As with just about anything else in life, knowledge is power when it comes to working on a Corvette. Whether due to economic necessity, the satisfaction that comes with fixing something yourself, or the simple desire to get one's hands dirty, many choose to turn their own wrenches. But these days, especially with the advent of computer-controlled engines, you gotta know what you're doing. As a relatively new C4 owner, I feel more than a little trepidation about attempting repairs that go much beyond "remove and replace" on my car. Troubleshooting? Diagnosis? Help! There was definitely room for me to improve my Corvette knowledge, and as you know, we here at Team VETTE seek out professional help when we need it!
If you want to learn about everything C4, Gordon Killebrew is certainly the man to see. Killebrew currently serves fourth-gen enthusiasts through his phone consulting and troubleshooting service, For Your Car Inc., and through Gordon's School, which he established in 1997. For those of you who aren't familiar with Mr. Killebrew, I'll give you a short bio: Gordon was one of the original members of the Corvette Action Center, which was started by then Chief Engineer Dave McLellan during the C4 years. The Action Center fielded questions from GM's Tech Center, Chevrolet dealers, and private Corvette owners regarding any and all problems they couldn't fix. Before working in the Action Center, Gordon was a mechanic at the end of the assembly line, where he handled electrical and air condition repairs on the new Corvettes as they came off the line. And if all that's not enough, Gordon was also a proof editor for Service and Owner's Manuals.
This experience was very much in evidence throughout the weekend. Suffice it to say that Gordon has an encyclopedic knowledge of fourth-generation Corvettes. "I'm no different than anyone else," he contends. "I just worked on them every day. I'm very seldom asked a new question. I took 50-60 calls a week, and was the mechanic at the end of the line. I saw more in a week than a dealer saw in a year." When asked why he's chosen to spend his retirement teaching others about Corvettes, two things are evident: he feels it's important (and who can argue with that?), and he enjoys it. "My main reason for doing this is that there's such a lack of knowledge (about C4s)," according to Gordon. "No one seems to know the right answer, even the dealer. The dealer's not bad, but Corvettes are a small part of their business, and they don't receive that much training on them. And it's doing something I like to do. I like to be around Corvettes, working on them and teaching about them."
Gordon offers four classes. Corvette 101 is a one-day session that presents an "overview of how the Corvette functions," and is recommended for "Want-to-be Owners, Future Buyers, and New Owners." Corvette 102 is also a one-day class, offering "more in-depth instructing for owners who want to do their own troubleshooting and repairs." Corvette 103 lasts for two days, and is recommended for "graduates of Corvette 101 and 102, Advanced Owners, Dealer Technicians, Independent Shop Technicians, and Shop Owners." The fourth class is Corvette ZR-1, which spends two days covering, "advanced operational and troubleshooting, covering all aspects of the '90-95 ZR-1 Corvettes."
I elected to sign up for Corvette 103. I may have been giving myself too much credit, but one advantage of being the only student in a class is that Gordon could (and did) tailor the class to my level. "We didn't get into detail," he told me afterwards, "but we covered the most common things...preventative stuff to do. When dealing with shop techs, I'll get more detailed. But with owners, I work to their level. I try to show the simplest way to do something...there's so much to cover in two days." All of which sounded good to me.
That issue decided, there was one other problem to deal with. Much of the teaching (and learning) at Gordon's School is intended to be hands on. In fact, one of the benefits of the school is that your particular car gets a thorough going over. Unfortunately, there was no way I could get my '84 from California to Tennessee for the two days, so I went looking for a substitute cross-fire. As it turned out, all it took to get a stand-in for "The Bronze Bomber" was an e-mail to the Nashville Corvette Club. I was put in touch with Billy and Hattie Green, who graciously agreed to leave their silver '84 at Gordon's shop for use as class guinea pig.
Day One started off in the classroom, seated in front of a disembodied '85 Corvette dash and wiring harness. There's no way to convey everything that happened in the space I have here, but I'll try give you a feel for what that first day was like. Gordon wasted no time and jumped right into the middle of things, pointing out possible problem areas like the Bose amp relay, which, if my notes are correct, is part of a subharness tied onto the ECM, the dome light timer, and the central subharness that connects to the console on '84-86s. As a person with a healthy case of electrical system paranoia, it was a bit intimidating. On the other hand, seeing the exposed harness, and having Gordon show that it was "only" three main bundles, demystified things a great deal.
We then moved onto the headlights. Gordon discussed where to look for a given problem (the yellow wire for headlight power, the gray wire for the headlight doors), and strongly suggested that early C4 owners use the later C4 plastic headlight. It weighs half as much as a traditional glass unit, and the savings is enough to greatly reduce the wear on those fickle C4 headlight motors. We discussed general bulb usage on C4s; for instance, the bulbs for the doors and the hood look the same, but the hood light has double the candle power and will melt a door lens.
This combination of higher-level discussion (the wiring harness) and the more mundane (headlight gears) proved to be the course of action over the weekend. Gordon also tries to evenly split the time between classroom and practical instruction, so we headed outside for some hands-on work. Gordon started of with various body panel adjustments. When we got done with Billy Green's '84, I was a bit jealous, 'cause his headlights, hood, and gill panels were aligned better than those on my own '84. He also went over fog light replacement and alignment, side marker and taillight replacement, and windshield wiper adjustment. It may sound simple, but much of it isn't, until you're shown how to do it.
We then got under the hood, where we went over the vacuum lines, especially in relation to diagnosing cruise control difficulties (a problem area on my own '84). Things then got slightly more complicated, at least for me, as we returned to discussing the wiring harness in relation to the digital cluster. But even this line of instruction was relatively user friendly, though, as we also covered the importance of properly grounded wires, which Gordon stresses heavily. He also showed me three different ways to bypass a faulty fan switch, at least one of which I remember and would be able to use if necessary. I got my hands dirty, as well, when we cleaned out the space between the A/C condenser and the radiator, a problem spot on '84s.
Somewhere during the day, we also had a superb lunch (which included apple cobbler made by Mrs. Killebrew, who also happens to be the school's executive secretary), discussed cross-fire tuning, testing the digital dash cluster, dismantling a steering column, and even how to properly splice wires. Whew! I had a ton of things to think about on my way back to the hotel, most of which, I'm glad to say, I think I was getting a handle on.
The next day, Billy and Hattie Green were able to join us in class, and the couple got their hands dirty right off the bat as Gordon guided them through the process of seat cushion and seat frame removal, as well as checking out the power seat track. Gordon also took the time to point out some problem areas on the car, while Hattie noted it all down. Back in the classroom, Gordon got into early C4 stereos and antennas as well as troubleshooting the HVAC controls. We hooked up a code scanner to the Greens' '84, used one of Gordon's relay testers (which he sells, along with this gauge cluster tester and many other useful tools), and even had time to go over some more cross-fire tuning info before calling it a day. It was an info-packed weekend, and despite feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, I found myself wanting to get home so I could address some problems with my own car.
When I checked in with Gordon a couple of weeks later, he asked what I had learned from the weekend. To my slight surprise, I found myself saying that I was less afraid to actually get out there and work on the car, even if that meant dealing with the electrical system. And that, it turns out, was exactly the response Gordon expected: "Say 'computer,'" he explained, "and everyone gets afraid. But it's not hard once you know where everything is. Afterwards, the students say, 'I'm not afraid to do it.'" Which is exactly how I felt. It's confidence inspiring to understand at least some of what's going on with my car, and I'm looking forward to tackling some of the rough spots and having a better-running C4.