We get readers of every age group on this website, but the next few sentences are for my fellow members of Generation X and everybody who is even older than I am: Did you realize that today’s college graduates have never known a world where the Chevrolet Corvette was anything other than a world-class performance car? If you graduated in 2017 then chances are that you were born in 1994, which means that the C5 was already on the streets by the time you could recognize and identify different kinds of cars. The generation that will go on to shape the world in which you and I will either retire (in your case, I hope) or work until we die (definitely true for me) thinks of a Corvette as a performance overdog. Of course the Vette can keep up with or even beat Porsches, Ferraris, Jaguars, and Lamborghinis. Of course it’s the fastest car for the money, period. Of course it is a regular contender for production-car lap records around the globe.
Let me tell you flat out that I did not grow up in that world. I was born in 1971 so the first time my father took me to a Chevy dealership to look at Corvettes they were smog-strangled, Endura-bumpered, automatic-transmission afterthoughts. When this magazine tested a 1977 Stingray it was complimentary regarding the comfort and convenience items, and cautiously optimistic about the record-setting slalom time it posted, but we didn’t manage to extract anything better than a 15.5-second quarter-mile with a 92.5mph trap speed. Sadly, at the time America’s premier sports car wasn’t just slower than a Porsche Turbo—it had trouble keeping up with a Trans Am.
When the 1984 Corvette arrived after a depressing “gap year” in which the car couldn’t meet internal quality standards or the new California emissions regulations, it went a long way towards wiping out the Seventies stereotype of Corvettes as Hydra-Matic boulevard cruisers for the (literally) swinging set. Yet the Corvette team within General Motors was repeatedly denied the money and resources it needed to develop the car further. As a result, the C4 seemed to hang on well past its freshness date. When the first 1984 models hit the streets, the Mazda RX-7 was in its first generation and boasted just 100 horsepower; by the time the final C4 Grand Sports appeared twelve years later, the RX-7 was a 255-horse semi-exotic that made the Corvette look old and tired. Let’s not even mention the 300ZX Turbo or the fourth-gen Supra, alright?
What seems hard to believe now is that those C4 Grand Sports weren’t just the swan song for the C4; they were almost the final Corvettes, period. General Motors had decided to “sunset” the car, believing that it wasn’t profitable or relevant enough to keep on the table. According to Russ McLean, who , the only way to keep things going was to pretend that he’d never received the order to let the car die. Which meant that the Corvette team had a chance to do a new car–they just had to do it on a budget that didn’t even allow for the building of a single testing prototype.
The book All Corvettes Are Red, by James Schefter, is a fascinating look at the development of the C5. The car should have been a total loser; it was done on a shoestring by people who often donated their own time and effort over and above their day jobs at GM. Virtually everything that could have gone wrong did, in fact, go wrong. The entire budget for the car wavered between $150 and $250 million in an era where Ford famously spent six billion dollars on the 1995 Contour.
Yet in the end, the car was more than just good enough; it single-handedly established the modern concept of Corvette-as-overdog-bully that persists among auto enthusiasts of all stripes. Thanks to the brilliant, tireless work of the C5 development team and their successors, today’s “car guys” just assume that a Corvette can compete on the international stage with cars two, three, or even five times its cost. Even the owners expect irrational excellence from their cars. I recently had a C7 Z06 owner complain to me that his new car could “barely drop” his neighbor’s Ferrari 488 around a road course. I suggested that he use the cost savings between the Z06 and the 488GTB for a V8-powered Ligier prototype racer, which would certainly redress the balance. He didn’t appreciate the joke, but it’s based on truth. By the time you consider the dealer markup, it’s no trick to buy a Z06 and a Le Mans-eligible prototype for the same money as you’d fork out on a new Ferrari.
The C5 was so good that well-tuned examples are still giving new production sports cars fits more than twenty years after the platform’s debut. The owner forums are chock-full of examples that make six hundred horses at the crank and fit 325-width R-compounds under the flared rear fenders. You’d be a fool to think that any modern supercar short of a McLaren P1 is able to dismiss a pumped-up C5 on a racetrack.
Even milder examples of the car can still get the job done, as I discovered last weekend. My wife and I entered her 1998 C5 in the SCCA Targa Southland and managed to take the win in the “Touring 1” category. If you haven’t heard of SCCA Targa, you should visit the SCCA website and take a look. It combines autocross, road rally, time trial, and Track-X in a sort of multi-disciplinary rolling party. We covered about 2,500 miles in four days and drove on three different racetracks.
Targa was a great time–but it was also grueling, particularly for a 45-year-old man who is still recovering from a pretty unpleasant skatepark crash at the end of June. The C5 was a true ally in the transit sections, returning 29 miles per gallon and never punishing my cracked-up ribcage beyond what I could endure with a smile. Around Charlotte Motor Speedway, it clocked an easy 145mph on the long banked straight, and at the final Track-X in Memphis it proved able to hang with more modern and specialized machinery. All of this in a car that was assembled two decades ago.
In fact, the old C5 was so good that I’ve decided to bring it up to speed from a handling and power perspective, and I’ll be sharing the results of that effort with you in the months to come. In the meantime, however, it was a true pleasure to bring home an SCCA win in the car’s first competitive appearance. They say that all Corvettes are red; I say that all Corvettes also carry the beating heart of a race car under their long plastic hoods, and they should all get at least one chance to show it before they retire to the museums and garages and junkyards out there. It’s the least I could do to honor the people who dedicated their lives to making the Corvette better than it needed to be, making it fast enough to bully the European competition–heck, just making it period, point blank. Thank you, Mr. McLean, for making the car when they said you couldn’t. It’s still making waves today.