Six Days On the road in newest C5.

by Hib Halverson

Friday morning, a couple hours out of L.A., rolling north on Interstate Five at 90 mph. In a Nassau Blue, 1999 Hardtop, with Dixie Chicks: "Wide Open Spaces" running on the CD, little traffic and the California Highway Patrol nowhere to be seen; life was good. Too good, in fact. Time to get to the tough work of road testing. I paused the Dixie Chicks, backed it down to 65, then moved into the truck lane for a ride quality test.

Here in the "Democratik People’s Republik of Kalifornia", a state with some of the highest registration fees and gas taxes in the country, politicians must spend that money on anything but highway maintenance. While that makes life difficult for the state’s millions of motorists, there is a twisted benefit in the right lanes of California’s older Interstates. If they have a concrete surface, it’s peppered with pot-holes and cracks. The concrete slabs are tilted making a quarter-inch drop every 20 feet or so and, in real bad sections, you find patches that seldom have the same level as the surrounding surface.

If you’re in a car with weak structure, excessively stiff springs, overly harsh damping or squeaks and rattles; fifty-five to 65 miles per hour is just about the speed where most cars’ wheel base, suspension ride frequency, speed and the distance between slab joints to all be "in-sync" such that they can set up a shimmying ride. You’ll be wishing you were anywhere but on that road.

While we were dazzled with the 1999 Corvette Hardtop’s race track performance in a test last summer (Vette 10/98 and elsewhere on this web site), four months went by before we could sample the newest C5 in a real-world drive. We had a road trip scheduled into Northern California to cover the Corvette Spectacular weekend in San Jose last September 19th and 20th. When we learned Chevrolet Communications would loan us a Hardtop, we extended the trip with a swing though northwestern Nevada then down U.S. 395, through the high Sierra and back to Los Angeles.

All ’99 Hardtops have the Z51 Performance Handling Package. Its ride is appropriately firm. The only time I found it close to annoying was over the worst sections of I-5 having large pot hoes or areas of severely cracked and uneven concrete. The suspension on any car with even half-way sporting spring rates and shock valving may not always be pleasant on those kinds of roads but that’s the fault of those responsible for road maintenance, not those who make the cars. In those few instances, I will always take the compromise to have Z51’s performance handling.

This car had about 7000 miles of media fleet duty behind it. In spite of that, over the rough stuff the car was devoid of the squeaks and rattles I sometimes experienced in C4s. Obviously, the car’s robust structure, the better design of interior soft and hard trim and less complex assembly process have paid-off.

Back in the much-smoother, fast lane at legal speeds (just for awhile), I noticed some other things, too. The "dreaded" fuel pump whine (present in some ’97s and ’98s, though never really an issue with me) was gone. Some of the ’97s I drove, had problems with hot air blowing out of the center console area. That problem had been solved as well. More on the road test, later. For now, it’s back up to 90 and turn-up the Dixie Chicks–I was headed for a weekend out of town!

Party Time

The Corvette Spectacular is organized by Santa Clara Corvettes, a club in the San Francisco Bay Area, with support from Anderson Chevrolet of Los Gatos. That evening, at the San Jose Doubletree Hotel, the event headquarters, I met Skip Frenzel, Director of the Spectacular and put the Hardtop at his disposal. To support the show and our friends at Chevrolet, we agreed display the car, first at the hotel, then at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds where the car show half of the weekend was staged. This was a treat for show goers because no one, not even local dealers, had seen a Hardtop.

First up was a cocktail party. I walked into the Doubletree’s bar and was astonished to spot all three of the top Corvette tuners in the country: Doug Rippie (Doug Rippie Motorsports), John Lingenfelter (Lingenfelter Performance Engineering) and Reeves Callaway (Callaway Cars), mingling with Corvette enthusiasts, talking tech., signing autographs and comparing notes amongst themselves.

The Spectacular’s technical seminars and the weekend being a reunion for Callaway Speedsters (nine of the 10 built were shown) had drawn some of the Corvette world’s heavy hitters. At different tables were the organizer of Corvettes at Carlisle, Chip Miller; west coast car broker "Corvette Mike" Vietro, driving school operator, Rupert Bragg-Smith and National Corvette Museum representative Jerry Watts.

I grabbed a seat at a back table joining another interesting bunch of mover/shakers. Seated to one side was Ed Simmons, authority on the development phase of the ZR-1. In what was a poorly-disguised attempt at buying media influence, Simmons treated me to a much-needed, cold beer. Across the table were Jim and Sherri Van Dorn, owners of AutoMasters, the Corvette service facility which works on Vette’s ZR-1 project car. Also, at the table was Graham Behan, former LT5 engineer at Lotus, the current LT5 specialist at Lingenfelter’s and one who’s offered the magazine helpful advice on its project.

My treat for the night was conversation with retired Corvette Chief Engineer, Dave McLellan who also sat with this group. He told me about the ZR-1 he and wife, Glenda, recently bought. Though he was Chief Engineer for the entire ZR-1 program and drove them often during the car’s development, he’s never owned one until recently. Dave’s car is a Polo Green ’95. An interesting "small-world" footnote is that San Jose resident and Corvette Spectacular Media Relations Director, Buzz Marston, located the car for Dave. AutoMasters did service work required after he bought it then trucked the car across country for delivery at the National Corvette Museum last spring. It was the only ZR-1 ever to go through the "Museum Delivery" process. Clearly, the McLellans were touched by how the Corvette hobby helped to find the car.

After a stint at the back table’s "ZR-1 Saloon", I freshened up my beer then mingled with the crowd, conversing with readers and other enthusiasts about Corvette issues from A-to-Z. After too short a time, I heard the club’s band sound-checking. With the band up, the party ended.

Tech Talk

Saturday at the Corvette Spectacular was devoted to technical seminars and a keynote speech. John Lingenfelter and Graham Behan led off at nine a.m. with their seminar, "Expanding the Envelope". The title was a bit nondescript but I knew, if Lingenfelter and Behan were talking; the subject would be engines and everyone within range would be all ears. They had a short presentation then took questions. One exchange between the audience and Graham Behan covered the ZR-1 cam chain tensioner noise issue that’s been a long-standing controversy amongst Zroners. Another subject that generated questions was LS1 engine controls because the most difficult challenge in modifying that engine for increased performance is getting the computer’s OBD-II systems to be compatible with the modifications. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes, to say the least.

Next up, in the same room, was Doug Rippie. His Doug Rippie Motorsports is a Corvette tuning shop with a long track record of success in road racing. Rippie used an all Q&A format. DRM’s C5 race track development, the LS1 and LT5 engines were all covered.

Fifteen minutes later we got Reeves Callaway who’s subject was his new C12, a C5-derived, high-end, limited production, sports car introduced at last year’s Geneva Auto Show. Callaway’s presentation was multi-media capped-off with Q&A. With so many Callaway enthusiasts present for the Speedster Reunion, Reeves drew about the largest audience outside of Dave Hill’s keynote later that afternoon.

Following Callaway was Dave McLellan. During the C5 introduction splash, a part of its history that was glossed over was McLellan’s contribution. If you take GM’s official account, you’d think McLellan worked for Ford. Reality is that his contribution to C5 was significant. He led the development group when both the layout (front engine, rear transmission) and structure (center backbone, closed tunnel, hydroformed side rails) were designed. His seminar compared and contrasted the C4 and C5 structures and was an interesting insight to the 15-year difference in states-of-the-art.

Saturday’s finale was the Corvette Spectacular keynote address by Corvette Chief Engineer and GM Vehicle Line Executive for Corvette/Camaro, Dave Hill. Expectedly, it focused on the C5’s engineering features which, by now are fairly well understood. Nevertheless, a review, especially from the program’s leader, was welcomed by all. New to Hill’s presentation was data on the 1999 Hardtop. As it turned out, Hill was unable to bring an example so, he referred seminar attendees interested in viewing the hardware he discussed to our road test car parked outside the hotel.

Because there were 13 seminars in five hours in two different rooms, there were some we could not attend. Longtime Corvette racer and tuner, Dick Guldstrand did one on suspension systems. Chip Miller chaired "Corvetting, past, present and future." Mike Vietro covered geographical differences in the Corvette market. Jim Van Dorn spoke on C4 Restoration. Noland Adams talked on Corvette history. Jerry Watts hosted a Q&A session on C4 technical subjects. Cal Hodge and Lew Gibbs, two oil industry officials, moderated a fuels panel. Rupert Bragg-Smith talked about performance driving.

These seminars marked the Corvette Spectacular as a show of national stature. We found the five we attended of great interest. Event attendees who bought seminar packages found them valuable.


Sunday morning, eight a.m. found me strolling the Corvette Spectacular’s main show venue with Media Relations Director, Buzz Marston. We were at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, home of the Spectacular’s show activities for most of its 23 years. Marston told me it’s the biggest indoor Corvette show and it uses up the Fairgrounds’ largest pavilion along with two adjacent buildings. The show venues are open to the public and, according to Marston, drew a crowd of about 1500.

The big building holds cars entered in the two Western States Corvette Council (WSCC) judged classes, Concours and Carshow. A second, slightly smaller building, houses cars entered in the Show-and-Shine category. A third contained the nine Callaway Speedsters, Chevrolet specialty vehicles, such as the Astro Vette and the Corvette GTP, and the ’99 Hardtop we drove up from Los Angeles.

Shows are a part of our hobby to which my exposure to date has been limited, but Marston filled me in on the finer points The Concours class is the most demanding. Cars are judged for cleanliness, condition and operability. Perfection is expected and it’s assessed by judges wearing white cloth gloves and using white rags. They can look at or touch any part of the car. Dirt or grease showing on the gloves or rags costs points. A perfect score is 140 and, in the hotly contested classes, you’d better be 135 or better to get in the top five. The intense scrutiny does not stop there. Concours has an overall award judged by a second group of different judges using a different, 100-point scale. The Carshow class is judged only once and it is visual, only–no white gloves or rags. A perfect score in Carshow is 100 points.

Serious competitors in Concours and Carshow go to extremes in preparing cars for judging. Walking row-upon-row of Northern California's finest examples of America’s Sports Car, I watched in fascination as people pampered their cars. Many entrants had been there since seven and some had spent three hours on this the night before. I’d never seen people cleaning out tire grooves but I learned tire groove cleaning is the norm, not an exception. In talking with a veteran car show competitor, I heard one judge of legendary pickiness had a failsafe way of finding points to deduct: to either feel or view with a mirror the tops of the mufflers. Supposedly that’s an area even some veteran car show entrants forget to make spotless.

At 10 a.m. "rags down" is called by show officials. The cleaning stops and the judging begins. It is tedious and time-consuming. With 153 cars entered in three categories and the top category having two judgings; it’s mid-afternoon before the process is complete. While the judges do their thing, there is no shortage of activities. A live band plays and a few people even dance. Outside, a mobile DynoJet chassis dynamometer, operated by the Superior Dyno Service, runs cars for sixty bucks a pop. Most of the seminar speakers were working an autograph table. There are two other buildings full of Corvettes to look at, but probably the most popular activity is mingling.

This part of the hobby is a close-knit bunch. The Spectacular is the biggest and oldest show in the region. Some families have been coming for many years. Kids grow up together and adults make life-long friends. More than once I was told the best part of the Spectacular is seeing old friends and sharing the camaraderie enthusiasm for America’s Sports Car cultivates.

After lunch, for those who didn’t get enough tech. the day before, there were three more seminars. Dave McLellan and John Lingenfelter repeated their presentations. Lingenfelter used his Sunday seminar to make the first public announcement of LPE’s, new, turbocharged C5s. As reported in January’s "Currents" column, LPE is going to offer a pair of twin-turbocharged engine packages for ’97-’99 Corvettes. The first is an installation for production engines that increases horsepower to 475. The second is a 650hp unit having turbos as well as significant engine modifications.

The third seminar profiled restoration of a 1986 ZR-1 prototype by Ed Simmons and Keith Beschi. In the early-’90s, Simmons was in the Air Force, living in England and serving as technical adviser to the Classic Corvette Club, U.K. He discovered the scrap yard where Lotus disposed of nearly two dozen ZR-1 development cars and hundreds of ZR-1 parts. The cars were to have been destroyed but English scrap yards are not as efficient as their American counterparts. Some of the protos were restorable. Simmons and Beschi purchased several of the hulks, most of the loose engines and lots of other parts.

Simmons moving some of these wrecks to the U.S. and how he and Beschi restored and retitled one is interesting enough. Combine that with the intrigue surrounding a car officially scrapped by GM, then resurrected (to the General’s great displeasure, Simmons tell us) and you have the stuff of future magazine articles. This seminar was a fascinating insight to a fringe element of the Corvette hobby: restoration of historic prototypes. Ed’s ’86 ZR-1 was parked in the special vehicle display building for all to see.

Late Sunday afternoon, after a short introduction by Spectacular Director Skip Frenzel, the awards presentation began. The two judged categories had 40 classes, some with awards going five places deep. Competition can be close, such as in the Concours category’s ’63-’67 Modified class. Less than three points separated the top three and the winner, a blue ’67 Coupe, owned by Jack and Sandy Scutchall of San Jose, had a perfect, 140 point score. Space is not available to list every class award winner, however, we extend our congratulations to all of 99 of them.

Distance Awards interest us as a yardstick of an event’s popularity and Jerry Watts was the winner. Jerry works at the National Corvette Museum and drove his Polo Green ’94 Coupe from Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The three categories each had an overall award. The People’s Choice in the Show-and-Shine category was a Fawn Beige ’62 owned by Alice Westbie of Pleasanton, California. The Corvette Clinic, Best-of-Show Award in the Carshow category went to the red ’73 Coupe of Charles and Elizabeth Goodrich from Modesto, California. The prestigious Sweepstakes Award, for the overall winner in Concours and based on the category’s second judging, went to a red ’91 Coupe owned by Rob and Gloria Weaver of Morgan Hill, California with a perfect score of 100 points. How competitive was Sweepstakes? I was astonished when hard-working statistics expert, Miriam Petersen, told me the spread amongst the top five was a scant, one fourth of a point. Another interesting fact "Mim" Peterson told us was the Carshow category’s, ’84-’90 Modified class had the most entries, 50% more than the next most popular class. Clearly, even on the show circuit, the Corvettes people like are hot rods.

Besides a top-notch show, the Corvette Spectacular has a decade-long tradition of an annual charity raffle with a new ’Vette as first prize. In the last ten years the raffle has raised about $150,000 for Via Rehabilitation, an organization that supports handicapped children. Santa Clara Corvette’s members and friends sell tickets all year long. After the raffle, $32,000 went to Via Rehabilitation. The car, a Torch Red, ‘98, automatic, Coupe was the final award of the weekend and Tom Lovecchio of Belmont, California got the keys. Lovecchio was not present at the event but showed-up at Anderson Chevrolet in Los Gatos the next day to collect his prize.

Monday morning I headed for nearby Sunnyvale and the Hewlett-Packard Corporation for a morning of training with the new GM TECH2 scan tester. The TECH2 is what your Chevrolet dealer uses to diagnose problems with C5s. Later this year, Vette will have an in-depth look at this device.

Following the visit to H.P., I met Skip Frenzel, Buzz Marston and representatives of Via Rehabilitation at Anderson Chevrolet in Los Gatos for the presentation of the 1998 Corvette raffle car. Its happy owner, Tom Lovecchio, while a previous owner of a ’63, had not owned a Corvette in 20 years. The reunion was even sweeter as the C5 he’ll use to rediscover the Corvette Mystique was a freebe.

Our final activity in the Bay area was "Corvette Night at the Toy Store." The Toy Store is a private automotive museum owned by San Francisco Bay area car collectors. Its emphasis is pre-1970 classics and historic race cars, however, Monday night was devoted to the Corvette.

About 150 tickets were sold. They included admission, dinner and a speech by retired Corvette Chief Engineer, Dave McLellan. On display was one example of each of the five Corvette styles and the organizer of the evening, Toy Store member, Gary Moreland, invited Vette Magazine to display our Hardtop road test car as the C5 example.

Corvette Night at the Toy Store was topped-off with an interesting presentation by Dave McLellan about how developments in racing technology at the turn of the century and again in the late 1930s along with work Maurice Olley did at General Motors in the mid-’30s laid the groundwork for the outstanding ride-and-handling of today’s Corvette.

More from the Road

On Tuesday morning with a weekend of Corvette activities to reflect upon, I headed east on I-80 for Carson City, Nevada. Eighty climbs into the west slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains which are rich in the history of California’s Gold Rush era. There wasn’t time on this trip, but one could spend a week driving a Corvette and looking for great roads and historic sites in this area.

Just before you get to Truckee, California is Donner Summit, named for the ill-fated "Donner Party" which spent the winter of 1846-47 in the area. Eighty-seven people led by George Donner and his family, left Illinois by wagon train in the spring of 1846 headed for California. They arrived in the Truckee area in late October to be trapped by early snows of what still is the worst winter on record in the Sierra Nevada. By the spring of 1847, when they were rescued, only 47 people remained alive.

What cost 40 lives and took months to traverse only took a few hours to cross in a 1999 Corvette. From Truckee, it was on to Reno. Once billed as the "Biggest Little City in the World", Reno has become a big city with gaming and manufacturing sparking a booming economy.

South of Reno, at the north end of the Carson Valley is Carson City, the Capital of Nevada. In the middle of "Bonanza" country, Carson City is the home of Bill Miller Engineering which I was visiting on assignment for another publication. At Bill Miller Engineering I spent two days learning how pistons used by Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and other Winston Cup racers are made. The competition in WCR has become so fierce that several of the teams paid BME make them unique forging dies from which only their pistons are made. Each team’s piston design is slightly different. The specifics of those differences are, of course , a secret. BME also makes a forged aluminum connecting rod that is the standard in the blown-fuel classes of drag racing and it manufactures the new, Gibson/Miller Supercharger which is taking the fuel classes by storm.

After gearheading at BME, on Thursday morning, it was back on the road, headed for home. As I loaded up prior to rolling out of Carson City, I marveled at the Hardtop’s ability to haul stuff. I’d started in L.A. with enough personal gear to last a week, a compliment of photographic and lighting equipment and a laptop computer. Along the way I picked up a small suitcase holding a TECH2 scan tester outfit, some parts for one of our project cars and a box full of BME T-shirts and hats. All this fit in the trunk or behind the seats. Some on the hardcore side of the hobby have vilified Chevrolet for promoting the car’s ability to carry two golf bags, but compared C4s (with which I had years of aggravation when packing for trips) the C5’s cargo capacity is a welcome feature. Credit the dual, saddle-fuel-tank arrangement and Goodyear Eagle F1 EMT tires for this. According to our surveys, Corvette enthusiasts who use their cars for trips–be they filled with golf bags or camera equipment and TECH2s–appreciate the space.

Today, I’d do a good part of U.S. 395’s length in Nevada and California. South, down the Carson Valley I rolled in the Nassau Blue Hardtop. Named for frontiersman, Kit Carson, agriculture and ranching are the area’s staples. At 4600 feet, winters are dry and cold and summers are dry and warm. Carson Valley has 295 days of sunshine a year and enjoys four distinct seasons. There was little traffic other than in the few towns along the rout, and the scenery was fantastic: clear blue sky and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the distance.

Near Minden, Nevada 395 turns southeast. The surrounding area is pretty sparsely populated and I had the ’99 Hardtop moving at a high rate of speed. I crossed back into California at Topaz Lake then powered up the Walker River Canyon. South of the town of Walker, is Sonora Junction. You either go left on State Route 108 and cross the High Sierra over Sonora Pass or you continue south on 395 towards L.A. I stayed on 395, but thought of a great Corvette trip: do three of the trans-Sierra highways, SR4 over Ebbett’s Pass, SR108 over Sonora Pass and SR120 over Tioga Pass, on one trip. I mulled this idea a bit as I continued south on 395 through the high country around Bridgeport Reservoir and down into the Mono Basin. On the west shore of Mono Lake, at town of Lee Vining was the SR120 junction. After thinking about the "triple-trans-Sierra tour" I decided a short reconnaissance was necessary. I turned right on 120 and started up the steep climb to Tioga Pass and the east gate of Yosemite National Park.

This is a spectacular drive. You ascend from the arid desert around Mono Lake to an Alpine setting at near 10,000 feet. The road is in pretty good condition considering weather closes it for several months each year. In places where you’re not held up by motorhomes, trailers and slow-moving lookie-loos, you can run a Corvette hard. If fast driving is not your thing, there are plenty of places where you can pull off and sample the view. Just below Tioga Pass are Ellrey and Tioga Lakes. They must have some whoppers in them because they were well-populated with anglers.

At Tioga Pass, even though all I wanted was to drive as far as nearby Tuolumne Meadows, I learned I’d still have to pay for a 24-hour stay in Yosemite. Confronted with that expense and after a look at the time, I decided to save that for another day. It was noon and this car had to be returned to Chevrolet in Burbank by 5 p.m. I shot a few scenic pictures, then headed back down Highway 395, turned south, checked my mirrors for any cops then, floored it.

Once again, I had the stereo cranked. This time I tested its performance with a mix of: country music’s current heartthrob, Shania Twain, some hot dance off La Bouche’s "All Mixed Up.", Madonna’s "Ray of Light" CD and some kick-butt, punk from local badboys, The Offspring.

One thing I like about the fifth gen. car’s music system is its balance control. The Delco-Bose systems in C4s never allowed one to change the imaging of the system left-to-right, a major deficiency. They, also, over-drove highs and lows, but had weak mid-ranges. In Vette’s C4 project car, I am often driving around with the treble and bass both turned down to get sound I like.

Fortunately, the music system is yet another area of C5 where the voice of the customer seems to have been heard. The new car continues Corvette’s association with the Bose Corporation, but the execution is different and improved with a balance control and better sound quality.

The radio receiver, a dependable Delco Electronics unit shared with other GM car lines, is a significant ergonomic improvement over the radio heads used in C4s. To that, the Bose Corporation adds in each door, a 100-watt, two-stage modulation amplifier, one of their "Timpani" 8-in. woofers and a 3.5-in. tweeter/mid-range speaker. The Timpani woofer uses lightweight materials and new reproduction technology to perform as well as 12-in units and end up lighter and more compact. The door speakers are linked to a 6.5-in. wide range speaker in each quarter panel.

Bose adds an active equalization network that adjusts the system’s response to the interior’s acoustic environment. The result, based on subjective tests using my varied CD collection, seems to be about as lifelike a musical presence and as accurate a tonal balance as one will hear inside a performance sports car. Interestingly, at the time C5 was introduced two years ago, Timpani woofers, two-stage amps and active EQ networks were used in only one other vehicle: the Grumman Gulfstream V executive jet.

Did this 1999 Hardtop have weaknesses? Well, yeah, but they were comparatively minor. First, I dislike the positioning of the C5’s windshield wiper stalk. Too often, when using the driver information center buttons, if I am not watching carefully; my hand catches that stalk and turns on the wipers.

On an intermittent basis we had trouble getting the car’s Tremec T56, six-speed into reverse . Other C5s we’ve driven have shifted as smooth ad could be, so this appeared a isolated problem. We returned the car that way, but the typical customer would probably have this repaired under warranty. Lastly, the morning we left Carson City, for the first few miles, every time we stepped on the brakes, they worked fine but made awful groaning noise. Once we drove a while, the noise disappeared. The night before it rained and the morning was very damp. It is possible that in damp weather, the brakes make noise.

Precisely at 4:50 p.m. I parked the Nassau Blue Hardtop on The Vista Group’s lot in Burbank. Vista contracts with Chevrolet for storage and maintenance of media fleet vehicles and I gave the keys to an astonished Fleet Manager, Rick Marcuse. "Hey, you musta flew," he said, "if you left Tioga Pass at noon."

Yep, I did.

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