Curbside Classic: 1990 Chevrolet Corvette – GM’s Deadly Sin #9 – Loss Of Soul

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(first posted at TTAC in 2010, at CC on 4/1/2013)    I walked well past this Corvette before I stopped and gave it a backwards glance. I wavered momentarily, gauging my feelings. Yes, it was fast and pulled impressive numbers on a skid pad. But numbers alone do not make the car. And my feelings meter just wasn’t moving one way or another, so I almost moved on. Call it the Madonna of sports cars? Then it hit me: this is the most soulless sports car ever, with a heart of plastic. The C4 Corvette sold its soul to the devil of numbers. And in my catechism, that’s a Deadly Sin.

The C4 was a technocart: seemingly designed to meet a few key stats, but all the other qualities that truly make a memorable car were forgotten. I remember vividly Chevy crowing about how their new ’84 C4 was the first production car to pull over one G on the skid pad. Who cared, when the ride to the mythical glass-smooth skid pad was so punishingly hard that every pebble in the road became a menace to one’s health?

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The eighties were GM’s worst decade ever, because the whole company had sold its soul to the numbers devil, Roger Smith. Everything at GM became reduced to numbers, resulting in…ever worse numbers. Of course, like most new GM cars that arrived during this period, the initial shortcomings were eventually attended to over the next few years, thanks to the screaming feedback from the paying beta testers.

But their endless complaints about the C4′s profound lack of structural cohesiveness were beyond just jiggering with the springs and shocks. The C4 was fundamentally flawed in that regard, and it made painfully clear how the plastic Chevy differed from a Porsche, much the same as it had been thirty years earlier. Certain deeply ingrained personality traits are hard to shed.

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The C4′s styling reflects its soulless character, or is it the other way around? Bill Mitchell, the soul father of the stunning 1963 C2 and the flamboyant 1968 C3 was highly dismissive of the C4, designed just after his retirement. I suspect the new Corvette wasn’t the only thing coming out of GM he felt that way about. Of course something a bit cooler than the emotive and exaggerated C3 was inevitable. It’s not so bad, from a distance. Get close, and it looks like a cheap kit car cobbled up by the kids down the street. Is it really a Fiero with a Corvette body kit?

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That doesn’t even do justice to the interior: it looks like it came from some East Bloc country in the dying days of communism. It never fit together properly when new, and now it looks like it’s about to discombobulate. Maybe this one hasn’t exactly been pampered, but look at it! It’s coming apart at the seams, literally. This alone is one big nasty reason why old Corvettes of this vintage are not very appealing. Cheap; brittle, soul-less.

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Well, at least the new generation reconnected with the Corvette’s inner V8. After the miserable decline in the small block’s output for almost a decade, the C4 marked the turning point. There really was a redeeming feature to Roger’s love of technology! Fuel injection to the rescue, as well as whatever it took to get the venerable sbc to start breathing again. The resuscitation efforts started very modestly, with the highly mediocre cross-fire (two Iron Duke TBI units?) 5.7 V8 extracting all of 205 hp. But when the General finally sprung for genuine port injection, like the 1957 once had, long slumbering horses slowly began to stir again.

The incremental improvements came in clusters of five or ten ponies at a time, and by 1990, it was up to all of 240, almost back to 1974′s 245 hp LT-1. But that vaunted name returned for 1992, with a new LT1 that finally packed some serious punch: 300 hp. The Corvette was back! And the LT1 made the vastly more expensive ZR-1 look irrelevant, given that it cost twice as much for an extra 75 hp. Call me a wet blanket, but the ZR-1 was another numbers bragging fest whose numbers didn’t add up.

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Not surprisingly, the C4 Corvette was a weak seller. Once the pent-up interest of the first two years were gone, it bumbled along at around 20k units, less than half the rate of what its aged and fairly lethargic C3 predecessor was selling through most of the seventies. That alone confirms it: soul sells; numbers don’t.

Postscript: In case anyone thinks I’m a Corvette hater, the subsequent generation (C5) finally got the technical issues right, if not quite the styling. The C6 solved those remaining issues. They are true world-class cars, unlike the C4.