Corvette Kit Cars - Some Assembly Was Required

Did You Know You Could Buy A C5 In Kit Form Back In The Day?

Richard Newton May 25, 2010 0 Comment(s)
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Did you know you could buy a C5 in kit form back in the day? Me neither. You couldn't buy one of these Corvettes from your local Chevrolet dealer. You had to be approved by GM to buy one of these C5 Corvettes. Then after you were approved, you had to go to the parts counter to place your order for the car. When your Corvette was finally delivered, most of the car arrived in boxes. Oh, you also had to drive to Flint, Michigan, to pick up the rolling chassis.

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These were obviously no ordinary Corvettes. These were Corvette race cars. From 1999 to 2001 you could buy your Corvette race car directly from Chevrolet, or more correctly from the Service and Parts Operations division of GM. You didn't really buy a complete Corvette. You bought a rolling chassis complete with a drivetrain, a bunch of body panels, and any number of small parts. The body panels arrived in cardboard boxes. Actually, in 1999, they arrived a few weeks later since there were some logistical problems.

When the C5 was introduced, a lot of folks at GM thought the way to sell more Corvettes was to race them. They believed the old phrase, "Win on Sunday-sell on Monday." GM Motorsports thought it would be a really neat idea to make Corvette racing even easier than it had been in the past. Prior to 1999, you had to go to your local Chevrolet dealer and buy a brand-new Corvette. You would then take the car apart and turn all the parts into a race car. GM Motorsports, led by Ken Brown, came up with the idea of selling racers only the parts they needed. Since race teams were taking brand-new Corvettes apart anyway, why not just sell them the parts they needed? Race teams didn't need a stinking interior.

Once it was decided to go ahead with the program, GM had to make sure that the cars actually went to racers and not collectors. It wouldn't do any good if these cars ended up at Bloomington Gold. GM didn't do this program to help you win an NCRS award. Nope, the idea was that you would buy one of these kits, assemble it, and then beat the crap out of it on the racetrack. This was a performance program.

The Fixed Roof Coupe (FRC)
All of these Corvette kit cars were Fixed Roof Coupes (FRC). At one time, this was supposed to be the Bubba or a low-priced Corvette. When the product planners realized that the FRC would sell for about the same price as the Camaro, the Bubba program was halted. The only problem was the FRC was still going into production. What the hell do we do with this car now? It was time to get creative. The problem was that there was this Corvette (the FRC) going into production with no real sales program. GM had everything in place except the target market. OK, they said-let's make the FRC a race car!

I remember attending a meeting where they explained to a small group of us that the FRC was the ideal Corvette race car because it had the stiffest body shell of the three different versions. No mention was made of the crappy aero numbers they had just seen in the wind tunnel. The FRC wasn't a great aero package. The air simply didn't come off of the roof properly. The hatchback coupe was much better at handling the airflow over the top of the car. Now we had an FRC being sold as a race car when the street car, or coupe, had much better aero characteristics. Ooops. You'll notice that Pratt and Miller never used the FRC in any of its racing programs. It knew from the start that the FRC was aero trouble.

The cars destined for the SCCA World Challenge just avoided this whole aero issue. The idea was "Here's your FRC-go have fun." The kit car program seemed to be a perfect way to showcase the FRC and create demand for this orphan body style. A little later, GM would try limiting the Z06 option to the FRC. This actually helped sell more FRCs than the kit car program sold. Keep in mind, though, that this was a coordinated effort. All of the SCCA World Challenge Corvettes were Fixed Roof Coupes, and if you wanted the Z06 performance package you had to order it as an FRC. This mess was finally all coming together.

In early 1999, though, it was still a matter of "How do we get people to buy this damn FRC Corvette?" GM was searching for a way to recover the development costs of the FRC. Extolling the virtue of having a real trunk wasn't going to get the job done. GM ended up trying to convince the public that the FRC was the real performance car of the three body styles. It worked. At least it helped. You'll notice, though, that the FRC was gone with the introduction of the C6.

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What you actually got
One of the most interesting items was what you got with your Corvette kit and what was left out. The idea was to leave out all the parts you didn't need and only include those parts that were necessary. Things got a little confused when some items like the front cowl panel were left out of the kit. When the racers went to buy one at the local dealership, they were told it wasn't available. There was a part number-but no part. When you had a half assembled Corvette in your shop, you really didn't want to hear that excuse.

The Bowling Green plant pulled a few of these cowl panels off the line to meet the needs of the 20 new Corvette kit owners. As these cars went together in 1999, a few more of these problems developed and were quickly solved by making some very special, very small parts runs. Can you imagine asking for 20 of anything in the GM system?

Another interesting problem in 1999 was that no one had really given much thought as to how the body panels would be shipped to the race shops. I imagine someone said, "We can just put the body panels in some cardboard boxes and ship them UPS. OK, next point on the agenda . . . moving right along here." Well, it wasn't quite that easy. One of the fun experiences was trying to assemble your Corvette while you kept one eye out for the UPS delivery truck. Keep in mind that no one had done this before. GM was trying something that had never been done before. It hasn't been done since, either, but that's a whole 'nother issue.

During the Corvette Challenge (1988 to 1989) era, you always got a fully assembled car. Even with Porsche, you got a fully assembled race car. This was the first time a major manufacturer had ever sold race car kits. OK, there was a time back in 1976 when Chrysler tried it, but the cars were pretty complete. This was nothing like the GM SPO effort. I suspect that the Corvette folks weren't even aware of the old Chrysler program. They certainly weren't about to drive across town and find out how it had worked out for Chrysler.

All of the chassis were assembled in the Bowling Green plant but pulled off the assembly line prior to what is known as serialization. In other words, these 20 cars did not have the standard 17-digit VIN. Neither were they counted into the 1999 model year production numbers. All of the cars were given a serial number from GM Motorsports. They ran from 0000001 to 0000020.

When you purchased your car, you not only got a bunch of parts but you got access to a whole bunch of GM engineering talent. The information was made available to all the teams without any favoritism. This was a total team effort on the part of GM Motorsports. They even took Danny Kellermeyer's C5R kit car to the wind tunnel. The results of the wind tunnel test were made available to every car owner. They then went so far as to bring Gib Hufstader out of retirement to act as a liaison between the teams and GM Motorsports. You could find Gib wandering around the pits at the World Challenge events offering support and trying to answer a multitude of questions.

The engine package for these kit cars was slightly different with the utilization of some ASA parts. Actually, the kit car program got the ASA camshaft and valvesprings before the ASA teams got them. The ECM was also an ASA part as was the engine wiring harness.

You also didn't get a brake master cylinder or any of the necessary brake lines in 1999. Essentially, though, the front and rear cradles were complete. This changed in 2000 when you got the ABS controller as a part of the package. As the years rolled on, the packages got more complete. Each year Chevrolet learned a little more about how to get things packaged correctly.

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Are They Collectible?
There's no question that these are the rarest Corvette models produced during the C5 production run. Does rare make them valuable? So far the answer is not really. Remember a three-speed manual in a '63 is extremely rare but no one wants one. Don't confuse rare and valuable here.

There are a couple of issues with these cars that haven't been sorted out. First, they're race cars. Corvette people generally don't collect race cars. At least not the way Porsche and Ferrari people collect them. Porsche people actually create clones of the most famous race cars and put them on display. Corvette folks, on the other hand, take perfectly good race cars and turn them back into street cars. That's because Corvettes are normally judged on the basis of how well they mimic what left the Corvette factory. It's all about how the car left the plant. All signs of patina and real use have to be removed. That sort of kills the idea of displaying old Corvette race cars. (Unless a car has a serious race history like the 67-69 L88 cars, most race Corvettes are just that . . . old race cars and not worth much. -Ed.)

If we use the standard NCRS and Bloomington Gold judging criteria that is current today, you would have to show these Corvette kit cars as a rolling chassis accompanied by a bunch of boxes containing all the extra parts. After all, that was the way these Corvettes left the Bowling Green Corvette assembly plant. Seriously though, I'm not even sure if we have rules about judging these cars. In the end, these cars will become highly collectible. Whether they can be judged or not is an interesting question. Personally, I see no reason to ever subject a race car to show car judging. That's just wrong. That's also just me.

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Next, the people who currently own these kit cars have to finish racing them, which probably won't happen any time too soon. Danny Kellermyer is still winning championships with his '99 kit car. On certain courses, his old '99 kit cars are faster than his brand-new C6 Corvette racer. It would be a shame to take cars this good and simply park them on a show car lawn someplace. I suspect the C5 kit cars will become great vintage racers before they become show cars. After all, wasn't that the whole point when GM Racing put this program together? Drive the cars on the track and win some races. This program wasn't about putting cars on display in some parking lot. These are race cars.

The Inside Track on Building the Corvette Kit Cars The memories I have are of joy that we could do this for Chevrolet to help with the racing program. The process for building the kit cars was complex and had to be a combination of on-line and off-line manufacturing. The key was to do all that was required and not cause any lost production in the main process of regular production Corvettes. We were told this would be a one-time request and the truth was told. Later, there seemed to be some interest in doing it again, but there were no takers. Today could be a different story.

The day when we loaded the last kit car chassis on the shipping truck was a day to celebrate. It was a tough job and could not have been done without the collective efforts of the men and women of the Bowling Green Corvette Assembly Plant. When we ran into problems, they were quickly solved. I'll never forget how we had to remove Towveyors from the line with a forklift truck to partially build the chassis. The brake and powertrain parts had to be transported and installed into our off-line build area. It was done in the Work Place Development Center. All of this and more was done and there was no loss of standard Corvette production. We were successful in doing it all.

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(Wil Cooksey was named Corvette Plant Manager in February 1993. He retired in March 2008. He is also the only GM plant manager who had a Commemorative Edition car named after him. There were 505 special edition 427 Z06 Corvettes created as the Wil Cooksey Edition. Four hundred and twenty-seven of these Corvettes stayed in the U.S. and 78 were exported around the world. -Ed.)

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