Inside Job

This is no mere tuner C5; it is the Skunk Werkes Speedster, designed and executed by the man who penned the fifth-gen Corvette—John Cafaro.

March 18, 2011

Also from Issue 65

  • ZR1 Control Course
  • Buyer's Guide: Best Corvettes for $15K
  • Callaway Twin-Turbo C4
  • Tech: C5/6 Drag Prep
  • 1970 Small-Block Coupe
  • How To: C2 Carpet Replacement
  • 1966 Big-Block Convertible
  • Racing: 2011 Season Preview
  • History: La Salle II Roadster
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Take a quick look at Don Meluzio’s 1998 Corvette, and you could easily assume that its chop-top treatment was executed by some random speed shop. On one level, you’d be right—this is no factory model. However, the shop that did the work was far from your average tuner; it was comprised of two GM employees, one of them being the very man who designed the fifth-generation Corvette: John Cafaro.

The C5 is perhaps the crowning achievement of Cafaro’s long career with GM, which began in the late ’70s. Exceptionally talented and motivated, the young designer quickly made his way up the ranks. Soon, he was working on the C4 Corvette under the guidance of Jerry Palmer, head of the Chevy 3 Design Studio. When it came time to design the next Corvette, Cafaro was in charge of the project.

The C5 coupe was introduced to widespread acclaim in 1997. A convertible was offered the following year, and a hardtop joined the lineup in 1999. Cafaro had toyed with the idea of adding yet another version, an ultra-low-topped speedster. “I have always been intrigued by that type of car, going back to the fourth-generation Corvette,” says the designer. “When I worked in the Corvette studio under Jerry Palmer, I did a few renderings on the fourth-gen that had a chopped roof on it.” As an in-house experiment, GM actually had American Specialty Cars (ASC) build a ZR-1 Spyder, which featured a shortened windshield and a detachable hardtop. A C5 Speedster was never considered by Chevrolet, but that didn’t stop Cafaro—who was promoted within GM Styling to oversee truck design—from pursuing his interest in creating another Corvette model.

Partnering with Henry Iovino, a GM engineer that was working on truck interiors at the time, Cafaro set up Skunk Werkes in Iovino’s NASCAR-grade basement garage in the summer of 1999. The idea behind the self-funded venture was to create a dedicated Corvette-tuning shop that would eventually produce a series of turn-key cars. “What we wanted to do was take the Corvette outside the normal boundaries of a corporate environment,” explains Cafaro. In terms of styling, as well as performance, he and Iovino wanted to think outside the box.

Thinking outside the box meant cutting ten inches off a C5 convertible’s windshield. This act radically changed the appearance of the car—just what the pair wanted—but it also introduced a series of engineering challenges that required complex solutions. That was because Skunk Werkes wanted its creation to have a fully functioning power convertible top, not a mere canvas toupee (as is commonly the case with aftermarket chop tops, and even some factory jobs) as well as cut-down side windows that operated with the standard hardware.

“I really just wanted a top that was very similar to the production top, just lower, with all the best sealing and the best profile, in the bows and the contours of the backlight,” explains Cafaro. Knowing such a task was beyond its humble means, Skunk Werkes turned to the creators of the ZR-1 Spyder. “ASC engineered and developed the top for us under our direction,” says Cafaro.

When it came to chopping down the windshield frame, Cafaro and Iovino did the work themselves down in the basement. That first cut, however, came with some trepidation—it was, after all, Cafaro’s personal C5 convertible that was going under the knife. The hesitating stopped when Cafaro told Iovino to “just cut the damn thing!”