openings.
There’s no doubt that the C8 is a real Corvette. Moving the engine to the middle of the car is an initial step (or three) up the performance ladder while also enabling enticing future possibilities. Electrification, all-wheel drive, and forced induction could all arrive in this generation.
Like the stingray from which it takes its name, the Corvette will thrive by swimming forward. GM knew that as long ago as 1955, when it executed the first significant changes to the model. Since then, each successive generation has moved the needle to varying degrees-but they have all moved it. Those hoping the Corvette will remain the same forever are hoping for extinction. Instead, GM has chosen to draw from its history what it needs while sending its beloved sports car off and running toward its future.
For more articles like this, go to hagerty.com