The C5 Corvette: How it Re-Established Chevy’s Swag
“Little Red Corvette, you need a love that’s gonna last,” wrote singer/songwriter “Prince” Rogers Nelson. In his 1983 hit song, Prince used Corvette as a metaphor for a woman and a troubled relationship, however, as is often the case with art and music, those lyrics transcended the times to inadvertently address a bona fide Corvette love void beginning to widen.
The once proud C3 generation musclecar, which had been introduced way back in 1968, was starting to be seen as growing increasingly soft and in danger of morphing into a mushy boulevard cruiser. By the early 80s, the Corvette was beginning to lose some of its hard earned swagger and universal appeal. The Corvette could no longer keep pace with the growing competition from Japanese rivals such as the Nissan Z-cars or Mazda RX-7, and it clearly could no longer run with Porsches and Ferraris.
Enter the next generation Vette, the 1984 C4, straight away astonishing in appearance and thoroughly more competent than the C3. The curves of the C3 had been disciplined and honed into a cutting knifelike profile on the C4. A large clamshell hood opened to reveal the engine and the striking new cast-aluminum suspension links. The wheels were upsized to a massive 16 inches in diameter and dressed in Goodyear Gatorback directional rubber.
Clearly it was a step in the right direction, although in part what still held the C4 back was an uninspiring “Cross-Fire Injection” version of the 5.7-liter small-block V8 that only produced 205 hp, an uneven manual transmission, and a suspension tuned way too harshly stiff. But the new C4 could run away from some Porsches and it was an immediate winner in showroom stock racing. It was at last, and once again, a real sports car.
The shortcomings of the C4 only proved to further motivate Chief Engineer David Hill and Design Chief John Cafaro, as they undertook the task of creating the all new C5 generation. The C5 was slated as the first all new Corvette in the history of the iconic sports car. Even the original ’53 Vette borrowed parts from its siblings in the Chevy lineup; the C5 on the other hand carried over only a very limited list of parts from its successor, the C4.
The C5 team held it as a great source of pride that the new Vette contained, in fact, 1,462 fewer parts than used in the car it replaced. The 34 percent decrease in parts used was due, in part, for the need to greatly improve the car’s overall quality and structural rigidity, while still making enhancements in performance and handling. This new method, with its reduced need for components, also helped to improve the manufacturing process for a C5 Corvette, because now it only took 55 hours to build, which was considerably less than the 70 hours required to produce a C4 Corvette.
Hill vastly improved the Vette’s ride quality and safety, increasing both fuel economy and power along the way, while reducing weight. Cafaro further evolved the look of America’s longest-running two-seater in a big way. The result was a better Corvette in every aspect, now capable of 4.7-second 0-60 mph runs, while delivering EPA fuel-economy ratings of 18 mpg city and an astounding 28 mpg highway.
However, the journey leading to the C5’s inspiring resurgence took a bit longer than anticipated. Financial challenges at GM during the C5 development phase dictated that its evolution had to be completed more cost effectively and efficiently than ever before. For the first time, good ideas weren’t rejected simply because the Japanese had them first. The headlight switch, for example, was moved to the tip of the turn-signal lever just because it made sense. Those demands pushed the introduction of the C5 further down the road several times, but when it finally did debut, all delays were instantly forgiven and forgotten. The end result of all this unprecedented open-mindedness was a high-performance two-seater that still remains easy to love.
When it was at last ready for its first close-up in 1997 (coupe only at first), the C5’s reputation preceded it, as it carried the distinction of being the first Corvette in history to be entirely redesigned, both mechanically and stylistically. The March ’97 unveiling also introduced the LS1 engine which drove a rear transaxle – an unprecedented setup at the time. The automotive press heralded the newly created Corvette as an improvement in nearly every area over the C4. The C5 convertible followed in the fall of 1997 and debuted as a 1998 model. In 1999 a fixed-roof hardtop coupe model coupe (FRC) was also introduced, it was the lightest, stiffest, and quickest model in the Corvette lineup. In 2001 the hardtop became the Z06. The C5’s production lifespan ran from 1997 to 2004, the second shortest of all the generations.
When the ’97 coupe first hit the scene it was appreciably roomier than the previous car due to an 8.3-inch increase in wheelbase. Other advancements, like replacing the engine-mounted transmission with the aforementioned rear transaxle and eliminating the spare tire (run-flat tires were standard) helped to double the amount of interior storage space to 25 cubic-feet. All was easily accessed by a convenient hatchback.
Two transmissions were offered, a Borg-Warner T56 six-speed manual and a Hydra-matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic. The C5’s fundamental structure was an all-new backbone frame that positioned the transmission directly to the rear transaxle, between the rear wheels, so that its weight would offset the engine’s weight up front. The result was a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Three different suspension setups were also available which further improved the car’s superb handling, a daily-driver FE1 base level and two performance options, the F45 sport suspension with Electronic Selective Real Time Damping, and a track-ready Z51.
Most of the enthusiastic chatter about the new C5 revolved around the new LS1 engine though. The LS1 represented a significant upgrading over the previous 350 ci powerplant running in the C4s. The new engine featured a distributor-less ignition and a much needed new firing order. Aluminum valve covers separated ignition coils mounted close to each spark plug for better ignition efficiency as well.
Because of the newly designed exterior, which featured a lower hood line for improved visibility, and especially because of the loud call for more horsepower, an entirely new engine program was put into place. This would not only power the C5, but also usher in a whole new era of V8 engines.
As a result the launch of the LS1 in ’97 was much more than the introduction of a single new engine. It was the arrival of Gen III, which would then power the Camaro and Firebird the very next year, and GM trucks with engine variants after that. The new engine was not only key for the C5, it was instrumental in positioning GM on a new course at a time when fuel economy, performance, and emissions standards grew incrementally more important.
The LS1 was GM’s first all new small-block since 1955 and it represented the first all-aluminum V8 ever used in a volume production Corvette. Initially it measured in with 345 hp and 350 lb-ft of seamless torque. That got dialed up to 350 hp in 2001, which was also the same year Chevy introduced the LS6 engine for the Z06, and that weighed in with 385 hp. A better breathing air intake system helped to flow more air into the engine and a new titanium exhaust system blew more exhaust out from the LS6 engine. These upgraded components for the LS6 helped to deliver the additional 40 hp over the original LS1 engine.
The C5 Corvette was fast too. With the four-speed automatic that had a single overdrive gear, it would run from zero to 60 in just a smidge over five seconds. With the six-speed manual transmission, and its two overdrive ratios, that time dropped to 4.7 seconds. The top speed clocked in at an impressive 171 mph.
During the C5’s reign, a collection of noteworthy special editions and packages were available, including the Z06, the Z51 suspension package, and the 50th anniversary package in 2003. On the race track in 1999, the C5 gave rise to the C5-R, which was built by Pratt & Miller for GM Racing. It was highly successful in the American Le Mans series in the GTS class and at the celebrated “24 Hours of Le Mans” race for a number of years, including 2001, 2002, and 2004.
The C5 was the most technologically advanced and radical Corvette during its days in the sun and the rest of the world sat up and took notice. The C5 Corvette offered an entirely new way to view American supercars, bringing together iconic styling, a newfound level of quality that featured a cozy, inviting interior, along with drum-tight engineering. Not surprisingly, seventeen years after its introduction, the C5 continues to be the benchmark that many sports cars are measured against.