Development History of the Fifth-Generation
Corvette The fifth-generation Corvette was a “clean sheet” design. This term is used for cars produced that do not share components with the previous generation models. John Cafaro was 34 years old in 1988 when he was named production studio chief at GM. Cafaro had the task of designing the fifth-generation Corvette.
At the time, Dave McLellan was the chief engineer for Corvette. He and his engineering team worked closely with Cafaro on the new design. Cafaro and his design team knew they had a big task ahead of them. Customer expectations were going to be high, so the new design had to be a home run. The new car also had to be easier to build, with fewer components than its predecessor. Finally, this Corvette had to have a very low coefficient of drag to reduce fuel consumption and improve performance. With all of these challenges facing them, the design team knew they had to start with a fresh design.
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Dave McLellan became Corvette’s second chief engineer when Zora Duntov retired in 1975. He was chief engineer when the C4 was introduced in 1984, after a one-year delay due to quality-control problems. The car was a huge hit in 1984, but poor quality plagued the new car and sales never matched those 1984 figures. By the late 1980s, the C4 design was getting old. New government regulations required that all new 1997 cars pass more demanding side-impact tests. The fifth-generation Corvette was designed to meet the new crash standards. Introduction was scheduled for August 1992. The design team worked full speed to meet their deadlines until a series of financial setbacks hit GM. Fortunately, support for a new Corvette inside GM was overwhelming. In September 1996, the Bowling Green Assembly Plant began producing the new fifth-generation Corvette.
Why 1997 Production Was Limited
As I mentioned earlier, the C4 had huge quality problems. Only one 1983 still exists and it rests in the National Corvette Museum. David Hill, who replaced Dave McLellan in 1993 as Corvette’s third chief engineer, was committed to avoiding the C4 mistakes. Hill targeted 1997 production to be around 9,000 instead of the usual 30,000 units. In fact, Hill came very close to his target when a total of 9,752 Corvettes were built by the end of the 1997 model year.
Bowling Green Assembly
Plant The Bowling Green Corvette assembly plant opened in the spring of 1981 after the original St. Louis plant closed. The Bowling Green plant is located between Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky. When C4 production ended on June 20, 1996, construction crews began dismantling the line right behind the last C4 as it was being built. In a few short months, Corvette Assembly Plant Manager Wil Cooksey approved the plant ready for C5 production. Corvette plant workers begin building the C5 in late August. By October 1, 1996, the first saleable C5 was ready for shipment.
Buyers’ Early Response
Response from the motoring press and public to the new Corvette was overwhelming. Customers clamored to purchase the new C5 and dealers were swamped with orders they could not fill. This was because of Hill’s conservative production schedule. Hill stood firm, insisted on high quality, and did not increase production. In retrospect, he was right. The 1997 C5 was introduced with a new crash-tested hydroformed frame, an LS-1 engine, and a rear-mounted transmission. This provided near-equal weight distribution (51.4/48.6) with the automatic transmission. Early production cars were only available with automatics. Wheel size was 17 x 8.5 front, and 18 x 9.5 rear, with Goodyear Extended Mobility run-flat tires (EMT) mounted on a state-of-the-art suspension. Hydro Form was a new technology introduced in Corvette. Long tubes of metal were plugged on both ends and placed in a jig. The tubes were filled with water under high pressure, which bent the metal to form the new frame. This one-piece construction was much stronger than welded frames. When the windshield frame, rear halo, and the removable roof panel were mounted to the frame, the passengers were very well protected. To save weight, the new car had no spare tire or jack. Top speed with the automatic was 172 miles per hour (mph). The MN6 6-speed versions of the car became available in March 1997. Only 1,077 Z51 performance suspension options were built in 1997. Out of that total, only 649 were built with the MN9 6-speed transmission option.
The C5 Registry
Dan Adovasio and Jake Drennon are friends who are passionate about Corvettes. Both were blown away by the C5, and this enthusiasm made them want to spread the word about this Corvette. They started a C5 Registry on Labor Day 1997, with 13 members. The Registry has grown to over 7,000 members worldwide. Their enthusiasm for the new Corvette caught the eye of Chief Engineer David Hill, and Hill was a big supporter of their efforts until his retirement. In 1999, when the C5-Rs struggled against the Vipers, the Registry supported their efforts and brought large groups to cheer the team on at each race. This did not go unnoticed by David Hill, Gary Claudio, and Pratt & Miller. When the team announced their intention to race at Le Mans in 2000, Jake and Dan scheduled a trip to Le Mans for their members. The 24 couples spent two weeks touring the country in their Corvettes, including attending the Le Mans race. The trip was so well received that the Registry repeated the trip in 2001 and 2005.
The Registry has an active web site, www.C5-Registry.com, which is very helpful to C5 owners. The site has news, information, service bulletins, and other useful facts about the C5. The group also publishes a quarterly magazine that is filled with current information about the Corvette lifestyle. There are many Corvette Clubs and Internet sites that you can join. However, I have found the Registry to be an informative and fun group.
C5-R Corvette Racing Program
In the early 1990s, Chevrolet decided to form a factory-Corvette racing effort to showcase the performance potential of the fifth-generation Corvette. This was the first time that a Corvette was raced by the factory since 1957. The ultimate goal was to build a production-based Corvette capable of winning international grand touring races. Daimler- Chrysler’s Viper, Corvette’s main competition, was headquartered in France. GM wanted an all-American team and crew for their fabled Corvette. The task was given to Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing’s Program Manager.
Doug is a motor-racing genius. He has worked successfully in the motorsports industry for many years. His racing knowledge and experience were exactly what GM needed. Doug was able to contract Pratt & Miller Engineering to build two production- based Corvette C5 racecars. Chicago businessman Jim Miller and racecar fabricator Gary Pratt established Pratt & Miller in 1989. Doug picked them because of their extensive engineering design and fabrication skills. Work began on the new Corvette #001 racer, called the C5-R. A total of three cars were built, two racecars and one street version. The two race versions were secretly tested in 1997 and 1998. The third car was needed to gain approval from the Automobile Club de l’Quest, or ACO. The ACO requires a “low-volume” street version to be built and available for inspection. The car must be very similar to the Le Mans race entry.
This street version met the ACO requirements, and the race version of the car was approved to race. The new 6-liter (360-cubic-inch) car’s first appearance was at the 1999 24 Hours of Daytona. The #3 car ran as high as fourth overall and first in GT, until a late-hour oil leak pushed the C5-R down in the standings. It still finished third in class. Throughout the 1999 season, the Goodwrench-sponsored C5-R kept improving. It captured several pole positions and finished second or third behind the factory Vipers. Nevertheless, victory eluded Corvette during its first year of racing. The cars returned to the 2000 24 Hours of Daytona with new 7-liter (427- cubic-inch) engines. The cars sported a new yellow and white paint scheme, and Pratt & Miller’s veteran Canadian driver, Ron Fellows, put the #3 entry on the GTS pole. The Corvette finished second overall, thirty seconds behind the overall winning Viper. The C5-Rs experienced a lot of trouble at Sebring and did not finish high in the standings. The team visited Le Mans for the first time in 2000. At 4 pm, June 18, 2000, the two factory C5-R Corvettes thundered across the finish line in tenth and eleventh place. In addition, the #64 Corvette took a third place in the very competitive GTS class. This was the last time that the original cars were raced. A new car was constructed and appeared at the team’s next race in Mosport. The car had a modified chassis and wider bodywork to accommodate larger wheels and tires. The new car also sported a new paint scheme that team members called the “whale” look. The new car finished 0.353 of a second behind the winning Viper.
The 2000 season had four races left: Texas, Atlanta, Laguna Seca, and Las Vegas. The team was itching for a victory. Texas was experiencing a blistering heat wave. Nighttime temperatures were 108 degrees! Fellows qualified second, 0.193 of a second behind the pole-winning Viper. The Corvette hounded the Viper in the early stages of the race, and, mid way, took the lead and kept it to the checkered flag. It was pandemonium in victory circle. Corvette finally beat the Vipers after one and half years of racing against the dreaded snake. Corvette captured another thrilling victory at the 10-hour Petite Le Mans race in Atlanta. Andy Pilgrim, a longtime Corvette competitor, co-drove this race with Kelly Collins and Franck Freon. Andy took the lead when he performed a thrilling pass on the Viper on the next-to-last lap of the race. Andy held the lead to the checkered flag for Corvette’s second win of the season.
Corvette Racing started the 2001 season with a big surprise. Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were hired to drive a C5-R at the 24 Hours of Daytona, with Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. The publicity the team gained from these two famous drivers joining Corvette Racing was enormous. The race was filled with drama. It rained for most of the 24 Hours, and many cars retired from the race. For the first time in Corvette’s history, two C5-Rs streaked across the finish line first and third overall. Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, and Franck Freon drove the winning car, and the Earnhardts finished third with Pilgrim and Collins. Sadly, two weeks later, Dale Sr., lost his life at the Daytona 500. The team was shattered by the loss, but they continued their winning ways and captured the 2001 ALMS manufacturers’ championship for Corvette. The team also finished first and second at Le Mans in the GTS class, and one car (the #63 car) finished eighth overall. The C5-Rs won their class at Le Mans again in 2002 and 2004. Now, four of these veteran racers are being successfully campaigned by private teams in Europe. The C5-R race program had a huge impact on the performance image of the C5 and continues to wave the banner for the fabulous fifth-generation Corvette. Corvette is now viewed as one of the premiere performance sports cars, and much of that credit goes to GM Racing and Pratt & Miller.
Reeves Callaway is an extraordinary car enthusiast. He became an early pioneer, adding turbochargers to cars in the early 1980s. In 1986, he partnered with Corvette to build twin-turbo Corvettes. Customers at Chevrolet dealerships ordered the Callaway turbos. Corvettes were shipped from Bowling Green to Callaway’s Old Lyme, Connecticut, facility. The cars were modified and delivered to dealerships for customer delivery. Callaway Cars continued modifying Corvettes until the end of C4 production in 1996. In 1994 Callaway formed Callaway Competition in Leingarten, Germany. This part of their organization built limited-production, LM Corvettes that competed successfully at the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance race. This was done under the direction of Ernst Woehr. In 1998 Callaway introduced a totally revised C5 Corvette called the C-12. This limited- edition Corvette super-car sold for well over $200,000. Callaway Competition built several C-12R competition coupes, and one raced at Le Mans in 2001. The car won the GT Pole position and led its class for 13 hours, until an overheating problem put it out of the race. The C-12 con-
Written by Walt Thurn and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks