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Friday
Jan042013

Three Stories From No Story

By Christopher A. Sawyer

The real C7 Corvette.During the holidays I was reading the news section of one of the “brand name” car magazines. Its lead story, not surprisingly, concerned the new 6.2-liter small block LT1 V8 to be used in the next-generation Chevy Corvette.

It’s a pretty trick motor, and one that may have more room for efficiency improvement than many expect due, in part, to its large capacity. I marveled at how GM engineers were able to tame the shudder that ran through the drivetrain, from the front-mounted engine to the rear-mounted transmission, when the engine was running on four of its eight cylinders. Also of interest was the high-tumble fuel-air mixing, 11.5:1 compression ratio, and centralized spark plugs; a tough thing to do on a pushrod motor.

That’s when I read the piece about what comes next; a perennial problem in this industry. Just as you introduce a new motor, the press is hot to find out what comes next. Speculation persists that GM is working on a 5.5-liter version of the new V8 (speculation I’m not sure I buy), and this engine will spawn both stop/start technology on the Corvette and the return of the Stingray model. It was at this point that the late Gerry Kobe, God have mercy on his soul, came to mind.

The LT1 engine from the outside...From November 1989 to February 1996, I worked at Automotive Industries magazine with John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke and Gerry Kobe. GK had a mop of straight hair combed forward, a 1970s porn star moustache (his description), wire-rimmed glasses, and a devastating sense of humor. He once told me that his full name was Gerald Gerard Kobe (“That’s right. I’m Gerry Gerry Kobe,” he said.), and that his brother, Jim, told him to cultivate a personality because, “No woman is ever going to talk to you because of your looks.” And he did. When he wanted to, GK could charm the birds from the trees.

He also was good at calming me down when I’d get agitated; something that happens more than I’d like. Not long after we had co-written a major piece on the materials future cars would be made of—an imaginative piece wherein we took all we had learned and built it around an awards ceremony for our fictitious car—we had to fill the news section in the front of the magazine. Never an easy task, I was wracking my brain to come up with a nugget or two we could use. In desperation, I walked into his office—down the hall, around the corner and right on top of the conference room—to ask for help.

“Obviously you’ve never heard of three stories from no story,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner. I hadn’t. In fact, I had no clue what he was talking about. “It’s simple. One month you run a story: ‘Chrysler to Build V12 Engine.’ The next month you run their denial: ‘Chrysler Denies V12 Engine.’ And the third month you top it off with: ‘Chrysler Cancels V12 Engine.’ This gives you three stories from no story.”

...and from the inside.It was genius. No one could deny that Chrysler had a V12 engine in development; automakers look at new technologies all of the time. When the company denied it, well that was just Chrysler covering up the fact that it had a V12 up its sleeve. Denial of something like this is standard operating procedure, and much more effective than the predictable, “We don’t discuss future product plans,” drivel the PR folks usually reply with. Finally, by claiming the V12 engine was cancelled, you never had to come up with proof the engine really existed, and Chrysler could categorically deny that it ever existed. Programs often get cancelled well before any metal is cut.

I never made use of this tactic, though it was very tempting, and I knew better than to ask if Gerry had done it himself. He never would have told me. I did, however, have this game played in reverse against me, ironically by someone from Chrysler, when he convinced me the company was working on a Hemi V8-based V10 that would replace the Viper engine. This 7.1-liter motor would be lighter, more powerful and have better technology than the outgoing motor, and would be a direct competitor for Ford’s very real concept V10. I think I still have bits of the hook stuck in my mouth.

Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. I once tried it, in abbreviated form, to make a point.

In August of 2010, I was asked by a former boss to fill in for him on his magazine’s blog while he took a well-deserved vacation. I used the opportunity to take on rumors about a mid-engined Corvette powered by a high-output V6 engine that were surfacing at the time. There had been a mid-engined Corvette created as part of a two-tier Corvette structure, where the “C7” would be conventional front engine/rear drive and the “C8” would take on Porsche, Ferrari et al. I also mixed in scuttlebutt about a renegade government accountant’s attempts to influence Corvette design, work done by Saab engineers on a twin-clutch transaxle, some history on mid-engined Corvettes past, and topped it off with my own speculation about a new, electrified and mid-engined ‘Vette. It went as follows:

Mid-Engined Corvettes And Other Myths

Word that Karl Stracke, v.p. of Global Engineering at GM recently visited with the folks at Automotive News and AutoWeek to quash rumors of mid-engined and V6-powered Corvettes comes as no surprise. Speculation surrounding mid-engined Corvettes is an industry unto itself, going back to at least 1959 when the Corvette’s chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, began messing with a mid-engined design in the late 1950s.

Arkus-Duntov, Chevy general manager Ed Cole and GM Design chief Bill Mitchell were quite taken with the performance possibilities presented by the layout, and the sportiness of the then-new Corvair. Building such a car would have catapulted Corvette far ahead of its international competition (only Porsche had its engine behind the driver at the time), and wiped out the embarrassment of the 1957 Corvette SS racer. It would have been a moon shot 10 years ahead of Apollo 11. [For those who are curious, the leading 1959 design looked like the 1963-1967 Corvette in convertible form. The cockpit was a bit forward on the wheelbase, and a large faired-in scoop ahead of each rear wheel brought cooling air to the engine compartment. The project never went forward to production, though GM continued to play with mid- and rear-engined Corvettes for decades.]

This time around, however, the rumors about a mid-engined Corvette were more than just rumors. There was a serious program to build a Ferrari/Porsche/Aston Martin rival with the Chevy bow tie emblem on the nose. Insiders say Bob Lutz and GM Design chief Ed Welburn were the biggest proponents of the new car, which would have been part of a multi-step Corvette family.

Both Lutz and Welburn dislike the bulkiness of the current Corvette, despite is relatively diminutive dimensions, and hate that Corvette is not held in high esteem in international circles. They set out to change that with a two-pronged approach.

At the lower end, the “C7” Corvette would shrink in size, and be powered by a physically smaller and more powerful direct-injection V8. Composite materials would continue to be used for the bodywork, and high-line versions would get carbon fiber clothes and twin turbochargers. In addition, the interior would finally meet expectations, with a hand-stitched leather dash cover, tasteful design, fewer and better plastics, and build quality that rivals Porsche.

The next rung of the ladder would be the mid-engined car. To keep size under control, the V8 powerplants would be transversely mounted and drive through a dual-clutch gearbox. Saab took the lead on gearbox design, and was told to package-protect for both naturally aspirated and turbocharged versions. External dimensions were pegged to Porsche’s 911, and the price tag was rumored to start just above $100,000.

The mid-engined 2002 Cadillac Cien concept.Unfortunately for this car, the cost of the semi-automatic dual-clutch gearbox rose precipitously, and eventually scuttled the program. Or so the story goes. Some also have suggested that the government took a dim view of a mid-engined Corvette supercar at a time when taxpayer funds were being used to bail out the automaker. My sources say Lutz and Welburn tried everything to save the project, including adding a Cadillac version to help defray the costs. This car would have replaced the XLR as Cadillac’s two-seat flagship, and included a convertible version perfect for cruising to your yacht anchored in Monaco’s harbor during the annual Formula One race. Reportedly, it never made it beyond the sketch phase, but would have been a direct competitor for Audi’s lovely R8.

With tougher fuel economy and emission standards on the horizon, plans were made to fit the cars with high-output V6 engines. No one expected them to be used, but they were there just in case. After all, all “real” Corvettes, except for those built before 1955, have V8s.

While all of this was going on, members of the Automotive Task Force began prowling around GM’s Warren Tech Center, and making nuisances of themselves. I have been told of one accounting type who insisted GM could double Corvette sales by fitting the car with Lamborghini-style scissor doors. Day after day this fellow insisted this was the “one thing” the Corvette really needed to break out from the crowd, and was not shy in pushing his point. Engineers finally quashed the idea by claiming that simulations showed the doors could not be retrofit, and could increase the chance of driver or passenger injury under certain circumstances.

So the C7 Corvette with its conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout moves forward. It will be smaller, lighter and better built. There will not, at least for now, be any V6 versions. Nor will GM’s coming light-duty turbo-diesel be used, though word is that it would fit without too much hammer-induced “persuasion.”

However, rumors have resurfaced concerning a new mid-engined Corvette for 2015. Though currently not part of the official product plan (that makes it easy to deny), it features a lithium-ion battery pack packaged into the floor for a low center of gravity and a concentration of the weight within the wheelbase. Aimed at cars like Porsche’s 918 and the coming electric Mercedes-Benz SLS, the electric ‘Vette features a Chevy Volt-style range extender gasoline engine, individual motors at each wheel, and the ability to cruise for more than 50 miles on electric power alone in two-wheel drive mode.

The individual hub motors not only give the car four-wheel drive capability, they allow the stability control system to vector torque both front-to-back and side-to-side for greater traction and better handling.  Torque output in the 600 lb-ft range has been mentioned, as has a top speed of 200 mph. Drawings exist of the car in full race regalia, suggesting an attempt at the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans. Price has yet to be set, but…

Sorry. Just kidding.

What astonished me was how many readers of that blog wrote panting notes wanting to know more about the fictitious mid-engined 2015 Corvette. Either they hadn’t seen the “Just kidding” remark or they willfully ignored it. I had to write them back, telling them that no such car existed. It was a figment of my imagination, built up from feasible ideas, and designed to prove a point… and to entertain. Most got it, one cussed me out. Gerry Kobe would have been proud.

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