Four Score

Michael Lamm recalls how a series of new ideas and untested technologies developed into the first fully modern Corvette.

April 1, 2008
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By the late 1970s, the Corvette was one of the few GM cars still being engineered by a single division. Up through the ‘60s every division had done its own cars—Chevy engineered Chevys, Cadillacs were by Cadillac, and so on—but by ’72 that was no longer the case. No single division had anything like full responsibility for its products under GM’s new organizational scheme.

Instead, so-called “lead divisions” had been given overall en­gineering responsibility for discrete systems and component sets. Chevrolet had been tasked with engineering most of the corporation’s engines and front suspensions. Pontiac’s role was to develop rear axles and fuel tanks. Buick got to focus on brakes. Cadillac was assigned automatic climate controls.

The philosophy, which was supposed to lower costs by reducing redundant efforts, went even further in ‘77, with the introduction of GM “project centers.” This plan began bringing together engineers from different divisions and disciplines to work on specific platforms. Groups of engineers, including those from Fisher Body and GM Design Staff, were parked side-by-side in rooms the size of football fields to work on GM’s next-generation cars, which would then be dispersed amongst nameplates. The late-‘70s/early-’80s X-Car (Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, etc.), J-Car (including Cavalier and Sunfire), F-Car (Camaro/Firebird), and others were born and raised in GM project centers.

But the Corvette was different. Indeed, only two GM cars of the era escaped the project centers: Corvette and Fiero. And while Fiero got plenty of outside aid from Fisher Body, C-P-C, and other GM groups, Corvette was a pure-Chevy program—because the division fought tooth and nail to keep it that way.

Indeed, the C4 project was run like a mini-division all its own. From Day One, Chevrolet retained full responsibility for every facet of the car’s engineering, giving the model a distinction and character unlike that of any other GM product—which was the plan all along. In an era during which most GM cars were criticized for their blandness and sameness, the Corvette had soul, style, and personality. In large part, that’s why it’s still here today.

Craziness Helps

Consider the typical Corvette engineer. If you picture somebody bright, progressive, aspiring, performance-oriented, enthusiastic, and a little apart from his brethren, that’s about right. The average C4 engineer was in his mid-30s when he—it was almost, but not always, a "he"—worked on the car. As C4 body engineer Paul Huzzard put it, “We’ve always been a young group and a slightly odd one. A person doesn’t have to be crazy to work on the Corvette, but sometimes it helps.”

After decades of being run by a small team beneath Zora Duntov, the fourth-gen Corvette was the responsibility of a relatively new chief engineer, Dave McLellan. His staff averaged about 35 Chevrolet engineers during the most active periods of the program. Also assigned to McLellan were nine engineers from GM’s central engineering staff and several computers. Additional support came from GM’s supplier divisions, such as the various Delcos, Harrison Radiator, Guide, GMAD, AC, and Saginaw. An­other 41 engineers were on call from De­troit Industrial Engineering (DIE), a private contractor that followed through on such routine but necessary design functions as drafting, creating blueprints, and re-checking assorted numerical details.

Also from Issue 40

  • 2009 C6 ZR1 debut
  • 1965 big block at Goodwood Revival
  • Comparison Test: 2007 vs. 2008 Z06
  • 2009 Indy Pace Car
  • Saddle Tan Split-Window
  • Rare Aztec Gold 1998 coupe
  • Market Report: C4
  • CRC’s C1-look C5 convertible
  • Callaway B2K at Bloomington
  • How-To: C2 radiator support repair
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