The best-selling year of the Chevrolet Corvette wasn’t when it won its class in Le Mans in 2001, beating Ferraris and Porsches. It wasn’t when it ran fuelie V8s in the ’50s or big blocks in the ’60s. It was in 1979, in the waning, wheezing years of the C3. The nadir of Corvette history. Bloated, slow and bad.
That wasn’t the Corvette that first caught my eye, though it was another C3. It was a 1969, an early car, from when the Stingray was fresh and new. A convertible, black like ink. I was a kid then, and it was one of the first cars I recognized as different, as interesting. I would hear it burbling around the neighborhood on warm nights, and it was ages before I found where it was parked, around the way, off a shady side alley. One day, I finally gathered the courage to step off the sidewalk and down that gravel driveway, cautious, to get a closer look. In my world of Volvo wagons and Camry sedans, it was otherworldly. The fenders drew me in. Dreams rippled on the paint, and I could almost see the V8 through the hood.
And in a moment, the spell was broken. The dad who owned it came charging out of the house, yelling at me, scaring me off.
I get it. I was some boy, and it was his Corvette. Not a friendly car. Not to be approached. It was to be viewed at a respectful distance—and maybe to be a little bit feared.
The scene plays back in my head as I step down and into a brand-new C7 Grand Sport, gleaming in the high sun of a summer morning. The car is immediately imposing. It’s a three-point turn to get out of the parking garage, threading the nose of the thing past a double-parked delivery truck. The eye-level loading platform on the back of the truck looks determined to turn the targa top into a roadster.
As I pull it out into the street, light spills onto the high dashboard. This is not a bubble cockpit; it’s just low-roofed—and wide—and feels it. And it also feels skateboard-y, in the same way an ’88 Civic does. A broad, flat thing skipping across the pavement. The wide 285-section front tires skate as you turn at low speed.
Other things have delays: the next-track button below the touchscreen, the request for acceleration from the automatic transmission. This is a responsive engine, but there’s still some disconnect waiting for a kickdown in the GM eight-speed. You want to cut ahead of a bus threatening to merge into your lane. The car wants to wait a second before it drops out of god only knows what gear. When it does, your foot is too far down, the revs too high. PHRAAAAAAAAP you go, sounding more scared than confident.
The acceleration itself is best described as rude. The whole mechanical layout of the car is rude, at least as it introduces itself to you. There is no car with a more pointless speedometer, let alone tachometer. The latter laughs at you, ticking at just above idle seemingly at all times. It has the power of a fast car at 2,000 rpm. The rest of the tach reads like some sort of joke or taunt. The speedo might as well not be there. Everything about the car—how it feels, how it sounds—tells you that your real speed on the road, at any given time, is “whatever you want it to be.”
A clear plastic cup rises over the crowd. Inside it, a drink difficult to discern. The drink is clear, with ice, and a lone cherry leaking red at the bottom. “Chevy on top again!” booms the voice below it. Attached to the drink is Robert Meding, of Meding’s Seafood, in Milford, Delaware. “302 Delaware life!” comes the more personal exclamation, as I ask the first questions of an impromptu interview. What’s your name? What do you do? Is this your first time at Barrett-Jackson?
Meding has been coming “since the first one,” like everyone here tells me. He says he buys and sells hot rods, though he’s a generation younger than the nominal target of the boomer bait crossing the auction block. His personal garage is full of dimes, he says, and he doesn’t mean Datsuns. His particular love is GMC Typhoons and Syclones. He says he’s here to take in the cars, have a nice weekend with his wife, their friends, and maybe bid, too.
I’m here at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut to watch the last C7 Corvette be sold—for charity, that is. It goes for $2.7 million, a record for charity car auctions, the auctioneer claims, taking the title from a Ford. “There’s a battle between Ford and Chevy again,” the announcer tells the thundering crowd, “and Chevy came out on top on this one.” It’s the line that prompts Meding to echo it aloud.
This is the last front-engine Corvette to be built, so I ask everyone what they think of the imminent midengine car.
Meding’s answer comes after a moment. Also after offering me a drink. “Tito’s and cherry,” he helpfully identifies.
He says he respects the change and what it’s trying to do. But then he turns again and tells me the layout of the car isn’t really important. Not to the Corvette or not to him—he doesn’t make a distinction. None of that matters, “as long as you can do donuts,” he says. “It’s great to have performance, but it’s more to have enjoyment,” he pauses, “of driving it.”
Meding’s words ring out of the past and true for the future. I’ll reference that ’79 sales peak again; to be A Corvette isn’t complicated. It doesn’t need to push g-meter readings or crush records on the Nürburgring. I don’t think the Medings of the world want to anyway.
That’s a bit of a shame because this C7 Grand Sport is absolutely spectacular as a raw performance car. Leave the confines of city navigation behind, and it shines. The Grand Sport is a driver’s-special Z06 minus the supercharger, and you’re not missing anything without the whine. It bellows when you shift yourself and crack the throttle on full. It pulls, too.
The ride is the standout. I cycle through the settings on the magnetic shocks and settle, as I often do, on the softest available. Railroad crossings, the potholed entirety of New Jersey—whatever it is, the car eats it up and doesn’t flinch. The Grand Sport runs 19s up front and 20s rear, yet there’s barely a shimmy to any bags you have in the rather-large cargo area under the rather-practical hatchback.
The important question, I guess, to the 1979 me, or to the kid me who first gazed at the ’69 Stingray rumbling through my neighborhood is: Is it fun? Having hounded back roads in this Grand Sport for a couple days, it’s kind of not!
The way the car attacks a twisting road, I will say, is genuinely impressive. At first, it’s physical. As you build speed, it becomes ethereal. No matter how bravely you drive, the tires refuse to squeal. The only time the car comes loose, alive, is when I find the gravel park roads of North Jersey’s Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Only then did the car move around on me.
There’s simply too much tire for street driving. There’s too much tire, even, for easy burnouts or donuts. The 460-hp C7 doesn’t want to go sideways with steamroller 335s in the back. With the engine as loud as it is, there’s nowhere secluded enough to rip a quick doughie, either.
It’s a pity knowing that designing the car for 335s or Le Mans wins hasn’t helped the car sell that much. Certainly, it doesn’t make a more playful car on the road. And indeed, if the modern Corvette seems like it would only be fun on a track, that’s where it’s embraced now, oddly, by the kind of younger buyer whom GM would love to have.
Aaron Losey is probably the focal point of the trend: These final generations of front-engine Corvettes are taking over the world of drifting. They’re being embraced by tuner kids otherwise loath to consider a V8, let alone a car’s worth of Americana on wheels.
Today Losey runs the pro-am series Lone Star Drift down in Texas, but he’s been drifting in America since the early days, even competing in D1GP USA when the Japanese series ran stateside. Notably, he built one of the first LS-swapped Nissan 240SXs here in America in 2006-07, before swap kits made this common. A year and a half ago, tired of JDM dreams becoming nightmares of mismatched engines and chassis, he picked up a salvage-title C6, bolted some suspension and a steering angle kit on it, and put tuner car headaches behind him.
Few people are as Over It as Losey. “I’ve owned probably 70 drift cars,” he notes over Instagram DMs, “to put things in perspective. I was so sick of building cars I wanted to quit drifting. Then I went to Japan about seven years ago and started realizing we have been emulating them the wrong way.”
For a while now, one of the most popular drift cars in Japan is a JZX100, a catch-all chassis code for the plentiful big-body, rear-drive Toyota sedans of the mid-’90s to early 2000s. Stock they come with turbo straight-sixes and beefy manual transmissions. No need to swap them; throw on some suspension and go drifting. That’s what Losey did, leaving a no-drama JZX100 in Japan to drive when he flies over there. It’s that car, that formula, that got him to buy his Chevy.
Losey isn’t alone. Two Corvettes run in Formula Drift today, and one even ran in Japan’s D1GP a couple years back, where it added foreign car appeal to its desirability. More pop up here in the grassroots scene, flood cars and whatever else.
There’s no doubt in my mind the C8 will be a fast car, a nice handling car, a good car. But there’s no way it could ever be as easy to own as the intentionally old-school front-engine Corvettes that stand before it. That’s what makes it desirable to eternally broke drift kids, tuners and anyone young, and that’s what we’re losing as we leave this layout. I fear it’s the exact opposite of what GM wants out of the midengine changeover.
I wish that GM could take the lessons of ’79 to heart, to get what the drifters, what the Medings of the world see so plainly. The Corvette is to be simple and accessible—even more accessible than it is in this Grand Sport.
But as this car grows old, and affordable, I do have a feeling it will reveal itself to be a high-water mark: the most capable of the most uncomplicated Corvettes there may ever be.
Raphael Orlove, 29, was born in late 1989, like Lil B, and had his brain transmogrified by too much time on the internet, also like Lil B. He is features editor at Jalopnik.com.
Chris Szczypala, 28, is a New Jersey-based automotive/motorsports photographer, videographer and editor.
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