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John Greenwood’s 1981 Corvette GTO

Illustrated Corvette Series No 236

K. Scott Teeters Oct 5, 2016
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In The Illustrated Corvette Series No. 228 (June ’16) we covered the 1980/1981 Greenwood Daytona Corvette. Trans-Am and IMSA racing were so hot because the cars were pony/muscle car and sports car-based, such that the fans could personally relate to the race cars. John won Trans-Am Championships in 1970 and 1971 with his “Stars and Stripes” ZL1 Corvettes. For 1972 and 1973, BFGoodrich sponsored Greenwood, and his showing at Le Mans put the name “Greenwood” into Corvette racing history books.

Because John wasn’t a factory team, he was considered an amateur. So when the Porsche and BMW factory cars got their cars dialed in, Greenwood had to go rogue. Indeed, he went wild with a Randy Wittine-designed widebody that was popularly known as Greenwood’s Batmobile. IMSA cars of the mid-to-late ’70s were beasts, and the widebody Corvettes were indeed over the top. They became the iconic look of the 1970s IMSA Corvette.

The blending of race cars with street cars is an old formula. Two of the best American examples of this concept are the Shelby Mustang and the Shelby Cobra. European exotic cars were generally known as sports race cars. Companies such as Ferrari and Porsche build and sold to the public race cars that you could drive on the street. Greenwood was an independent racer first and later integrated his racing parts business into the production of specialty street Corvettes. His company, Auto Research Engineering (ARE), started offering engine building and suspension services. As John developed parts for his race cars he sold his latest creations to other Corvette road racers. By the time the widebody Batmobile Corvette came along, just the words “Greenwood suspension” meant that the owner of said suspension had the latest, trick, hot setup for their Corvette. The name said it all!

The first Greenwood widebody Corvette race car was unleashed in 1974 and by 1975 John and his brother Burt entered the Corvette specialty market with their street version, called the Sebring GT. From 1975 to 1981, the Greenwood brothers produced five unique Corvettes; four of which were widebody variants. The Greenwood specialty cars were: the Sebring GT (32 built), the Sportwagon (a non-widebody car, 1 built), the Turbo GT (3 built), the Daytona (5 built), and the GTO (2 built), for a total of 43 Greenwood street Corvettes. Custom-built cars typically wear almost a total body kit that’s expensive to make and sell, and must be installed by genuine craftsmen to get the bodywork spot-on. Add in a custom-built engine, suspension, racing wheels and tires and other upgrades and you have a big bill added to an already expensive car.

1981 Chevrolet Corvette Side View 2/3

The base price of Corvettes from 1975 to 1981 ranged from $6,810 in 1975 to $16,258 in 1981 (inflation was a monster in the late ’70s!). A Greenwood Corvette could easily cost more than double that of a factory Corvette. Yet, despite the facts of high unemployment, gas prices and insurance rates, Chevrolet sold record numbers of Corvettes during this time. However, there just wasn’t much of a demand for unusual-looking, handcrafted, hyper-expensive Corvettes the likes of which John and Burt Greenwood were offering. What they were doing was taking a race car design and applying it to a street car that looked like they’d gone “too far.”

The widebody race car was designed to be practically sitting on the asphalt. The street versions were up a little. The race cars had big-tube side pipes that barked and bellowed high-octane testosterone. This was the era of catalytic converters that had to remain on the cars to be street legal. So, no side pipes for the Greenwood street Corvettes. The 1980-’81 Daytona and 1981 GTO both had side rocker panels that filled in the lower portion of the car where the racing side pipes would have been. The Sebring GT and the Turbo GT were very cool, but looked like something was missing; yeah, side pipes. If you are looking at the Greenwood widebody street cars and wondering, “Why didn’t they … ?,” keep in mind that the bodywork was designed first to be for racing applications. The street application was secondary.

When IMSA published their rules for 1980 race cars, they did not realize that the Greenwood brothers would go as far as they did with their Daytona Corvette. The Master Rule in racing is “If the rules don’t specifically say you can’t do something, then you can!” For the 1981 season the Greenwoods were ordered to “dial it back.” The major differences between the 1980 and 1981 Daytona and the 1981 GTO are the hood, the tops of the rear fenders, and the rear spoiler/bumper cover. The Daytona had an elaborate, short vertical fin on top of the rear fender that turned several turns “in and back,” flowing to the wide, long, table-like rear spoiler. The GTO’s rear fenders pontoons are the same as the Daytona except that the vertical “fins” stop at the end of the fender. The rear bumper cover looked like an extended, tall version of the stock cover. The rear glass was a hatch design, similar to the 1982 Collector Edition Corvette. The GTO’s hood was void of the Daytona’s NACA ducts and transverse cooling slots. The hood dome was more pronounced, opens in the back and had four open cooling vents on the sides. Under the hood was a bonnet with a round opening for the air cleaner that sealed to the underside of the hood. Shared parts between the Daytona and the GTO included the front bumper cover/spoiler, top-vented front fenders and side rockers. While the earlier Daytona is a wilder-looking car, on the track the GTO worked better and was nicknamed the “Suction Cup car.”

1981 Chevrolet Corvette Rear View 3/3

With looks this startling, it’s almost easy to not ask about what’s under the pretty fiberglass. The GTO packed a turbocharged, balanced and blueprinted L83 350 engine. Greenwood cars before the Daytona/GTO used a blow-through turbocharger system. Greenwood learned that the draw-through system with the compressor under the carb was more reliable and offered better fuel management. The turbo L82 delivered an estimated 450 horsepower. That’s mighty impressive for 1981 when the stock Corvette put out 190 horsepower. Stock Corvette rotors were cross-drilled for improved cooling and used stock calipers. Bilstein shocks tightened up the suspension. The BBS racing lace-style wheels were shod with BFG tires. Factory production power-assist options included: steering, brakes, windows, door locks and seats. And in a “shape of things to come” way, Kevlar brake fans were mounted flush to the outside of the BBS wheels. Chevrolet used a similar basic brake fan design on all stock C4 Corvettes, except for the ZR1 cars. The two GTOs produced were black, one had a saddle tan interior and the other was red. Both had black steering wheels and center console surface plates. Expediency and cost was likely the reason the interior of both Greenwood GTOs were stock. The “nothing special” bone stock interior might have been a mistake. After all, when you drive a car, you experience it from the inside, so it should look “special” from your point of view.

So, what became of the Greenwood GTO Corvettes? The black/saddle GTO was repainted red/orange and was eventually sold to a collector in New York. The black/red GTO was crunched in an accident shortly after the original owner took delivery. Amazingly, this wrecked custom-built supercar sat in a body shop until 2000 when Butch and Sundi Ayers, owners of Ayers Paint & Body, discovered it. By 2004, Ayers and Naber Motors in Houston, completed the restoration in time for the 2004 Greenwood reunion at the Corvettes at Carlisle show.

Things get a little intriguing from there, but the story ends well. At the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale 35th Anniversary 2006 auction the Greenwood GTO #002 (Lot #990.1) sold for $49,500. Eight years later at the 2014 Mecum Kissimmee Auction (Lot #T290) the bidding stopped at only $20,000 and was a No Sale. Then at the 2015 Scottsdale Auction (Lot #761), with No Reserve, the Greenwood GTO sold for $34,100 and is now part of the Lingenfelter Collection. In March 2016, the Lingenfelter-owned Greenwood GTO was invited to the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance show as part of a tribute to the late John Greenwood. The car will receive the “royal treatment” as part of the Lingenfelter Collection. So, the story has a happy ending; both of the Greenwood Corvette GTOs are accounted for and alive and well.

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