Corvette History through Ads: The Return of the Legendary Z06

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In 2001, General Motors took a major step by introducing a Corvette long awaited by performance enthusiasts and christened it with the almost sacred moniker – Z06. The name had not been officially used on a Corvette since 1963 when only 199 of the specially equipped Corvettes were offered, the first ones promised to successful race car drivers who would showcase it on the track. Since that time those 199 Z06’s have become some of the most coveted, collectible, and highest priced Corvettes in existence.

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The Z06 was resurrected in the fall of 2000 replacing the Fixed Roof Coupe as the third body style for 2001 models. The Z06 option upped the horsepower from 350 to 385 by replacing the LS1 engine in the standard C5 with a LS6 engine. And when Corvette decided to bestow the legendary name on the relaunch of the new performance model they wanted to make sure that the link between the original 1963 Z06 and the new 2001 would not be overlooked. So GM chose a fully restored red 1963 Z06 that had been displayed at the National Corvette Museum to be used in promotional literature for the 2001 Z06. And the performance message was reinforced in print advertising.

There were two major factors which helped give life to the Z06. The first was already having a lightweight, performance based chassis and body style in the Fixed Roof Coupe and the second was Corvette’s entry into factory sponsored racing. The Z06 was a natural outgrowth of these two events and was the natural evolution of the performance based Fixed Roof Coupe model.

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In many ways the birth of the Z06 was expected to many enthusiasts, especially those who understood that a high performance Corvette had long been advocated by many GM executives. The first step to making this a reality was the introduction in 1999 of the “Hardtop” model which has become known as the “Fixed Roof Coupe,” the FRC. That model was the result of heated battles and debates inside GM. There were two distinct camps within the corporation, each having their own very specific ideas of what the FRC should be and what its purpose would be. Marketing very clearly wanted a decontented, lower price Corvette that would help boost sales based on its lower price. Engineering disagreed and wanted the FRC to be a performance model that would take advantage of the new model’s lighter weight and stiffer chassis. Leading the group advocating a performance version was Dave Hill, then Corvette’s chief engineer. The opposing camp was led by Brand Manager Dick Almond, who saw a stripped down, lower priced, Corvette as a way to capture those buyers who always wanted but couldn’t afford the ever rising price of America’s only real sports car. Both sides had valid points to make.

Both sides fought hard, believing they had the answer. The debate continued long past the drop dead decision date as to what direction the FRC would take; would it be the stripped down “Billy Bob” version that Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins had labeled it or would it become the true performance version of the C5 that so many enthusiasts had long desired?

By the spring prior to the FRC’s introduction it appeared that the “Billy Bob” version had won the battle. In fact, Chevrolet released the preliminary Dealer Order Guide in late April – early May, which showed the FRC as a stripped-down, base model advocated by Almond and the marketing people. But a last minute about-face resulted in the FRC being born as Dave Hill’s performance car, not the opening price point model that was detailed in the Dealer Order Guide but rather a lightweight performance Corvette. The incredible “about face” that occurred less than six months from the production date is almost inconceivable and unheard of in the automotive industry. In less than six months the FRC that the dealers and marketing department thought they were getting was completely transformed to Hill’s performance, lightweight Fixed Roof Coupe, the predecessor to the renowned C5 Z06. Chevrolet’s bungled release of the preliminary Dealer Order Guide and the heated battles inside the corporation are just some of the exciting events that led up to the birth of the “hardtop for hardcores,” the Fixed Roof Coupe.

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The development of the FRC was only a beginning, an even higher performance Corvette had been advocated, not only from loyal enthusiasts but from Dave Hill and several other corporate “true believers,” and the timing was right. “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” is a mantra older than the Corvette brand, and there is little dispute that it is based in fact. And when the factory decided to officially develop and support a racing team in late 1997, to take advantage of the “sell on Monday” opportunity the timing for the higher priced performance Corvette was right.

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The advertising team put together a series of ads done in sepia tones detailing the performance capabilities of the new model. The double truck ad showing a Corvette Z06 racing along the salt flats touts the model as the quickest, most agile in its history. Along with the Active Handling System and a titanium exhaust system, the Z06 had the ability to handle lateral acceleration of 1.0 g and a 4.0 second 0-60 time. Two single page ads were also developed. They reference the same performance stats and one goes on to say that the G force will keep the drool off your shirt. The other ad states “Some will say it’s overkill” and then reminds Z06 owners to wave at the competition as you pass them on the track.

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The decision to produce a high performance Corvette reminiscent of the legendary 1963 car was a winner by anyone’s assessment. Chevrolet sold 5773 Z06’s in 2001, the first year of production, at a base price of $48,055. The popular model went on to sell 28,388 throughout the C5 model run at approximately $8K above the base price of the coupe. Few would dispute that the Z06 has not only lived up to its legendary namesake but has helped cement the iconic status of the car in Corvette history.