Chevrolet Corvette Part Two: Bowling Green, Indy Pace Cars, and Convertibles

In the mid-1970s, the era of engineering input from Zora Duntov had come to an end.  His replacement, Dave McLellan, looked over the remainder of the C3 Corvette’s production run.  He would also commence the engineering input for the C4 Corvette for the 80’s.  For the up-and-coming C4 Corvette, McLellan implemented styling input from Jerry Palmer, chief designer of Chevrolet Studio 3.  The automotive landscape in the early 80’s was somewhat more hostile towards sports cars, especially the Corvette.  But the second gas crunch of the late 70’s did not deter Palmer, McLellan, and company from developing the C4 Corvette, which, by the way, was already under development in the late 70’s.

Although the C4 was originally planned for a 1983 launch, only 43 prototypes were produced for that year.  This was due to the 1984 model year emissions standards the car had to meet, as well as delays in parts production.  All but one of the prototypes were serialized to 1984 models.  Eventually, most of these prototypes were destroyed.  The one and only 1983 Corvette, a white coupe, was preserved and kept by General Motors in its facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The prototypes provided the framework for subsequent production Corvettes: a digital instrument cluster, high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) uniframe chassis with polyester resin (plastic) based sheet moulding compound (SMC) exterior body panels for light weight and rigidity, and fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) mono-leaf spring front suspension.

1985 Corvette

The C4 Corvette released for the public in March 1983 for the 1984 model year.  Compared to the outgoing C3 Corvette, the new model sat on a slightly shorter wheelbase (96.2 inches or 2440 mm), and reduced exterior length (176.5 inches or 4480 mm).  Like the 1982 Collector Edition, the 1984 C4 Corvette featured a hatchback body with rear glass liftgate.  The sole power for the ’84 Corvette was the carried-over L83 V8 with Cross-Fire throttle-body injection.  For 1984, this engine was tuned for slightly more power than featured in the ’82 Corvette.  GM provided the economy-conscious public with 205 horsepower for all 51,547 Corvettes produced for 1984.  The Corvette improved for 1985, ditching the outgoing Cross-Fire L83 for a more powerful L98.  This engine was capable of 230 horsepower and featured tuned port injection.

1987 Corvette convertible

1986 saw the first convertible variant in a decade.  Notable updates to the ’86 Corvette included the addition of a center-mounted brake light, climate control, and anti-lock brakes.  To keep the burglars out, a key-code anti-theft system was installed.  The Corvette convertible was chosen to be the pace car for the 70th Indianapolis 500.  In 1987, the L98 engine was tweaked for more power: thanks to improved roller valve lifters, the Corvette could throw 240 horsepower and 345 ft/lbs of torque.  The Corvette was also available with an updated Z52 handling package.  1988 marked the 35th anniversary of the Corvette.  The “Triple White Corvette” was clad with white exterior paint, black pillars, dark-tinted roof, white wheels, and white interior.  In addition to a slight power upgrade, the 35th anniversary coupe came equipped with a superior sport-handling package and 17-inch wheels and tires.  For 1989 onward, the ZF 6-speed was the only available manual transmission.  The Corvette could also be had with a Selective Ride Control (SRC) handling package, which featured three modes: Touring, Sport, and Competition.

The long-rumoured “King of the Hill” Corvette, under development with help from Lotus Cars and Mercury Marine, made its debut in 1990.  This model, dubbed ZR-1, was built with intent to be the world’s fastest production car.  Initially available only as a fastback coupe, the ZR-1 got loads of power from a Lotus-built 32-valve 5.7L LT5 V8.  This engine featured tuned port injection and developed 375 horsepower and 370 ft/lbs of torque.  A world record in 1990, the Corvette ZR-1 could launch from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 4.4 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 175 mph (283 km/h).  To help aid the ZR-1’s performance, it was fitted with an “ABS-II” anti-lock brake system.  This extremely pricey supercar Corvette sold 3049 examples in 1990.  Over the next few years, Chevrolet would refine and re-engineer the ZR-1.

In 1991, the entire Corvette range received a mid-cycle cosmetic refresh.  What was meant to distinguish the ZR-1 from other Corvettes had been incorporated into the design of all Corvettes.  What was initially a highly anticipated release of the 5th gen (C5) Corvette ended up as a continuation of the C4.  Contributing to this issue was GM’s high production overhead and decreased demand for the Corvette – this was the second time the Corvette was nearly axed.  Despite this uncertain financial situation, Corvette production soldiered on.  In 1992, the 300 horsepower LT1 replaced the L98 in the base Corvette.  Almost matching up to the “King of the Hill” ZR-1, the base Corvette could launch from 0 to 60 mph in over 5 seconds.  Top speed: 170 miles per hour (273 km/h).  On July 2, 1992, Chevy built its millionth Corvette.  To commemorate, this millionth model was a white convertible with red interior, just like the first 1953 Corvette.  Attending the unveiling ceremony were both chief engineers Zora Duntov (father of the Corvette) and David McLellan.

In September of 1994, the National Corvette Museum opened in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  This museum, located within close proximity to the Corvette’s Bowling Green Assembly Plant, is a showcase of all things Corvette, including many concepts, prototypes and race cars.  In 1995, the Indy 500 pace car was released, which featured unique graphics.  Except for some minute tweaks, the Indy pace car was relatively stock.  Only 527 pace car replicas were produced.  It was also by this time the ZR-1 discontinued production.  1996 was the final year for the C4 Corvette.  To commemorate, two special editions were released: Collector Edition and Grand Sport.  The latter featured the LT4 engine.  The LT4 was capable of 330 horsepower and 340 ft/lbs of torque.  In total, 358,180 C4 Corvettes were produced from 1984 to 1996.

The C5 Corvette made its production debut in 1997.  Compared to the outgoing generation, the C5 had a much more muscular stance.  It sat on a 104-inch (2654 mm) wheelbase and boasted slight increases in exterior dimensions (179 inches in length and 73 inches in width).  The Corvette’s body was made in a process called hydroforming, which uses high-pressure water to form metal body panels.  Not only was this method of manufacturing cost-effective, it also contributed greatly to the body rigidity of the C5 Corvette.  Power was sourced from a new 5.7L LS1 V8.  The LS1, in stock form, could develop 345 horsepower and 350 ft/lbs of torque.  In manual Corvettes, that power was transferred to a rear-mounted “transaxle”.  Combine all these stats, and the Corvette had a drag coefficient of 0.29 and near 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.  Despite all these winning remarks, the Corvette sold only 9752 examples in its first year.  Oh, well.  No matter.

Whereas the 1997 Corvette was available only as a fastback coupe, 1998 saw the return of the convertible.  Also making a return to the Corvette lineup was a rear trunk-lid – the first time since 1962.  Since the C5 Corvette debuted just last year, the engine and transmission remained unmodified.  Chevy produced 1163 replicas of the Indy 500 pace car convertible.  To improve handling, an “Active Handling” system was introduced.  1998 production soared to 31,084 units.  In 1999, a less-expensive fixed-roof hardtop released.  The Z51 suspension package was now standard.  That year, the traditional coupe outsold the new hardtop: 180,078 coupes versus 4031 hardtops.  Model year 2000 sales of the Corvette saw a slight equilibrium between coupes and hardtops.  18,113 coupes and 13,479 hardtops were sold.  Convertible sales plunged to 2090 units.  In 2001, Chevy began production of the high-performance Z06 model.  The first high-performance Corvette since the ZR-1 of the 1990’s, it employed a modified version of the small-block LS1, titled LS6.  The LS6 could throw out 385 horsepower and 385 ft/lbs of torque.  Other modifications included a strengthened six-speed transmission, firmer FE4 suspension setup, and wider and grippier tires.  Being the priciest Corvette for 2001, it sold only 5773 examples.  Total Corvette production that year was 35,627 units.  In 2002, the Z06 got a power upgrade.  The LS6 now threw out 405 horses and 400 ft/lbs.  Chevy managed 8297 Z06s, selling a total of 35,767 Corvettes in 2002.  The Corvette turned 50 in 2003, and to commemorate, the F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control Suspension was made standard.  This system superseded the F45 Selective Ride Control system.  This suspension setup utilizes a special fluid called magnetorheological (MR) fluid that changes viscosity when a magnetic field is applied.  2003 production fell to 35,469 units.  In its final year, the C5 Corvette was available with the 24 Hours of Le Mans Commemorative Edition.  This special edition was available on all models, including the Z06.  The Commemorative Edition Corvette featured a unique blue and silver/red stripe livery.  Total Corvette production fell again, to 34,064 units.  After an 8-year, 248,715 unit production run, the C5 Corvette ended production, with the C6 on the horizon.

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