The incredible popularity of the C5 has given birth to an entire market devoted to performance and personalization of the latest iteration of America's Sports Car. Name it, and some individual or company, somewhere, has probably already done it or is producing it. Whether you want blinding speed, a vast expanse of chrome and polish under the hood, or carbon fiber trim and custom-embroidered carpets mats inside, it's available. Several of the other feature cars (and many of the display ads) in this issue are testimony to that fact.
In Europe, Germany in particular, firms commonly called "tuners" are esteemed as automotive artisans of the highest order. To aficionados of high-end German machinery, an Alpina or Schnitzer BMW, a RUF Porsche, or an AMG Mercedes is the ultimate example of the particular marque, and these tuners are held in equally high regard by the companies whose cars they modify, high enough that some of the tuners buy new cars directly from the manufacturer and sell their product through the brand's dealer network. The preeminent instance of this would be the purchase of AMG by Daimler Benz a few years ago, and the resultant offering of AMG models as an integral part of the Mercedes lineup.
The European tuner approach is generally one of expanding upon and going a step (or three or four...) beyond the factory offerings in styling, trim, and performance. German tuner cars can be anything from screaming-but-spartan autobahn rockets to ultra-lux sedans that are still capable of embarrassing many sports cars. Most Euro tuners offer their cars as packaged models, such as the Alpina C1 (a "gray market," privately imported BMW) the author used to own, and some build cars strictly to customer specifications.
There have been, and currently are, a small number of firms on the west side of the Atlantic that would meet the European definition of tuner. In ye olde days, there was, most notably, Carroll Shelby and his GT350 and GT500 Mustangs; the bad-to-the-bone Yenko Chevrolets (mostly Camaros); the famous Baldwin Motion Corvettes, Camaros, Chevelles, and Novas; and Mr. Norm's Dodges, among others. The Dodge boys now have John Hennesey and his killer Vipers and Steve "I'm not a tuner!" Saleen sells his modified Mustangs through a handful of Ford dealerships. SLP caters to the GM crowd with Firehawk Firebirds, and the Corvette faithful have tuners like Doug Rippie, Chuck Mallett, and John Lingenfelter, to mention a few.
Each tuner shop has its own approach, leaving its own signature on the cars it constructs. The vast majority of tuners place their emphasis on performance upgrades to enhance speed and handling, with the cosmetics generally limited to tires and wheels, badges, and maybe a custom hood and a wing or spoiler on the tail. The shop currently doing modified Mustangs takes the opposite approach--if one wing is good, two has to be better; and if the factory puts one gill or vent on the side of the car, three's an improvement and five or six makes it really great.
Standing in stark contrast to both extremes is Caravaggio Corvettes, tucked away in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada. Headed up by John Caravaggio, the firm is a mixture of design studio, performance shop, and upscale custom paint and upholstery facility--in other words, very much akin to Alpina or to AMG before it became part of Daimler Benz. A great deal of what John C. and his merry band of tricksters do is to expand or extend the vision of the Corvette's designers, to build limited production models that go to a level beyond the factory offerings while still remaining true to the original concept. And when you consider that Caravaggio works very closely with John Cafaro (the C5's chief designer) and Henry Iovino's Skunk Werkes (see "Covert Operations" in the Sept. '01 issue for Henry's C5 Speedster), there should be little doubt to the validity of his methods. John Caravaggio describes what his shop does as providing, "...originality, quality, and refinement for Corvette owners who wish to individualize and improve their automobiles with the result of added luxury, style, and power."
The first example of John Caravaggio's handiwork we saw was Iovino's Speedster, at the 1999 SEMA Show, where it graced the HRE Performance Wheels exhibit. The following April, at the C5 Birthday Bash, we examined the Caravaggio/Skunk Werkes SR5 (see "Stinking Good Fun," also in the Sept. '01 issue), met John for the first time, and had a chance to talk about his car building philosophy. Suffice it to say that his claim of "...originality, quality, and refinement..." is not some PR flack's usual puffery.
So when Caravaggio teased us earlier this year about building Z06 Targas and convertibles, constructed from factory-issue Z06s and not standard C5s with Z06/LS6 components grafted on, we were very interested. Shortly thereafter, we hear from him and the message is to the effect of, "I'm gonna build some Z06 Grand Sports, whadayah think?" I know I wanna see that!
The two Corvettes you see on these pages are genuine Bowling Green-built '01 Z06s. The VINs verified that--the sixth digit of the VIN is 1, the code for a fixed roof coupe body and the eighth digit is S which is the engine code for the LS6--an LS1 would be code G. Both cars fit Caravaggio's mission statement about building limited production models that go to levels beyond the factory offerings yet remain true to the original concept. And the quality, as we expected, is utterly impeccable.
First, the Z06 LM Targa. John's vision here was partially inspired by the Daytona and Le Mans-winning '01 C5-Rs, hence the blacked out rear bumper. The roof conversion makes use of as many OEM components as possible, artfully and skillfully integrated into a body that was never designed for them. A lot of work goes into converting the fixed or solid panel into one with a removable section. The other changes to the exterior are subtle-small "splitters" on the rocker panels, black powder-coated Z06 wheels with machined outer lips, and LM badging. The interior modifications are more immediately noticeable. The seats feature additional bolstering, custom openings for the shoulder straps and anti-submarine belt (referred to by some racers as a soprano strap) that are parts of the LM-logo'd five-point harness system, and color-keyed Z06 embroidery on the custom leather and suede upholstery. There's also a leather-covered four-point rollbar, plus custom leather and/or suede on the steering wheel, the parking brake and shift knob and their boots, suede door pulls, and color-keyed (to the exterior) stitching throughout. Air induction and exhaust enhancements boost the power from 385 to 420 horsepower.
We've been intrigued for quite some time by the concept of a ('96) Grand Sport-influenced C5. Caravaggio has created what we'd fantasized about--an Admiral Blue with white stripe and dual red hash marks (painted, rather than vinyl tape as on the originals), and blacked-out wheels with a polished lip. Doing it to a Z06 makes just that much more cool. Then, he upped the ante by deciding to build 10 of these beasties as convertibles--Z06 (fixed roof coupe body) convertibles! There will also be 10 Z06 Grand Sport Targa coupes built. OEM '96 GS emblems are used, and the balance of the treatment is very similar to the Targa LM, except that the seats feature "Grand Sport" embroidery and all of the stitching is in red. The convertibles also get a pair of chromed individual hoop-type rollbars, one behind each seat. Again, induction and exhaust are massaged enough to boost the horsepower to the 420 mark on an '01 (Caravaggio promises a comparable increase on '02s).
All in all, these Corvettes are works of art that can be driven; exquisitely crafted automobiles, and highly complimentary to the factory offerings. I want a Z06 Grand Sport Targa...all I need to do is win the lottery.