Key to sports car's legacy is evolution, not revolution BY JIM SCHAEFER FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER January 12, 2004 Dave Hill's epiphany came when the fifth-generation Chevrolet Corvette was fresh and new. It was the late 1990s. Hill, chief engineer of the hallowed car, was showing off the sexy redesign to a group of special guests. "A woman said, 'Oh, gee, you bring out this wonderful, beautiful new car -- and have those old-fashioned headlamps on it," Hill said recently. And there it was. Old-fashioned headlamps. Years later, Hill would make it his mission to ensure the next-generation Corvette -- the one being unveiled at the North American International Auto Show -- would do away with one of Corvette's oldest signatures. The pop-up headlights would be no more. If you're unsure of the significance of this, Gary Cockriel can explain in a flurry of incredulity. Cockriel will tell you no Corvette since 1962 has had regular headlights, that Corvette owners love the lamps that pop up from the front hood and that -- oh, my gosh -- the car just doesn't look right without them. Cockriel is as justified as anyone to vent. He has, after all, owned 16 'Vettes, including his current 1998 convertible. On a recent day in an office filled with Corvette memorabilia, he was at once prickly and cautious as he weighed his feelings about the redesign. "I gotta be careful," he said, pausing, as if any criticism would betray a blood relative. Cockriel works at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., down the road from the assembly plant where all 'Vettes are born. But hearing about Hill's epiphany stuck too hard in his craw. "I feel they need to call Corvette people, not some little old lady," he said. A rocket for the road To drive a 'Vette is to unleash a two-seat rocket on a road where most other rides putter like a Zamboni. Punch the gas in a 405-horsepower Z06 and your head snaps back, the speedometer shoots past 100, and your friend riding shotgun is thinking, Please, man -- Oh, for the love of God! -- ease off. The 51-year-old Corvette is the oldest continuously produced sports car in the United States. Hill, Corvette chief engineer since 1992, oversaw the fifth-generation car unveiled in 1997 and embarked on the latest redesign almost immediately. In its life, the 'Vette has had but five major redesigns and three chief engineers. Hill's '97 version, which gave the car bigger hips and flash than its predecessor, rejuvenated the car line when it was vulnerable during General Motors Corp.'s cost-cutting in the 1990s. Inside Design North The epicenter for the 400 people who worked on the new Corvette lies on the northeast campus of GM's Tech Center in Warren, in a secured building called Design North. Chris Knack, a guy who drives a minivan, led a team of artists who shaped the new Corvette's curves into clay prototypes. Most of the people who worked on the latest model have experience with other cars and trucks. But they say they never had an assignment like this one. Knack worked for 20 years at Chrysler and helped create the retro PT Cruiser before joining GM in 1999. In 2001, GM tapped him as lead 'Vette sculptor. The Corvette assignment drew some sniping from envious coworkers. "The passion around that vehicle, I've never seen anything like it," Knack said. "It is truly the most important vehicle I've worked on." The trick to redesigning the Corvette, designers say, is to tweak it, not make it over. Evolution, not revolution. The smallest details The latest version took three years on the books, but Hill said his team was making mental notes even as the fifth generation rolled out in '97. Early on, engineers and designers came up with sketches and computer images. They took the current model and covered its interior with green stickers in areas that needed improvement. Sculptors used their hands and milled with machines to craft 10 four-foot-long models from clay, based on math from engineers. The models covered the spectrum from curvaceous 'Vettes to boxy ones. At five clinics in Germany and the United States, Hill and crew showed their ideas to Corvette enthusiasts and owners of competitive cars like Porsches. By February 2000, engineers were musing over the controversial new headlights, taping paper circles on top of the current pop-ups to simulate the new look, which resembles three camera lenses. They toyed with two projectors in each headlamp assembly before settling on three. Full-sized clay models evolved, crafted in Design North on frames of wood and foam. "Even if you were going to sell coffee cups, before you'd ask for 10,000 to be made, you'd want to hold it and drink out of it," Knack said. "And if you would do that with a coffee cup, you certainly would do that with a legend such as the Corvette." Lead designer Tom Peters, who likens his job to creating music, viewed literally every inch of every model. He can show you, for instance, a body section that was troublesome during development. He'll run his hands over the front end, caressing the car as if playing a harp, his finger eventually pausing over a tiny flaw -- a crease the size of a dime. "See that?" he'll ask. Well, no. You don't really see that, not unless you're an automotive designer with a keen eye. But you get the picture. Detail. The interior went the same. A magnetic door handle was devised, and workers were asked to sit inside a mock-up and put the handle where it felt comfortable. Other decisions were trickier. The new Corvette bears a cove side similar to its immediate predecessor, but the car almost had a completely different look. Knack said many of the sculptors favored gill slits down the side that evoked the styling of the 1960s Sting Ray. Over roughly nine months, he and others handcrafted different body sides, shaping ridges in the clay and covering the panels with a special decal that looks like painted metal. Every week, a new model was completed and rolled outsidefor viewing. "I did 20 or 25 different executions of that body cove," Knack said. The gill slit version was popular, but the ultimate decision came from Jerry Palmer, a legendary Corvette designer. Palmer, now retired, was executive director of GM's North American Operations at the time. He decided against the gill slits, which would have made the car more of a revolution. "He put his foot down and said, 'This is the right Corvette. It has to be this,' " Knack said. "When it was all said and done, when you look at it, it truly was the right decision. You have to trust a guy they call Mr. Corvette." By last February, Hill and others were test-driving the new car and working hard to disguise it from the prying press and spy photographers. Hill ordered custom foam panels to apply onto prototypes as a disguise. By winter, workers from Bowling Green were traveling to Detroit for training. For five months, Johnnie Blissett spent weekdays in the Motor City and weekends in Bowling Green, where he led Sunday services as pastor of Our Lord's Temple Church. Blissett, a GM employee since 1968 working mostly on Corvettes, helps lead a team that will teach the plant's 1,200 workers how to build the new model alongside the old for the next six months. At church, Blissett sometimes preaches the folly of material possessions. At work recently, he conceded he wouldn't mind having a 'Vette someday. The starting line Blissett and others assigned to the new Corvette project work in a gymnasium-size room secured from most employees by a key-card system. There, they have spent the year building the new car on a simulated assembly line. Running the whole plant is a manager who owns five 'Vettes, including a dragster he races locally. And this is no ordinary plant. Up to 1,500 visitors a day tour the line. They've been known to steal bolts by the fistful and cheer workers as they arrive. Bruce Eubanks, who works with Blissett on the new car, makes sure trim items like carpeting, wiring and an all-new power convertible top fit precisely and correctly. "That power top's been a bad boy," he said recently. "But it's smoothing out quicker than I thought, actually." Eubanks and Blissett were part of the team that pushed the first sixth-generation Corvette through the assembly line in late December. By fall, the redesigned Corvette should pop up in showrooms, with a price tag of around $50,000. Out with the old lights If Hill and his crew are right, the new 'Vette will take the lofty perch of its predecessors. It's 5 inches shorter, a bit narrower, with bulkier fenders and a sheer back end. It looks muscular but not strikingly different. Hill knows the headlights are a big gamble. Even GM insiders were initially 50-50 on the idea. "They were fearful that we -- being successful and having this army of satisfied customers -- would piss them off and bring a negative response to the car," he said. "We had many discussions in the group and in my office with the door closed." In the end, the decision was his, and he cited more reasons than changing the old-fashioned look. The old lights were difficult to build properly, had mechanical problems and could not handle new headlight technology. "It was clearly the right move," he said. "Time will show it to be the right decision." Cockriel, the museum worker who feels betrayed over the change, said he hopes to get used to the look, which he describes as "big eyes sticking out at ya. And this big mouth that looks like a catfish." He didn't like the last redesign either, but eventually bought five. "I hope they sell a bunch of 'em," he said, "because someday I'll fall in love with them and I'll have four or five." For now, he said, he'll keep the one he has.