RICK KRANZ

With Viper splitting from Dodge, should Corvette have separated from Chevy?

Automotive News | February 24, 2012 - 3:16 pm EST

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News.
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Viper without Dodge is similar to Corvette without Chevrolet, isn't it?

Last year Chrysler Group surprised Dodge enthusiasts by announcing that Viper no longer would be marketed under the Dodge brand.

This strategy reminds me of a plan General Motors seriously considered about a decade ago.

But first, let's talk about the Viper.

Beginning with the upcoming redesign, Viper moves from Dodge to SRT, the automaker's performance brand. The redesigned two-seater is slated to debut in April at the New York auto show.

Viper has been linked to Dodge since the Dodge Viper RT/10 concept debuted in 1989. The first Dodge Viper SRT10 went on sale in 1992 and over the years 28,056 Vipers were produced, according to Chrysler.

Chrysler wants to elevate the SRT brand, and the automaker sees Viper as SRT's halo (and only) vehicle to reach that goal. Previous Vipers essentially were street-legal race cars, packed with a 600-hp V-10. Chrysler has dropped few hints on the redesigned car.

The GM plan

Chrysler's Viper plan reminds me of a conversation I had in 2001 with Ron Zarrella, who was then president of GM North America.

Zarrella said GM was giving serious attention to expanding the Corvette model line to two separate, distinct models. A car with a six-figure price tag and unique body panels was under consideration. The car's engine would have had considerably higher horsepower than the "regular" Corvette. This "super" Corvette would have little in common with its weaker brother.

But the shocker was that GM was studying the pros and cons of separating Corvette from Chevrolet and creating a separate brand, a separate franchise. Corvette has been sold by Chevy dealers since its inception in 1953.

GM insiders told me in 2001 that if Corvette had split from Chevrolet, qualified non-Chevrolet dealers could add the Corvette brand. It wasn't clear if "non-Chevrolet dealers" meant non-Chevrolet GM dealers or any dealers who didn't sell the brand.

Splitting Corvette from Chevy

Several reasons were cited for moving Corvette out of the Chevy showroom.

First, Corvette did not fit the value image Chevrolet portrayed.

Second, many Chevrolet dealers did not sell the car.

Third, the Corvette would be perceived as a more exclusive product if only selected dealers sold the car.

Fourth, selected dealers could create an exclusive area of the showroom to display the car.

Fifth, GM could select the best dealers, those that might do a better job of selling the car. In the previous year, 2000, Chevrolet sold 31,208 Corvettes. The best year for Corvette sales was 1977, when 42,571 were sold.

And sixth, presumably GM wanted dealers that had better skills to sell a car that tops $100,000.

The two-tier Corvette line did not appear, nor did GM separate Corvette from Chevrolet. Within days of the conversation, Bob Lutz was hired as GM vice chairman and product guru. Zarrella exited GM a month or so later, and Lutz nixed any thoughts of either plan.

But it still makes me wonder: Would Corvette have been more successful as a separate brand with an expanded product line, sold mostly by non-Chevrolet dealers?

Last year, Chevy dealers sold only 13,164 Corvettes.

GM was studying the pros and cons of separating Corvette from Chevrolet and creating a separate brand, a separate franchise. Pictured is the 2012 Corvette.

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