Conversion Machine

Four hundred and five horsepower for roughly $20K—the C5 Z06 is a car that turns buyers into true believers.

May 3, 2013

Also from Issue 82

  • 2014 Stingray Convertible
  • The Last C6: 2013 427 Convertible
  • Interview: Dave Tatman
  • Buyer’s Guide: C5
  • Amelia Island Sting Ray Salute
  • Profile: Dave McLellan
  • 1962 Restomod
  • Corvette Racing: Data Acquisition
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Four years ago, Barry MacKinnon was not a Corvette enthusiast. Sure, he admired the model, but only from a distance. He was a car nut while growing up in his native New Zealand and had owned some performance machinery over the years, but felt that his sports-car days were behind him. The last one he had owned was a 280ZX, back in the ’80s when Nissans were still called Datsuns. The San Francisco Bay Area resident was resigned to the fate of driving boring, transportation devices; his ride at the time was a Prius. Buying any Corvette, much less the 405-horsepower beast on these pages, was the last thing on MacKinnon’s mind.

A guy named George Robinson changed all that, steering the mild-mannered physicist on a path that not only led to C5 Z06 ownership but driving said car flat-out on racetracks. You see, Robinson is somewhat of a Corvette evangelist, serving as president of the Northern California Corvette Association, the oldest Corvette club in the nation. Wanting to convert new members to the fold, he often barrages them with generosity.

In MacKinnon’s case, it was the offer of driving Robinson’s C6 convertible in an Oakland autocross, the Chariots of the Coliseum no less. The two had gotten to know each other as members of an Autodesk user group. Though their political views were divergent, the pair found plenty of common ground, especially when it came to talking about cars. Still, Robinson’s kind offer came as a surprise to MacKinnon; beyond the fact that the two hardly knew each other, MacKinnon had never autocrossed before, nor had he driven a Corvette. Though MacKinnon demurred, Robinson insisted on the baptism—and it worked.

“The car was like a rocket,” says MacKinnon of his experience behind the C6’s wheel. “The way it handled was unbelievable to me. It didn’t even lean—cornered flat as a tack.” He was also impressed with the car’s balance. The hopped-up Holdens he had owned back in New Zealand were prone to oversteer when pushed, but this Corvette remained dead neutral no matter how hard he flogged it. After a few short blasts around the cones, MacKinnon had been converted.

That autocross was held in July 2009; three months later, MacKinnon bought his 2002 Z06 Corvette. Naturally, Robinson was instrumental in the purchase. He had tracked down a suitable machine for his new disciple, one that had been lovingly maintained by a couple who were NCCA members. Make that fanatically maintained. Though Eric and Laurie Brandt hadn’t been afraid to put miles on their Torch Red machine (the odometer showed 52,000 miles at the time of sale) and even autocrossed it regularly, they had some very specific demands for the car’s new owner. “I had to assure them that the car would be kept under a cover, which they included in the price,” says MacKinnon. “They even told me what kind of gasoline to buy.” He acquiesced to their demands and handed over a check for $22,500.

Shortly after buying the Z06, MacKinnon was inducted into the NCCA. “I created a bit of a stir at the ceremony,” recalls MacKinnon. “I was the first club member to trade a Prius for a Corvette.” Nevertheless, he was welcomed with open arms. MacKinnon’s wife, however, was less than enthusiastic about his sports-car purchase, which she referred to as her “worst nightmare.” But then again, her husband, who was pushing 70 at the time, had just gone from a hybrid to a supercar in a matter of months and was now a member a secretive society that speaks in RPO code. She probably wondered if she would have to hire a deprogrammer.

When the C5 debuted in 1997, it represented a huge advancement over the fourth-generation Corvette. Its handling was dramatically improved thanks to a big increase in wheelbase, a significantly stiffer frame and a lower curb weight. For the first time in Corvette history, the base model was powered by an all-aluminum engine. Rated at 350 horsepower, the LS1 small-block V8 represented only a 15 horsepower increase over the previous year’s LT4 engine, but was more refined and offered plenty of room for future tuning.