Chevy Corvette: GM's Sixty Year-old 'Flop'?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 04 Mar 2012

In case you haven't heard, GM is temporarily suspending production of the Volt at its Detroit-Hamtramck plant for five weeks. The reason given is to adjust production to demand, which, frankly hasn't been burning any barns since its launch in December 2010. Of course, that news elicited at least one pundit calling the car a "flop." But is it really? Not if history or even current sales is any measure.

Much has been made of the fact that less than 7,700 Volts were sold last year, some 2,300 vehicles off GM's original production target of 10,000 units. The reasons for the shortfall are likely many, supposedly starting with the car's $40,000+ price tag. How many Chevy customers can afford something the size of a Cruze and twice the money? it's argued. Then there's the fact that until quite recently, the car was only available in limited markets. Try to buy one in Paducah or Pendleton. Add on top of that the sheer newness of the technology and public unfamiliarity with it. Even major celebrities like David Letterman didn't, and some likely still don't, understand how the car works. What happens when the battery drains? they ask.

And what about all those Volt fires we heard about? On this score, media disinformation -- unintentional or deliberate -- has beeen rampant, leaving the impression that Volts were prone to catch fire. They aren't. In fact NHSTA, the federal car safety folks, said as much after reviewing the three crash test fires they started, the first by accident and due to negligence; the other two deliberately to find out what caused the first fire.

Finally, can you tell me the last car you know of that became a political punching bag with every rightwing crank in America seeming to attack the car on the mistaken belief that it's President Obama's car. The Volt was conceived long before Obama ran for President in 2008. But because he championed the technology and asked Congress to fund several billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to stimulate plug-in car technologies from battery makers to the likes of GM and Fisker, the Volt somehow became the whipping boy for the right, ignoring the fact that the previous President terminated a very viable advanced American hybrid car program to pursue an even more distant and difficult goal of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Battered and bruised, the Volt hasn't sold well at all, but believe it or not, in December 2011, more Volts were produced than Chevrolet Corvettes, and by a respectable margin: 1,529 Volts to 1,038 Corvettes.

Imagine, the icon of the Chevrolet brand, the fantasy car of every red-blooded American male for the last 50 years; the epitome of GM's racing linage and the longest continuously running product in its stable being outsold by the Volt. Now, granted, in 2011 nearly twice as may Corvettes were sold as Volts, but you'd have to expect that; the car is on its sixth generation, with the seventh said to be in the works. Even though Corvette sales have been comparatively anemic, holding just under 15,000 units the last couple years, no one is calling the Corvette a 'flop.' If there is a true 'halo' car for General Motors, it has to be the 'Vette, but its own beginnings could be seen as less than auspicious. Designed by Harley Earl and launched in 1953, the car was a media success -- as was the Volt concept. But the company only built 300 of them the first year, and it came very close to being cancelled. It wouldn't be until 1960 that more than 10,000 Corvettes were sold. Perhaps due to waning interest in high performance sports cars mixed with economic hard times, sales in 2009 dipped to their lowest since the early 1960s. In January 2012, only 629 units were delivered from the Bowling Green assembly plant, where in 2009, staff was reduce from 1,000 to 400 workers who produced 8 cars an hour -- as opposed to the original 11 cars -- and then only two weeks out of every month. Is anyone expecting GM to shut down the Corvette line?

If sales of Corvettes have flagged of late, the Camero line is booming along. GM sold 88,249 of them in 2011, outpacing the Mustang by nearly 18,000 units. Somewhere in America there still is an appetite for a car where the average sale price ranges from $24,000 to $41,000, the latter about what a baseline model Volt will run you. And if you really want too leave rubber, there's the new $55,000 Camero ZL1.

Arguably, it took the Corvette more than half a decade to hit the 10,000 unit threshold and sixty years to build it into an iconic brand that likely GM will continue to support and develop, despite low production numbers.
Is it, therefore, reasonable to write off the Volt after its first year in production, a year where it was beset by more than its share of challenges, some of its own making, many over which neither its engineers nor GM management had any control?

Like the Corvette more than half a century ago, let's see where the car is in 2015 before we start writing its obit.

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