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Monday 20th September 2010


PH HEROES: CHEVROLET CORVETTE

David 'Gonzo' Vivian remembers a great drive in pursuit of a legend


Almost two years ago to the day as I write this, I was somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert... If that sounds vaguely familiar, you're probably expecting the rest of the sentence to read 'when the drugs began to take hold'. And it's true, the reason I was there was partly to pay homage to the recently departed Hunter S Thompson and his savage journey to the dark heart of the American dream as told in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


I used to hear a lot about Thompson from his best friend and co-conspirator, the artist Ralph Steadman, over a pint and a few roll-ups at the pub in Kent we frequently went to for lunch. According to Ralph, Dr Gonzo was no mean driver and would sometimes switch off the headlights at night while careering down the steeper hills near his home in Aspen, steering with one hand, just to give his passenger a little extra excitement. Which is exactly the sort of 'reliable witness' HST tale you want to hear.

But the one thing I could never quite come to terms with in the book was the choice of transport to take Thompson and his Samoan attorney from the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel to Circus Circus in Las Vegas. If you're going to dub your car The Great Red Shark, you don't want a lumbering whale of a Chevy Impala to fill the role, you want the American Dream on wheels: a convertible Corvette. So these were my adjustments for the ride across the Nevada desert - a slug of Starbucks caffeine at Barstow and a brand new convertible Vette (red, of course). For 2009 model year, its 6.2-litre (LS3) V8 developed 430bhp at 5900rpm and 424lb ft of torque at 4600rpm. But my six-speed paddle-shifter was fitted with the optional dual-mode exhaust which, as well as delivering the authentic American musclecar V8 battle cry on demand, liberated an extra 6bhp and 4lb ft. Chevrolet claimed 0-60mph in 4.3secs and 190mph flat out. Fast enough.


America's first true sports car was born in 1953, two-and-a-half years after stylist Harley Earl and Chevrolet's Engineering Division began their collaboration on the two-seat, fibreglass-bodied roadster built on a chopped down Chevy 'sedan platform, initially powered by a modestly tweaked 150 horsepower 'Stovebolt' straight six. It was what James Dean would have looked like had he been a car but was met with initial public resistance - only 315 were built in '53, and most of those were earmarked for promotional purposes. Few could have predicted at this stage that the Corvette would go on to become an American legend.

Progress was fairly swift. The Vette acquired V8 power and a famous restyle in 1956 (the 'hollowed out' scallops running from the trailing edge of the front wheelarches well into the doors and painted a contrasting colour transformed its look), and not many cars could hit 0-60mph in 7.5 sec and top 120mph 54 years ago. But it wasn't until 1963 that the Vette underwent a step change in design and ambition, as the Sting Ray, that set the direction for the future and ensured that in 2010 it, and not the Porsche 911, is the world's most enduring sports car.


With its muscle-bound V8 and independent rear suspension, the Ray was fast and rewarding in ways previous Vettes could only dream about. Sales took off, doubling those of the previous year. The car's raw appeal was enhanced by extra-cost options such as leather, power steering, an AM/FM radio and air conditioning. Over the next four years, the styling became cleaner (no more fake bonnet vents) and power outputs headed for orbit: 395 horsepower for 1964, 425 in '65 and, in 1967, the so-called L88 option - an aluminium-headed 7-litre V8 with a 12.5:1 compression ratio, wild cam and big, four-barrel carb - delivered a fairly astonishing 560 horsepower. That's just 78 less than the current, supercharged ZR1. Only 20 were made.
I'll admit the ZR1 was tempting but, so far, it comes only as a hard top. My requirement for the blast to Vegas, like Thompson's, was a convertible with plenty of horsepower and, for that, the stock C6 would do just fine.


The first time I flattened the Great Red Shark's throttle on the first evening in downtown LA, it woke up with a yelp of rubber, a torque squirm that seemed to twist the whole body along its axis and and a Stadium-class bellow from the quad exhaust pipes that truly stirred the blood. That it seemed to frighten the drivers of Toyota Priuses clogging up Sunset Boulevard was an unexpected bonus. By the time I reached Starbucks on Main Street in Barstow the next day, the temperature had hit the mid-90s and, at Baker - a small town on the edge of the Death Valley National Park so proud of its furnace-like climate, its most prominent landmark is the world's tallest thermometer jutting skywards from a car park - the Vette was reading the ambient temperature at 110 degrees F which squared with the giant illuminated lolly stick in Baker. I wasn't keen for it to get any hotter and decided not to venture into the blazing heart of Death Valley - or, at least, not Furnace Creek plumb in the middle of the valley basin - instead cutting back onto the 190 for the Nevada border and Las Vegas.


They say the trick with a long haul road trip is to disengage, let time and distance glide effortlessly by. But my red Vette, although smooth-riding on even the sportier of its two magnetic damper settings, was too much of a predator at its core to settle for the path of least resistance. Anything that came into view we overtook. Aggressively and with maximum noise. Later, on a largely deserted service road an industrial park, I indulged in some low risk, high decibel powersliding, using Thompson's pretext of "checking for stress factors in the rear axle", of course. Although not endowed with the crispest or most direct helm on earth, the Vette has a beautifully balanced chassis and bags of steering lock. It's a natural drifter. Before closing out the final miles to Vegas, I couldn't resist igniting the rear tyres in a smoky tribute to the great American sportscar.


The Corvette rocked and still does. It's as pure and simple today as it was when Harley J Earl's '53 Vette rolled off the assembly line in Detroit: big, naturally-aspirated engine in the front, driven wheels at the back. Never been broken, never been fixed.

Author: Mr Viv