I’m certain that Corvette designers had no idea the C3 would last 15 model years and set the all-time marque sales record of 53,807 units in 1979. GM management was happy with the car and wondered why a new one was needed. This is what Dave McLellan faced when taking over as Corvette chief engineer. Fortunately, long-range thinkers ultimately won out over short-term bean counters.
After the idea of a mid-engine design was finally laid to rest, downsizing mania took hold at GM, and the new Corvette was no exception. As a test, the four-rotor experimental Corvette was made a little smaller and fitted with a 2.8-liter V-6. The car had predictably weak performance and was dropped as a concept. Finally McLellan was free to establish new basic parameters for the fourth- generation car. The C4 would be smaller, lighter, stiffer, more aerodynamic, more fuel efficient, and nimbler, and it would retain its predecessor’s front-mounted V-8 layout. Although McLellan inherited the Corvette program from Zora Arkus-Duntov in a time of chaos, most of the top engineers from the car’s “glory days” were still on staff.
After the engine position and height were set on a shorter 96.2-inch wheelbase, the windshield base was positioned at the top of the distributor. Improved fore-and-aft visibility was another design mandate, so exaggerated fender humps and a small rear window were ruled out. Although Irv Rybicki had replaced Bill Mitchell as GM’s chief of design, four-rotor Corvette designer Jerry Palmer got the nod as the C4’s lead stylist. Palmer decided to base the shape on an aerodynamically sound design, since the C2 and C3 cars weren’t nearly as “slippery” as they looked. The new Corvette would be lower, with a smaller front profile, a seriously raked 64.5-degree windshield, and a “Kammback” tail design. Working with 1⁄4-scale models, Palmer was able to reduce drag from the 0.44 measurement of the ’82 model to just 0.341. With the basic shape determined, the surface details, styling, and interior features were worked out.
In addition to the C4’s approximately 250-pound body, there were some 350 pounds of cast and forged aluminum, along with 20 pounds of high-strength glass and epoxy components. The fiberglass-composite leaf springs weighed just 7 pounds each, compared with the 44-pound multi-leaf springs used on most C3s. New aluminum parts included the front A-arms, the single-piston brake calipers, the rear differential and carrier, the axle halfshafts, the driveshaft (for automatic cars), the radiator, the water pump, the intake manifold, the wheels, and other miscellaneous hardware.
The basic structure was originally to get a C3-type T-top roof. This design came to a screeching halt, however, when Chevrolet General Manager Lloyd Reuss vetoed the T-top in favor of a more aesthetically pleasing “Targa” configuration. While the side sills and transmission tunnel were beefed up to compensate, the final design still wasn’t as rigid as the original.
Although the existing throttle-body fuel-injection system was tweaked from 200 to 205 hp, McLellan and his team were primarily counting on lower weight, improved aerodynamics, a more advanced suspension, better brakes, and bigger, Z-rated tires to produce a vastly superior car. When the C4 was presented to the press, even the Corvette’s harshest critics were wowed. For two days in California, the journalists drove preproduction cars on real roads. Most were stunned by the improvements. Motor Trend said, “Corvette: A Star is Born,” and Car and Driver gushed, “Corvette! Wherein American takes on all comers!” The only demerits were the underwhelming engine and a Z51 suspension that was unduly harsh on anything other than a smooth track. (It would be dialed back the following year.)
Was the C4 as “finished” as the first C5 and C6? No, but it was a quantum leap over the C3 and a great beginning. Despite a price increase of $3,510 (to $21,800), the longer-than-usual 1984 production run saw sales jump 281 percent, to 51,870 units—the second-best year in the marque’s history. But while the ’84 Corvette was a tremendous success in virtually every sense, these cars are dirt cheap today. Unlike the ’63 Sting Ray, the earliest C4 reaped little benefit from its first-year status, mostly because the cars that followed it were so much better.