As we enter into the new year, we are excited to be publishing the first in a series of articles focused on showcasing some of the many special edition Corvettes introduced throughout the brand’s 70-year history. This series will feature the good, the bad, the beautiful, and even some of the “ugly” commemorative and collector edition Corvettes from yesteryear. The series will explore the history of Corvette’s sorted special edition models and will unveil each model’s unique contributions to the brand’s evolution. We will conclude the series later this year with the unveiling of the latest special edition models at the launch of the 2024 Corvette lineup.
Although we’ll drill deeper into some of the truly rare special edition models in future issues, we begin this series with the 2004 “24 Hours of Le Mans” Commemorative Edition Corvette. This model, which was offered to consumers in all variants of the Corvette (coupe, convertible, and Z06 models), was developed to commemorate Corvette’s back-to-back LMGTS class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2002 and 2003. Additionally, GM was preparing to introduce the sixth-generation Corvette the following year, so the team at Corvette wanted to create a car that would commemorate the final year of the fifth-generation model while also celebrating the car’s incredible accomplishments on the racetrack.
The 2004 “24 Hours of Le Mans” Commemorative Edition Corvette came finished in a custom Le Mans Blue paint. The paint color was the same hue used on both the 2003 and 2004 C5-R race cars, the latter of which competed and nearly won a third LMGTS class victory at that year’s running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Additionally, the cars came equipped with polished wheels, and its exterior badging included unique C5 emblems that acknowledged the racing team’s success at Le Mans. The 2004 Commemorative Edition’s interior came wrapped in a special Shale color, and the seats included the C5’s iconic crossed-flags emblems embroidered on the headrests.
The 2004 “24 Hour of Le Mans” Commemorative Edition Corvette focused on visual aesthetics over notable performance improvements, save for one specific hardware upgrade that was offered to consumers that year. Anyone who ordered a 2004 Z06 Corvette received a lightweight carbon-fiber hood that weighed in at just 20.5 points, which was nearly 11 pounds lighter than the standard hoods previously used on the C5 models. Each hood was constructed of unique, single-direction carbon fibers designed to eliminate waviness, a trait that was once common on painted carbon fiber. Each commemorative edition Z06 was also finished with silver stripes (with red piping along their outside edges). This stripe package was similar to the striping introduced on the C5-R race cars run at Le Mans (GM elected not to use this same livery for the 2004 American Le Mans series.)
The introduction of carbon fiber on the 2004 Corvette Z06 was significant in that it marked the first time that GM used the material for a major body panel on a production vehicle. As part of an interview with Motor Trend magazine, then Corvette Chief Engineer David Hill made the following comment about the carbon fiber hood: “We definitely have technology transfer from [C5-R] racing to production with the example of putting carbon fiber into a series production street car that people can afford.”
Though not unique to the Commemorative package, the 2004 Corvette Z06 received an upgraded, better-tuned chassis for the 2004 model year. The Sachs’ shock valving was refined to reduce car yaw and roll, especially when running thru tight corners on a race track. Additionally, stiffer upper control-arm bushings and slightly softer rear anti-roll bar bushings were introduced to deliver flatter handling and greater stability when going into a corner, thereby minimizing oversteer on the corner exit. The result was a notably smoother corner entry from 2004 when compared to the 2003 Z06 model.
Michael Neal, the C5 Corvette’s Ride/Handling Chassis Engineer, noted: “We reshaped the force-velocity curve to give more control, but not at the expense of ride. What the customer feels, particularly on a racetrack, is a more poised car. He doesn’t have to wait for body roll to settle during transient maneuvers, so he can be aggressive hustling from one corner to another, particularly as they come in quicker succession. If you want to fix oversteer at the back, you first need to fix it at the front of the corner.”
When developing the 2004 Corvette Z06, David Hill had focused on making the car “the quickest Corvette ever produced (to date.)” He succeeded. Between the refinements to the chassis and thru some specific areas of weight reduction, the 2004 Corvette Z06 (including the Commemorative Edition) became one of the very few production vehicles (at that time) to break the eight-minute lap time barrier at the 170-turn, 14-mile-long Nuerburgring circuit in Germany.
At its introduction, David Hill stated, “We’ve created the 2004 Commemorative Edition to share our racing achievements with Corvette enthusiasts while bringing real performance and technology upgrades to the Z06.” Just 2,215 coupes, 2,659 convertibles, and 2,025 Z06 (RPO Z16) examples were produced, making the 2004 “24 Hours of Le Mans” Commemorative Edition models some of the most collectible examples of the fifth-generation Corvette to this day.
A total of forty-six (46) non-Z06 coupes (RPO Z18) were produced for European export. Like the US-built Z06 models, the European non-Z06 Commemorative Edition coupes received the hood, roof, and hatch decals, though these are of a different length than those found on the Z06 Commemorative Edition models. Additionally, each car was fitted with a carbon-fiber hood and red brake calipers. On their interior, each of the European export models was also fitted with the Z06-Z16 Commemorative Edition seats.