The second special model released was the '96 Grand Sport. How the Grand Sport was conceived and brought to production is unique. Supposedly, the Corvette design team wanted to pay tribute to the end of the long-running C4 body style. The idea to do a specific Grand Sport commemorative model is currently credited to Chief Designer John Cafaro. In 1993, the team created the design test mules for the new Grand Sport and eventually showed it to a group of dealers who were part of a focus group that helped Chevrolet set future brand direction. This group responded that the GS design was too bold for production, and the initial sales forecast was in the 500-1,000 range, a low figure indeed. From a corporate standpoint, this was not enough sales to justify a special car like the GS. Then John Heinricy (current director of the GM Performance Division and past C5-R driver) came into the picture. At the time, he was the assistant chief engineer on the Corvette team. Essentially, he was at the helm of the C4 while Dave Hill was concentrating on the new C5.
According to Heinricy, while visiting the coffee pot one day he had a conversation with Dave Hill about overcoming the problem of the car's boldness and the probable low production totals. One of them said, "How about we have two special models? We'll make an unlimited number of commemorative specials and the limited-run GS." Supposedly, in that room on that day they set the total maximum number of Grand Sports at 1,000 (810 coupes and 190 convertibles were eventually built), since that's what the marketing department said they could sell. Eventually, the Collector Edition accounted for 25 percent of the total production in 1996, which remains the only model year in which GM released two different Corvettes.
From the beginning, everyone involved in the '96 Grand Sport project agreed the car should be about performance, not just fancy paint and interior. With the new '96 onboard diagnostics and the C5 coming out the next model year, constraints inside GM had to be dealt with. A completely new engine offering for the Grand Sport was out of the question because of the expense and time constraints. The eventual solution was to redesign the current small-block in the C4, the LT1, and offer it as a manual-transmission-only powerplant in all C4s, with the final engine being named the LT4. Beginning with the LT1, Chevrolet added larger high-performance aluminum cylinder heads, a bigger camshaft, bigger valves, a higher 10.8 compression ratio, roller rocker arms, and increased fuel flow via new fuel injectors. These changes resulted in 330 hp at 5,800 rpm. Red spark-plug wires, a red intake manifold, and red "Corvette" and "Grand Sport" lettering on the manifold and throttle-body cover completed the special engine.
Externally, the Grand Sport paid reverence to the Grand Sports from 1963. The car bore an Admiral Blue color with a wide white stripe covering the middle of the hood, roof, and rear portion of the body-the same colors carried on the Grand Sport driven by A.J. Foyt at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1964. A pair of red hash marks was placed over the left front fender. This styling cue was added because, when the original Grand Sports ran at Nassau in the fall of 1963, three different tape colors were used on the front cowl to help identify them as they passed the pits at speed. Red was used on the '96 GS as a styling cue to tie the two generations together. Unique Grand Sport badging was placed on each side of the hood above the side-fender vents, as well as a unique chrome-plated Corvette emblem on the nose and gas lid.
All Grand Sport coupes used ZR-1-style five-spoke rims with 275-40ZR17 rubber on the front and 315/35ZR17 on the rear. With all this wide rubber on the car, GM had to find a way to make it legal by having it inside the wheelwells. Initially, the design team considered using the ZR-1 wide body for the GS, but reconsidered because they could upset the ZR-1 customer who paid a premium for the ZR-1 drivetrain and different body style. Then they decided to tuck some of the tread under the car by going to an offset wheel and using European flares already in the GM parts bin on the GS coupes. In fact, the Grand Sport wheels were the same as the '94-'95 ZR-1 five-spokes except they were painted with a glossy black finish and had the aforementioned 50mm offset rather than the ZR-1's 36mm.
The GS convertibles did not receive the fender flares and wider tires of the coupes. The wider tire/rim combination would not fit in a convertible (as a flat tire), so the convertibles were equipped with 255/45ZR17 in front and 285/45ZR17 in back to solve the problem. Interior color choices for the Grand Sport were limited to all black or a unique Torch Red and black combination, with red seats and trim and black carpeting. The Grand Sport name was embroidered on the seat headrests.
John Heinricy also had a key role in instituting the special VIN sequence for the Grand Sport. Since GM had done a special VIN for the '90-'95 ZR-1s, they established a policy banning the practice. John said he and others felt strongly about making the GS even more special and fought the powers that be at GM to make it happen. The only other Corvette to have had a unique VIN sequence was the '90-'95 ZR-1. Judging by the extreme enthusiasm for these special Corvettes demonstrated by groups such as the Grand Sport Registry, we think it's safe to say the '96 Grand Sport will stand out as a unique and rare Corvette icon in the decades to come.