Every generation of Corvettes has teething problems upon launch. C1 Corvettes were being development and engineered as they were being built. The C2 Sting Ray was pretty good, but had some grooming issues. The first C3s were seriously not good. Corvette owners suffered with a rock-hard suspension, especially the Z51 cars. Thanks to the excellent work of the engineering teams of chief engineers Dave McLellan and Dave Hill, C4 Corvettes were quickly fixed and for their day, were pretty good.
The C4 line ran about three years longer than expected. When GM was doing well in the late 1980s, work started on the C5. A deep recession hit in the early 1990s and GM was suddenly drowning in red ink. Spending hundreds of millions on a low-volume, single-use car platform was not a popular concept. For a brief time, the Corvette’s very survival was in jeopardy. Fortunately, the storm blew over and on November 18, 1992, there was a new Corvette Chief of Engineering, Dave Hill, “Cadillac Man.”
Although Hill worked at Cadillac for 27 years it didn’t mean he wasn’t a “car guy.” While the C4s were better than the C3s, quality was still an issue. Hill would bring “Cadillac quality and efficiency” to the all-new C5. And unlike previous generations, the C5 was 100 percent new; a totally clean sheet of paper. The structure, engine, drivetrain, suspension, brakes, interior, and body were all new. Amazingly, the C5 Corvette had 1,462 fewer parts. Hill and his team knew they had a winner because by 1997, plans were launched for the official Corvette Racing Team. By 1999, after the convertible and hardtop models were released, Hill tasked his designers to start work on the C6 Corvette. Interestingly, there were virtually no exterior changes from 1997 to 2004; aside from optional five-spoke wheels in 1999, new standard five-spoke wheels in 2000, and a few special editions, making it hard to tell what year a C5 Corvette really is.
The C5 was a giant leap forward, starting with the frame. Rather than a stamped, welded, and bent frame, the steel framerails were hydroformed, with aluminum and magnesium attaching parts. This new process produced uniform thickness and gentle bends for a stronger and lighter frame. Behind the passenger location is a thick, built-in rollbar and crossmember. The transverse cowl and front and rear transverse members are all beefy but lightweight.
The overall car was slightly larger in every dimension, but most notable is the 104.5-inch wheelbase, an increase of 8.3 inches. The longer wheelbase improved ride quality and helped engineers to create a front-mid-engine layout for better balance. Overall, a C4/C5 comparison shows that the C5 is 1.2 inches longer, 2.9 inches wider, 1.3 inches taller and approximately 100 pounds lighter. You’d have to go back to 1971 to find a Corvette with a curb weight of less than 3,221 pounds. Thanks to the new frame, the doorsills were smaller and lower. The additional width opened up the footwells, overall interior and storage space.
The most impressive part of the C5 was the all-new, Gen III LS1 engine and transaxle that moved a big lump of weight to the rear. This concept was proposed by Duntov in 1957 as part of the Q-Corvette project and only took 40 years to bring to reality. Zora’s Q-Corvette also called for an all-aluminum small-block Chevy engine and fuel injection. The LS1 was a stout jewel of an engine compared to the old cast-iron classic. The aluminum block was heavily ribbed, the oil pan was an integral part of the structure, there were four-bolt mains with two additional bolts on the bearing cap sides, and beefed-up bosses everywhere needed. The overall block weighed 107 pounds; 88 less than the classic SBC block.
The new heads used cathedral ports that were tall and narrow to allow injectors to be pointed to the perfect place on the intake valve. The LS1 sounds different because the firing order was changed from 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2 to 1-8-7-2-6-5-4-3 to improve main bearing operation and reduce vibration and stress on the crank arms. The lightweight composite intake runners give the LS1 an “eight-pack abs” look, and hiding under the engine covers are the electronic fuel injection fuel rails, and eight ignition coils; one for each cylinder. In 1997, this was an eye-popper.
Dave Hill said, “the new LS1 has the simplicity and compactiveness of the pushrod layout, but with porting so efficient and valvetrain so light and still, it breathes like an overhead cam motor.”
Up front, upper and lower aluminum A-arms are mounted to a cast-aluminum cradle. A monoleaf composite leaf spring and antiroll bars attach to the underside, and the rack-and-pinion steering and motor mounts attach to the upper side of the cradle. At the rear, upper and lower A-arms were used with stub axles, where the front A-arms had spindles. The lower A-arms attach to the rear cradle, and the monoleaf composite rear spring, shocks, and antiroll bars attached to the lower control arms. The transaxle is mated to the rear cradle and a torque tube connects the transaxle to the rear of the LS1’s flywheel.
In 1997, there were 9,752 C5s sold, compared to 21,536 1996 Corvettes. While it typically takes some adjustment time when a new Corvette arrives, the reduced sales were not because of poor reception. Pressure was on the Bowling Green plant to make every new Corvette “right.” When plant manager Wil Cooksey saw something wrong, he would shut down production and fix the problem so that the new C5s were as good as possible. As such, 1997 was the lowest sales year for the C5. 2002 was the best with 35,767 sold. Overall, 248,715 C5s were produced. The base price of the 1997 Corvette was $37,495 and by 2004 increased to $44,535, an increase of $7,040. Product planners kept the line interesting with six milestones Corvettes: the 1998 convertible, the 1998 Indy 500 Pace Car, the 1999 hardtop, the 2001-’04 Z06, the 2003 50th Anniversary Edition, and the 2004 Commemorative Edition Coupe, convertible and Z06.
Once again, the convertible was a premium model, costing $6,930 more than the 1998 coupe. Customers didn’t mind, as 11,849 of the 31,084 1998 Corvettes were convertibles. The 1999-’00 hardtop was supposed to be a bare bones, strippo model Corvette. To reduce cost, the optional bolt-on top was bolted and bonded in place to create the hardtop. Costing $38,777, the hardtop was only $394 less than the coupe and had no rear storage hatch. Not much savings and less usability. The total of 1999 and 2000 hardtops sold added up to only 6,121—not so good.
However, it turned out that bolting and bonding the hardtop to the body structure increased structural rigidity by 12 percent, not a lot, but enough for engineers to explore using the extra stiffness as a platform for an new “performance model.” Engineers hot rodded the LS1 into a 385hp LS6 and threw at it every suspension performance trick they could think of. Product planners resurrected the Z06 moniker from the 1963 racer kit option and the side rear brake scoop gave the Z06 its signature look. A new Corvette legend was born. The following year, engineers goosed the LS6 to 405 horsepower, making the C5 Z06 quicker, faster and less expensive than the C4 ZR-1.
In 2003, a major milestone for the Corvette community when Chevrolet celebrated with the 50th Anniversary Edition, available on coupes and convertibles only. The $5,000 option had dedicated Anniversary Red Xirallic paint and a host of special luxury options. This was an open option with 7,310 coupes and 6,543 convertible versions produced. Of the 35,469 produced 2003 Corvettes, 13,853 (39 percent) were 50th Anniversary Editions.
The final C5 special Corvette was the 2004 Commemorative Edition. This $3,700 option for the coupe and convertible, and $4,335 for the Z06 was a salute to the success of the C5-R Corvette Racing Team. The Z06 version was unique because it was the first production Corvette to use carbon fiber. The C5-R made its debut in 1999, placed 2nd in class at Le Mans in 2000, and then 1st and 2nd in class at Le Mans in 2001, 2002 and 2004, and won every race entered in 2004.
In retrospect, the C5 was outstanding from start to finish. Today, 1997 Corvettes can be found for as little as $12,000. C5 Z06s can be purchased in the low-to-mid $20,000 range while 50th Anniversary Corvettes run around $25,000, and 2004 Corvettes can cost $16,000-$22,000 depending on mileage and options. Dave Hill and his team designed a great machine that was ready to be a racer and Wil Cooksey’s team built quality Corvettes. The C5 was going to be a hard act to follow.
K. Scott Teeters has been a contributing artist and writer with Vette magazine since 1976 when the magazine was titled Vette Quarterly. Scott’s Corvette art can be seen at www.illustratedcorvetteseries.com. His muscle car and nostalgia drag racing art can be found at www.precision-illustration.com.