When GM proudly showed off the new Corvette ZR1 to the Classic Corvette Club UK back in 2008, it was love at first sight for Martin Lynch. Earlier this year, in spite of the difficulties of buying a Corvette in the United Kingdom, he took the plunge and purchased a new ZR1—and therein lies the tale.
It may come as a surprise to learn that if you were to visit any Chevrolet dealer in the UK, you would not see a single Corvette in the showrooms, nor be able to buy one or even have one repaired or serviced. In a country of some 62 million people, there is only one car dealer officially authorized to sell and service Corvettes—Bauer Millett in Manchester, way up in the north of England—and it is not even a Chevrolet dealer. There are only an additional four agents licensed to carry out Corvette warranty work, as well as service and repairs, three of which are former Saab dealers.
This is hardly a confidence-inspiring situation for potential customers, so it is fair to say that anyone who buys and runs a new Corvette in the UK must really love the model. There’s more: In addition to the paucity of dealers, customers must deal with sky-high pricing. In the United States, a C6 coupe starts at $49,600 (£33,066) and a convertible costs $54,600 (£36,400). In the UK, prices for these models start at £62,996 and £71,049, respectively, which is not far off double the price in the U.S.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Corvette sales have been weak in the UK—actually, they’ve been close to non-existent. Published figures show that just two new Corvettes were registered in 2010, and not a single one in 2011. There are, however, plenty of C6s being driven around the British Isles, the vast majority of which are grey-market imports brought over from the U.S.
The Corvette has a rather short history in the United Kingdom. Though it was sold in Europe beginning in 1984, the fourth-generation model was not sold in the UK. But the fifth-gen Corvette was smaller and lighter than its predecessor, more in keeping with British ideas of what a sports car should be, so GM decided to officially import it to the UK. Between 1997 and 2002, the C5 was marketed and sold through Vauxhall dealers in the UK (Opel dealers in Europe), but the expensive, high-performance Corvette did not sit comfortably alongside the econoboxes that are standard-fare on this side of the Atlantic, which hurt sales.
In 2003, GM contracted Kroymans Corporation to import and distribute the Corvette, as well as Cadillac and Hummer vehicles, in Europe. A large, privately owned Dutch company, Kroymans was already the official European importer/distributor for Ferrari, Aston Martin and other prestigious brands. In turn, Kroymans signed up the Pendragon Group to distribute Corvettes and Cadillacs in the UK through its Stratstone retailing division. At this point, the Corvette was no longer sold, or even badged, as a Chevrolet. In 2005, GM began selling Daewoo vehicles as Chevrolets in the UK and Europe—it had bought the South Korean carmaker in 2002—giving further impetus for making the Corvette a brand unto itself.
Both Kroymans and Pendragon spent a fortune on setting up dealerships, which were labeled Cadillac & Corvette Experience Centers. They were banking on the success of the forthcoming Cadillac BLS, a collaboration between Saab and Cadillac due to go on sale in 2006. Predictions of selling 25,000 Cadillacs a year in Europe were wildly optimistic; the BLS was a flop. In 2007, less than 3,000 were built, and production ceased altogether in the summer of 2009. Corvette sales were also extremely poor.
In 2007 Pendragon’s UK exclusivity agreement was withdrawn, and it soon walked away altogether from selling Corvettes and Cadillacs. With GM Europe no longer in existence, it was GM North America that was forced to step in and deal with the UK matter. It made Bauer Millett the sole Corvette distributor and licensed a handful of Saab dealers, which had no previous experience with Corvettes, to provide additional outlets for servicing, repair and warranty work.
Then in 2009, Kroymans, which at its peak two years earlier employed 3,900 people and had annual revenues of approximately three billion dollars, went bankrupt with debts of close to a billion dollars. GM again had to step in to keep things going and to pick up the tab for any warranty claims previously borne by Kroymans. But then GM itself filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. In February 2010, GM sold Saab to the Dutch carmaker Spyker, and then, at the end of 2011, Saab went bust, leaving its Corvette-approved UK dealers high and dry. It was a sorry state of affairs.
Nothing much had changed when Lynch bought his ZR1 from Bauer Millett. He admits that the circumstances were far less than ideal for buying a new Corvette, especially a ZR1 which carried a sticker price close to $200,000 in the UK. Before closing the deal, Lynch says he asked himself, Am I mad? But he was eager to get back into a Corvette.
“I change my cars quite often,” Lynch explains. “I’ve had Ferraris, Bentleys, TVRs, Mercedes, Audis and Porsches. I’ve also had a number of Corvettes, including a C5 convertible, a C6 and a Z06, and have loved them all. My last car was an Audi R8 V10 Spyder which was a brilliant, superbly built and very fast car, but ultimately boring. It left me a bit cold. My wife, Jennifer, said, ‘Why don’t you go and buy another Corvette? You know you love them.’ Within four hours of her saying that I had signed up for a ZR1.”
From Lynch’s perspective, the retail route was preferable to the grey-market one. “With the current exchange rates, I wouldn’t contemplate bringing one in from the U.S. on my own,” he explains. “If it was still two plus dollars to the pound, maybe. Anyway, I prefer doing it the correct way and having a proper UK car with the full, three-year warranty. If something like the gearbox went bang you would easily lose any savings made. And then there’s the better resale value of a UK car. Besides, Bauer Millett offered me a ridiculously good deal.”
Originally, Lynch’s ZR1 was shipped to Bahrain. In the end, though, it was converted to UK specification, including the installation of headlight washers and other required items, and sold to Bauer Millett. Not surprisingly, ZR1s are rare in England. “As far as I know, it is one of only three registered in this country,” says Lynch. “I like that exclusivity.”
Convenience, however, was not part of the deal. Lynch resides some 200 miles away from Bauer Millett, in a lovely, leafy suburb near Windsor Castle, the Queen’s official residence. “The biggest downside of owning a Corvette is the complete lack of dealers,” he says. “It is a risk owning it. If I have problems with it, I’m faced with a trip to Manchester to get it sorted. And after the warranty runs out, you’re on your own. I will probably sell it before then.”
It’s not just the inconvenience of having so few authorized Corvette garages that annoys Lynch, but the quality of the service some of them provide. “When Stratstone looked after my Z06, their service was absolutely atrocious,” he says. “With my Audis and Bentleys I was really looked after, but with Corvette you aren’t. We’ve got ex-Saab dealers looking after the cars, which is mad. It’s not good enough, and it’s why Corvette [sales] won’t really take off in the UK, I think the new C7 will have a hell of a time getting sold over here. It will be an expensive car that’s left-hand drive with no dealer franchise. It’s a dead duck.”
So what’s it like driving a wide, 638-horsepower, left-hand-drive Corvette on the crowded little isle that is England, with narrow city streets and a badly maintained road network that was largely designed for horse and cart? “It’s awesome!” says Lynch, “I still haven’t got used to it. You have to be very careful and give it a lot of respect, unlike my Audi R8 V10, which was rock steady. On motorways and smooth A-roads, the ZR1 is wonderful, but you can’t take liberties down a narrow, bumpy road. You have to concentrate 100 percent because the steering wheel is constantly moving around.”
I asked Lynch how the ZR1 stacks up against his previous Corvette. “Compared with my Z06, the ZR1 is much more powerful but is a more refined drive with a more linear power delivery,” he says. “The ZR1 has a better ride than the Z06 but still jars badly on our poor road surfaces, and that’s on the softer Tour setting. The hard Sport setting is so ridiculously hard you can’t use it on our roads. You can in France, where the roads are like glass. The front spoiler on the ZR1 is set a bit higher than the Z06’s, which makes it less likely to ground out on sleeping policemen [speed bumps], but it’s still low. The thing that used to worry me with the Z06 was being caught in the rain as it would float about all over the place, even at 60 mph. I know two people who have written off their Z06s in the rain. The ZR1 doesn’t float about at all; it is very secure, even in torrential rain.”
I then asked Lynch if there was anything he didn’t like about the ZR1. He replied, “Top gear is too low. There not much of a gap between fifth and sixth, so it’s revving a bit too high on motorways, which doesn’t help fuel consumption. It only averages 14 mpg and less than 10 mpg when you boot it. With petrol at over £6 a gallon, that’s not funny. But the biggest criticism is the interior, which is dreadful. It’s cheap, with poor-quality plastics and the switch gear is like 1970s Datsun, but it does the job. The seats are not supportive enough and nowhere near as comfortable as the old C5’s, and the seat backs are really flimsy. Having said all that, I still love it.”
Lynch kindly offered to let me drive his yellow peril. Rather than go for a motorway blast, we threaded our way down country lanes heading towards Windsor Castle. The clutch is surprisingly light and cogs can be swapped with the merest flick of the wrist. You don’t need to be a body builder to drive this baby. However, give it some throttle and it’s a different story: It takes off like a rocket, so fast that it can catch you unawares and leave your brain lagging behind. You really need to have your wits about you. Huge, torquey power is available on demand at any speed with no lag from the supercharger.
On heavily cambered, potholed roads, the steering wheel kicks back and forth quite hard, and with its rock-hard suspension the car bucks and leaps around a fair bit. You have to grab this Corvette by the scruff of its neck, otherwise you feel it could turn around and bite you. It’s a highly entertaining and engaging drive. It actually reminded me of some of the wild, white-knuckle rides I had trying to tame my wayward, unruly C4, only much faster and more controllable. My own more softly sprung C5 is better suited to these roads.
It doesn’t take long to become accustomed to driving a left hooker in the UK, and most of the time it’s not a problem. One major drawback, however, is trying to overtake on two-lane roads. If you get up close to the vehicle in front, you can’t see oncoming traffic, and if you hang back, you need a much longer gap in order to overtake. Having a powerful car like the ZR1 helps, of course.
Once in Windsor, which was heaving with tourists, we wormed our way around the narrow, cobbled back streets looking for a photo opportunity by the castle. The Corvette is docile and tractable at low speeds, but cobbles and ZR1 suspension don’t mix. In addition, we had to be careful where we parked. All our streets have parallel parking, and great care has to be taken not to “curb” the wheels or scrape the doors on the sidewalk. Our shopping centers and multi-story car parks have very narrow bays and sixth-gen Corvettes have very wide doors; I’ve heard of owners actually being boxed in and not being able to get back into their cars. But these are small prices to pay for having a car with such massive performance.
To put it another way, Lynch doesn’t miss his Audi R8. “I wanted a loud color and a loud car,” he says. “The ZR1 gives me a big grin every time I walk up to it. It’s a very special car. I don’t want to drive it all the time because I want it to remain a special experience. People have said to me, ‘What do you want with all that power?’ If they ask that, they just don’t understand, do they?”