This Corvette with the works is perfect to celebrate the birthday of a sportscar star. If you like fast cars, then 2013 has a feast of anniversaries. It's 100 not out for Aston Martin and, against the odds, it looks likelier to notch up another ton than at any time in its past. It's also the centenary of Italian styling house Bertone, the talent behind scores of landmark designs, while former tractor maker Lamborghini turns 50 as does British supercar specialist McLaren.
More remarkably, the post-war blossoming of consumption in the 1950s threw up some individual models we still laud today. Two sports cars that between them represent the twin poles of European and American approaches to performance are both celebrating significant numbers: from Germany, the Porsche 911 turns 50; while the Chevrolet Corvette, after six decades, is one of the oldest nameplates still in production.
It took a few years for Corvette to establish its identity -- early examples were underpowered and heavy -- but the seventh generation unveiled at the Detroit motor show in January cements its place as the performance star in General Motors' constellation. The C7, as it's known, revives the famous Stingray badge and endorses the formula of front engine, rear-drive.
If success is measured by sales, then Corvette wins. With a total of 1.4 million buyers against 820,000 for the 911, it's about 30 per cent more popular. Price has something to do with it: in the US the new Corvette starts at $US52,000 against more than $US85,000 for a 911.
In Australia, we are forced to look on in envy. Not just at the price differentials -- 911s begin well over $200,000 here -- but in the case of the Corvette, simple availability. America's finest is built only in left-hand drive. Some right-hand drive markets, notably Britain and Japan, tolerate cars with a wheel on the wrong side but Australia frowns.
If you want a Corvette, you must get one converted. Luckily, there are a few operations that do just that. One of the newest is Trofeo Motorsport, based in Victoria. Principal Jim Manolios made his money in blood diagnostics and turned his passion for motorsport into a business. Trofeo runs drive days, a race team and is the national distributor for Pirelli motorsport tyres. For about a year it has been importing and converting Corvettes at its workshop in Hallam, near Dandenong.
Trofeo aims to do start-to-finish conversions, Manolios says, sourcing cars from the US and specialising in the notoriously difficult-to-switch Corvette. Components that need to be changed -- about 100 -- are scanned into a computer, flipped, then generated in a 3-D printer. Some low-volume parts can be made directly this way or the 3-D print can be the basis for production tooling.
The steering wheel, pedal box and windscreen wipers must swap, but also dozens of unseen bits such as airbags and wiring. In addition, Trofeo offers a range of options, from carbon fibre body kits to upgraded exhausts, suspension and brakes, to superchargers.
PRICES AND MODELS
Prices start at about $150,000 for the Grand Sport, which is powered by a 321kW 6.2-litre V8. Conversions of the high-performance Z06 model with 376kW 7.0-litre V8 cost more, with options capable of bumping the price to $260,000.
Manolios says a Corvette delivers Ferrari performance for a fraction of the price and believes there is plenty of demand. We're after the person who has the money in their pocket for a Porsche and is after a real sports car,'' he says.
US production of this outgoing Corvette, the C6, stopped in February to make way for the C7. Trofeo has converted seven C6s so far and will have the new version by the end of the year to work out the process afresh. In the meantime, Manolios says he can still get some Z06s. The eventual goal is to deliver 20 cars a year.
I drove a Z06 with the works: upgraded suspension, carbon fibre front spoiler and side skirts, special exhaust and -- best of all -- a Harrop supercharger. This V8, called LS7 in General Motors code and displacing 427 cubic inches in old money, is being replaced by a new generation engine in the C7. Manolios believes the LS7 will have sentimental appeal and it's impossible to disagree.
Based on the alloy block engine in racing Corvettes, it features dry sump lubrication and lightweight titanium connecting rods and intake valves. It rumbles and rocks the car at idle, roaring under throttle and crackling on overrun, with the whine from the supercharger in perfect counterpoint.
The supercharger requires a re-profiled bonnet with a bigger bulge. It's made in carbon fibre, offsetting the modest weight of the supercharger itself. The chassis also comes from motorsport and is constructed in aluminium while many of the body panels, such as the roof, are carbon fibre. So the Z06 weighs only a fraction more than a Porsche 911 at 1450kg, despite being slightly longer and quite a bit wider.
So with power boosted to 527kW and torque to a whopping 925Nm, a supercharged Z06 has performance to burn. Manolios believes sub-3.0 second zero-to-100km/h times are possible and it's not difficult to spin the monster Pirellis in more than one gear. Once on the move acceleration is unrelenting and if anything gets more impressive the quicker you go. Few powerplants I've sampled have been this intoxicating.
To drive, the Z06 is like a Lotus that has spent months at Venice Beach. It feels similar, only more muscular. Like a Lotus, the suspension is firm and body rigid, so you constantly get a sense of how the car was constructed from little creaks and groans. Weight is distributed evenly front-rear.
The result is a car that feels balanced and nuanced in its movements, with dynamics that can handle the immense power. The controls help. It steers sweetly and precisely, despite a wheel that's slightly on the large side, while the throttle offers millimetre control and brake feel is comparable with the best.
The six-speed manual transmission shifts well, although the slightly offset second gate meant I fluffed a few upshifts. With all this ability, a Z06 would be best sampled at a racetrack and I couldn't help wondering what top speed you'd see on the Phillip Island straight.
Happily, you would not have to glance down to find out; the Z06 has a head-up display like the one in the latest Holden Commodore Redline, although a previous generation. That's true for all the electronics, which are a measure of the outgoing Corvette's age. It's also true of the interior, which is classic pre-reformation GM.
The seats are OK, the cargo area is spacious (but would benefit from tie-down hooks) and there are some delightful ingredients, such as the electronic door release. However, the overall ambience is cheap plastic and lacklustre build. That's no fault of the conversion, which is all but undetectable from the driver's seat. The handbrake stays in its original location, and you need the insurance of first gear when parked, but it doesn't get in the way.
The exterior also betrays its GM origins in poor panel fit while the bonnet colour-match in this early Trofeo conversion could be improved. But you don't buy a Corvette for its interior and especially not a Z06. Aside from the engine and the way it drives, there's the gorgeous domed rear glass and round tail-lights to admire. It's a rare sight and gathers admirers everywhere I go.
Despite the enormous power of the example I drove, it would be a very easy car to live with -- docile unless you press it and with a ride quality better than expected. For me, it's been a long wait to sample a Corvette but it was worth it. Now I'm impatient for the C7. Happily, Trofeo Motorsport is impatient for it too.
Old school GM, sorted Aussie-style.
Chevrolet Corvette Z06
(Trofeo conversion with optional supercharger)
Price: from $260,000
Engine: 7.0-litre supercharged V8 petrol
Outputs: 527kW at 6300rpm and 952Nm at 4800rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Price: from $139,900
Engine: 3.4L six-cylinder, 239kW/370Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, RWD
Thirst: 8.8L/100km, 206g/km CO2
Price: from $155,950 (55 AMG)
Engine: 5.5L eight-cylinder, 310kW/540Nm
Transmission: 7-speed auto, RWD
Thirst: 8.5L/100km, 197g/km CO2
Price: from $92,990
Engine: 6.2L eight-cylinder, 430kW/740Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, RWD