Barry Grussner has been a Corvette junkie since he was a high school kid in the 1960s. He fawned over the original two-seater until he was able to buy his first, a used 1962 model.
Eight Corvettes later, Grussner is one of the first to have reserved the radically changed car that General Motors Co. is showing off Thursday evening in Tustin and will start producing this summer. Chief Executive Mary Barra will be at the event to unveil the first-ever Corvette with the engine built into the middle of the car, just behind the two seats.
It’s a design approach that the likes of Lamborghini and Ferrari have taken for years to better balance the weight of the car and improve handling. It also pushes the cabin forward and raises the back haunches, making the car look more like a cat that’s ready to pounce.
“You get an engine in back like Porsches and Ferraris,” said Grussner, 71, who owns a machine shop in the Detroit suburb of Wayne, Mich. “With a mid engine, it’s going to be a great handling car, and if it looks like the sketches I’ve seen, it will look great too.”
At a time when consumers are far more interested in SUVs and investors are keen to hear about carmakers’ plans to deploy futuristic robotaxis, an all-new Corvette seems so 1998. The market share for sports cars has been shrinking for several years. Yet GM is adding 400 workers and a second production shift at its plant in Bowling Green, Ky., in a big bet on booming demand for a reimagined American icon.
It’s an audacious move. As baby boomers have gotten older, they’ve been leaving sports cars for sport utility vehicles with more space and creature comforts. Corvette sales have fallen every year since 2014, including a 25% drop last year to less than 19,000 units. Sales are down an additional 10% this year as GM prepares to bring out the newest-generation car.
Big profits are at stake. Credit Suisse analyst Dan Levy estimates that the Corvette brings in $24,000 in variable profit per car, which accounted for about 3% of GM’s North American operating earnings last year.
GM’s biggest challenge may have less to do with appealing to existing owners than with getting a new generation of sports-car enthusiasts to take a look. To do that, Chevy will have to overcome less-than-ideal generalizations about who buys Corvettes.
“The hold-back for younger buyers with Corvette has not been the engine location. It’s the image,” said Eric Noble, president of the CarLab, a consulting firm in Orange. “The image is some old white guy with a mustache who’s on his third wife.”
GM has invested $900 million in the Bowling Green plant since 2011. In June, the factory was using just 20% of its potential production, according to researcher LMC Automotive. When the carmaker announced late last year that facilities in Ohio and Michigan didn’t have future products to build, it started transferring workers to other locations, with the Corvette plant being one destination.
GM needs the mid-engine car to be a hit to justify the expansion, but finding growth in the sports-car market “is a tall order,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. “People just don’t want sports cars as much as they used to.”
Chevy is trying to appeal to first-time buyers with new technology features, GM spokesman Chris Bonelli said, without elaborating on what new gadgets the new Corvette will offer.
Plenty of Corvette die-hards are lining up for the car. Paul Stanford, who owns one of the largest Corvette dealerships in the U.S., said he has 170 people who have put down “a couple thousand dollars” to get on the waiting list and reserve one. He said GM is telling its dealers that it expects to be able to steal away some buyers of high-end European brands.
“People looking at these $250,000 mid-engine cars will look at this and see true value,” said Stanford, whose Chevrolet store is in Dearborn, Mich. “Chevy is looking for a big opportunity with this car.”
Corvette buffs have been clamoring for a mid-engine sports car since GM first brought the model to life in 1953, said Kelly Ryan, president of the Corvette Club of America. While it’s controversial among front-engine fans, he thinks it’s the right move. “This will be a giant step forward,” Ryan said. “It’s about time. I’ll buy one.”
With a starting price on the current model of $56,000 for the entry-level Stingray, Corvette has sold well in part by offering high performance for far less than European sports cars. But while the mid-engine configuration may improve handling, it also may make the car less appealing as a daily driver, CarLab’s Noble said.
There will always be a debate around engine positioning, said Jon Thorn, editor of the Corvette Club’s newsletter. When the current, seventh-generation Corvette ditched the round taillights for a more geometric look, some fans revolted. Many of those traditionalists don’t like the mid-engine idea, either. Same goes for a manual transmission, which purists insist upon.
“Every time they have introduced a new car, someone has complained about something,” Thorn said. The only thing he worries about is that a stick-shift version lives on.
Ryan said younger members are joining the Corvette Club, and he expects the new car to accelerate that generational shift. He sees the mid-engine debate as nothing compared with what the future holds.
“I figure in five years we’ll see an electric Corvette,” Ryan said. “This may be the last major change to a Corvette that runs on gasoline.”
If Ryan is right, the die-hards will really have something to argue about then.