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.
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.
We wondered if Skunk Werkes was concerned about how this radical change would affect the car’s safety. “It’s not really altered in areas where it would impact safety or structure,” answers Cafaro. “In some ways it has less structure—we took ten inches of glass and aluminum out of the car.” Still, the duo decided to install a pair of roll hoops behind the seats, just to be on the safe side.
Exterior modifications went beyond just the low roofline. Cafaro designed a number of new body panels aimed at heightening the Corvette’s visual impact and reducing aerodynamic lift. These enhancements included a raised hood, front and rear spoilers and side strakes. After being modeled in clay, the pieces were laid up in fiberglass in Iovino’s basement shop, which also served as the staging area for final assembly. The glass work was farmed out to a third party.
Critics usually consider the interior to be the late-model Corvette’s weak link. Cafaro wanted to change that perception by creating a cockpit that rivaled anything being offered by Ferrari, Porsche or Mercedes-Benz. Instead of attempting to tackle this project down in its underground lair, Skunk Werkes contracted Ontario-based Caravaggio Corvettes to handle all the interior enhancements. “John Caravaggio was the first guy that I called because we wanted to tap into his handcrafted capability,” says Cafaro. “He and I have similar tastes.”
The cockpit featured Caravaggio sports seats with increased bolstering and covered with red leather and black Alcantara upholstery. A similar combination of materials adorned the steering wheel. While the door panels got red leather inserts, the center console and parts of the dash were treated to carbon-fiber trim, creating a racy look. Same goes for the Simpson five-point harnesses; these, combined with the roll hoops, gave the Speedster a track-ready appearance.
Although many people within GM saw the completed car or were at least aware of it, Skunk Werkes never made an explicit sales pitch to the company. Before selling itself, the fledgling tuner needed to sell some vehicles to customers.
After Cafaro’s personal prototype, came a silver Speedster, which ended up in Bob McDorman’s vast Corvette collection at his Ohio Chevrolet dealership. Skunk Werkes built a third Speedster, finished in dark blue, for basketball player Lindsey Hunter of the Detroit Pistons. The assembly of a fourth car was done in California by a different shop. Though the same ASC top was used, that car featured a slightly different header; it was modified to increase outward vision.
Everything was looking rather bright for Skunk Werkes. The Speedster received national press, including a story in the May 22, 2000 issue of Autoweek. While this article painted an optimistic picture of the company, it concluded with the following statement: “Between the truck studio and Skunk Werkes, Cafaro has more than enough on his plate to keep him busy.” That was, indeed, the bitter truth. Skunk Werkes didn’t survive much past that story’s publication, with work stopping after the completion of the fourth Speedster. ASC had produced a fifth top, but as far as Cafaro knows it was never used.
When asked why the project didn’t go further, Cafaro explains, “It was such a huge task to do the car, and we all had day jobs. We just couldn’t balance our day jobs [with Skunk Werkes]—we just couldn’t do it. And, you know, it wasn’t like there were people pounding on the door to do Speedsters. It was very pricey, it was very time-consuming, it was not for everybody. So we weren’t going to make a living doing it or be profitable. We had so much fun doing it, but it got to the point where it was either we had to quit working at GM and do this, or keep our day jobs, so we just kinda called it quits there.”
Meluzio went to Carlisle to look at the car on the day that it was supposed to cross the auction block. “They hit me with a [starting] price so high that I left,” he says. “I never went back to the auction that day.” Meluzio later found out that the car was a “no sale.”As a result, he decided to contact Iovino directly to see what kind of deal could be made. After some intense negotiations, the Speedster found a new home. [As a side note, the Bob McDorman car recently sold at auction for $51,000—Ed.]
Meluzio couldn’t be happier with his purchase. Though other examples were built, his Skunk Werkes machine is truly one-of-a-kind. It was the only one that had the full Caravaggio interior installed. It was also the only one fitted with smaller side mirrors relocated to the A-pillars.
And is Meluzio happy with the way his Corvette performs? “I owned a beautiful red Ferrari 348 Serie Speciale at the same time as I owned the Speedster,” he says. “I got to a point where I sold the Ferrari because I preferred to drive the Speedster!”