21st Century Design

The 2014 Corvette makes a bold styling statement, but its looks were dictated by engineering demands. We explain the collaborative design process behind the C7’s creation and offer an analysis of the results.

Photo: 21st Century Design 1
July 25, 2013

The days when car stylists came up with a completed design and handed it off to engineers to work out the production details are long gone. To integrate new technologies, meet performance targets and comply with government regulations, today’s designers must work in close collaboration with engineers. According to Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, this was very much the case with the development of the 2014 Corvette Stingray. He says the mutually respectful relationship between Chevrolet Engineering and Design was a “win-win situation” for the C7.

“We were lucky enough to have the same exterior designers on C7 as we did on C6—Tom Peters and Kirk Bennion,” says Juechter. “We knew each other so well that we had each other’s back; we knew what the other needed to be successful.” The two departments respected each other enough that when Engineering said something was impossible, Design believed it. As a result, there was no head-butting between camps, and no need for management to break ties one way or the other. When the latter happens, says Juechter, “You end up with some goofy execution that isn’t technically correct or looks bad. Things need to go hand-in-hand to make a car both look good and work well.”

A good example of this close collaboration is the design of the fender-mounted, rear intakes, which direct air to transmission and differential coolers. As with many aspects of the C7, inspiration for this design came from the C6.R race car, which has these coolers mounted in the rear to improve weight distribution. Juechter wanted to accomplish the same goal with the street car, but was aware of the challenges of such technology transfer. “We weren’t sure it was going to work, that we were heading down a blind alley,” he says.

On the C6.R, Corvette Racing can place the intakes far back, where there’s more low pressure to help pull the air across and into the ducts. But that wasn’t an option on the street car, because this placement would have compromised luggage room—the C6.R’s heat exchangers are mounted in the trunk. On the C7, the intakes needed to be placed farther forward to meet packaging requirements. Because the heat exchangers are fairly big and require a substantial amount of airflow, the intakes needed to be correspondingly large. This meant stylists had to come up with a surface that could accommodate them and also generate the necessary airflow characteristics. They found that pushing the ducts out as far as possible to the edge of the car was optimal, since that was where the air pressure was the lowest. The result is the wide, flat surface at the top of the rear fenders that extends forward along the top of the door. “Those aren’t just big shoulders put on the car because they look good,” says Juechter, “there’s a real functional reason for taking this shelf way out before it goes down; it helps catch air and direct it down into the duct.”

The two teams also had to design the plastic strakes, or “wings,” that help funnel air into the intakes, as well as the mesh pattern that keeps unwanted substances out. The exact shapes were determined by the use of computational fluid dynamics and wind tunnel testing. Says Juechter, “We had to collaborate unbelievably to come up with something that looked good, that was integrated in the surface and that met all criteria, including things like snow ingestion.”

Photo: 21st Century Design 2

It’s one thing to design something like an air intake; the real challenge is to integrate that feature into the rest of the overall design. “You start with functional elements, but you have to tie them together in some way,” says Juechter. In the pursuit of this aim, the design team took inspiration from aeronautics. “If you look in the Design studio, you’ll see pictures all around of fighter aircraft like the F-22 Raptor.” explains Juechter. “You don’t style an aircraft, it’s all driven by function—aerodynamic function being primary. Tom Peters loves the resulting design language that comes out of aircraft: a fuselage transitioning into wings continuously.”

The C7’s hood vent is a good example of this approach to design. The function of reducing aerodynamic lift was the main driver for adding this feature. As with the C6.R, the vent helps reduce high-pressure buildup under the hood. (Unlike the race car, however, only the top third of the Stingray’s forward-tilting radiator is ducted to the vent; the rest of it is ducted into the engine compartment and out the fender vents.) According to Juechter, the question is, “How do you integrate it in a way that doesn’t look tacked on?” Designers chose to do this through the use of numerous hood creases. One bisects the center of the vent, emphasizing the bend in the strakes; two others flank its perimeter, suggesting outward flow—form following function.

The C7’s aerodynamic lift has been reduced nearly to the point of creating downforce, but drag has stayed about the same: around 0.29. That’s because, fundamentally, the basic shape of the car has not changed that much. For example, the rear decklid height has remained the same since the C5. “It’s optimal for a car with these proportions, this width, this length,” says Juechter. “If you push it down any more, you actually get more drag. That’s what makes the race car so good: starting off with a fundamentally sound body shape.”

However, some proportions have changed slightly, including front and rear track widths, which have been increased roughly an inch to improve handling. The C6 was narrower than the C5 to make it more amenable to European customers. It was designed to be exactly 1.85 meters wide; any wider and it wouldn’t fit in parking garages. As it turns out, though, Europeans see the Corvette as an exotic car and aren’t so concerned with such practical matters. “As soon as the Z06 came out,” says Juechter, “they said, we don’t want that skinny little car; we want the wide one.” As result, base-car sales dropped dramatically. Chevrolet decided it wasn’t going to make the same mistake again with the new Stingray. “We’re starting with a Grand Sport replacement,” Juechter continues. “We wanted the width, we wanted the street presence.”

On the other hand, the C7 has a narrower waist than the C6; there’s more of a Coke-bottle effect. According to Juechter, “If you put a straight edge between the wheels, and look at how far inboard the narrowest point is, you’d see that it’s many inches pushed in; there’s a lot of shape going in there.” Usually, this feature would be to the detriment of drag performance, which is why most extremely low-drag cars are slab sided, but the Stingray’s designers were able to minimize any increase in drag through subtle surface manipulation. The result is a more attractive body shape, one that incorporates the curvaceous form of the third-generation car, while still making a modern statement.

Photo: 21st Century Design 3

Corvette Exterior Design Manager Kirk Bennion sums up the C7, as well as the collaborative process that led to its creation, with the following: “It’s said that form follows function, but in the case of the aerodynamic 2014 Corvette, form and function work cohesively to produce beautiful purpose.”

A Skillful Arrangement of Parts

I’ve been around long enough to witness the introduction of every generation of Corvette including the first, which I saw at GM’s 1953 Motorama Show back when we romantically called such speculative prototypes “dream cars” instead of “concepts.” I welcomed the fact that an American automaker had finally decided to make something at least resembling a sports car, even if it didn’t measure up to my ideal at the time, the Jaguar XK120. The realities of the automotive marketplace demand that cars be periodically replaced or refreshed over time, so I have watched six more generations of Corvettes come into being over the intervening 60 years.
Engineering improvement aside, the success of any new car hinges largely on it looking new and different. Each new model must differ visually from competitors and its own predecessors in order to grab attention, stir passions and stoke desires. Like a newspaper or novel already read, a new car becomes less interesting and exciting each time you see it. So, like journalists and novelists, car designers are necessarily caught up in an incessant cycle of coming up with the next new thing.

This regeneration happens about every three or four years in the American marketplace, often with less radical, mid-cycle face-lifts. Makers of low-volume cars like the Corvette can’t justify such frequent changes because the cost of design, engineering, testing and production tooling for a brand-new model have to be amortized over longer periods. The C6, which began as a 2005 model, was in production for nine years.

Like any design, new or old, the C7’s was bound to be controversial to some degree. Beauty is indeed within the eye of the beholder, and each beholder has different eyes determined by all his or her past experience and the consequent values, beliefs and expectations that have shaped their mindset.

Whether you like or dislike a design depends on the mix of visual elements that are relatively familiar and unfamiliar. If you can’t make sense of it somehow, you won’t feel comfortable with this new thing and you’ll dislike it. Different people have different appetites and tolerance levels for novelty. Some like a lot and don’t need much explanation. Most cars bore them. Others can tolerate only a little and the reasons for it had better be really good.

Photo: 21st Century Design 4

Most past and present Corvette owners I talked to said they liked the way the C7 honors the “Corvette look,” saying, “You know it’s a Vette when you see it.” The most frequent complaint they voiced concerned the trapezoidal taillights, which depart from the Corvette norm: “They ruin the design! They should be round or oval!” Other people say the C7 isn’t new enough. They wish designers had reached farther for something more radical, that differed as much from the C6 as the ’63 differed from the ’53 model.

When I first saw photos of the new Corvette, it didn’t light my fire. But, when I finally got an opportunity to examine the Stingray up close, I was surprised by how much I liked it—more, in fact, than any Corvette since the original Sting Ray.

Corvette Exterior Design Manager Kirk Bennion told me he cast a wide net in his search for inspiration for C7 styling by inviting designers from all ten of GM’s global network of design studios to submit concepts. Although he mentioned no particulars, the concepts probably expressed all three of the general design strategies designers and planners have to choose from whenever they are given a clean sheet of paper, each embodying a different mix of novel and familiar visual cues: evolutionary, retro or revolutionary.
The choice of which way to go boils down to a matter of how much novelty is tolerable—and how much familiarity it takes to make the design seem normal enough. Novelty or any of its correlates (strangeness, unexpectedness, unusualness, etc.) provokes a degree of discomfort. The responsible stimulus will be disliked unless and until the stimulus also displays an air of familiarity, or normalcy, or it simply makes sense.

An evolutionary design carries familiar visual characteristics from the current and previous models forward into the new model. They are likely refined and sometimes exaggerated to give them more aesthetic impact. Evolution is chosen most often because its lack of shocking novelty and high degree of familiarity make it the least controversial choice. It capitalizes on a car’s established brand image and bolsters through perpetuation. It can be new enough to seem fresh, even exciting to some degree, but must be familiar enough to seem normal and fashionable. The Porsche 911 is probably the best example of the evolutionary strategy at work.

Today’s evolutionary designs conform to fashionable norms with clichés, including decorative creases, ridges and depressions along the body sides and on hoods; canted, sharp-featured headlight that peer angrily from corners of fenders. A sports car must have large wheels with an odd number of spokes—five, seven or nine but never four, six or eight, lest it be mistaken for a wimpy sedan. All these visual cues are meant to express speed, power and anger—a sad commentary on our age.

Photo: 21st Century Design 5

Retro design, as exemplified by VW’s New Beetle and BMW’s Mini, is an extreme form of evolutionary design that reaches further back in history for its inspiration. It takes advantage of the fact that an old design theme eventually becomes rare enough to seem new. But retro’s benefits flow chiefly from the psychic comfort of nostalgia.

Revolutionary design is the riskiest design because of its relatively high degree of novelty, and typically appeals only to a small segment of consumers, at least initially. This strategy succeeds only when the car’s novelty rises to the level of epochal innovation. Ford’s Model T, the original VW Beetle, the original Mini and the Toyota Prius were revolutionary designs. Such unusual cars are often considered strange, weird or downright ugly. If the innovation is truly significant, however, such an ugly duckling can prove extremely valuable as a brand booster—as Toyota has learned.

Bennion chose an evolutionary concept from a designer in his own studio, Hwasup Lee, a Korean-born Art Center graduate. In its finished form, the Stingray is delightfully devoid of the clutter so common on modern cars, with fewer clichés. Its design displays an uncommon sense of harmony and elegance the ancient Romans called concinnity, which literally means “a skillful arrangement of parts.” It’s difficult to describe in words, but you know concinnity when you see it or, more to the point, feel the warm comfort it conveys.

It is evidenced by: symmetry; similarities; mathematical simplicity; parallel and perpendicular relationships; alignments; and convergence of lines to a common point. All of these contribute to an overall sense of simplicity. Concinnity contributes to a design’s overall sense of normalcy and familiarity even when seen for the first time.

The unusually subtle creases around the 2014 Corvette’s headlights are good examples of concinnity. The principal crease along the fender and beltline goes through the headlight, parallel to its outside edge; the crease from the windshield pillar runs parallel to its inside edge. This visual balance is pleasing to the eye. The same is true of the way each rear air intake is a symmetrical reflection of the rear quarter window and the way the hatch break parallels the rear edge of the intake, before bisecting the corner of the window perpendicularly. The unfamiliarity of the taillight’s trapezoidal shape may be off-putting to Corvette traditionalists, but the parabolic design of the vents next to them helps create harmony—without them, the taillights would be even more polarizing.—Del Coates

Del Coates is a former car designer—he worked for Studebaker-Packard, Ford and Nissan—and Professor Emeritus of Industrial Design and Ergonomics at San Jose State University.

Also from Issue 84

  • 1966 Big Block
  • 2010 Grand Sport Coupe
  • Buyer’s Guide: $10K
  • 1959 Restomod
  • Alan Bean 1969 big-block coupe
  • Tech: C7 Tires
  • Profile: Tom Wallace
  • Racing: Le Mans
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