Production of factory-built, bare-bones Corvettes reached their peak in the late 1960s with the now legendary L88. Devoid of even basic comfort features like a heater and a radio, cars equipped with the L88 package were thinly disguised, fire snorting race cars. RPO L88 was offered for just three years (1967-69) and the no frills concept died altogether after 1975, which was the final year for the Z07 Off Road Suspension and Brake Package.
Given the trend to ever greater luxury, increasing competitiveness in the sports car segment, and the never ending stream of weight-adding safety and emissions mandates from Big Brother, many concluded that distinct high-performance option packages and models had disappeared forever. How wrong they were!
In 1997 the new C5 was introduced as a hatchback coupe with a removable roof panel, a configuration similar to the C4. In 1998 a convertible was added to the model lineup and Chevrolet added a third body style to the arsenal in 1999, a fixed roof coupe that was formally called the Hardtop. It was intended to be leaner, meaner, and less costly than its more refined siblings are. In short, it hearkened back to the Golden Era of Detroit musclecars by offering performance without many of the gadgets most customers think they can't live without.
A fair measure of the Hardtop's improved performance was a stiffer underbody structure. It utilized the extra crossmember found behind the passenger compartment in convertibles, plus a rigid, fixed roof assembly to generate torsional rigidity numbers that bettered the coupe's performance by a full 12 percent.
Besides increased stiffness, the Hardtop also benefits considerably from decreased mass. Every performance junkie knows that a careful trimming of pounds is a win-win situation because handling, braking, and acceleration all improve. Devoid of the coupe's relatively heavy hatch glass and roof assembly, the '99 Hardtop tips the scales nearly 100 pounds lighter.
In keeping with its leaner and meaner theme, all Hardtops were built with the Tremec T56 six-speed transmission and the Z51 Performance Handling Package. The latter included slightly thicker anti-sway bars and higher rate springs.
In an obvious effort to keep weight down and thwart those who would try to circumvent their intent, Chevrolet severely limited options that could be added to the Hardtop. Options such as heads-up display, memory features, electric telescoping steering column, dual-zone HVAC, and sport seats were strictly verboten. A power driver's seat, upgraded sound systems, and the Active Handling System were the only choices.
Though Active Handling has progressed considerably since, the system available in 1999 was actually quite effective. By instantly activating the brakes on any one or more of the cars wheels it helps the driver regain control after getting "out of sorts." Some highly skilled individuals driving in competition find it too intrusive, but it goes a long way in improving lap times on the track and avoiding accidents on the street for the majority of drivers.
The Hardtops looked to the same 345hp LS1, rack and pinion steering, and braking system as was found in coupes and convertibles. So everything else being equal, did 90-some fewer pounds and 12 percent better torsional rigidity make any difference in the real world? In a word, youbetchabottomdollar it did!
Hardtops can tick off the quarter mile a tenth or two quicker than other C5s and can get through a slalom a wee bit quicker as well. But whether in a straight line or around some pylons, the stopwatch doesn't really tell the Hardtop's full story. To really appreciate the car's attributes you must explore its limits on a deliciously twisty stretch of highway or, better yet, on a bona fide road racing course.