From The Sunday Times
April 20, 2008
Callaway Corvette C6
A beauty cursed by travel sickness
Today, if you want something to be a commercial success, it must be designed from day one with a passport and legs. Whether a beefburger, a plastic Doctor Who toy, a strawberry, an internet people-searching site or a sport, it must be as relevant in Alice Springs as it is in the Colombian jungle.
Funnily enough, however, the biggest problem is America – the only country in the world that calls football “soccer” and insists on playing rounders and netball instead. So, if you have developed, say, a pillow that absorbs dribble, you stand a better chance of selling it to a pygmy with a dinner plate sewn into his bottom lip, than you do to Wilbur and Myrtle from Sacramento.
It’s a bit like the “special relationship” Tony Blair always talked about so much. The Americans can build a nuclear-missile warning station in Britain to protect them, but it makes us the ideal first-strike target. They can extradite people from Britain, but we can’t do the same from them. They can get our immediate help in the Gulf, but we had to beg for assistance against the Nazis and the Argies. With America, the world is a one-way street.
We must have their computers, their jeans and their eating habits, yet there are more Made-in-Britain labels on the moons of Jupiter than there are in South Dakota. To the average American, “abroad” is Canada or Mexico. Any further than that and you need Nasa. Over there, a Brit is simply someone to shoot by mistake. So it’s certain that Hank J Dieselburger isn’t going to be buying a jar of Bovril any time soon.
Nor will he be watching a British-made car show. Top Gear is screened all over the world, from remote Himalayan villages to the bullet-ridden boulevards of Lebanon. It is a genuine, bona fide export success. But in the US it is watched only by half a handful of expats who diligently follow BBC America, and a few torrentists on the interweb.
This is partly because, when it comes to motoring, the English language makes more sense in Albania than it does in Alabama. Almost every word in the Americans’ automotive lexicon is different from ours, so when we talk about motorways, pavements, bonnets, boots, roofs, bumper bars, petrol, coupés, saloons, people carriers, cubic centimetres and corners, they have no idea what we’re on about.
Our forward commanders can call in a tactical airstrike in southern Afghanistan and their pilots will know precisely what’s needed. But review a Fiat Punto “hatchback” on the “bypass” and you may as well be speaking in dog. Even their gallons are as odd as their spelling of “centre”.
Then there’s the pronunciation issue. Jagwarr, Teeyoda, Neesarn, Hundy, Mitsuboosi, BM Dubya, V Dubya – it’s all completely mangled.
However, while they don’t understand our car show, when it comes to the cars themselves, the one-way street works in the opposite direction. Just six months ago, and for the first time ever, foreign car makers sold more vehicles in America than those made by Brad, Todd and Bud.
And what of American cars over here? Well, if we exclude Cheshire from the equation, most people in Europe would rather have syphilis than a Buick. We’ll buy their Coca-Cola, their iPods and their Motown sound, but the cars that gave Motown its name? No, thanks. Driving an American car would be like making love to Jade Goody when you had a choice.
It’s odd. Why can Bill Gates sell his binary numbers to the world when General Motors can’t sell its cars? I wish I had the answer, because then I might understand why I don’t want to own the Callaway Corvette I used on a recent trip to Los Angeles.
Callaway is an engineering company that has been tuning and fiddling with Corvettes since the year dot, sometimes without much success. The first example I tried, way back in the 16th century, was owned by a murderer and had two turbochargers. This made the engine extremely powerful. So powerful in fact that when I tried to set off, it turned the clutch into a thin veneer of powder and shot it like talcum powder into the wind. The murderer was extremely displeased with me . . .
Since then, however, Callaway has continued to beaver away, helped along by the average American’s deep-seated belief that all cars can be improved by a man in a shed – understandable when the cars in question were made in Detroit. So today it makes the Corvettes that race at Le Mans (which they can’t say properly either). Furthermore, Callaway has sheds all across America, and even in Germany.
It has become a big business. And I’m delighted to say it has stopped upping the power without uprating any of the other components.
The car I drove, a one-off demonstration vehicle, was garnished with an Eaton supercharger – chromed, of course – that was about the same size as Antigua. It’s so big that a special bonnet with a huge hump in the middle has had to be fitted. In the past it would have got the car from 0-60mph . . . just once, before the chassis snapped in half and the wheels fell off.
Not any more. The car is fitted with Stoptech racing brakes, Eibach Multi-Pro suspension, wheels made from magnesium and carbon fibre, and other beefed-up components from the tip of its slender nose to the back end of its Plasticine arse (which they also can’t say). So it’s actually designed to handle the 616bhp produced by that force-fed V8, although the standard car, which is also available as a convertible, has 580bhp.
Yes, 616bhp is a lot. It’s the sort of power you get from a Ferrari 599. And yet the car you see in the pictures this morning costs just over $92,500. At today’s exchange rate, that’s about 35p.
At first I was too jet-lagged to drive, so I tossed the keys to a colleague who was part gibbering wreck and part Michael Schumacher. We’d kangaroo away from the lights, stall, lurch up to about 400mph and then zigzag through the traffic like Jack Bauer in pursuit of a Russian nuke.
As a result, on our way back from Orange County to Beverly Hills, I snatched the keys . . . and had exactly the same problem. The clutch is like a switch and the gearbox like something that operates a lock on the Manchester Ship Canal. And if, by some miracle, you do get them to work in harmony, you are catapulted into a hypersonic, Hollywood blockbuster world of searing noise, bleeding ears and speeds so fantastic that you mark the instrument panel down as a born again liar. I absolutely bloody loved it.
Most European and Japanese cars these days hide their thrills behind a curtain of electronic interference and acoustically tuned, synthetic exhaust noises. Driving, say, an M5, is like having sex in a condom. Driving this Corvette is like taking it off.
Oh sure, it has the same problems that beset all Vettes. A dash made from the same cellophane they use to wrap cigarette packets, a sense it’s been nailed together by apes, the finesse of a charging rhinoceros and the subtlety of a crashing helicopter. But the Callaway power injection masks all this in the same way that a dollop of hot sauce turns a slice of week-old goat cheek into a taste sensation.
On the El Toro airfield, deserted since it was attacked by aliens in Independence Day, it would slide and growl like it was the love child of Red Rum and a wild lion. On the snarled-up 405 on the way back to LA, it made rude gestures to other road users, urging them to take it on, knowing full well that it could beat just about everything up to a Veyron (pronounced “goddam cheese-eating Kraut junk”).
Then, when the traffic got too bad, we cut through downtown LA, where it pulled off the most fabulous trick of them all – absorbing the bumps and potholes that would disgrace even the Zimbabwean highways authority. Simply as a result of this, I have to say it’s an even better car than Chevrolet’s own hot Corvette, the Z06, which rides the bumps like a skateboard.
Let us look, then, at the Callaway’s strengths. It is ridiculously cheap, immensely powerful, much more comfortable than you would expect, beautiful to behold and blessed with handling that belies the fact that it was designed in a country that has no word for “bend”. It also redefines the whole concept of excitement.
If I lived over there, be in no doubt that I would have one like a shot. It suits the place very well. It is Bruce Willis in a vest. Over here, however, I’d rather go to work in a scuba suit. As a car, it would work fine, apart from the steering wheel being on the wrong side. It would be fun. It would be fast. And unlike most American cars, it isn’t even that big.
As a statement, however, I fear it would sit in the Cotswolds about as comfortably as Sylvester Stallone would belong in an EM Forster novel. It isn’t brash – at least not compared with a Lamborghini. But like all American cars, it does feel that way. And a bit stupid, too.
Funny, isn’t it. American cars, more than all others, are built to travel and yet that’s the one thing they really don’t do at all well.
Model A standard Callaway Corvette C6
Engine 6200cc, eight cylinders
Power 580bhp @ 6300rpm
Torque 510 lb ft @ 4750rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Fuel Approx 20mpg (combined cycle)
CO2 338g/km (Callaway calculation)
Acceleration 0-60mph: 3.5sec
Top speed 206mph
Price $73,500 (£37,117)
Road tax band G (£400 a year)
On sale Now, but only as an import
Verdict A doodle dandy, but not over here