Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter delivered the C7 Corvette, the C7 Z06, the C7 Grand Sport, the C7 ZR1, and soon the 2020 mid-engine C8 Corvette.
Dateline 1.29.21, Images: Graphics by the Author, Image from GM Archives – All five Corvette chief engineers contributed mightily and in their own unique ways. But only Tadge Juechter has the distinction of having done hard engineering on five generations of Corvettes. When Juechter went to work in 1993 as chief engineer Dave Hill’s right-hand-man, there were two objectives; keep the then-current C4 fresh and interesting; and design and develop the most revolutionary Corvette to that date, the C5. After Hill’s retirement, Tom Wallace was Vehicle Line Engineer (VLE) and chief engineer for the Corvette. Wallace accessed that because of Juechter’s 15 years of experience, he was the right man for the chief engineer position. Wallace stayed on as VLE and eventually took an early retirement offer.
While Juechter didn’t have the racing background that Hill and Wallace had, he was raised in a Porsche household and liked to tinker around with mechanical things. As a young teenager growing up in Chappaqua, New York in the ‘70s, Juechter built a prehistoric mountain bike with a full front and rear suspension. His folks even gave him their wrecked Cadillac to take apart.
During Juechter’s college years at Stanford, he worked two summers on a GM assembly line, an experience not to his liking. Juechter graduated with degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering and had no intention of working for GM. Then in 1978 a friend asked Juechter to tag along to a GM interview and ended up interviewing as well; and was offered a job. The late ‘70s and ’80 was a challenging time for the American car industry, but at least Juechter had a solid job. In the car business, if your ambition is upper management, an MBA is a must-have degree. Juechter earned his MBA from Stanford GSB in 1986.
By the time Juechter interviewed with Hill for the position of Assistant Chief Engineer, he was aware of the aging Corvette and impressed with the in-the-works C5. The C4’s plastic interior was a major bone of contention with Juechter. Hill was impressed and Juechter got the job. The jump from the early ‘80s designed C4 to the C5 was revolutionary. The creation of the Corvette Racing Team was the beginning of the deliberate merger of Chevrolet engineering and Corvette racecar engineering that was poured into the C5 Z06. Early on, Chevrolet general manager Jim Perkins wanted an inexpensive Corvette that would appeal to racers; this became the ’99 Hardtop and the Hardtop became the C5 Z06. While the C6 was an evolved version of the C5, no one was expecting the 505-horsepower 427 Z06 with an aluminum frame and dry-sump oil system.
From 2005 to 2008 sales averaged 36,816 cars per year. In 2006 Tom Wallace was Corvette VLE and chief engineer. While Wallace was a racer, his Corvette experience was a little thin. When Wallace learned that Juechter and his team were working on a mid-engine prototype, he knew that Juechter was the brains behind the Corvette. Juechter was promoted to chief engineer, North American Corvette.
Juechter has said that he was shocked when given orders to make the C6 ZR1; the goal was to build the best possible Corvette for $100,000. A big-block was briefly considered but rejected because of its weight. All-Wheel-Drive was not possible on the C6’s platform. The Z06 was to be the track car and the ZR1 would be GM’s halo, Grand Touring supercar.
Then the economy stalled out and the in-the-works C7 was put on hold indefinitely. Wallace took GM’s early retirement offer, leaving the Corvette all to Juechter. When GM slammed into bankruptcy in June 2009, for a time it looked like it was curtains for GM. But it turned out that the government auditor that was looking into the Corvette was a car enthusiast and knew about the pending C7. Upon examining the books, it was discovered that the Corvette was one the few GM car lines that was making money. Juechter’s team was told to get busy on the C7. The Corvette and the Bowling Green assembly plant were spared.
By the time you read this, the C8 will have made its debut and will be the most revolutionary Corvette ever. Previously, the C5 had that honor because of its all-new engine and drivetrain, and its hydroformed perimeter frame and backbone center section. The C6 and C7 generations are both evolutionary versions of the C5. The C5 and C6 are Hill’s Corvettes; the C7 and C8 are Juechter’s Corvettes. As of this writing, we know the basics of the C8, but none of the hard details. So lets look a Juechter’s C7.
A big part of Juechter’s job as VLE is to make sure there’s a Corvette for everyone with a variety of price points, and a base car that offers outstanding visual and performance value. Juechter said, “It helps having worked on the C5 and C6 because you know where a lot of the land mines are.” With horsepower ever increasing, it’s critical that the car be made easier to drive. The base C7 has 455-net horsepower; way more than any big-block ever had; yet the C7 is a car that is easy to live with. The 755-horsepower 2019 ZR1 is absolutely astonishing; it can perform on par with exotic sports cars, yet be a comfortable, usable GT machine. Electronic suspension, steering, braking, rev-matching, paddle-shift 8-speed automatic and fuel management are responsible for a balance of extreme power and civility. Imagine trying to drive a Greenwood widebody racer on the street.
When the C7 was unveiled, fans were stunned to learn that the base model had an aluminum frame and that later the Z06 and ZR1 would be available as a coupe or convertible and with an 8-speed manual or automatic transmission. Another first was achieved; the 8-speed automatic was quicker than the manual version.
Corvette interiors have often been a bone of contention with critics and the C6 took big hits for its interior. To get C7’s interior spot-on, Juechter made sure designers had set-of-the-pants experiences of life inside a 1-G cockpit; to know what it feels like having skin pressing on hard objects. He also made surer there were no distracting infotainment systems; just important information for spirited driving. The C7 has received rave reviews for its interior.
Concerning the C7 ZR1, initially there were no plans to make the car, as designers didn’t think they could do more beyond the Z06. But after a few years, plus aero input from the Corvette racing team, a new plan emerged to make the ZR1 the most powerful, stable, advanced front-engine Corvette ever offered. Many speculated that Chevrolet might build the front engine and mid-engine Corvettes side-by-side, but that will not be the case. C7 production will end in summer 2019 and the last C7 will be a black Z06 that will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the Steven Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation.
While Juechter was an integral part of the C5 and C6, those were Hill’s Corvettes. Even though Juechter guided the C7, the C5, C6, and C7 all have Hill’s Corvette DNA. The C8, on the other hand, is Juechter’s Corvette. People expect more of everything today, and everything is riding on the mid-engine C8. – Scott
This concludes my Corvette Chiefs Series. Below are links to parts 1-to-4. Enjoy
Corvette Chiefs, Pt. 1 – Zora Arkus-Duntov
Corvette Chiefs, Pt.2 – Dave McLellan
Corvette Chiefs, Pt. 3 – Dave Hill
Corvette Chiefs, Pt. 4 – Tom Wallace
The above articles originally were published in Vette magazine as part of my Illustrated Corvette Series monthly column.