It is a sad, yet great day for me as the former editor of Corvette Online. My C4 Corvette project car is complete (for now) and I bring you the last installment of “Red Haired Step Child,” my 1995 C4 convertible. The goal was to gently “breathe” on the car to diminish its weaknesses and leverage its many strengths. I wanted a ‘Vette that rode nice, looked good, and hauled ass. Objective achieved, and I’ll show you how I did it.
First up was getting the paint figured out. The paint was 9-out-of-10, so I knew some massaging of the finish would bring significant gains. I called my pal Mike Pennington at Meguiar’s and took the car to its corporate training facility in Irvine, California. Mike, his sidekick Nick and I polished and corrected the paint with a full arsenal of Meguiar’s products at our disposal. The results were fantastic, no paint shop required. It’s so easy to do yourself, there’s no reason not to have great-looking, swirl-free paint.
Next, I installed Mid-America Motorworks replacement leather seat covers. This was such a huge improvement. The old leather seats were hard as shoe leather and itched and creaked because the seat foam had long since collapsed. I went a little custom here with two-tone, red, and black Performance Choice seat covers which complement the stock interior fabulously.
The fresh, supple leather and new foam restored the comfort of the seats to brand-new, and the old leather racket was banished to the tannery in the sky. I can’t begin to say how much these seat covers improved the “experience” of driving this ‘Vette. Every time I open the door and smell that new leather aroma, my day suddenly gets a lot better.
Lowering The Car
Onward to some hardware. The car was very original with a high-water, factory stance that was really square. Getting the stance right before any wheel or tire mods was critical. If the elusive stance is off, all the fancy wheels and tires won’t make up for it.
Again, I called Mid America and ordered its lowering kit to bring the ride height down one inch. Not radical, but I’m not trying to cop a sport compact look for the car, or have manhole covers transform from benign daily obstacles to sheet molded compound shredding events.
New Bilstein Shocks
While I had the suspension apart, I installed Bilstein shocks tailored for lowered C4s. They are a direct replacement for the C4 with the added bonus of a short shaft that accommodates the reduced ride height. They installed without a hitch, firmed up the handling, and improved ride quality exponentially.
Wheels, Tires, Rotors, Pads, And Calipers
With the paint shiny, the interior buffed, and the car sitting right, the best part was yet to come. Installing tires, wheels, rotors, and brake calipers are the cherry-on-the-sundae of any build. These rotating elements are the automotive “jewelry” that give a car, especially a Corvette, a tailored look.
I gave much thought to my strategy. I wanted five-spoke, 18-inch wheels all the way around, but was aware an open design would easily show old rotors and calipers. That old hardware hidden from daylight for decades behind the former 17-inch, chromed sawblades would stick out like a sore thumb. I decided to take a holistic approach, knowing when the stance was right, a combination of rolling stock upgrades would achieve the look I wanted.
Again, I gave Rocky Quintus a call at So Cal Vettes and Hot Rods in Lake Elsinore, California and booked some time. Rocky lowered the car, and I’m really happy with his work, so I went with him again to complete the car. In addition to being a seasoned Corvette tech, his shop is in the Inland Empire, which made it super convenient and eliminates the slog to LA or San Diego.
I had my heart set on CCW wheels. I’ve lusted after the company’s rims for years. After a call to the very informative CCW rep Andrew, I decided on a set of 18-inch, SP500 wheels. They have the modern, open five-spoke design I wanted, plus a healthy skosh of deep dish rim. Perfect for bringing a C4 Corvette into the 21st century.
I think 18-inch rims (19-inches maximum) are the perfect size upgrade for a C4 Corvette. Anything bigger, especially if the stance is left at factory height, results in a Roger Rabbit clown car, straight outta Toontown.
Andrew took us on a deeper dive into the specs, “The CCW SP500 monoblock wheels are a contemporary take on the classic five-spoke design, tailor-made for some of the most coveted domestic and imported high-performance vehicles.
“Monoblock construction has definite advantages,” he continued. “Forged from 6061-T6 aluminum, the SP-Series features superior balance because of the monoblock’s extremely low radial-runout factor. These 100-percent machined wheels are held to exacting tolerances. Lack of seams and joints means a leak-proof, true wheel for thousands and thousands of miles. The SP500 wheels are available in 18-, 19- and 20-inch diameters and all custom CCW finishes.” When they arrived, I was amazed at how lovinging these wheels are made. The highest quality, distortion-free mirror finish — truly works of art.
With the wheels on the way, I turned to Nitto for a new set of shoes. I went with their latest superstar, high-performance tire, the G2 NT555. I ordered a staggered set for my Corvette application.
According to Nitto, “The NT555 G2 is the next generation ultra high-performance summer tire designed with the performance driver in mind. With increased traction, handling and wet-braking capabilities, the NT555 G2 will get you off the line quickly, provide stability in the straights, and confidence in the corners.”
My seat-of-the-pants review is they are quiet, stick like glue, and have the look I was after. Compared with my previous flat-spot ridden tires, the car rides like it’s floating on air. A quick run over the Ortega Highway revealed fast steering response and no “nibbling,” or wandering – a common malady when upsizing tires.
Brake Rotors, Pads, and Powder-Coated Calipers
Next up, brake rotors and pads. I called my man Rick Elam, resident guru at Baer Brakes, and asked for his advice. I had some spacing hurdles with getting an aftermarket caliper tucked in the rear wheels. Rick advised I go with the Eradispeed Rotor, Baer Decela pads, and stock calpers all the way around to avoid fitment issues. An added bonus is the ability to return the car to stock. Another key benefit of the Eradispeed rotor is it allows you to upgrade to Baer’s big kahuna front calipers later, should you so desire.
Aside from the lighter unsprung-weight at each corner, Eradispeed rotors are “slotted, cross-drilled, zinc-coated, and directionally-vaned units purpose-cast with quality iron materials for performance far beyond the factory units they replace,” Rick said. “The curve-vaned design provides greater airflow and heat dissipation. The EradiSpeed rotors are a direct, bolt-on system with simple installation and no bleeding of the brakes.”
I went with Baer’s Sport Ceramic Decela pads. Baer’s website elaborates on these pads: “These ceramic pads offer superior heat disbursement, longer life, quieter operation, and lower dust levels than OEM pads. Sized and shaped to fine tolerances to match OEM dimensions for easy installation that requires no modifications. Two slotted grooves per pad provide the highest level of wipe-off for brake dust, water, gases, and heat that may be present during driving conditions, and ceramic construction provides extremely low brake noise without squealing.”
I called Brad’s Corvettes in Florida and ordered a set of red, powder-coated calipers. These are gorgeous units with all new guts and added a nice punctuation of color on the new binders.
I had a little bugaboo here, though. Corvettes from 1995-1996 have the formerly-optional J55 brakes, which consist of 13-inch front rotors and 12-inch rears as standard equipment. As delivered, the calipers were for a pre-1995 base ‘Vette and I had to do a swap via the mail. The guys at Brad’s were easy to work with and I had a new set of calipers for the front 13-inch rotors in a week or so.
Out With The Old, In With the New
I started at the rear of the car. To remove the brake rotor, the two bolts holding the brake caliper mounting bracket to the spindle must be detached. Remove the brake caliper, but do not allow it to hang freely from the flex hose. Tapping gently with a rubber mallet knocked the brake rotor loose from the hub. Be sure and clean behind old rotor and get any crud out of there.
Remember, the front calipers were the wrong part, so I came back to So Cal Vettes and Hot Rods a week later and resumed on the front brakes. Essentially the same sequence as the rears.
I read somewhere that lowering a car and adding wheels isn’t a “project car.” I don’t particularly care what folks think, and it’s my seasoned belief that Corvettes are best left alone. We’ve all seen “full builds” which put a poor C4 on the crazy train to “Hooptyville,” squandering any integrity or value the car once had. Corvettes don’t need any more bad press.
After the smoke cleared and we wrapped up project “Red Haired Step Child,” the following points of clarity came to the fore:
Ultimately what I did to this ‘Vette was just maintenance. Granted, with better and prettier components. With only 37,000 miles on the odometer, the car had been sitting and showed the beginning strains of “lot rot,” the results of intermittent operation. New wheels, tires, and brakes were money well spent from a safety standpoint alone, regardless of the bling factor.
The biggest “a-ha!” moment, was when I drove the car for the first time. The wheels, tires, and rotors were true and balanced; a far cry from the aging, old, shocks and rotors and lopsided tires. Now that all the rotating stock is trued up, the difference is like night and day. The car tracks, steers, and rides like it’s riding on ball bearings. Just the way Dave McLellan and his team designed it to run way back in the ‘80s.
Lastly, an original ‘Vette is a valuable ‘Vette. Everything I did can be reversed. I don’t think I will, but a great selling point if the time comes to let her go.
I took the car to the Plastic Fantastic Car Show in San Diego last summer and won the “Bronze” award in the C4 category. It was the first time I’d entered a car show. I was ultimately beaten out by two ZR-1s, which made sense, but was thrilled with the award. There were over 400 Corvettes at the show, with only 21 awards, (seven generations of Corvette with three wins per class.) My little red Corvette took home a plaque, and that was awesome.