Symposium: Corvette or Porsche?

<< Back to Robb Report, January 2003
  • Jack Smith

It was the American Dream Machine, the most exhilarating, high-spirited car on the road. With a fuel-injected Big Block beneath its fiberglass hood, this vehicle turned heads like nothing else on wheels. Sitting at a stoplight with the engine revving, the exhaust roaring unimpeded through a set of laker pipes, and the Beach Boys urging “Tach it up! Tach it up!” from the radio, you could not imagine why anyone would want to drive anything but a Corvette.

Harder still to understand was the rationale for driving a Porsche. The German machine was underpowered, its engine resided where the trunk should have been, and it was prone to spinouts. Worst of all, amid the Corvettes and muscle cars at the drive-in, it looked like a Beetle. “Corvette owners were pretty hostile to Porsches,” recalls vintage racer and Porschephile Jim Hartman, CEO of Wonderworks, a manufacturer of mailbox signal devices in Wayne, Pa.

Ah, that was all so long ago. Yet even today, as the two camps prepare to celebrate landmark anniversaries—Corvette its 50th and the Porsche 911 its 40th—certain distinctions endure. “You can always tell if a man drives a Corvette or a Porsche,” observes John Boles, a former jet fighter pilot and now an executive with General Electric who has owned 57 Porsches. For generations, the preference for one marque over the other has served as a kind of cultural litmus test. Corvette or Porsche? This is a question every young man dreads hearing from the lips of a prospective employer, father-in-law, or chairman of a club membership committee. With one word, the sum total of one’s life experience—self-image, ambitions, family, and friends—is laid bare.

In the American vernacular, the Corvette owner is easygoing and fun-loving. He is usually about 30 pounds overweight yet takes his heft in stride. His idea of great literature is a Tom Clancy novel, and his musical tastes favor Elvis and (naturally) the Beach Boys. He holidays at the nearest beach, where he keeps a Jet Ski. Like other members of his local Corvette Club, he is fond of cavalcades in which he and his buddies drive slowly through town waving at bystanders.

By contrast, the Porsche owner is elitist and compulsive. He runs five miles each day, not because he enjoys it but because he should. He plays Bach on his car’s Bose sound system and reads Ayn Rand. On vacation he climbs mountains in distant lands, and he owns a sailboat. His car club gatherings involve racing and gymkhanas followed by wine and cheese and chalk talks on taking the perfect line through a turn.

As is so often the case, these stereotypes have outlived the very forces that spawned them. The hard-riding, cowl-shaking Corvette of yesteryear, with its sharklike gills and faux bulges and intakes, has yielded to the wedge- shaped C5 Corvette, a more sophisticated, more comfortable, and far more expensive vehicle. The Porsche 911 remains unmistakably Porsche, but it no longer requires nerves of steel to drive it toward the edge of its performance limits. Its legendary “trailing throttle oversteer,” the source of so much of Porsche’s mystique and so many anxious moments for the inexperienced, has been tamed by new suspension technologies and electronics.

As a result, the contentiousness between the two camps may be losing much of its steam. “I never thought I’d say this 10 years ago, but the C5 Corvette is a remarkable car,” allows Boles. Hartman’s favorite ride is still his 1973 IROC RSR Porsche, but he found the new C5 so impressive that he bought one.

Hartman says his Porsche-driving friends were alarmed. “It wasn’t so much the fact that I’d bought a Corvette. They all said, ‘This doesn’t mean you’re going to join their club, does it?’ ” He assured them he would not. After all, a Porsche man has to draw the line somewhere.

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