For model year 2004, the fifth generation Corvette (C5) would be making its last trip around the dance floor. Introduced in 1997, the C5 was then all new from the ground up—new chassis and suspension, new body styling, new rear-mounted transaxle, new all aluminum 5.7 liter V8 engine and a new interior.
Under the direction of Chief Engineer David Hill the C5 continued to improve during its lifetime. A fixed roof coupe was added to the lineup in 1999 and the standard LS1 V8 engine gained 5 hp in 2001 to reach 350 hp. The biggest news in 2001 was a brand new LS6 engine for the fixed-roof coupe. This uber Corvette was given a famous name from Corvette’s racing past—the Z06.
The LS6 was rated at a fire-breathing 385 hp giving the Z06 a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 165 mph. The Corvette engineers tweaked the LS6 for 2002 upping the output to 405 hp and dropping the 0-60 time to 3.9 seconds. The Z06, which was only available with a six-speed manual transmission, was given additional creature comforts and suspension improvements to make it THE car to have if you wanted to go quickly in style.
By the end of the 2003 model year 214,651 C5s had been sold. The C5 had taken Corvette to new levels of performance, refinement, comfort and sales, but its successor was waiting in the wings for 2005.
Special Corvette Models
With the previous two Corvette generations (C3 and C4), GM had developed a custom, if not a full fledged tradition, of offering special models in their final years of production. For 1982, the last year for C3s, it was the Collector’s Edition featuring special Silver Beige paint, unique exterior badging and trim, a dedicated Silver Beige interior design, alloy wheels and an opening rear window hatch, a preview of a feature standard on the upcoming C4.
In 1996 GM gave us two special models to honor the last year of C4 production—another Collector’s Edition and the Grand Sport. Again, both models had unique paint, exterior trim and badging, special wheels and, in the case of the Grand Sport, a special black and red interior option.
The two Collector’s Editions and the Grand Sports have achieved elevated status in the Corvette world and all are actively supported and promoted by several dedicated groups of Vette fans. With that history, all Corvette enthusiasts were waiting to see what GM would do as a grand finale for the C5.
Corvette officially re-entered the demanding world of endurance road racing in 1999 and a racing version of the C5—the C5-R—was the weapon of choice. Racing can be a cruel taskmaster as Corvette Racing discovered. Their first year in the American LeMans Series (ALMS) saw some good efforts, but no victories.
The dedicated team doggedly continued to climb the steep learning curve, but the first half of the 2000 ALMS season was no kinder to them than the 1999 season had been. All of that changed at Texas Motor Speedway in September when Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell survived sweltering heat to bring their C5-R home at the head of the GT pack giving Corvette Racing its first victory.
To many, the 24 Hours of LeMans is the Holy Grail of racing. Keeping a car competitive for twice around the clock is the ultimate test of machine, drivers and crew. There are no timeouts—if your car breaks, you try your best to fix it. While your car sits in the pits, your competitors are going by every four minutes to take another lap off your lead, or put you another lap in arrears.
Participation in the 24 Hours is by invitation only. To be invited is a feather in any team’s hat. To finish the race is a cause célèbre. To actually win your class is racing’s ultimate prize—your team’s arrival in the racing pantheon.
Corvette Racing was invited to LeMans in 2000 and with a superb first-time effort, they finished third and fourth in class. They were invited back the following year and this time there was no denying Corvette Racing. Their two C5-Rs finished first and second in the GTS class with Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell and Scott Pruett taking the checkered flag ahead of teammates Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Franck Freon. Just to prove that that victory was no fluke, they returned to LeMans in 2002 and again finished 1 – 2. This time Fellows and O’Connell teamed with Ollie Gavin to finish ahead of Pilgrim, Collins and Freon. To experience a lap around LeMans in a C5-R, please go here.
For two consecutive years, the C5-Rs utterly dominated the world’s most important race.
It was only fitting that the Corvette design team would honor the outgoing C5 by saluting the C5-R’s finest accomplishments at LeMans. A LeMans Commemorative Edition package was offered on all Corvette models. The package included special LeMans blue paint, unique badging noting the LeMans victories, as well as polished wheels and a host of other Corvette options. A special shale interior was offered only on the coupe and the convertible, and featured embroidered LeMans emblems on the headrests.
A few extra special goodies were reserved only for the Z06. On the introduction of the Commemorative Editions, Dave Hill, Corvette Chief Engineer, said, “We’ve created the 2004 Commemorative Edition to share our racing achievements with Corvette enthusiasts, while bringing real performance and technology upgrades to the Z06.”
Special to the Z06 was a carbon fiber hood, marking the first use of this material for a painted exterior panel on a vehicle produced in North America. Carbon fiber is very strong and exceptionally lightweight, and was used extensively on the C5-Rs. Its use on the production Z06 hood saved about 10 lbs over the standard hood and brought an example of racing technology and heritage of the C5-R to the Z06 CE.
Silver and red graphics on the hood, roof and trunk were unique to the Z06 CE and were reminiscent of the scheme used on the C5-R LeMans cars for 2003. With a limited production run of only 2,025 the Z06 CE was, and remains, a highly sought after Corvette.
The Z06 CE on the Street
There are times when a car’s performance on the street does not match all the hoopla surrounding its introduction. Not so with the Z06 CE. For Jim Nomicos of Frederick, MD and Wayne Penn of Fredericksburg, VA, driving the Z06 CE was all it took to put them in the geez, I have to have this mode.
Wayne bought his Z06 CE in July of 2005 with 9,000 miles on the odometer and puts about 5,000 miles a year on it with trips, shows, drag racing and autocrossing. His car now has Dynomax long tube headers and Bassani “X” tube exhaust and mufflers. The final touch that separates Wayne’s car from the pack are the fuel rail covers which now sport a custom paint job with skulls and flames—an unbeatable combination (see our slide show).
Jim purchased his 4,600 mile Z06 CE in April of 2006. Like Wayne, this was his first Corvette. He puts on about 2,000 miles a year driving to shows, cruise-ins and making the annual trek to Corvettes at Carlisle. Jim was looking at several other cars in 2006 and after driving his main choices, thought he owed it to himself to at least test drive a Corvette. He drove a Z06 CE and was hooked! When asked how he got interested in Corvettes, he says, “Just drove one and it took my breath away!”
Jim and Wayne now have serious cases of perma-grin which, as all Corvette owners know, is that smile you get every time you go for a drive. There is no cure for perma-grin and the only known treatment is to buy more Corvettes. Wayne has figured this out and now has an ’84 C4 and a ’79 C3. Jim has been reminded that one of the immutable laws of nature is that you can’t have too many Corvettes, but so far he has not taken the plunge. That’s OK, we can wait.
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