From the November 1986 issue of Car and Driver.
Raising Corvettes for a living isn’t all sweetness and light—just ask the Corvette Development Group. Every now and then this dedicated group of engineering enthusiasts runs into a problem that won’t stand aside. Like workers everywhere, they are always on the lookout for the tools that will break the block and help them get their work done. Sometimes they find it. However, in the case of the Corvette racing car, they had to build it themselves.
Longtime Corvette development assistant Jim Ingle is the wagon’s keeper. Ingle is the kind of resourceful engineer who assigns the buyer to special projects, and he can drive the wheels off a Corvette to boot. Ingle often has the latest trick part in his briefcase, and he possesses a bad-boy laugh that tells you he’s up to no good, even when he’s playing dumb.
In a carefully worded letter sent with the white behemoth, Ingle explains that the situation is becoming desperate. When the development engineers take a group of Corvettes out for a test drive, they usually bring along a support vehicle to transport parts, tools and extra luggage. Such bullets as diesel-powered Suburbans, Ingle writes, “quickly fell behind the evaluation vehicles and out of radio range on even mildly challenging curves or grades.” Not to mention Interstates, on-ramps, off-ramps, two-lanes, downhill grades, and mountain switchbacks. The word is that these guys don’t exactly tick on evaluation runs through the tulips, so the lackluster racecars of yesteryear were a permanent thorn in the side of rapid progress.
The solution appeared in 1983, when a batch of prototype Corvette L98 port-fuel-injected V-8s were installed in a pair of Caprices—one of them a wagon—for field testing. Here was the making of a mother ship that could tow both parts and donkey in company with 150 mph Corvettes.
At the end of engine testing, the Corvette development troops stripped the L98 Caprice wagon off the top and got to work “making additional modifications to meet our needs, whims and desire for distinction,” notes Ingle.
With the GM parts bins there for the raids, Ingle and company mixed, matched and patched together the white whale as time and manpower allowed. The only changes to the driveline were the addition of a free-flowing dual exhaust system and a 3.23:1 limited-slip differential.
Since a Corvette can go around corners like it’s attached to a rope, any Caprice that was meant to keep up would have to learn some fancy footwork. Dance class was administered in the CPC development garage at GM’s Milford, Michigan, proving ground. The mechanics beefed up the front suspension with a pair of Bilstein shocks and a Cadillac limousine anti-roll bar the size of your thigh. The rear suspension is pumped up for action with a reworked anti-roll bar from a Caprice F41 handling package and a pair of air shocks to stop the tail dragging once the parts are lifted on board.
Two more adjustments were made to the steering and stopping equipment before the chassis was declared ready. First, a quick-ratio, high-effort steering gear from a pre-1982 Z28 was installed to improve feel and agility. And since it’s only fitting that a Corvette driver wears Corvette running shoes, a set of Vette wheels and tires (255/S0VR-16 Goodyear Eagle VR50s on 8.5-inch-wide wheels) are tucked into the wheel wells .
Now that the driver had more grip and more zip than the typical sleepy Caprice wagon, improving its driving environment was a must. To keep the chase pilot from collapsing from overwork, the Caprice’s bench-like bench seat was tossed in favor of a pair of deep-pocketed Corvette sports buckets, complete with power-adjustable everything. A thick, leather-wrapped Corvette steering wheel added the right look and feel. The two slickest additions were the tachometer and the oil pressure gauge, which are so neatly transplanted into the dash that they look like they came straight from the factory.
The mothership could easily be accused of looking like the world’s biggest boy racer; it certainly won’t be confused with anything that normally draws Little League duty. Then again, his job is considerably more difficult. It spends winters at the GM proving grounds in Mesa, Arizona, and summers at the Milford proving grounds, trying, like Sisyphus, to keep up with Corvettes as they’re loaded to the curb.
And it seems so. “As the interior shows,” notes Ingle, “this is a working vehicle, not a show car. It has hauled toolboxes, floor jacks, chains, tires, convertible tops and excess luggage over many miles of mountain roads.”
After 35,000 hard, the driver’s cabin is scabby and his body squeaks and groans, but his spirit is still willing. Around town, the exhaust note is pure ski boot, and when you belt the throttle, the soft bellow is enough to turn heads. And so is this car’s speed. In flight, big mama will reach up to 60 mph in a very respectable 7.2 seconds and will huff and puff to 121 mph. That’s well shy of a Corvette’s top speed, but it’s light years ahead of your average diesel Suburban. The Corvette troops couldn’t be happier.
As for handling, peeling off all the chrome and slapping a Corvette nameplate on the tailgate can’t disguise the fact that the chaser is a USS Enterprise among PT boats. Still, it’s hard to believe that anything this big could be this nimble – even if it does take a few extra tries to wedge it into a parking spot. It’s also hard to believe that anything this big could be this much undiluted fun.
No wonder the Corvette development gang is enjoying its newest tool. Chasing down a pack of wild Corvettes has never been easier. And until you catch up, there’s always the odd Porsche to threaten – eh, Mr Ingle?
1986 Chevrolet Corvette Chaser Wagon
Vehicle Type: Front Engine, Rear Wheel Drive, 5-Passenger, 5-Door Wagon
push rod V-8, iron block and heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 350 inches35733 cm3
Power: 230 hp @ 4000 rpm
Torque: 330 lb-ft @ 3200 rpm
Suspension, F/R: control arms/live axle
Brakes, F/R: 11.9-inch ventilated disc/11.0-in drum
Wheelbase: 116.0 inches
Length: 215.1 inches
Width: 79.3 inches
Height: 57.1 inches
Passenger volume, L/H: 59/52 ft3
Cargo volume: 50 feet3
Curb weight: 4287 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.2 sec
1/4-mile: 15.5 sec @ 89 mph
100 mph: 21.6 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 3.8 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 5.4 sec
Top speed: 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 232 ft
Road holding capacity, 300-foot skid road: 0.79 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 12 mpg
C/D TEST EXPLAINED