Most of us can point to the time when we first caught crossed-flag fever. For Dick Dawson, it was in '63, when the split-window Sting Ray first rolled out of St. Louis. "I fell in love with it," he says of the midyear. "It became an obsession." An obsession that, in Dawson's case, led through five C2 Corvettes-including a seriously-built '65 that he raced in Mexico's Carrera Pan Americana road race-and ultimately led to the hybrid "Z067" roadster seen here.
As timeless as the Sting Ray is, things have changed since '63, and the Corvette with them. Having grown restless with the limited-by-comparison performance of the C2, Dawson began studying the cold fusion it would take to blend the classic looks of a midyear with the latest technology of a new Corvette, creating the best of the breed in the process.
The project began with two halves-a top and a bottom-from two different Corvettes. The first was a rolling chassis from an '02 Z06. The 2002 model year was when the Z06's LS6 engine jumped from 385 horsepower to 405, bringing the car's 0-60 time down to around 4 seconds. Reputed to have been a test vehicle, Dawson's '02 roller only had 1,100 miles on the clock and even had its original tires.
The '66 to which this running gear was to be mated, however, was a different story entirely. Bought from a dealer who had obtained it from a previous owner in the form of an abandoned restoration project, the '66 comprised a finished frame with the body barely bolted on. At this point, it should be obvious to even a casual observer that simply installing a C5 engine, transaxle, and suspension on a stock midyear frame is something of a non-starter. Before we get into how Dawson did it, though, let's look at why it's worth doing.
The big advantage of the C5 gear has virtually nothing to do with the engine. There are plenty of otherwise-stock C2s pushing out 400 hp or more, and aftermarket EFI conversions are common enough that making a high-horse engine driveable is no longer the challenge it once was. What the C5 offers is driveability of a different sort. The rear-mounted transaxle greatly improves front-rear weight distribution for more-balanced handling, and the short/long arm (SLA) double-wishbone rear suspension is light-years ahead of the rather crude three-link setup found on the midyear.
Although GM was aware of the SLA system as far back as the '50s, the company chose to inflict the cheaper three-link system on the Corvette when the independent rear suspension debuted on the car in 1963. The wheel was connected to the differential on either side by the axle half-shaft on the top and a strut on the bottom, both of which were of different lengths. When the suspension was compressed under load, the wheel gained camber, keeping more of the tread in contact with the road. What it did not do was gain camber consistently. The half-shafts were of the "floating" variety, which meant they were free to wander in and out of the diff. This, of course, plays merry havoc with the camber, adding that extra touch of unpredictability that keeps the wild-eyed excitement in driving a C2 or shark.
The C4-style five-link rear, while a decisive step ahead, was still bettered with the introduction of the C5's more precise twin-A-arm configuration. The C5 also offered a six-speed, rear-mounted transaxle, which put the transmission at the rear of the car, right in front of the differential. While this greatly improved the front-to-rear weight distribution, all of that stuff still ain't gonna bolt up to a stock C2 chassis.
Dawson began looking at a number of different aftermarket frame manufacturers, ultimately contacting Tray Walden of Street Shop in Athens, Alabama. Although Street Shop is known for its C4 suspension frames for C1-C3 Vettes, sticking a transaxle in one was a new challenge altogether. After checking out the references that Walden supplied (including one customer who had frames from both Street Shop and a competitor), Dawson offered up his two project cars to be used in the creation of Street Shop's first C5 transaxle chassis.
Before they could come together, however, the '66 and the '02 had to part ways. The '66 went to nearby Wood's Body Shop, where Darrin Wood began the extensive fiberglass modifications required to fit the new mechanicals in place. The '02, meanwhile, stayed at Street Shop, where Walden began the painstaking process of building a frame jig and slowly welding the pieces in place. One of Walden's main conditions was that he put the body on himself, so he could make sure it was done right. "His attention to detail was exceptionally good," Dawson says. "He was great to work with."
Walden started with mandrel-formed rails, and by the time he was done cutting and welding, the body mounts were about the only things stock-looking on the new chassis. From the front end, with its mounts for the rack-and-pinion steering and C5 suspension components, to the rear cradle designed to accept the transaxle, everything else looked foreign on the C2 chassis. After Walden shortened the torque tube to fit and bolted it in place behind the LS6, the other C5 components were installed unmodified on the finished chassis. The shocks and transverse-mount fiberglass springs, however, fell by the wayside, replaced by Aldan American coilovers.
Meanwhile, Wood had no less of a challenge in doing the body work. Fortunately, says Dawson, "I don't have any aversion to cutting fiberglass." That is good, because there was a lot of it for Wood to cut. For starters, the C5 torque tube took up much more room than the usual C2 tranny and driveshaft. Wood had to fabricate a new fiberglass transmission tunnel to clear everything, one that was some 4 inches wider and 2 inches higher.
He also fabricated a new rear deck and installed tubs that would tuck the massive 18x10.5-inch Z06 wheels underneath the body without using flares. This would have been enough fun all by itself, except that the Z067 is a drop-top, and when that top drops, it's gotta go someplace. In this case, "someplace" means into painstakingly crafted notches in the tubs, which fill up the place that usually would hold the folded top.
The internal 'glass work wasn't all, though. One of Wood's trademarks is custom work so subtle that it blends almost imperceptibly into the car's original lines. On the Z067, this takes the form of a raised ridge running down the center of the hood bulge and stinger. Hard to do, and easy to botch, it's just one more thing about the Z067 that you only notice on close inspection.
With the fabrication complete and cured, Wood began the arduous prep work and block-sanding that ultimately led to a miles-deep Jet Black paint job and Rally Red stinger. The completed body and chassis were then taken to the nearby shop of Jim Hornaday, where the body drop was to be performed. Hornaday, a longtime Vette aficionado and an expert on C2 restoration, had become aware of the project early on, and when he heard that Dawson was mating a Z06 to a '67-style body, he referred to the car as a "Z067." The name stuck. Dawson's daughter, a graphic designer, laid out the distinctive Z06-inspired logo, which is found tastefully applied throughout the car. Another friend laser-cut the polished stainless-steel hood logos, the backs of which Dawson pocket-milled so he could install the red fiberglass inserts that show through the front.
Once the top and bottom were together, there was still a cloth Al Knoch ragtop to be put on, and work to be done on the interior. With all the room the torque tube took up in the passenger compartment, the standard, 19-inch-wide C2 seats simply wouldn't fit, so Dawson had narrower, 16-inch seats custom made by Chuck Rowland of Tulsa and covered by well-known hot-rod upholsterer James Carter of Springdale, Arkansas. These were sewn up in ultra-leather, rather than leather, for durability reasons, along with a set of matching door panels. Dawson even used the material to cover the custom aluminum console he had cut out with a CNC water jet. The red-and-black theme is maintained inside and out and is accompanied by the Z067 logo, which appears on the seatbelt latches, wheel center caps, and rear diff cover.
Looking good isn't everything, though, and since Dawson had previously owned a business that manufactured air-conditioning components for the automotive industry, he contacted his former company for the custom tubes and hoses needed to optimize the A/C installation. Unlike an original C2, the Z067 will blow cold air at idle all day long and never overheat.
One of the last things Dawson mentioned to me when I called to talk about the car was the radio. Not only was it reconditioned with digital circuitry, he'd had a line-in installed in the ashtray, along with a discreetly hidden toggle switch that takes the sound system from AM/FM to iPod compatible. The last thing he told me regarding the Z067 before I went to see it, though, was to drive it. And drive it I did.
The Z067 came alive with the customary cardiac throb, the factory-style side pipes emitting a slightly higher-strung cadence than you'd expect from a typical midyear. The six-speed trans slipped easily into First gear, and I handled the car with the amount of respect-no, make that fear-due a vehicle that weighs under 3,000 pounds and has more than 400 hp. Handled gently, it was surprisingly docile but also extraordinarily responsive: The lightest touch on the teak-and-rosewood steering wheel moved the car into the other lane, and even gentle pressure on the gas pedal brought it quickly up to cruising speed. More-authoritative footwork in Second and Third gears (frankly, I was way too scared of First) brought the fast-revving LS6 through its powerband to its shift points at preternatural speed, turning the world in the windshield into a blur. Shifts were fast and smooth, and the car felt ever-so-connected to the pavement, cornering as flat and stable as you please. Even to those accustomed to driving C5s, the feeling is entirely different-much more raw, untamed, and exhilarating.
When he was describing the Z067, Dawson referred to it as the culmination of his Corvette hobby. It's the culmination of many things, and you'd be hard pressed to find a car that does a better job of bringing the Corvette full circle-following its long journey from old-school elegance to today's technology, shoehorned back beneath the hood of what's gone before.