The Taillight Factor: When Heritage Becomes Dangerous Cargo

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

I’ve long said that stereotypes exist for a reason, perhaps to my ever-increasing danger from the “that’s problematic!” crowd. In many cases, however, it’s a false assumption. An unfair one. We’re a society of individuals who do things and like things for a variety of reasons.

Not every Silverado driver is a backwards-thinking hayseed. For from it. In the same vein, not every Challenger owner is a brash, nature-hating blockhead whose intellect never rose above a high school level. Not every Bimmer owner is a terrible boss and womanizer who hasn’t made use of a turn signal since the early 1990s. Not every Journey owner is oblivious to the presence of other, higher-quality vehicles on the market — their dealer just made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Still, automotive stigmas exist, and persist. General Motors once found out the hard way that holding on to the past was actually harming the future of its halo car.

Speaking to GM Inside News‘ Michael Accardi (you know this man), Chevrolet Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter recounted the dilemma facing his team at the beginning of this decade. After pumping the sixth-generation Vette with ever-higher levels of power and performance, it became clear that something was amiss.

The model’s buyers continued getting older.

To counter the troubling demographic drift, Juechter knew his team needed to take drastic action when it came time to design the C7. This meant holding a funeral for the model’s tell-tale round taillights, even if it meant sparking a mutiny among Vette aficionados. Apparently, anger still simmers in some circles over the decision.

“With C6, we saw towards the end that each year, our average age would get a year older and that’s not sustainable,” Juechter said on the sidelines of the recent North American International Auto Show. “It’s one of the reasons we thought we could take some risks and walk away from some of the things we did traditionally in particular from a styling standpoint.”

Your author, who grew up preferring the Ford Mustang over any of GM’s performance offerings, can trace his lack of interest in the Corvette to a specific memory. Picture it: Rural Canada, late 1980s. Little Steph Willems is in elementary school. The only car in the parking lot capable of budging the interest needle is his fourth grade teacher’s Escort-based Ford EXP. It’s slim pickings out there.

Except, of course, on days when the substitute teacher had a class under her command. On those days, the parking lot welcomed a newcomer: a silver (of course) C4 Corvette. The driver, a middle-aged woman who wore oversized amethyst-colored glasses, copious amounts of makeup, a perm, and enough jewelry to make Elizabeth Taylor blush, was a regular fixture at out little school, as was her Vette. We never knew where she got the money to buy the thing, but it certainly wasn’t through a substitute teacher’s salary. Naturally, the Vette wore a personalized license plate.

I never saw that Corvette top 25 miles per hour. Who knows what my teacher got up to after leaving the school zone, but to me the Vette was nothing more than a bloated status symbol piloted by someone with superficial tastes.

Now picture the male equivalent of my substitute teacher. That’s the very image General Motors wanted to kill while designing its long-delayed C7, which bowed for the 2014 model year.

“For some people, the Corvette was the typical mid-life crisis guy, gold chain guy, you know, they bought a Corvette,” said Juechter. “So we had baggage, we talked to a bunch of Harvard MBAs, many of whom said Corvette wouldn’t even be on their shopping list because Corvette was designed for that guy and it hasn’t changed since. And I’m here like ‘what about the Porsche 911!?’”

Ditching five decades of round taillights was a major part of the company’s plan to lower the average age of the Corvette’s buyers to sub-AARP levels. GM wanted a sports car the public would judge on its own merits, not a rolling midlife crisis. A Corvette that didn’t just attract existing Corvette owners. By all accounts, it worked.

“The demographic data I have now tells me that 30 percent of C7 buyers are new to Corvette and 10 percent of the people are actually new to GM too, so that was a big deal,” Juechter said. “So we ended up keeping 99.9 percent of our existing clients and then added some.”

Okay, the 99.9 percent figure remains suspect, but it’s his word against our suspicions. What is clear is that U.S. Corvette sales, basically flat since the recession, doubled in 2014. Sales have since fallen, dropping from 2014’s post-recession high of 34,839 units to 25,079 units in 2017. Interestingly, last year’s Canadian Vette sales were the best this century.

The upcoming mid-engined Corvette should finally erase the last of the negative stigma left over from the past few decades, potentially drawing in Europhile supercar fans. There’s also word that the C7 will continue alongside the C8 for some time, boosting the nameplate’s sales volume. In this model’s case, the midlife crisis is over.

[Images: General Motors]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Feb 03, 2018

    Young people have way more cash than anyone thinks and they're buying M3s and Caymans. If Corvette has lowered their age and kept traditional buyers that's a straight up win. Is the car a fantastic performer? Yep, then, it's win-win. I think Chevy can help their case buy providing a better entry to the Corvette. The Camaro is impressive, but it's styling, to me, is really in the 'relive my youth' category.

  • DEVILLE88 DEVILLE88 on Apr 02, 2018

    I was going to buy a corvette..............until i saw the round tail lights were gone.

  • 28-Cars-Later "Here's why" edition_cnn_com/2018/06/13/health/falling-iq-scores-study-intl/index.html
  • 28-Cars-Later Seriously, $85. GM Delta I is burning hot garbage to the point where the 1990 Saturn Z-body is leagues better. My mother inherited an '07 Ion with 30Kish otc which was destroyed in 2014 by a tipsy driver with a suspended license (driver's license enforcement is a joke in Pennsyltucky). Insurance paid out $6,400 when it was only worth about $5,800 IIRC, but sure 10 year later the "hipo" Delta I can fetch how much?
  • Buickman styling does not overcome powertrain, follow the money. labor/materials.
  • VoGhost It's funny, until CDK raises their prices to cover the cost. And then the stealerships do even more stealing because they're certainly not taking the hit - why do you think they make all those political donations? So who pays in the end?
  • VoGhost I was talking today to a guy who pulled up in an '86 Camry. Said it ran like a top, got 30 mpg, the AC was ice cold and everywhere he goes, people ask to buy it. He seemed happy.