By the time 1995 arrived, the fourth-generation Corvette had been in production for 12 years. Except for an increase in 1989, sales had declined after the first five years. Performance-wise, Corvette continued to be at or near the top of its class, but the C4 platform, which was first conceived in the late '70s, was showing its age. We all know now that the replacement would be arriving a year later as a '97 model, but at the time, the pending arrival of the "C5" was cloaked in a cloud of mystery rivaling that of a government "black ops" project. The lack of information on the new Vette created speculation that Corvette would skip a year, as in 1983-which added to the frustration. As it turned out, the C4 was kept in service for one more year. And rather than embarrassing itself as an old warrior in a young car's game, the '96 Corvette became a rolling affirmation of the aphorism, "Saving the best for last.
The C4's swan song turned out to be a hard-rockin' tune thanks to a new engine option, RPO LT4. Chevrolet engineers started with the five-year-old, 300-horse LT1 powerplant. New aluminum heads featured revised combustion chambers with bigger valves and stronger springs, and improved intake and exhaust porting. The new heads also bumped the compression ratio from 10.4:1 to 10.8:1.
A new, more aggressive camshaft sported increased lift, duration, and overlap. All this added up to an engine with vastly improved breathing capabilities, and engineers raised the redline from 5,700 rpm to 6,300 to fully exploit these gains. The extra stress necessitated the use of Crane roller rocker arms, improved top piston rings, a stronger timing chain, and a number of bottom-end strengthening modifications. To keep up with all this fast, heavy breathing, the new mill received higher capacity fuel injectors. The result was a 30hp gain, which put total output at a muscular 330 ponies.
In creating its most advanced small-block to date, Chevrolet decided to invoke the memory of the five factory lightweight Sting Rays built for racing in 1962-63. The crowning, and most visible, touch was on the new, improved throttle body-the words "Grand Sport" in red lettering.
And although this hot new powerplant was available as an option in any Corvette (but only with a six-speed), The General also created two new options to mark the C4's passing: RPO Z16, the Grand Sport Package, and RPO Z15, the Collector Edition. The Grand Sport paid homage to the past with its paint scheme and go-fast intent; the Collector Edition had a Grand Sport heart and commemorated the end of an era with its classy paint and interior package. They were the last of their kind, and, as VETTE called them in our Oct. '95 issue, "The Best Corvette(s) Ever."
A desire to own the last and best of its kind is what put Joe Nietupski of Phoenix in the market for a '96 Corvette. "I'll tell you what, I've been a Corvette lover for many years," he says. He started early, too, buying a '67 roadster, sight unseen, at the tender age of 16. The mid-year had originally been painted Goodwood Green, though it was black when Joe got it, and sported a 350-horse 327. He kept the Vette for nine years, driving it in good weather, on weekends, and on dates in his native Pennsylvania. Joe had developed a thing for mid-years early on, and the fact that the '67 model was the last of the Sting Rays made the roadster extra special to him.
Joe assures us that a "major life change" was the only thing that could have persuaded him to give up his Vette, and that's exactly what happened. After nine years of Corvette bliss, Joe decided to move to Arizona with his fianc. The old Vette's lack of air conditioning, along with a need for money, prompted its sale. Joe left the Vette and his boat in the garage and told his dad to sell them. The Vette sold quickly-again, sight unseen.
The years came and went. Joe built his career, bought a house with the fianc he moved for (now his wife Tami), and brought a daughter into the world. The '67 was long gone, but when it came to Corvettes, one thought stuck in Joe's mind. "I always knew I'd buy another," he says. It would also have to be the "right" car. For Joe Nietupski, that meant finding a Vette that would never lose its value, it meant finding one with all the options, and it meant finding a six-speed. Another idea that appealed to Joe was the chance to own another Vette that was the last of its kind. Taking everything into account, Joe decided to go looking for an LT4-equipped '96 Vette. His search was extensive-and fruitless. Joe describes himself as "fussy" when it comes to Corvettes, and nothing that he turned up was the "right" car.
As it turned out, the right car found Joe instead. Frustrated in his search, he finally placed an ad in the Arizona Republic, and got an answer from Jim and Sandi Cole of Peoria, Arizona. The couple's '96 Collector Edition convertible was for sale, and Joe went to take a look. His reaction upon seeing the Vette was "Wow!" It didn't take long for Joe to decide that this was the "right" car, and a deal was quickly struck.
What Joe got was an immaculate Collector Edition with only 15,000 miles on the clock. Almost every option was present: full power, Bose CD player, tinted windows, the new Selective Real Time Damping system, sport seats, the matching hardtop, and plenty more. The exception is RPO Z51, the Performance Handling Package, which Joe doesn't miss, given the option's reputation for delivering a rough ride.
The Vette also sported two minor modifications, both of which Joe decided to retain. The 17-inch ZR-1-style wheels, which came from the factory with a silver painted finish, were chromed, and two charcoal gray Grand Sport hash marks were added to the left front fender. The subtle alterations serve to accentuate an already stunning Corvette, and meld perfectly with the Collector Edition Sebring Silver Metallic paint.
Just as he did with his '67, Joe Nietupski takes his '96 out on nice weekends and sunny days, though these days his 13-year-old daughter Stacy is most likely riding shotgun. It's a head turner to be sure, and the enthusiasm in Joe's voice when he talks about his car affirms that he's one happy guy. He knew he'd own a Vette again, and there's no doubt in his mind that his wait for the "right" car has paid off. Just don't ask him to sell it; the Collector Edition and its brethren are the last-and best-of their kind, and this one isn't going anywhere.