Continuity is one of the admirable things about the Chevrolet Corvette over more than half a century.
The sports coupe has remained basically the same — no 4-door sedan or separate franchise. Moreover, it is no symbol of factory favoritism for high-volume dealers and deprivation of inventory for low-end “country” stores.
In other words, you could sell Corvettes whether you were Brown & Brown Chevrolet, the long-time brand sales leader in Phoenix, or Winkle Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Pontiac in the tiny county seat of Paulding, OH.
Corvette is such a success that it also earned for itself another mark of individuality. Throughout its 52 years, it has been assembled mostly in dedicated plants, the current one being in Bowling Green, KY, near the National Corvette Museum.
As the nation's No.1 seller, Chevrolet could have made Corvette into a separate franchise at any stroke of the pen or whim of a division general manager such as the venerable Bob Lund, who is now a Cadillac dealer in Phoenix.
Chevrolet could have required its dealers to build separate Corvette showrooms. But Chevrolet dealers who were “trial-ballooned” about such a potential development insisted that the sports car stay in the Chevy lineup.
Why? Lund recalls: “GM dealers were devoted to strong divisions and strong brands as the bricks-and-mortar of those divisions. Corvette was the flagship of Chevrolet, showering its aura on all the other Chevy cars and trucks. To separate the Corvette out, even next door in a separate building, would have diluted the impact.”
By contrast, Ford's Thunderbird was born about the same time in the early 1950s as an answer to the Corvette.
The T-bird was the fondly recalled retro 2-seater of the 1950s. But misguided Ford executives thought it would sell more units as a 4-seater.
Down through the years, each of these sports cars built their followings, but the Thunderbird went through more makeovers than the Corvette, never had a dedicated plant and once again is going into a hiatus after its revival in the early 2000s.
The Corvette has thrived on its own, bringing profits and repeat owners to its parent brand and dealers, small and large.
What's more, many state franchise laws have applied the Corvette lesson to their clauses guarding dealers against auto makers using the availability of hot cars as cudgels.
Franchised dealers cannot be denied any models produced by their franchisors for whatever reasons, under these clauses. You sign for a brand, you are able to sell all models and body styles built by that brand.
Thus it was that Winkle Chevrolet in small Paulding County became a “Corvette Center,” just as Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, MI, became the “Corvette King,” as one of the car's top sellers in the nation.
On the basis of the Corvette experience, one wonders how General Motors Corp. can change its adherence to the practice of selling all models at its franchises to dealers in those franchises.
Mark LaNeve, GM's sales vice president, has said that stand-alone GMC, Buick or Pontiac dealers risk being denied certain models unless they agree to join the growing number of bundled stores selling all three brands. No Lucernes for Buick exclusives? No Solstices for Pontiac exclusives?
That simply won't fly in most places. The Corvette is a case history of why it won't.
Mac Gordon is the dean of U.S. automotive writers. He is at [email protected].