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2001 Chevrolet Corvette C5 - Conversion Reaction

How A Would-Be Cobra Enthusiast Saw The Light In A Supercharged C5

Steve Temple Nov 1, 2009
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It's an oft-repeated story. After a sudden epiphany, a misguided soul sees the error of his ways and does a complete 180. In this case, though, we're not talking about a morality tale of giving up a vice such as gambling or drinking, but rather a simple realization concerning the virtues of our favorite sports car. And no ordinary Corvette at that, but one with a 600-plus-hp, blown-and-juiced LSX 427.

In the case of Duke Wilson's turnabout, it actually happened not once, but twice-first from a Japanese import, and then from a Shelby Cobra.

"I originally wanted to go with a Cobra replica after breaking from Japanese cars," Wilson relates. "I sold my twin-turbo V-6 Mitsubishi VR4 Spyder because I wanted more power and presence. Nothing can satisfy that need like American V-8 muscle."

Well, at least he got that part right, thanks to a youth spent building build hot rods. Still, despite input from his friends, Wilson didn't make a complete conversion at that point.

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"For the next year and a half, I researched the Shelby, making three trips to the factory," he recalls. "I was also having meetings and meals with the local Cobra club technicians and enthusiasts." Ironically, it was those club members who first mentioned that the Corvette boasted better accessories and offered a superior overall driving experience. (Hey, all he had to do was pick up a copy of VETTE, and he'd have known better all along . . .)

After hearing such comments at different times from a variety of Cobra owners, Wilson started paying more attention to Corvettes on the road. His resolve about the Cobra was beginning to crack. After testdriving the Shelby, that crack only widened. Just to clear away any gnawing doubts, he stopped by a Chevy dealership-and then suddenly shifted gears.

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Not that there was anything wrong with the Shelby; it just wasn't quite right. After all, the Z06 was so much better looking and more sophisticated. He just couldn't resist its allure. (This all sounds rather familiar, since your author used to work at Shelby American and went through a similar change of heart.)

"My dissatisfaction with the Shelby was that is was very single-minded," Wilson says. "[It had] plenty of torque and engine sound but left aside beauty of form and drive experience."

The Corvette, on the other hand, had it all.

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"I knew this car was far superior before I even turned over the engine," he continues. "Immediately, I felt how well balanced it was compared with the Cobra. The feeling was like the difference in riding a runaway or a racehorse. Both are fast, but the runaway might decide to buck you off at any minute."

It would take several more dealership visits before Wilson finally took the plunge and bought an '01 C5. But once he converted to the Corvette camp, he was more committed than a born-again prison inmate, preaching to all his car-guy friends about his new way of life and making numerous modifications to the stock platform. He started with a switch from pop-up headlights to Le Mans-style fixed units, but that was just the first drop in what would become a bottomless bucket.

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Bolting on a polished Magnuson MagnaCharger blower was the next step, along with a general dressing-up of the engine compartment using carbon-fiber, chrome, and paint to create a distinctive look. As with so many new converts, though, Wilson stumbled along the way.

"The original company I chose to do the install talked a good game but sucked in its ability to deliver," he recalls. "It lacked a specialist who could correctly fine-tune the fuel and airflow. During the first 200 miles on the new supercharger, I had to return to the shop because of this problem three times. The problem was the two back cylinders were running lean. Well, time number three was the last time-because the block cracked!"

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Having learned a very expensive lesson, Wilson called Magnuson and asked the company to recommend a shop to oversee engine build number two. After reviewing a few options, he narrowed the field to Motor Sport Image (MSI) in Roseville, California. MSI's techs began by performing a diagnostic check to find out what had happened to the first motor.

"They impressed me with the quality of workmanship, the professionalism of the facilities, and their level of competency," Wilson relates. "I bought an LS2 402 block to replace the destroyed LS1 block. MSI did the install, and I drove the car for almost a year. I liked the LS2 but still wanted more power. I also had a problem with losing belts and the harmonic balancer. MSI contacted Callaway with the issue, and it recommended an upgraded tensioner."

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A club member had also recommended the GM Performance Products LSX cast-iron block, an ideal choice for anyone considering a big nitrous system or a healthy shot of forced-induction boost. Among other heavy-duty upgrades, the LSX features a six-bolt-per-cylinder design to increase the clamping force of the head onto the block's deck surface.

Another thing that makes the LSX so tough is the hefty amount of high-strength iron in the casting. Even so, it weighs just 85 pounds more than an aluminum LS unit, according to MSI. That extra mass reinforces critical areas around the cam tunnel and bores, under the deck surface, and surrounding the head-bolt holes.

Starting with this stout piece, the folks at MSI built a 427-cube engine loaded with forged pistons, rods, and crank; a high-lift Comp cam; and AFR 205cc heads. Incredibly, the blown combo produced 510 lb-ft of torque at just above idle.

"The goal was to produce a bulletproof big-cube motor," notes MSI's Mark Stein. "In the past we've seen problems with a stroked LS2 at around 402 cubic inches. There's too much side load on the bottom of the piston skirt, so it gets scuffed and scores the cylinder wall oil, causing oil-consumption issues. The LSX block is way more rigid."

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Good thing, since the 7 psi of boost pumped in from the MagnaCharger twist the dyno needle to the tune of 575 horses, according to MSI. To improve the giddy-up even more, the MSI techs tacked on another 100 horses with an NOS nitrous system.

With the performance mods and a high-rise carbon-fiber hood from Motor City Mold in place, the next step involved customizing the body color with a base of Magnetic Red, a coat of magenta (to dull the brassiness), and a coat of pearl white (to "milk it out"). There are 15 coats total, each one sanded after application for a deep gloss finish.

"I wanted a true depth of color and gloss, not shine or sparkle; something to really hold the eye and draw it along the bodyline," Wilson explains. "I'm now in the process of putting in front and rear flared fenders."

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The interior was also redone with black leather and a checkered-flag design on the console. The piping was executed in the same custom hue as the body to maintain the color theme. And to overcome the reduction in aft visibility caused by the flared fenders and roll-bar placement, Wilson added a rear license-plate camera with a dash display.

The rims are Savini three-piece forged wheels with three layers of chrome, but as with all project cars, Wilson says there's more on the way. "I put 19x9.5s on the front and 20x10s on the rear, but I'm in process of replacing the rear tires with even wider, lower-profile 345/25R20s."

Not surprisingly, Wilson's Vette has taken home a slew of awards. The one that sounds the most fitting, however, is the "Best Bitchin' Car" title earned at the Pleasanton Good Guys event. Not only that, it's also a two-time winner at the Hooters Sacramento Corvette Event. Ah, the rewards of doing the right thing.


Motor Sport Image



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