BY DON SHERMAN
Car and Driver Magazine
The Official James Bond Training Manual never hinted life as a spy would be like this. Why, there's not a shapely seductress in sight. The scene is about as far from a Caribbean travel poster as you can imagine. Instead of the standard-issue sandy-beach-lapped-by-gentle-surf that 00 agents prefer for their dirty work, our man is stumbling along a lonely row of torn and twisted cornstalks. It's January in Michigan, and the field has been desolate since the harvester passed months ago. There's a crust of old snow underfoot, a chilly wind in the air, and little hope of the sun torching through the steely-gray cloud cover.
Admittedly, the bullets aren't real when we play proving-ground espionage, but the rest of the drama's not that different from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The auto manufacturers try to foil car magazines with disguised prototypes, tall fences, and inconvenient testing schedules. We, in turn, program inside informants to feed us regular intelligence reports on new models in the making. When a truly juicy development is in the works — like the first new Corvette in fifteen years — we fire off the best sleuth in the business, Jim Dunne. And when he bags the big one with his Nikon, as he did for this month's cover, Car and Driver's generous endowment fund buys his daughter another year of college education.
Don't for a minute be perturbed by the phony hood scoop or the fake fenders Chevrolet has pasted all over its prototype. We also succeeded in persuading one Larry Shinola — the guy who designed the last new Corvette — to artfully strip away the camouflage. If the spy shots and the bare-naked illustrations don't clear up your crystal-ball look into the future, we've got more. Now that the new Chevrolet's chassis design is all but frozen for production, we can fill you in on every detail short of the number of beads in its catalytic converter.
The general layout, you ask? A fiberglass body on a steel frame with a V-8 in front, a transmission in the middle, and a frame-mounted differential in back, just like today's car. And the engine? It will be a Chevrolet-manufactured small block in a "familiar" displacement. (We'll have to guess 5.0 liters until the bore-stroke report comes in.) The block and heads will be iron, while every mounting racket and accessory will be weight-saving aluminum (or stainless steel, in the case of the exhaust headers). There will be fuel injection, digital ignition, a detonation sensor, an exhaust-oxygen sensor, a three-way catalyst, and a central microprocessor to manage these systems and others.
Concerning those aluminum-block Cadillac V-8 rumors that were floating around a few months back, a well-placed source at Chevrolet offered this: "If any Corvette ever did make it into the world powered by anything but a Chevrolet-made engine, one Zora Arkus-Duntov would be down here in a flash to nuke the place."
Given that, we hope Zora likes what the Corvette engineers have in mind for the rest of the driveline. A four-speed Turbo Hydra-matic will be offered with a lockup torque converter; if you prefer, the 1983 Corvette will also be available with an intriguing manual transmission. Instead of tooling up a new five-speed, we understand work is under way on a conventional four-speed gearbox backed up by a very sophisticated electric overdrive. Supposedly, the Corvette's central microprocessor will help manage the overdrive's engagement points to optimize fuel economy. Development engineers will haveeight speeds to pick from (some will be redundant and not used), so this system should offer quite a creative solution to the old acceleration-versus-fuel-economy tradeoff. The last word we have is that both GKN (a British-based firm that builds the Laycock unit used by Volvo) and Borg-Warner are vying for the overdrive production contract.
Power will flow out of the transmission down a carbon-fiber-reinforced-plastic driveshaft to the Corvette's final-drive differential. This component will be similar to today's design except that all castings will be aluminum. A torque tube — also aluminum — will tie the nose of the differential to the tail of the transmission, á la Peugeot 505.
By the time all this happens — fall of 1982 for the 1983 model year — the Corvette's price will have burst through the $20,000 barrier. If this seems a bit steep, there is consolation in the new car's suspension design and its application of truly exotic (plastic, aluminum, and electronic) components; the 1983 Corvette will make today's Porsche 928 seem crude by comparison. The springs will be fiberglass-reinforced plastic front and rear, very similar to the unique plastic leaf spring used at the rear of today's Corvette. Virtually every other suspension component will be aluminum to save additional weight: the control arms, suspension links, and wheel-spindle hubs will be forgings, and the driveshafts will be manufactured from tubing. The front suspension will be a conventional unequal-length-control-arm layout, while no fewer than five members will locate each rear wheel. Each side will have two trailing links to feed accelerating and braking loads into the Corvette's perimeter frame. The lateral location of each rear wheel hub will be handled by a half-shaft and a lower link (as in today's Corvette), plus a new toe-control link running transversely behind the axle center line. The purpose of this fifth link is to make sure every trace of the deflection oversteer that plagues the current Corvette's handling is eradicated.
Other items on Chevrolet's lengthy aluminum-casting order form include rack-and-pinion steering and one disc-brake caliper per corner.
We shouldn't have to tell you the new Corvette body will represent the cutting edge of low-drag aerodynamics in America. The photos don't honestly depict its low crouch to the road, but it is obvious that all the old whoops and hollows have been planed sleek and smooth. The body will stay fiberglass construction over a welded steel cage, but we understand the hoary old T-top is history: the roof panel will instead lift off in one piece as it does in Fiat's X1/9. The glass hatch in the rear will look similar to the Mazda RX-7's, but will actually swing open as one large wraparound panel. a pair of gas-pressure struts will support the hatch and help make this the most utilitarian Corvette in history.
Luggage space won't be the only surprise inside. Corvette engineers have toiled diligently with the world's seating experts, so once the production contracts are firmed up (Lear Siegler is at the forefront at the moment), there should be no complaints forthcoming in the comfort area. We expect state-of-the-art instrumentation, although exact details haven't yet surfaced. Chevrolet loose-lips have volunteered that the information system will be "entertaining." We interpret this to mean that all electromechanical gauges will be replaced by an integrated graphic-display panel where the speedometer, tachometer, and other gauge functions will be in the form of electronic pictographs. (Space Invaders may be offered as an option.) Voice-synthesizer components are now on the shelf, so don't be surprised if you hear about low oil pressure in the Corvette before you see it.
So how could you ask for more? At long last, the Corvette is back on track, rushing headlong toward the pinnacle of automotive engineering. It may be late, and it may not have gull-wing doors, a middle-motor, a Wankel, or a plastic chassis — but rest assured, this sports car will be no slouch. Best of all, at this point not even an act of Congress could stop it.
C/D's Fearless Predictions:
1983 Chevrolet Corvette
Wheelbase: 96 inches
Curb weight: 2700 lbs
Horsepower: 180 hp
Acceleration 0-60 mph: 7 seconds
Acceleration 1/4-mile: 16 seconds
Top speed: 140 mph
Fuel economy: 22 mpg