Conquest Sale

A Corvette convert cooks up one of the fastest, most lavishly optioned tuner cars in marque history—then tosses us the keys

Photo: Conquest Sale 1
November 10, 2016

When Chevrolet set out to design and develop the seventh-generation Corvette, it had one main goal in mind: to create a truly world-class sports car, one that could compete with European models on all levels. But Chevy didn’t just want the bragging rights of winning comparison tests, it wanted to win over new customers, specifically those who bought Porsches, BMWs and Ferraris. People like Vince Gilbert. The C7 Z06 on these pages is his first Corvette. “I’d never even thought of buying a Corvette until this car,” says the Oregon resident. Not even a top sixth-generation model like the ZR1? “I would never have bought it,” he replies without hesitation.

Up until buying this Chevrolet, Gilbert’s only experience with Corvettes was crushing them. Make that recycling them. Gilbert owns Environmentally Conscious Recycling, a company whose exponential growth over the past 30 years has made him a wealthy man, allowing him to indulge a healthy automotive habit. He’s owned dozens of cars, with expensive European models being his preference. Corvettes simply weren’t on his radar screen. In fact, the idea of purchasing one didn’t come to him until he happened to sit next to a Chevy dealer on a flight to Hawaii. The gentleman told Gilbert he not only needed to buy a new Z06, but the recently debuted Callaway SC757 version of it. He said the 757-horsepower supercar had Ferrari-beating performance with the styling and sophistication to match. The argument the dealer presented was convincing enough that Gilbert decided right then and there to buy the car, never having seen one in the flesh.

Not the type of person to do anything halfway, Gilbert was “all in” on the Corvette, and he wasted no time ordering the SC757 once he had touched down. His high-altitude consultant suggested he call up Harchelroad Motors in Imperial, Nebraska, one of the top-selling authorized Callaway dealers in the U.S. Gilbert got Dillon Harchelroad on the phone and made a very straightforward request: “I want the best Corvette you’ve ever sold.” The implication was clear: Gilbert was giving Harchelroad permission to check all the boxes when it came to ordering the Z06 from GM, as well as everything Callaway had to offer. Price was no object. Not versed in option and paint codes—the lingua franca of the Corvette hobby—Gilbert left the nitty-gritty research to Harchelroad, implicitly trusting the longtime dealer’s expertise and taste. Beyond stating his preference for a black Z06 convertible and insisting the car look “badass,” Gilbert offered little in the way of specificity at the outset.

Photo: Conquest Sale 2

One thing Gilbert was adamant about, however, was the delivery date of the vehicle: He absolutely had to have the SC757 by the first day of November, 2015. Gilbert lives part of the year at Bighorn, an exclusive community and golf resort in Palm Desert, California—Palm Springs’ upscale neighbor. A group of car enthusiasts at the club had decided to build a large facility to house and display their prized automobiles on the property. Two years in the planning and building, The Vault, as it had been dubbed, was having its grand opening on November 1. As a founding member and investor in the project, Gilbert wanted his new Corvette to be a featured part of the festivities. There were no two ways around it: The car had to be done on time. Having gotten the ball rolling at the end of March, this seemed like an entirely attainable goal. Still, the clock was definitely ticking.

Checking all the Boxes

As he describes it, Dillon Harchelroad was the “architect” of the ordering process. He sketched ideas of how he thought the car should be ordered and presented them to Gilbert. Although Harchelroad says that all the ordering decisions were ultimately Gilbert’s, he doesn’t downplay the influence he had in the process. “He put a lot of trust in me,” he admits.

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Harchelroad walked Gilbert through the various equipment groups he felt the $84,395 Z06 convertible would need to achieve “ultimate Corvette” status. These included the $7,995 Z07 Performance Package (carbon-ceramic brakes, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires); the $2,995 Stage Three Aero Package (deep front splitter with winglets, rocker panel extensions, tall rear spoiler with adjustable “Gurney flap”) and $1,995 Competition Sport seats. To balance all that performance with top-flight luxury, he further suggested the $8,395 3LZ full-leather interior, complemented with swatches of suede. Gilbert was on board with all these suggestions. As it turns out, that was the easy part of the process.

The real back-and-forth came with deciding on the car’s appearance. Yes, the Z06 would be painted black and have a black top, but as any recent Corvette buyer can attest, Chevrolet gives customers a seemingly endless list of appearance choices beyond these basic options. For example, the wheels can be had in one of four different finishes. Initially, Gilbert wanted chrome. Harchelroad talked him out of it, arguing that too many Corvettes roll off the assembly line with shiny wheels. “You want a unique car,” he implored his customer. Harchelroad proposed black-painted alloys as the more stealthy, and perhaps even more aggressive-looking, alternative. After some reflection, Gilbert agreed.

The stealth approach carried over into the selection of the Full Length Dual Racing Stripe Package. (Yes, this car has stripes—take a closer look at the photos.) At first this $950 GM option wasn’t even part of the conversation, but once it came up, both Harchelroad and Gilbert decided to pursue what they dubbed the “ghost idea.” This would be achieved by taking the unique approach of putting black stripes on a black car. To be more precise, the stripe color is Carbon Flash Metallic, the sparkly, slightly lighter hue providing just enough contrast to stand out from the exterior color—especially from certain angles and in the right light. The effect is subtle, but, in keeping with the overall theme, so very badass.

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Speaking of contrast, Harchelroad knew that the car shouldn’t be monochromatic; it needed some color, but not too much. Enter Gilbert’s preteen son, Frank. The race-simulator ace suggested the car receive yellow brake calipers ($595) and yellow stitching ($395) in its interior. As it turns out, this suggestion provided the missing ingredient in terms of the desired visual contrast.

Then, when all the Chevrolet boxes were checked, Harchelroad proceeded to feed Gilbert all the options on the Callaway menu. Fortunately, this was a quicker process. The $16,995 SC757 package, which boosts the LT4’s power output from 650 to 757 horsepower, is fairly all inclusive, with the amount of Callaway badging being the only variable. Gilbert decided to get Callaway’s $2,890 exhaust upgrade, which includes its signature “Double-D” tips. About the only thing he didn’t order was Callaway’s short-shift kit. That’s because his Z06 would be equipped with Chevy’s $1,725 eight-speed automatic transmission, not the seven-speed manual. Add it all up, and you have a Chevrolet that stickers for “just under $140,000,” according to Gilbert, almost certainly making it one of the most expensive turnkey Corvettes ever ordered.

Race to the Finish

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After the all the decisions were made and the Z06 was fully conjured, it was the middle of July, giving Chevrolet and Callaway a scant three months to turn the car around. Harchelroad secured the first available build date at Bowling Green, but because of a preexisting waiting list for the recently introduced Z06, this slot wasn’t until sometime in September—too late to get the Z06 to Callaway and the completed SC757 to Gilbert by his November 1 deadline. In the face of this obstacle, Harchelroad got resourceful, falling back on the strong relationship he’s built with GM to figure out a way to get the build date bumped up. “We had to do some string pulling with our GM representative,” he says. Harchelroad must have pulled the right one, because he managed to get an earlier slot.

But the project wasn’t out of the woods yet. Many steps, and many potential snafus, remained. First, the car had to get from Kentucky to California. Then, once it was at Callaway’s Santa Ana facility, technicians had a lot of work to do. The SC757 package is no mere software hack. Suffice it to say it involves a considerable amount of hardware, and those parts needed to be supplied in a timely manner in order for Callaway to complete its work under the strictly imposed deadline.

We covered the Callaway SC757 in the June 2016 issue, so we won’t go into exhaustive detail about the engine-upgrade package here. Fundamentally it boils down to the installation of a larger (by 32 percent) supercharger and an improved intercooling system comprising three heat exchangers. Not only does this arrangement assure the coolest intake charge under optimal conditions, it also allows this LT4 to maintain its peak power output during repeated drag-strip runs or in unusually hot environments. The problem is, these changes require more space than the standard Z06 hood provides. As a result, Callaway needs to cut a hole in the carbon-fiber engine cover. This delicate process can’t be rushed, and it is done to each individual OEM hood, so it can’t be done in advance.

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While the entire SC757 conversion process itself can’t be hustled, Callaway did everything in its power to get Gilbert’s car done in time. Primarily, this involved bumping up his Z06 in the queue. Harchelroad, who served as the project’s conductor as well its architect, was mightily impressed by Callaway’s efforts. “They bent over backwards to make sure it was done on time,” he says, adding that the company charged nothing extra for this priority service.

That said, not everything went exactly to plan over the four-month course of the car’s creation. Delays occurred. Nerves were tested. Anxious phone calls were made. “I kept putting pressure on him,” says Gilbert of his frequent exchanges with Harchelroad. But thanks to Harchelroad’s stewardship, Gilbert’s insistence, lots of hard work and a healthy dose of good luck, the car made it to The Vault’s opening on time—with a day to spare, even. “They got it done, but it was like going under the limbo bar,” says Gilbert of the effort. “It was a journey to get this fine product.”

Into the Batcave

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The Vault is pretty much an automotive fantasy come true. This 24,000-square-foot storage facility doesn’t merely house 50 cars and a handful of motorcycles; it celebrates them. All the vehicles are parked in a single open area, making for a car-show atmosphere. And with everything from Italian supercars to Motown muscle, it is quite a show for car enthusiasts of all stripes. On the day we visited, Chevrolet’s sports car was well represented, with a stock ’66 convertible, a couple of C1 restomods, a handful of C6s and two, yes make that two, Callaway SC757s: Gilbert’s convertible and a buddy’s coupe. This friend just so happens to also own a Ferrari 488.

Profoundly black, Gilbert’s Z06 looks stunning in person—the Vault’s excellent lighting catching its creases and those subtle racing stripes, as well as the contrasting glimpses of yellow. There’s nothing subtle about this Corvette’s aggressive Stage Three spoilers, those front winglets and massive rear wicker bill making the car look race ready. The murdered-out wheels, with their ultra-wide tires and the flares needed to envelop them, add menace to a car that already looks sinister in base form. Topping it off, literally, is that hood opening, showing off the SC757’s eight-pack abs. As Dillon Harchelroad says, the car looks like “the Batmobile in the Batcave.” Gilbert wanted badass, and that’s what he got.

We didn’t have much time to ogle the car; Gilbert quickly insisted that we not only start the engine up inside The Vault, but that we rev the hell out of it. The enhanced LT4 is wicked loud under throttle, emitting an overwhelming sound wave that includes powerful bass notes on initial tip-in and a sharp, almost piercing, bark at high revs. With all that V-8 music echoing around The Vault, our hearts were racing. Then, when Gilbert jumped in the passenger seat and said, “Let’s go,” our pulses quickened even further. He invited us to drive the SC757 up the twisty nearby canyon road and told us to drive it hard. Sensing that Gilbert is not one to take no for an answer, we acquiesced to his demands.

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Ready for Blastoff

Let’s just cut to the chase: This Corvette is shockingly, almost uncomfortably, fast. Even on the short straights between the tight corners on our test loop on the canyon roads above Bighorn, the SC757 could achieve alarmingly high speeds. We read the speedometer readouts provided by the head-up display in disbelief. “How could that be possible?” we asked ourselves. And, as you can imagine, the SC757 has a hard time putting down all its power. From a standstill and when accelerating from low speeds, wheelspin is all but unavoidable; the traction-control system is simply overwhelmed by the Callaway-tuned LT4’s 777 lb-ft of torque. The sticky Michelin Pilot Sport rear tires do their best to translate all that twist into forward progress, but in the end, feathering the throttle is what’s needed for optimum acceleration.

But once the rubber does hook up and the engine’s full output can be exploited, you’d better be ready for takeoff because this Corvette blasts down the road with aircraft-carrier-catapult force. Callaway claims the SC757 can launch from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds and dispense with a quarter-mile in a mere 10.5. For a front-engine, two-wheel-drive production car that comes standard with a three-year/36,000-mile drivetrain warranty, those are staggering numbers.

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We found another number a little intimidating: 167. Can you guess what that stands for? Obviously not the car’s top speed, which must be well north of 200 mph. No, that number was the car’s odometer reading. Gilbert was letting us use—make that “encouraging us to abuse”—his brand-new, nearly undriven Corvette. No pressure. Fortunately, this car’s Z07-spec brakes gave us the confidence to exploit its intimidating quantum of power. The 15.5-/15.3-inch carbon-ceramic rotors and beefy six-piston calipers, in conjunction with the ultra-grippy Cup tires, whoa the

car down with arresting-cable immediacy.

The track-tuned Z06 suspension keeps brake dive to a minimum without being overly sensitive to bumps.

No doubt adding to the this car’s braking force, as well as its directional stability, are its optional Z07-spec aerodynamic devices. With the adjustable rear flap fully deployed, the Z06 generates real, measurable downforce—a first for a Corvette. And while that downforce and its concomitant aerodynamic drag are likely to reduce the car’s top speed somewhat, that’s hardly a concern on public roads. And when you’ve got a Z06 with an extra 100 horses under the hood, it’s no concern at all. Perhaps that’s one justification for having the Callaway work done.

The SC757’s engine is clearly meant to be the star of the show, and with that blower sticking through the engine cover and all that outrageous power just a toe tap away, the supercharged V-8 plays a commanding role in this Corvette theater. But we have to say that during our time behind wheel (which admittedly didn’t include much in the way of long straightaways), the Z06’s chassis upstaged its powertrain. The phenomenal road grip makes the strongest impression—it seems to be limitless. But this racecar-quality handling isn’t just the result of soft-compound rubber; the suspension setup feels spot on. The steering is ultra precise and responsive, allowing for incredibly sharp turn-in feel. Even when we carried too much speed into a corner, the nose unfailingly responded to the helm. Understeer is simply not in the Z06’s vocabulary.

Nor does the car seem overly tail happy. Sure, we had to respect this massaged LT4’s mountain of torque, but we never feared we would suddenly set off an avalanche, so poised and balanced is the Z06’s suspension. And thanks to its rigid chassis, this convertible has the all-of-a-piece feeling of a coupe. (This should come as no surprise, because the droptop’s alloy frame is just as rigid as that of its targa-top sibling.) Given the Z06’s cornering prowess, you really do feel like you’re driving a racecar on the road. Yet, in terms of ride quality, it doesn’t beat you up like most cars bearing number plates. Overall, the chassis tuning is phenomenal.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing about this Z06’s automatic transmission. Even when the Driver Mode Selector is placed in Sport, the gearbox doesn’t downshift aggressively enough when braking into corners. We often found ourselves in too tall a gear when getting back on the gas. Part of the problem is the fact that the transmission is too eager to upshift, especially if you feather the throttle at all between corners—which we found ourselves doing because of the horsepower surplus. The Z06’s automatic does wake up in Track mode, both holding onto gears longer and downshifting with more authority, but this setting also places the suspension in its stiffest setting, which is usually too harsh for street duty. The forced coupling of these two systems is a flaw that needs to be rectified.

Of course, this issue can be circumvented by putting the transmission in manual mode and pulling the paddles yourself, so it’s not that big a deal. The shifts are quick but not as fast as some of those found on the best dual-clutch boxes we’ve driven. On the other hand, we can appreciate the virtues of having a torque converter, and indeed the Z06 shifts with unfussy ease at low speeds, something that can’t be said for most two-pedal manuals.

Corvette Convert

Bringing it back to this car’s owner, Gilbert is completely satisfied with his American-sports-car purchase. He especially loves the way it looks. To his eyes, the C7’s sharply creased lines, combined with the Z06’s wide stance and Z07 aero package, result in an aggressive supercar appearance that the Corvette has previously lacked. Factor in the sinister black-on-black paint scheme with contrasting yellow accents, and you have a car that fulfills the mandate he delivered to Harchelroad at the outset. “This has got to be the centerfold of all Corvettes,” he proudly declares when we’re back in the Batcave.

But Gilbert is even more enthusiastic about the way the car drives. “This car was built to compete with European cars, [and] it surpasses them,” he says of the SC757’s overall performance. “I like this one better than the Ferraris I’ve owned.” However, he is quick to add that he is intimidated by the car’s prodigious power output. Never one to mince words, he admits, “This thing scares the crap out of me.” As well a Batmobile should.

Also from Issue 110

  • Owner-Restored '56 Driver
  • Direct Injection Explained
  • Supercharged Midyear Fuelie
  • Buyer's Guide: C2
  • 1970 LT-1 Coupe
  • 1996 Collector Edition
  • Hendrick Heritage Collection
  • Corvette Racing: Then and Now
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