To fully grasp what makes a Corvette Z06 distinct and a special model unto itself, it’s helpful to first understand the concept of evolution. As defined by Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, it means “a continuing process of change from one state or condition to another, or from one form to another.”
Applied to the Z06, it makes all too much sense how Chevrolet and its remarkable teams of artists, designers, engineers, and other key staff played a role in producing one of the foremost American cars to ever grace the automotive scene. The ripple effects of stern corporate memos to defiant, proud figures to suped-up vehicular champions was not something anyone could have predicted at the time, but examined today, the course that fate took was arguably for the best.
Along the way, different things were tried and tested, as computers, magnets, liquid crystals, forced induction, and other technological breakthroughs ultimately culminated in the C7 Z06, an icon in its own right and heavyweight contender both on the street and on the track. Who could have known it would all be the result of a Belgian immigrant with bright ideas?
In The Beginning, There Was Racing, And It Was Good
The late 1950s was a bad time for racing. In light of the 1955 Le Mans and the casualties suffered by Pierre Levegh’s horrific accident–84 dead, 120 injured–the Automobile Manufacturers Association had pushed for a ban on factory-sponsored racing, which General Motors readily agreed to. Putting those who still raced in poor standing and bad taste, the motion did little to sway public opinion, including those who liked being able to watch or use their preferred make in competition.
Few names reach the heights of racing fame like Bob Bondurant. Over the course of several decades starting in the mid-1950s, Bondurant was in turns driving a Morgan, a Shelby Cobra, a McClaren, or a Ferrari. But it was the man’s experience with the Z06 that really shook things up.
In 1963, Bondurant was among the first to receive one of the 199 Z06s made. Sporting better brakes, a bigger fuel tank, and a race-ready suspension system, the car had just the right amount of goodies to make for an excellent contender on the track.
Bondurant’s car, #614, ran on a 327ci L84 V8, making 591 hp at its peak configuration. In 1965, it was retrofitted with disc brakes on all fours, and can sometimes seen in historical car races in recent times. So notable was the Corvette that the driving simulator Gran Turismo reproduced the car in its sixth installment, which came out in 2012.
Amidst this somber Detroit moodiness, engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov stuck out like a sore thumb. A fan of racing and a racer himself, Duntov had little patience for corporate moralism and sought to restore things to normal. He understood that Chevy loyalists still craved a go-fast car, and began looking for ways to give the customers what they wanted without an open rebellion against the higher-ups.
It was 1962 when he first introduced the concept of the Z06. At the time, the new Sting Ray was on the market, and the ice was beginning to thaw regarding the racing ban. Duntov initially envisioned a parts development program, but was eventually given the green light to pursue a full-blown model that could outperform and outfox racetrack rivals, and it would come straight from the factory.
Making its debut in 1963, the Z06 had a variety of upgrades that lent well to competition use: a 20-percent-larger diameter front antiroll bar, a vacuum brake booster, a dual master cylinder, sintered-metallic brake linings within power-assisted Al-Fin drums cooled by front air scoops and vented backing plates, larger diameter shocks and springs, and a massive 36.5-gallon gas tank that afforded racers longer driving durations and fewer pit stops.
The 1963 Z06 was a risky but ultimately worthwhile investment, as it laid the groundwork for Chevrolet’s future competition efforts like the Grand Sport and ZR-1. It was only around for a short time before being laid to rest, with the total reaching just 199 before production ended.
So ended the brief yet bright glow of the Z06. It would be another 37 years before Chevrolet would find a successor worthy enough to bring back the name, but the wait was indeed worth it.
A Challenger Has Appeared
Close to four decades later, Chevrolet had undergone a sea change in terms of what a Corvette had stood for. The car’s body lines had more or less refined since the cab-back design of the C3, and become more derivative with each successive generation.
Chevrolet made a change on the Corvette drivetrain to the C5, utilizing a front-engine, rear-transaxle setup that was more conducive to weight distribution and interior legroom.
Enter the C5, introduced in 1997 and eager to prove itself a far better Corvette than the preceding C4 and its flawed drivetrain and suspension. It took another three years before the next big performance model was ready to show its face, but when it did, the reception was indeed warm.
Launching as a 2001 year model, the new Z06 came about in 2000 and was able to push the performance envelope a little further than it had in years past. Here, it had a retuned LS1 dubbed the LS6, making 385 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque.
This was shortly followed with a further revision in 2002 that made 405 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. This version came with better breathing from bay to bay, reducing crankcase pressure, as well as a number of other improvements to the pistons, camshaft, and fuel injectors.
Second-generation Z06s had an LS6 good for 405 hp at its peak.
Spent fuel was sent through a titanium exhaust system, the first of its kind to have ever been used on a mass-production scale. It saved close to 20 pounds of weight overall, while also vastly enhancing durability.
When put through its paces, the C5 Z06 proved to be quite competent and manageable, thanks it part to the Active Handling system. Electronic sensors measured yaw rate, steering wheel position, and lateral acceleration to control the rear tires from locking up or getting out of hand. The system could be turned on, off, or into Competitive Mode, wherein Traction Control was disengaged, but ABS was still in effect.
Supporting the chassis was the FE4 suspension system with retuned shocks, stiffer rear leaf spring, and new camber settings that made for a larger contact patch when cornering. Testing at the famous Nurburgring helped to hone in these sorts of adjustments.
Chevrolet stopped production of the C5 Z06 in 2004, with over 28,000 units made from a total of about 140,000 Corvettes between 2001 and 2004. It granted the generation just exclusivity to last for a while, but Chevy was far from done with the high-performance nameplate.
Carrying The Torch
A reimagining of the Corvette in 2004 gave the world the C6, refreshing the body and interior while retaining the previous drivetrain type of a front-engine, rear-transmission style. The newly released LS2 V8, with increased camshaft lift, higher compression ratio (10.9:1), and lighter exhaust manifolds, could produce 400 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque.
The C6 Z06 achieved a power-to-weight ratio of 6.2:1, one of the best in the world at the time.
Gone were the popup headlamps that had been a staple of the line for many years, and back was the motorized convertible top not seen in Corvettes since 1962. The new Vette could zip up to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds with an automatic transmission, making it the fastest of all time up to that point.
By the 2006 model year, the wait was over, and buyers could now look at the Z06 as a viable option as well. Chevrolet decided on an MSRP of $65,800 for the cars (which only increased with the inevitable dealer markup) and justified it with the use of aluminum-frame architecture, a magnesium-supported fixed roof panel, magnesium engine cradle, and last but not least, the deadly LS7.
The C6 Z06's 7.0-liter LS7 was the largest, most powerful motor offered by GM when it launched in 2006 models.
Weighing in at 497.2 pounds fully dressed, the LS7 was a monster the likes of which had never been seen before. It stands still today as the largest small-block V8 ever produced, and was given top priority by General Motors to be the most powerful as well. Built by hand by the General Motors Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan, the engine used forged titanium connecting rods and intake valves, hypereutectic pistons, forged steel crank and main bearing caps, and much more to achieve astounding performance.
Brake cooling ducts, lightweight wheels, larger brakes, and more made the third-generation Z06 a force to be reckoned with on the track.
All told, the engine could make 505 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque, which was channeled through a six-speed manual transmission and out to run-flat Goodyear Eagle F1 tires. With an overall curb weight of 3,132 pounds, the Z06 had no trouble getting up to speed; 0-60 mph could be achieved in as little as 3.7 seconds, and the quarter-mile in 11.4 seconds.
Add to this the 8.0-liter dry-sump oiling system and optional paddle shifters, and it was clear the Z06 was no longer just another checkbox on the options sheet; it was a lean, mean track-dominating machine. And it wasn’t over yet.
Alpha And Omega
The foray into the seventh generation of Corvettes represented another turning point for GM, a reconsideration of what the model stood for and where it was headed. A culmination of what had come before with what lay ahead presented engineers with the drive to make a Z06 that could stand on its own for years to come.
Drivers of the C7 Z06 have access to the Performance Data Recorder (PDR), giving them insight through video recording, high-precision GPS positioning, controller area network (CAN) data, and more.
Given access to the C7.R race car that came out in 2014, the new Z06 was able to share some of its racing cousin’s finer features: front and rear brake cooling ducts, stiff aluminum frame, rev-matching technology on the manual seven-speed, Magnetic Selective Ride Control dampers, electronic limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes, and so much more were packed into the Z06, effectively rendering the car as the ultimate form of Corvette performance.
Although the LS series is no longer available on any future production Corvette, the all-new LT4 is more than fitting as a replacement powerplant. Starting with a 6.2-liter V8, the design calls for an Eaton 1.7-liter R1740 TVS supercharger, making 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. It uses Rotocast A356T6 aluminum heads, titanium intake valves, forged steel connecting rods, working together to produce a 10.0:1 compression ratio.
The Z07 package, which tacks on Michelin Sport Cup tires, carbon ceramic brake discs, larger winglets, and an adjustable see-through center section on the rear spoiler, takes the Z06 even further up the chain of capability. Taking a Corvette to the track has never made more sense or been more fun, with features like the Performance Data Recorder (PDR) logging lap times, video, controller area network (CAN) data, and more.
The Next Phase
January was the first time that Z06s of the current model went up for sale. Pre-orders of the supercar ramped up to 5,000 in a very short time, with rumors and outrages sparking up around the country as the Corvettes make their way to showrooms. Some dealers were more amenable to the public, while others were a little more sketchy.
Corvettes will always stand for three things: American performance, great value, and going fast. The world may ooh and ahh over curiosities like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat or Ford GT, but none can come close to the combination of elements that comprise a Z06. As we look to the future and what it may hold–the C8 Zora, perhaps–we can take comfort that the Z06 and its development is in good hands.