2014 Corvette designer Kirk Bennion on resonance, legacy and the ever-evolving Vette
Chief designer has 'a tribal knowledge' of Corvettes and a hatred of pop-up headlights
The way Kirk Bennion tells it, the Corvette is the only car that's steeped in history yet chooses to largely ignore it.
Well, "ignore" is a harsh word. Let's say the Corvette "progresses past history" through the liberal use of aerodynamics, which the chief designer can't resist talking about -- first at the Autoweek Design Forum, then in our Feb. 18 issue.
We interviewed Bennion once again at the Petersen Museum's Corvette 60th Anniversary gala, this time asking about where the Corvette is going -- a new demographic, a bolder design, but the same enduring legacy and a philosophy of cheap (no, wait, make that "attainable") world-class performance. A GM public relations professional sat idly by to ensure that Bennion didn't gleefully spill any company secrets -- "the 2015 Corvette Z06 will be mid-engined and powered by a Wankel rotary!" -- but Bennion kept the future under wraps.
Onward and upward goes the Corvette, and while it's true that each Vette shares the same long hood, short deck, big curves and two-seat size, each generation shares its own distinct, transformative style, instantly recognizable at a glance. "The Corvette is a sign of the times," said Bennion, "reflective of the time it was created." For better or for worse, the C7 is the Corvette that this decade deserves.
OK, first off, we're here celebrating 60 years of the Corvette, a car that's impossible to talk about without discussing its past. From your last interview with Autoweek, it sounds like designing the Corvette was a bit of a dream come true for you.
For any of us who have gotten the opportunity to work on this car, it's a dream car true for all the designers. The guys that are sitting back in the studio right now, they had a great time working on this car as well.
Was it daunting to work on a car with such a rich history?
I tell people, you acquire a tribal knowledge of the car. I learned some things while working on the Corvette from 1986 to 1989. And you do realize that one, you have to be very respectful of the car because it is such a huge icon, but there's also a lot of effort that you have to put in a car like this. There's a knowledge that you have to have for the past cars and there's an expectation, but there's also a willingness to take those cars to the next level. It's a big-time commitment.
What specific design cues from past Corvettes can we see?
The intent of the C7 was looking forward, getting to a new level, so we didn't want it to be seen as a lineage design. If you look at Corvette's history, you see jumps that were made from the C1 to the C2, C2 to the C3. As aerodynamics became more and more influential to the car, some people would argue that maybe the aerodynamics might have restricted the design a little bit. On this car, we wanted it to be an expressive, compelling design that would resonate across different age groups as well as different continents. So there's a careful balance there, but we really wanted that compelling design first without giving up good aerodynamics.
What were some of the challenges in retaining Corvette styling cues while balancing aerodynamics and efficiency?
Early on, we went in the wind tunnel with five different themes in scale model form. We started to understand that with five different themes, there's certain things you can do that'll get you towards the [aerodynamic] target, and there's certain things you do that will take you away. And we were able to establish and apply those to this car as we were designing it. We continue to apply scale model testing, full model testing, but it was always with that balance of getting that right aesthetic. There were times in the tunnel that we found something that was really good but maybe it didn't look so good. So I would say to the aerodynamics guys, I need to refine what we have here. Because you could have some kind of feature that works well in the tunnel, but if you change outside of the tunnel, you don't know if you've made it better or made it worse. So we try to use our time in the tunnel to finesse the surface, and finesse the design.
What's one design element, like a hidden Easter egg, that you might not notice at first but you want the car to surprise people with?
There are different elements through the car. For instance, if you look at the Z51 wheels, there's actually a raised pad that has Corvette lettering on it. This raised pad is actually a way of putting weight into this side of the wheel. Because opposite of this pad is the tire pressure sensor. What we're trying to do there is to reduce the number of wheel weights; aesthetically, we don't like them. Wheel weights are no longer lead, they're steel, so they're not as heavy, so you'll need more of them to do the job…so we carefully designed the wheels to balance itself out and reduce the number of wheel weights.
The exhaust has a black chrome heat shield around it. Black chrome, for you and I, is kind of a neat trick. It just so happens that that is the only finish that we could put on that part that could resist the heat from the exhaust tips. And using a larger, 4.25-inch exhaust tip was key. We had a larger tip that was part of our [NPP order code] active exhaust option. To get to those larger tips -- and here you can appreciate that everything on the Corvette has a weight target -- we had to put a bell curve in them. There's a bit of a pinch point that optimizes the airflow, but also reduces the weight of the tip.
How diverse was your team? Was there input from overseas and other GM divisions?
We made this C7 project available to all 10 global studios. So every designer in GM got an opportunity to voice their design, get their thoughts seen and heard on the Corvette. Now as you can imagine, within two weeks of having this open assignment, we received over 300 sketches. And it was my responsibility to take in these sketches, and we would review them with upper management. We have a three-tier power wall, which allows us to look at things globally. We could look at it with the Opel people, or we can look at it with Holden or Brazil. We went through a lot of sketches -- here, again, wanting to see the passion, wanting to make sure we looked under every rock. Once we went through those sketches, we would pick out what to do scale models of. From there you start to pick out ones you want to translate into full-size. Because a full-size model is really your final stepping point. Early sketches and early scales are really about that emotional signature, that aesthetic drive, that key gesture that you're looking to instill under the car. Once you get full-size, now you're getting over packaging, you're interjecting criteria, you're looking at aerodynamics.
How have current owners responded to the Corvette?
Our goal with this car was to resonate. Where it isn't just current owners but we're looking for people who are driving non-GM products to be interested in this car. We want to spread the age group. We're looking to be as diversified as possible with this car. But to do so, you really need a theme that could resonate. We got to this one internally, and we got comments from people that would say, “I'm not normally a Corvette person, but I really like that car.” And it wasn't uncommon to hear that many times.
That was our goal. And you look for that feedback, but it still comes down to executing the car, getting the car out there, getting it seen by the public. As you can imagine, anytime you have a next-generation Corvette, expectations are high. So for the rest of the team you do the best you can, and you keep at it, but you're doing all you can to make sure that you put everything you can into it.
How does the new Corvette reflect changing attitudes and goals for American performance?
As far as how to fix American performance, the Corvette has always done real well in giving what we call “attainable technology.” We've got an all-aluminum frame, we've got a carbon fiber roof, we've got a carbon-fiber hood -- exotic materials on a car with a real reasonable price point. It's all state of the art, but delivered in an attainable technology.
Given the recognition of the LS brand, why was the name of the engine changed to LT1?
Within its popularity, the guys in our powertrain program like the idea of LT1. This will be by far the best LT1, much better than the previous ones. But here again, even though you have your LS-series, we didn't want the engine to be confused by the LS because it is an all-new engine -- all-new block, all-new everything. So you can argue, do you do something else or do you leapfrog? And the decision was made to leapfrog the LS name.
What other cars are you looking forward to, design-wise?
It's always interesting to see what Ferrari produces. They're not worried about lineage -- you can argue that the Porsche 911 is a fraternity, where they design them to keep looking like that. But Ferrari's not bashful about trying new things and new form vocabularies. So it's always interesting to see that. I would tell you that what they do, there's some similarities to what Corvette has done. The Corvette is a sign of the times, reflective of the time it was created. We're about getting more difference per generation and a lot less Porsche-like.
There's not much room for a retro Corvette.
It's more about what's next than it is about what it's been. With that said, there are things that we do that we want to be modern interpretations of what's been done in the past. A 1953 Corvette has a very short front overhang, forward facing grille, which is what the C7 has. Now it doesn't look exactly the same, but there are qualities. We addressed the long wheelbase with very short corners. The long wheelbase, the wide stance, to help with the handling of the car -- it's what the chassis guys really wanted. So it's more about modernizing the ideas which are performance car attributes than it is about being retro. Being able to build on those performance ideas in a modern way is what I think Corvette is all about.
Where do you see your own legacy in relation to the greats that have passed through GM's halls: Bill Mitchell, Zora Arkus-Duntov, etc?
The car is the stuff. I am very appreciative to be a part of the team to work on the car. I've talked to some of the people who have worked on past Corvettes and the message that they've always given me is that you make the most you can, and you push on it as hard as you can. Because it's all going to be over in a given segment of time, and then it's about making sure you've done as much for the car under your watch. The car is the legacy, and it's the icon, and in our role we're doing everything we can to support and further the car.
What's your own favorite Corvette? What specifically do you like about it?
You know, I like 'em all. If I had to pull out a few: 1957 dual-quad, 1967 big-block, 1996 Grand Sport, Z06. The car that I love to drive every day is the C6 ZR1. That car can be as mild-mannered as you want it to be, and you can drive every day to work, and it can be the fastest, the most God-fearing car on the track. If I had to buy one, right now -- because I can't buy a C7 -- it might be that car. We do so much to the design side, but we're just as thrilled as all of you are to be able to drive that car.
And lastly, the most important question of the day: do you miss pop-up headlights?