The Immortal Corvette: 1997-2003The new millennium model
The groundwork for the 1997 C-5 (fifth generation) Corvette was laid in 1989 when the Corvette design team began thinking of ways to make a more rigid Corvette. The 1986 convertible looked great, but the changes necessary to convert the coupe into a drop-top resulted in a weak structure that rattled and twisted.
In contrast, the next Corvette was designed from the ground up as both a convertible or a coupe. The bodylines combined some traditional Corvette themes such as the fastback top and four round taillights with a modern, aerodynamic shape. It was going to be a real looker-if and when it got built.
The Long Wait
Two things caused the incredibly long gestation period: a severe cash crunch at General Motors and the success of the previous C-4 models. The older Corvettes were selling quite well, considering that they were getting stylistically and technologically dated by the early 1990s.
GM received a wake-up call in 1992 from yet another reptilian competitor when Chrysler unleashed the Viper, a radical V-10-powered road rocket that would chew up the hottest Corvettes without breathing hard. However, like the Cobras before it, it was not a practical street machine, with few creature comforts and some rough edges on the finish. But the Viper got lots of ink in the automotive press and its wild looks were pulling prospective customers into Dodge dealerships, precisely the job the Corvette was supposed to be doing for Chevy. It was time for action.
The Corvette team knew they needed some time to develop a new car that would live up to the expectations of Corvette owners and be sufficiently improved to warrant media attention. First the team had to navigate the treacherous political minefield at GM in order to get the funding, avoiding the soulless hacks who wanted to kill the Corvette outright. Led by Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan, the C-5 made its way through the corporate wilderness and into the light. Along the way there were casualties, as McLellan retired and was replaced by former Cadillac engineer Dave Hill.
And Worth It
The C-5 had an extremely rigid chassis courtesy of stiff side rails and a semi-backbone tunnel that the drivetrain ran through. The wheelbase was stretched to 104.5 inches, but the new Vette was shorter overall than its predecessor. The extended wheelbase gave room for a bigger interior and a transaxle in the rear. This shifted some of the weight to the back of the car and resulted in an impressive 50/50 weight distribution. Huge vented disc brakes with ABS pulled the new Vette down in short order, and power was from the 345-hp aluminum LS1 350 small block. Six-speed manual and automatic transaxles were offered. Transverse composite monoleaf springs were used at both ends to reduce weight.
The C-5 was a successful design, although the tail styling came in for criticism due to its heavy and chopped-off look. However, it contributed to the Corvette having one of the lowest drag coefficients of any sports car on the road, while offering more cargo space at the same time.
The 1997 Corvette was offered in coupe and convertible forms, but in 1998 a hardtop model was added with an abbreviated roof section. It looked like a removable top that had been bonded in place. Though not as graceful as the coupe, it was slightly lighter and less expensive.
In 2001 the coupe was transformed into the Z06, a hotter Corvette with a 385-hp engine intended to do battle with the recently announced Ford SVT Cobra Mustang that had roughly the same power. The Z06 also had less insulation and thinner glass to reduce weight to a svelte 3,115 pounds, even with air conditioning and the usual luxury features in place. The Z06 safely put the Corvette over the Cobra on performance, but it was still slower than the more expensive Viper and Porsche Turbo. By 2003 the Z06 was boosted to 405 hp and had a top speed of over 170 mph.
Chevrolet decided this would be a good time to return to serious racing. The Vipers had been dominating big GT car racing in the U.S. and Europe, so in 1999 Chevy introduced the C5-R racing Corvette to take on the big snake. Racecar shop Pratt and Miller built this radically modified version. The leaf springs were replaced with coil-overs, and squeezed in up front was a 426-inch stroker motor with 610 horsepower. In 2000, the new combination started winning, and two years later the factory Corvettes won the GT class at the famed Le Mans 24-hour race. By this time the racing Vipers had slithered away and been replaced by fearsome Ferrari 550 Maranellos.
Looking back over the last 50 years of the Corvette, it has always led the way in performance for the buck, both on and off the track. From the fuel-injected '57 to the new Z06, the Corvette has been the yardstick that other sports cars are measured against, and it doesn't look like that's likely to change anytime in the near future.