The First Skunk

C4 Grand Sport number 0001 is a well-traveled example of this beloved 1996 high-performance model

Photo: The First Skunk 1
March 23, 2023

By early spring of 1993, the fourth-generation Corvette was nearing its sunset. Concurrently, the upcoming C5 was at a critical point: transition from the engineering-design stage to product development. Consequently, GM’s Corvette team was working overtime, not only to get the C5 ready for its 1997 debut but also to prevent C4 sales from tanking in the meantime.

Assistant Chief Engineer John Heinricy had been the de facto head of the C4 program since 1992. Heinricy was an accomplished development engineer with 22 years at GM. Additionally, he was a road racer with an impressive resume of wins and championships in Corvettes. In 1990 he organized and led a team of seven that drove a production C4 ZR-1 to the World Speed Record for 24 hours, a mark that would stand for 12 years. Fellow competitors called him “Heinrocket,” fitting for a hardcore Corvette guy who believed performance—and vivid demonstrations thereof—could help market America’s Sports Car.

Model year 1996 topped Heinricy’s to-do list. Production would begin in spring 1995, so he had roughly two years to plan and execute a program that would keep C4s moving off of dealer lots to the very end.

Enter two other Corvette movers and shakers of the era: Brand Manager Dr. Fred Gallasch and GM Design Staff’s Corvette stylist, John Cafaro. Heinricy told us, “Fred and I agreed that a special model was desirable for marketing. Fred wanted a power increase, [so] I took the ball and ran with it. Russ McLean, Corvette Program Manager, pushed Powertrain for the engine upgrades. Cafaro delivered the Grand Sport theme.”

Cafaro sketched a throwback to the five Corvette Grand Sports that Zora Duntov had built for mid-’60s GT and prototype road racing. His inspiration was the white-on-blue Grand Sport that Mecom Racing fielded for A.J. Foyt and John Cannon in the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring. The final sketches showed an Admiral Blue C4 with a wide, white racing stripe running from nose to tail, black wheels, and distinctive Torch Red hash marks on the left front fender. The interior had Torch Red seats and a red-and-black treatment for the dashboard and door panels. When Cafaro showed sketches to Heinricy and Gallasch, they saw it as a great way to sell ’96 Vettes.

Photo: The First Skunk 2

The third-built 1963 Grand Sport, as it looked for the ’64 Sebring 12-hour enduro. This was the livery that inspired John Cafaro’s makeover for the ’96 GS.

Gallasch wanted 2,500 Grand Sports, but the staff at the Bowling Green Assembly Plant determined that the laborious process of applying the elaborate finish—which used paint for the center stripe but decals for the surrounding pinstripes—would hold the build to 1,000 units, not enough to effect the desired sales boost. Worse yet, some at Chevrolet were having second thoughts because of the car’s cost and unconventional look. The Grand Sport was going down, trailing smoke. John Heinricy needed a Plan B.

Z15 to the Rescue

Heinricy’s rescue plan involved a second, more mainstream commemorative ’96 model, the Collector Edition (RPO Z15). It would come in a new color, Sebring Silver Metallic, with silver, five-spoke “A-mold” wheels like those on 1993-’95 ZR-1s, along with unique seats and special emblems. A build of 5,000 was projected. In the end, 5,412 Collector Editions—a quarter of ’96 Corvette production—were constructed, a volume that made the 1,000-unit Grand Sport program viable.

Heinricy convinced GM to waive its rule against special VIN sequences, so every Grand Sport came with a model-exclusive serial number. Along with the distinctive white-on-blue finish—which earned the car the sobriquet “Skunk”—reproduction 1963 Grand Sport badges appeared on each front fender, and Cafaro’s red hash marks were placed on the left front. The red-and-black interior made production, but resistance from Chevrolet’s Dealer Council meant an all-black treatment was available as well. It was good thing, as only 270 cars were ultimately ordered with the flashy, two-tone cabin.

The Grand Sport’s wheels were black A-molds. Convertibles had 9.5×17-inchers all around, while coupes swapped in the ZR-1’s 315/35ZR17 tires on 11×17s in the back. But lacking the ZR-1’s widened rear fenders to cover them, the fat rear rubber protruded from the wheel wells, violating federal standards. A 14mm increase in wheel offset, combined with small fender flares originally designed for Japanese-market export Corvettes, provided a workaround.

All ’96 Corvettes had new front brake calipers that were strengthened across the top of the casting. This improved pedal feel, since a stiffer caliper spreads less under high brake pressure. All Z15 and Grand Sport calipers were black powder-coated to better match the silver or black wheels.

Photo: The First Skunk 3

This design sketch shows the “throwback” look as it would ultimately appear on the C4 Grand Sport. (Image courtesy GM)

The traditional small-block V-8’s last year would be 1996, so GM Powertrain did something special. All manual-trans ’96 Corvettes received LT4 V-8s with more power than a base LT1 as well as a higher, 6,400-rpm rev limit. This created a bit of a kerfuffle initially, as the LT4 performed better in testing than the upcoming C5’s 345-hp LS1. Upstaging the C5 was a nonstarter, so the LT4’s 330-hp rating was conservative. The actual number was more like 350.

Saved by the Collector Edition and Grand Sport, C4 sales didn’t tank. Production was 21,536, beating 1995 by 794 cars. We asked John Heinricy of which Grand Sport feature he was proudest. “The LT4, [since] a one-year engine was almost unheard of,” he answered. “Also, the edge pinstripes had to be decals, but the wide center stripe being painted looked far better.”

Number One

Grand Sport serial number 0001, a Z51 coupe with the red-and-black interior, was built on April 3, 1995, in a run of about a dozen production pilot cars. They became part of the “captured test fleet” (CTF) used for final validation and quality-control audits. Many were driven by Corvette engineers or other GM employees. Some pilot cars were used for PR and marketing purposes, such as dealer or press events.

SN 0001’s first “presser” came that June at Chevrolet’s long-lead media preview for 1996 models, staged at Road America, a racetrack near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. This writer did laps in the car on the very fast, four-mile course, where it performed nearly on par with the ’95 ZR-1 I owned at the time. Because it was lighter and had less weight on the front, the Grand Sport was quicker in turns, and that almost negated the ZR-1’s additional horsepower.

Later that day, another reporter blew 0001’s engine driving through Road America’s Turn 9/10 “Carousel” in Third Gear. It’s a 200-degree right that generates maximum lateral acceleration for 10 to 12 seconds, and it should be negotiated in Fourth Gear in a stock Corvette. In Third, at excessive rpm, the oil pump pushed more oil into the heads, then sucked air. With no oil pressure, the engine spun a bearing. The car was trucked back to the Milford Proving Ground, where it received a new engine before being returned to CTF duty.

Photo: The First Skunk 4

A few pilot cars were damaged or destroyed during the final validation process and subsequently scrapped. During late 1995 and early ’96, in addition to lots of miles driven by engineers, some of the cars were put in auto shows, driven by VIPs, or lent to the media for road tests. Once that was done, the remaining cars were sold as used vehicles.

Back in late 1994, Heinricy had written Harry Turner, Russ McLean’s successor as Project Manager, asking to buy the first “Skunk.” By fall 1995, 0001’s CTF duty was complete, and though Heinricy’s request was approved, the car couldn’t be sold. It had parts that were not production-approved at the time of the pilot build; it was missing some federally required labels; and it was part of a recall of early Grand Sports for defective rocker arms. All these problems were fixed, but that process created a mystery.

Vehicles made in the United States display a “VIN placard” including the name of the manufacturer, the build date, certification that the vehicle met federal standards existing at the time it was built, and the vehicle identification number (VIN), the last four numbers of which form the serial number. Strangely, this car’s VIN plate, installed on April 3, 1995, is stamped 0001, but the door label, installed that December, shows serial number 0002. Asked about the disparity, Heinricy stated that some of the pilots, 0001 included, had labels applied after they were produced. Grand Sport 0002’s placard was inadvertently applied to 0001.

What happened to 0002? John Hutchinson, the Grand Sport Registry’s “Skunkmaster in Chief” told us that GM held on to the car before scrapping it in the early or mid-2000s. We suspect GM disposed of it in 2005 after keeping it for 10 years for legal reasons. Hutchinson added that, in 2006, Schram Auto Parts, a wrecking yard in Waterford, Michigan, outside of Detroit, sold 0002 as a rolling chassis with no body or interior. Maybe somewhere, a C4 is running around with a junkyard door displaying 0001’s VIN placard.

Second Life

In late December 1995, Heinricy learned that SN 0001 would be shipped to now-defunct Jack Cauley Chevrolet outside Detroit, where he could complete the purchase. The car arrived on December 21, and six days later it was in Heinricy’s possession. For two years his wife, Rita, used it as her daily driver, then, for the next 24 years, John took it to car shows and autocrosses. He had numerous wins driving 0001 at SCCA SOLO 2 events in upper Midwest, the Corvette Club of Michigan autocrosses, the 2015 C4 Gathering at the National Corvette Museum, and other competitions.

Photo: The First Skunk 5

Wrapping up our conversation, Skunkmaster Hutchinson noted, “The 1996 Grand Sports have become in-demand on the collectible Corvette market, perhaps even more than 1990-’95 ZR-1s. Those blue-and-white cars struck a chord with Corvette enthusiasts and are [among] the most prized, collectible Corvettes ever produced. It takes little imagination to realize that, without John Heinricy’s efforts and the fervor those 1,000 Skunks generated, the C6 and C7 Grand Sports would never have seen the light of day.”

In late 2017, Heinricy decided to sell 0001. Not wanting it to end up owned by a collector, he kept it off the open market. He desired a local buyer who was a C4 enthusiast, one who would appreciate the car and drive it regularly.

That brings us to Rich and Maureen Waller, two hardcore Grand Sport enthusiasts from the Detroit area. Starting in 1995, Rich Waller owned four different Grand Sports—0081, 0197, 0275, and 0438—but the one he really wanted was 0001. And in a mid-2015 conversation with Heinricy, he conveyed that desire to his fellow Corvette Club of Michigan member.

One evening in mid-2018, the Wallers’ phone rang. It was Heinricy, and he was ready to sell 0001. Although Rich and Maureen really wanted to buy it, there was a catch: Earlier that year Rich had been diagnosed with throat cancer and had begun treatment. He agonized over the decision but ultimately declined to buy 0001 because of his ongoing illness.

Rich eventually beat throat cancer, but shortly after that doctors found significant prostate cancer. As his second battle with the disease wore on into 2020, he often asked his wife, “Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have gotten number 0001?”

Photo: The First Skunk 6

The question planted the of an seed of idea with Maureen. “Rich’s birthday is September 7,” she told us. “I knew there was no better gift than number 0001, and the best place to present it was [Corvettes at] Carlisle in late August. 

“In early 2021, I called John asking if it was still available. ‘It’s yours!’ he replied. I hung up, then broke down and cried.”

The sale was a win-win: Heinricy got his C4 enthusiast-buyer, and the Wallers got Rich’s dream car. It changed hands on April 3, 2021. The few who knew about the transaction kept it a secret, and Heinricy stored 0001 in his garage until mid-August when it was shipped to Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

During Corvettes at Carlisle, at a private Grand Sport Registry party, Heinricy told the story of SN 0001 to an audience of about 200. Rich still didn’t know what was coming. Heinricy ended his talk by saying, “It’s time for me to sell number 0001. I can’t think of a better person and Corvette enthusiast to own it than Rich Waller.” And with that, he handed over the keys.

For a fraction of a second there was only stunned silence, but the room soon erupted in applause. “After getting the keys,” Maureen Waller told us, “Rich said a few words. Afterward, there weren’t many dry eyes amongst all those Skunk lovers.”

Later that evening, Lance Miller, co-owner of Carlisle Events, asked Rich to lead the annual Downtown Carlisle Corvette Parade, a great honor in the Corvette community. By then, cancer had made Rich too weak to drive a manual, so a friend, Andrew Beiseimer, drove. “I hadn’t seen Rich as animated and exuberant in a while,” Maureen said. “I don’t think the man stopped smiling the whole time.”

Sadly, Rich Waller succumbed to cancer on November 1, 2021. At this writing, Maureen Waller still drives 0001 occasionally. In the future, she wants to get the “First Skunk” judged by NCRS and later go for a Bloomington Gold award.

Also from Issue 161

  • First Look: 2024 E-Ray
  • 560-hp Pro Street C1
  • Market Report: C3
  • Canada-Market ’68 Coupe
  • Callaway-Supercharged ’07 Coupe
  • Racing: ’23 Season Preview
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