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Mosler MT900 - The C5 Zora Really Wanted

Trackside At Daytona With The Mosler MT900 And A Slew Of Privateer C5 Racers

Jun 1, 2001
Vemp_0106_01_z Mosler_mt900 Chevy 2/1

This, the Mosler MT900, is a real Corvette. It just happens to be built by Warren Mosler, and not GM. If you spend any time at all talking to GM engineers they'd tell you that this is the Corvette that Zora Arkus-Duntov really wanted to build. The only problem was that the financial people at GM just couldn't make the numbers work for a mid-engine exotic sports car. When your business model calls for 30,000+ units a year it's far better to head towards the Lexus end of the sports car spectrum than the exotic end of that curve.

When the C5 Corvette was being developed, Zora sent a series of letters to the Corvette engineers telling them how they were going down the wrong path. He felt the new C5 Corvette was too conventional. He firmly believed that his old team, what was left of it, wasn't pushing the envelope far enough. It always upset Duntov that the new C5 was too conventional.

I remember listening to Dave McLellan explaining how the only direction for the Corvette was a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive car. This was very early in the development of the C5. As he explained why the conventional route was going to be pursued, it was almost as if he was talking to Duntov, not the audience, as though he felt the need to explain himself to his mentor. Duntov seemed to have that sort of power on people.

While a group of us stood around looking at the brand new Mosler MT900 on a balmy winter day in Sebring Florida, an executive type from GM observed, "This is the sort of car that Duntov always had in mind for the Corvette." After watching the Corvette fans at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, I would also say that all of the Corvette owners there felt the same lure of the exotic Corvette that GM really couldn't build.

This Corvette connection becomes even more interesting when you realize that a former member of the C5 design team was responsible for the MT900. Rod Trenne was a junior member of the C5 design team. For weeks on end Trenne would hang around the office at night playing with and working on the newly purchased Unigraphics Solutions software system. It was almost as if the ghost of Zora was sitting beside him urging him to design an exotic Corvette. This spirit wanted a mid-engine Corvette and Trenne was his pupil. It all really began when the Corvette engineering group purchased a Consulier from the Mosler group in Florida. Trenne knew he had found his dream-Ferrari F50 performance with Chevrolet parts. There was only one problem-it was really ugly. Trenne was so impressed with the performance of this ZR-1 powered car that he wrote a letter to Warren Mosler proposing that Mosler hire him to design a new car. This was in 1995-two years before the new C5 would be introduced to the public.

Trenne felt that Warren Mosler built great cars-they were just too ugly. He explained to Mosler that he could design a visual package that would do justice to Mosler's engineering package. As a hardcore Corvette guy you know that Warren Mosler was also hearing the voice of Duntov.

The C5 design was benchmarked against the Lexus. Duntov, and a lot of the older engineers, wanted to benchmark it against the Ferrari. There has always been this siren call for an exotic Corvette. GM has more engineering talent in one hallway than most exotic car firms have in their whole enterprise, and Corvette engineers have driven every exotic car on this planet. They know that they could build a better car-if the beancounters would let them.

By the mid '90s it became obvious that GM was never going to create an exotic Corvette. Ron Trenne was young and still believed in the dream, and knew this dream wasn't about to happen at GM. It was time to pack up and move on.

Trenne sent Mosler a huge package of detailed styling studies for the new car. Warren Mosler is not one given to indecision. He got back to Trenne with a "Let's do it." Thus was born the Mosler/Trenne 900-or the MT900.

Given that both Mosler and Trenne were really hardcore Chevy guys we shouldn't be surprised that in creating the new MT 9000 at least half the parts are from the C5 Corvette, including the engine. Mosler and his engineering team took a C5 and reconfigured the parts. As you slide behind the wheel you find yourself staring into a Corvette dash. When you open the front lid you're staring at a whole lot of Corvette suspension bits and pieces. Then when you open the rear lid you find an LS1 engine. Even when you open the door you're doing it with a Corvette door handle. The Mosler team has taken all the Corvettes parts and rearranged them in a new and exciting manner. Was the ghost of Zora guiding the hands of the living?

The idea was to use the best parts of the Corvette-after all GM had spent a lot of money engineering and crafting these parts. Just take all these parts and arrange them a little differently. Then give the car a drop dead swoppy body. Now we have the car that GM couldn't-or wouldn't-build.

The MT900 is everything the Corvette is not. That includes not being anywhere as practical as the production Corvette. I seriously doubt if you could fit a set of golf clubs anyplace other than the passenger seat. As we talked in the morning sunshine at Sebring, we discussed how there was no way that you could sell over 30,000 of these cars, but that doesn't make the MT900 any less exciting. In fact it makes it even more exciting. Think of it as the fulfillment of Duntov's dream.

The car that was at Sebring had an LS1 Corvette engine installed. A Porsche gearbox was used to get the power to the rear wheels. They used the old Porsche racing trick of turning it upside down and backwards. Don't forget the street Porsche is a rear engine automobile. The MT900 is a mid engine car, with the transmission hanging out the back. The opposite of a Porsche 911.

The first thing you notice is this car makes a visual statement. In the middle of paddock crowded with some very shiny race cars the MT900 stood out. A month later, in the middle of the Daytona garage area, the racing version did the same thing. This is one car that won't blend into the gray backdrop of a rainstorm. Corvette fans at Daytona who didn't even know what the car was fell in love with it. There's something about the MT900 that lets you know it's really a Corvette.

Marketing people talk a great deal about brand identity. BMW has the split grilles in front. Porsches have the sloping hood and the rectangular back window. Even Mustangs have the taillights arranged a certain way. The only real visual clue on the body of the MT900 are the C5 taillights. The interesting thing was that every Corvette enthusiast at Daytona knew that under that stunning body lurked the heart of a C5.

It's actually easier to get into this swoppy car than it is to get into a C5. I've always had trouble getting in an out of a C5 with a helmet on my head. The way the door goes up into the roof made access much easier with this car. When you drive it you're almost in the center of the car. While the design team didn't go so far as to put the driver in the middle of the car like the McLaren F1, they did push the driver as close to the center of the car as possible. The center tunnel actually goes down the right side of the car, not the true center.

The interior of the car was still a little rough on this prototype. Considering the asking price is over $164,000 a lot of work needs to be done on the interior. This has always been a weak spot on specialty cars. It's as if when everything is finally done they look around and remember that they need two seats and a dash. I suspect this will be taken car of when the cars are released for sale.

The other problem is with the transmission linkage. This car just didn't like going into gear. Since the Porsche transmission is usually a joy to shift, the problem has to be with the linkage. Keep in mind that it's a long ways from the shifter knob to the transmission. It's never been the big problems that drive you crazy in designing a car-it's the thousands of details. There's still a lot of detail work to do on the Mosler. Then again, this was the prototype.

One of the more interesting details is that the dramatic side scoops don't actually scoop much air into the twin side radiators. As long as you go slow things are fine, push the car really hard and you start to see 250 degrees on the gauge. When I say push it hard I mean flat out on the turns at Sebring. My old C4 hits 230 degrees on the same course so 250 isn't a huge problem, just something that needs a little more refinement.

These are all problems that can be treated in the development phase. The good news is that the Mosler group has been through all this before. This isn't the first car they've built-just the first good looking one.

The steering uses a C5 rack and pinion assembly. With all the weight removed from the front of the car the steering seems a little light. This is another development problem, but one that's easily solved.

You have to keep in mind that the Mosler group let us see and drive an almost finished car. When GM creates a new Corvette they literally hand build about ten Corvettes for the members of the media to drive. Then they take them to a race track and hone them to take out every little flaw. I have to say that I've never driven a bad Corvette from the General Motors press fleet. GM wouldn't allow it.

The Mosler group is a lot more like the rest of us. They love cars and they want to share the excitement. It's fun to be around these guys. When they got the very first MT900 on the road they just invited a bunch of us down to Sebring to see their new toy. There were no fancy catered meals and little gifts to take back to the office. It was just a bunch of car people having fun. You have to love it.

So far the only bad part about this car is that I can't afford on. I'm very jealous of the few who can drive around in the ultimate Corvette. Sure there are going to a few little problems with a hand built car. That's what we used to call character. Just talk to a few Ferrari and Porsche owners about some of the problems they have. The only dead reliable car in this market is the C5 Corvette. The MT900 takes all of these good Corvette parts and places them inside one of the better designs we've seen in the past decade. What's not to like? Even Zora must be smiling at this point.

The MT900 At DaytonaThe team of engineers and racers that Warren Mosler assembled for the upcoming racing season looks a lot like the old Corvette race team. Did Duntov have a role in this too? Tommy Morrison, who used to be the head racer for the C4 Corvette, is now in charge of the new MT900 racing effort. Ralph Kramer, former head of Chevrolet public relations, is handling PR for the race team. Two of the drivers are John Heinricy and Jim Minneker of GM Powertrain. Given that the MT900 design rose from ashes of the old Corvette group, who would be better suited to race the MT900 than some old GM racers.

We all knew the Mosler was beautiful. We had no idea that it was also very fast. How fast? When they got through posting the qualifying times at this year's Rolex 24 Hours the Mosler had beaten Hans Stuck in a factory BMW. When you can beat Hans Stuck in a factory BMW you know you're fast. The next question is, "Can you last?"

The amazing thing is how stock the race car really is. The Daytona engine was freshly pulled out of a new 2001 ZO6. This isn't a fancy Katech 7-liter C5-R race engine that's honed to within an inch of its existence-it really is the same powerplant that you'd find under the hood of a Z06 at the local Chevy dealer. The Porsche GT3s and the BMWs have engines which probably cost more than the whole Mosler. When you can take a stock LS6 and place it on the pole, you know you have one very fast car.

Speedvision called the weather at Daytona this year "ugly," which is exactly what it was. After driving through the rain and drizzle I arrived at the track to find the Morrison crew changing the transmission in the Mosler. They felt it would be best if they installed a brand new Porsche transmission in the car prior to the start of the race. After all, they had one in the transporter and more than enough time to carry out the work. In retrospect this may have been the biggest mistake of the weekend-but more on that later.

One point that most people miss is that Tommy Morrison and Warren Mosler picked the toughest class possible to race in at Daytona. They were running in the GT class, a class "owned" by a horde of Porsches. Not only does Porsche own this class, the factory provides a tremendous amount of technical support for all the privately owned Porsches.

The Porsche that finally won the GT class in this year's Rolex 24 beat all the sports racers, and all but one of the GTS cars. Think about this for a minute-only Ron Fellows in the C5R Corvette finished higher than the GT winning Porsche. This is one very quick class that Warren Mosler has decided to play in.

The Mosler qualified fastest in the class, but had to start from the back of the grid because there were problems with the clutch adjustment after the transmission swap. This was no big deal because, as another driver said, "In this race you could start at the I-Hop and it wouldn't make a difference in the final results."

There were also problems with the shift linkage in the race. The team ended up running in third gear for several laps, which brought back the overheating problems we first saw at Sebring. Most of this could have been overcome had it not been for a lighting problem-they didn't have any. Or more correctly, they didn't have any more front hoods to hold the lights. After about four hours the MT900R was parked after losing two hoods to contact with a couple of Porsches. "We're out because of crash damage," explained Warren Mosler. "Frankly, we ran out of parts. We lost two hoods in two accidents and we don't have any more."

Scott Deware was so impressed with the Mosler MT900R at the Rolex 24, he bought the car. Tommy Morrison will act as team manager for the rest of the Grand Am season, and also oversee production of more MT900Rs. Morrison, Director of Operations for the MT9000 project, said he expects 10 racing versions of the car to be constructed by the end of the year.

As this issue of VETTE goes to press, a second MT900R has been sold, to Jeff Giangrande of Spring Lake, Michigan. His MT900R will be readied for the 2002 Grand Am season. Mosler's racing program is intended to advance development of street-legal MT900s, the first of which will be built in early 2002. The street cars will share the shape and a lot of the Corvette components with the race car. There really isn't a huge difference between the street cars and the race car, something very unique in racing.

The next couple of years are going to be some of the most exciting we've seen in Corvette racing. There will be a variety of different Corvettes on the race tracks of the world. The new Mosler is more than welcome to the fray.

Motorola CupThis is rapidly becoming a Corvette series. The Motorola Cup is very similar to the SCCA Speedvision World Challenge series. It's basically a showroom stock series, which means you buy a Corvette, invest $50,000 and have a "stock" C5 that can run with the fast guys. This is one of the two series where you can race the C5 "kit" cars that can be purchased from GM parts.

The Daytona Motorola Cup is a three-hour endurance support race that takes place the day before the Rolex 24 hours. There're refueling, driver and tire/wheel changes, just like in the Rolex. C5s took the first three places in this very first race of the season. In many ways, this finish is just as significant as the Corvette that won the overall victory at the Rolex 24.

Keep in mind that the entire Corvette racing program is modeled after the Porsche business model. That means that you have a factory entry at the very top level, and literally dozens of cars that race in the "lower" classes. This type of program takes a lot of effort, but the profits are great. When Chevrolet began racing the C5 they were hoping that in a few years they could match the Porsche effort. After only three years the program is on track, if not a little ahead of schedule.

It's just too bad that Motorola Cup competes with the World Challenge. If there are going to be two road racing series for show room stock cars they need to bring the rules closer together. If you want to see Corvettes racing you have to make it to either a Motorola Cup race or a World Challenge race, when one comes to your area. In the meantime check out web sites of the top three Corvettes at Daytona.

Grand Am AGTThis is a fun class. The Grand Am rules makers created a class for the old tube frame cars with the old small-block that most of us have in our Corvettes. If you think of these racers as Trans Am cars you aren't that far off the mark. These folks still run carburetors and have a ball. The best part is they are not slow. The big bucks factory cars qualified on the Daytona course at around 119 mph. The AGT cars were just over one hundred and fifteen miles an hour. That 4 mph of extra speed with the C5-R probably cost GM several million dollars more than Team Amick spends for the whole season. In fact, Team Amick was just a hair faster than the Mosler MT900 in the qualifying round. When you're as fast as the GT3 Porsche you're pretty good.

The highest finishing AGT Corvette was #44 of Team Amick. It was driven by Joe Varde, David Amick, Lyndon Amick, and Bill Lester. Most of these cars are really amateur efforts and are short of funding, but they have a lot of fun. The fact the #44 Corvette was beaten by two Camaros says less about the series than the fact you can hang any bodywork on the tube chassis and go run with the big dogs. It costs about $15,000 per race to run Motorola Cup and the World Challenge. I doubt if many of the AGT teams spent that much to run the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

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