Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Generation

My Little Fixed Roof Coupe

by Rick Tavel© 5-22-13 All Rights Reserved

If you are like most other enthusiasts you have owned or still own that one special car that you enjoy above all others, a car for which you have developed a special relationship.  And often times that car is neither the best performer, most valuable, the rarest, nor the most significant car you have owned.  Often times it may, in fact, be the antithesis of those attributes nevertheless it doesn’t change your feelings towards the car.  It is not unusual to feel this way about a car, not like the guy on “Boston Legal” that fell in love with his alarm clock.  No, it is more like the feelings the Beach Boys had for their “Little Deuce Coupe”.    Now that I am firmly ensconced in my sixth decade and having owned more cars than the years I have racked up a few of just such cars come to mind.   One of those is my little Fixed Roof Coupe, a 2000 metallic pewter Corvette.

To many Corvette enthusiasts that may seem an unlikely choice, especially when compared to a the other more potent and more valuable Corvettes I have owned over the years.  I have had faster and more optioned Corvettes.  I have purchased most of my Corvettes brand new and have been the sole caretaker of those beloved cars, but none of those cars hold my complete attention and excite me like the unpretentious 2000 FRC,  purchased used from a collector’s estate with less than 15,000 miles on the odometer.  It currently shares our Arizona winter home’s garage with a Daytona Sunset Orange metallic C6 which I bought new the first year the C6 was introduced in 2005.  In addition I subsequently also added a new blade silver Grand Sport convertible.  So the thirteen year old C5 had some very competent siblings.  And these were not the only cars in the collection, only the newer, more powerful, fully optioned and technically superior Corvettes with which the hard top had to compete. 

Those of you who know the history of the fifth generation Corvette or have read James Schefter’s informative book All Corvettes Are Red about the very difficult endeavor of designing and building a replacement for the aged C4 at a time when GM was in an upheaval and economic crisis, may recall the debate about building a stripped-down, entry level car referred to by some as the “Billy Bob,” know today as the Fixed Roof Coupe.   Schefter’s book touches on this controversy but does not go into great detail about it, staying more focused on getting the C5 coupe to market.   In short there has always been a debate within GM whether to build a stripped down, “decontented” and lower priced model of the Corvette to help entice younger buyers or those that could not afford the “pricey” sports car.   Once it was decided to build the “fixed roof coupe” officially designated the hardtop within GM, there was a great deal of speculation and heated debates about just what the FRC would actually be.  There were two camps among the enthusiasts and also within GM who each held their own very specific ideas of what the FRC would be and what its purpose would be. The marketing group very clearly wanted a
decontented Corvette with less performance that would help boost sales from a considerably lower entry level price point.  Engineering disagreed and wanted the FRC to be a performance model, a street legal race car, that would take advantage of the new model’s lighter weight and stiffer chassis.  That faction was headed by Dave Hill, then Corvette’s chief engineer. The marketing group, opposing Hill’s performance model, was led by Brand Manager Dick Almond, who saw a stripped down, lower priced, Corvette as a way to capture those buyers who lusted for but couldn’t afford the ever rising price of America’s only real sports car.  Both sides had valid points to make. 

As the development program for the C4 replacement got underway, Jim Perkins, then Chevrolet’s General Manager, advocated a lower priced Corvette he referred to as a “Billy Bob.”   There is an exciting story about the ensuing battle up until 6 months before its introduction over what the car would actually be.  In fact the Chevrolet dealer’s ordering guide released in the spring of 1998, just a half year prior to the car hitting the dealerships, actually was based on the Billy-Bob version of the car with an automatic transmission, base suspension, limited engine speed and a minimal list of options.  The ordering guide quickly had to be recalled and revised when Dave Hill and his team won the battle for the FRC to be a performance model - not the Billy-Bob that had almost made it to production.  In fact when the final version of the car was unveiled you could not order the car with an automatic transmission or a base suspension, all FRCs were 6 speed manuals with the Z51 performance suspension.   The only options available on the car was a power driver’s seat and the sound system, the other Corvette options were left to coupe and convertible buyers.   Today we know for two years it was the predecessor to the acclaimed Z06 which debuted to an enthusiastic public in 2001.  The Z06 then became the only Corvette hardtop designation within GM.  

And maybe its controversial inception is just one of the reasons that the FRC has endeared itself.  It is unassuming and yet extremely competent.  Put aside the controversial opinions when it was introduced about  the “too fat” rear,  it was the best performing Corvette in the model line-up, the result of the stiffer chassis (over 10% stiffer than the coupe) and lighter weight (90 lbs to 110 lbs) due to the lack of the coupe’s heavy rear hatch glass, roof panels and other luxury options.  When introduced the Corvette brand manager said, “We’ve tailored the hardtop to appeal to those buyers who are primarily interested in performance.”  Despite the outstanding design and engineering that went into the hard top, many of those who had not experienced the car considered it no more than  a Corvette stepchild and assumed it to be the cheap, economy Corvette even though it cost only a few hundred less than the Coupe and could outperform it.  But after the little hardtop earned its stripes on the track the former “Billy-Bob” model became respectfully known as the “Hardtop for Hardcores.”

Moving on to the design and engineering it is interesting to note that the 1999 Chevrolet Corvette convertible was voted to be the best engineered car of the 20th century by the Society of Automotive Engineers a model that shared almost all of its desgn and engineering with the hardtop.  The performance and quality improvements the C5 made to the problem plagued C4 are huge and owning both models I can attest to that fact.  The C5 is virtually rattle free and leak-proof, notorious problems that plagued most C4’s.  The interior design, access, egress and comfort is much improved over the C4.  The redesigned chassis, utilizing an inventive backbone design, eliminated the high door sills which almost required any older Corvette owner with hip issues to be hoisted in and out of the cockpit.  Analog instruments returned, succumbing to pressure from Corvette owners, ending the hated “video game” electronic dash of the C4. 

 The most controversial  issue of some vocal Corvette enthusiasts in the design of all C5 models was that they considered the derrière of the car was too large, referring to the car as “ass heavy.”  But regardless of design preferences the wider rear of the car allowed the use of larger tires which was a critical component in the outstanding handling of the Corvette.  Most of those criticisms have faded over time in favor of praising the overall smooth, flowing, even sensuous body lines.  But in many enthusiasts’ opinion the C5 is the most beautifully designed Corvette in history and some consider the Fixed Roof Coupe and Z06 models to be the most beautiful of the entire generation.  John Cafaro and his design team, led by Dan Magda, created a timeless, classic and at the same time modern exciting body that continues to garner accolades a quarter century after the original design was penned.

My 2005 Daytona Sunset Orange Coupe
But despite the great design, quality and performance of my little Fixed Roof Coupe, I am constantly reminded by my other C6’s that they are clearly “better” cars, at least in every quantitative measurement.  It is something my son, “the engineer”, lectures me on and I appreciate him taking the time trying to educate me about all the mathematical and performance theory as to why my preference for the C5 is clearly a sign of “old age.”  And even though he is really a car guy first and an engineer second, he does understand the subjective allure of a particular car.  He understands the importance of the way a car “feels” and concedes even though he still prefers the C6 and C7.  And it isn’t that I don’t love the my C6s and realize just how outstanding they truly are.  I know that the C5 would get its ass kicked by a competent driver in a C6 every time.  It is just that to me the little FRC is like a pair of fifteen year old Levi’s or a pair of broken in Birkenstock sandals – comfortable, and in my sixth decade comfort is important.

When I turn the key in the C5 and my aftermarket Borla® exhaust bellows and burbles there is no better sound.  Literally I never have turned on the radio in the car other than when the car was purchased to see that it worked.  Once that was determined it has remained silent.  Though Pink Floyd, Metallica, and even REM is nice to listen to, it just doesn’t compare to the  symphony of sounds the “outdated” LS1 makes.  And maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me the road feel communicated through the leather steering wheel, which feels like it was custom made for my hands,  is the perfect balance.  The often maligned leather seats seem like it was molded for aging ass and I can get in and out of the driver’s seat without having an engine hoist lower me in or hoist me out of the cockpit like I do in the C4.  And even after all these years the inside of the car smells like leather, not like the evaporating PVC molecules (or whatever the stuff is) in my C6.  By the way whatever happened to the smell of a new leather interior – I am interested to find out if the new C7’s upgraded interior has been able to rediscover the smell of real leather.  I hope so, even if it is “canned”.

In the performance category the C5’s 345 HP LS1 coupled with the lighter weight of the FRC offers me a good balance of performance and handling.  It offers me a spirited driving experience and is plenty fast for the public roads.  If I were going to race the car I would want more power and better handling of the C6, but I gave up my SCCA pro license years ago so I won’t be doing any competitive track events in the foreseeable future.   So my other C6’s and their even improved suspension and power may never be put to the ultimate test, at least not by me. I’m content to watch my son on the track these days.  The car handles the turny-twisties country roads like on rails – and yes the C6’s are even better but at this stage in my life the C5 can handle everything I can in good judgment throw at it.

Quantitative analysis and statistics aside, simply we are a good match.   If not a match made in heaven, then a match made in John Cafaro’s and Dave Hill’s design studio, deep in the bowels of the GM’s Warren, Michigan tech center and on the assembly line during the second week of November of 1999 in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  When I am driving my little Fixed Roof Coupe  every one of my senses (other than taste) are “maxed out” and what else can an enthusiast ask from any of their cars.  To paraphrase a popular song from the sixties, “I’m not braggin’ babe so don’t put me down, But I’ve got the hottest set of wheels in the town… It’s my Fixed Roof Coupe, now you know what I got!”

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