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The History Of The Z06 Badge

Z06 badge on a 2023 Corvette C8 Z06
Image Via: Hagerty Media

As we all know, the review embargo on the new 2023 Corvette C8 Z06 was lifted recently, and the videos, written reviews, and snippets of both have been circulating the Corvette forums, Facebook groups, and performance car enthusiast sites endlessly. There is an air of expected performance, of being the best version of the Corvette, that comes with the Z06 badge affixed to the side of fenders that are next to the engine, yet where does this come from?

In celebration of the newest Z06, we thought it would be a great time to not look to the future, but instead to the past, to find the origins of the badge, and why it means so much in the grand scheme of all things Corvette. It may surprise you to know that the Corvette C5 generation was not where the Z06 code for high performance originated, and it was only through a bit of fate that the code was revived into a badge that is now synonymous with power.

To understand the true importance of that one letter and two numbers, we first have to set the way-back machine to the launch of the Corvette C2, in 1963…

The 1963 Z06 Option Package

Due to the ban implemented by the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) following the 1955 24 Hours Of Le Mans disaster, American car companies were not allowed to advertise their cars as race-rady, refer to race results, or sell cars designed purely to go racing. This ban nearly prevented the awesome L88 Corvette C2 and C3 variants, and forced Chevrolet to find a surreptitious way around selling a race car when the second generation was launched.

1963 all-white Corvette C2 Z-06
A 1963 Corvette C2 Z-06, with the famous “Fuel Injected” badge where the C5 to C7 generations would place the Z06 badge. Image Via: Barrett Jackson Auctions

To wit, when the 1963 Corvette C2 was launched, there were a ton of RPO (Regular Production Option) codes that could be selected. Which engine did you want? Did you want air conditioning and an automatic gearbox? Options like these were standard, but at the very bottom of the options list, where the packages were listed, Chevy had snuck in RPO Z06. The Z in the code was there because it was a package specifically designed and engineered by Zora Arkus-Duntov. The 06 was there to signal that this was the 6th factory option package that Zora had designed, and hence, Z-06, shortened to Z06.

While it was advertised as a “special equipment package,” in all senses but selling you a crash helmet, it was a race car from the factory and officially known as the 1963 Corvette Z06. Consider that the front stabilizer bar was thickened to nearly and inch, the suspension and springs were nearly doubled in rebound and stiffness, the brakes were made with sintered brake linings to be able to not fade when extremely hot, and the barkes had a dual-circuit master cylinder and a vacuum brake booster to reduce pedal travel while providing threshold braking.

Underneath that Z06 package were further options, such as the “long range cruising” 36.5 gallon fuel tank (RPO N03). Three other options, cleverly woven together by Zora, were “required” to tick off the Z06 box too. The first of these was the L84 327 Fuelie V8 that pumped out 360 HP. The other two options needed were the manual four-speed transmission and the positraction differential and rear end setup. By separating these three out from the Z06 option, but making them a requirement, the AMA was none the wiser about all of it coming together to make a race car.

1963 Corvette C2 Z-06 race car, owned by Dick Lang
Why the Z-06 option was offered in the first place: To turn the Corvette C2 into a track and racing weapon. Image Via: Mecum Auctions

The cars were quite rare, however, due to a bit of sticker shock for all the options put together. A 1963 Corvette C2 was already nearly $4,000 with no options attached (just under $39,000 in 2022), and the three required options, RPO Z06, and RPO N03 combined to near-as-makes-no-difference $1,800. Put another way, to buy the race car version of the C2, you were paying nearly 50% of the MSRP extra. But what a car it bought you…

Why The Z06 Badge Was Brought Back For The Corvette C5

After the dismal first half of the generation for the Corvette C4, things had started to look up in the early 1990s as the ZR-1 was released, the base spec options were increased, and interest in the branding started to grow again. However, by the time the high performance ZR-1, which had an at the time astounding 375 HP, had been developed and released, in its first year it was listed at $58,995 (approximately $133,700 in 2022 USD). This made it exorbitantly expensive, and a car for the wealthier of the Corvette enthusiasts.

Blue 1990 Corvette C4 ZR-1
The car that indirectly spawned the return of the Z06 badge, the 1990 Corvette C4 ZR-1. Out of reach for many due to price, it made Chevrolet realize that there was a definite market for a high-performance Corvette, it just needed to be accessible. Image via Mecum Auctions

Just under 7,000 ZR-1’s were made, proving that there was a demand for higher-performance, race-car-derived Corvettes. Chevrolet took notice of that and while the Corvette C5 was being developed, they increased the base car’s performance with the LS1 V8 to 350 HP. As well, to reduce the overall cost of the C5, it was a totally new design, unlike an evolution of the previous generation’s chassis and design from the first four generations. It was affordably priced at $37,495 (about $69,100 today) and proved extremely popular from the start, selling almost 10,000 cars in 1997 alone after going on sale in August of that year.

However, from the start of production, there were plans to both create a race car version of the car, the Corvette C5.R, and a subsequent “race car for the road” version based on it. However, as the ZR-1 tag was still heavily associated with the fourth generation as it entered into the secondary and auction/resale market, another tag that signified racing performance in a road car was needed. The car itself was coming along nicely, development was going smoothly, but there was no tag attached to it.

In what we can only imagine was a meeting in a nameless boardroom at General Motors where an employee that was a Corvette history enthusiast suggested looking at the first year of the C2, as the Z06 code simply screamed out from the annals of history. As the C5 Z06 was going to be a lightweight, race-car derived option package, it was the perfect fit. This time around, however, the marketing and design team at Chevrolet were not bound by a ban on advertising a car as a race car for the road, and were not prevented from referring to the 1-2 victory of the C5.R at the 2001 24 Hours of Le Mans. The design team drew up a badge or twenty, and once one was selected, the Z06 made its first appearance on the side of a Corvette in August 2001.

Corvette C5 Z06
The race-car-derived road missile, the Corvette C5 Z06. Image Via: Road&Track

For the Corvette C5, it was a mild upgrade, boosting the LS1 engine to 385 HP and codifying that upgrade as the LS6.  A year later, that power was boosted to 405 HP, making the C5 Z06 one of the few American sports cars at the turn of the century that boasted over 400 HP. The Z06 was also restricted to being a hardtop coupe only, had race-derived FE4 suspension and springs, larger wheels and tires, functional brake cooling ducts (supercar level technology at the time), a special gear ratio setup for acceleration and top end speed, and featured a titanium exhaust system, thinner glass, a reduction in sound proofing, even going as far as using a lighter weight battery for the car.

As a result, the Corvette C5 Z06 was rapid, with 0 to 60 times in the low 4 seconds, sub-12 second quarter miles, and could hold over 1.02 G in skidpad testing, making it one of the best handling, fastest sports cars at the time. The Z06 sold like hotcakes despite being priced $10,000 above the base C5 coupe, as of the nearly 250,000 Corvette C5’s sold between 1997 and 2004, 11.5% were Z06s, or put another way, just under 29,000 C5 Z06’s were made.

Corvette C7 Z06
What many considered, and many still do, the greatest Z06, the Corvette C7 version. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

As we all know, the subsequent generations that had race car versions also had a Z06 version come out a couple of years afterwards, including the current Corvette C8 Z06, the one of the most powerful cars that Chevrolet has sold. Ever. But, starting with the sixth generation, there was another badge that you could have affixed to the front fenders (or rear air scoops for the C8) of your Corvette…

The Upgrade Of The Upgrade: The Z07

When the Corvette C6 made its debut in 2005, with a LS2 V8 producing 430 HP, more than the C5 Z06, in base spec, it was a barely kept secret that there was going to be a Z06 package available in a few years, as the C6.R race car was not developed in secrecy. There was no wasting time this generation, as the Z06 was launched in 2006, with a LS7 V8 chucking 505 HP to the rear wheels. Corvette enthusiasts were over the moon, but behind the scenes, whispers of a car named “Blue Devil” were circulating.

After much speculation, the supercharged Corvette C6 ZR1 was unveiled in 2007, and boasted a spine shattering 640 HP and 604 lbs-ft of torque from its new LS9 engine when it went on sale in 2009. That was a very significant power jump of 135 HP between the high performance car and the high performance version of the sixth generation. While no one was really griping about it, Chevy took it upon themselves to develop a new package option that made a “race ready” Corvette available without needing to shell out the over $100,000 to buy the ZR1.

Corvette C6 Z06 with Z07 package
The car that blindsided the Corvette faithful, thinking that the ZR1 was the only performance upgrade car they were going to get in the C6 generation: The Z07 Ultimate Performance Package upgrade for the Z06. Image via Bring-A-Trailer

So, much to the surprise of everyone, there was a new “ultimate performance package” listed for the 2011 model year, with the code of Z07 and an additional $9,495 added to the sticker of a Z06. The Z07 was quickly nicknamed the “track pack” because of the track-focused nature of the included equipment, which were the first implementation of magnetorheological suspension components on a Corvette called “magnetic selective ride control,” Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes, larger wheels all around, and damned-near-semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires, which were fitted to larger, lightweight ZR1 style 20 spoke wheels. And these are just some of the things that were thrown in!

Corvette C7 Z07 in France
The massive rear carbon-fiber spoiler of the C7 Z07 aero package. Image via American Car City

The Corvette C7 Z07 had even more to the table, with the optional add-on of carbon fiber aerodynamic parts. These were in the form of a front splitter with winglets, rocker panels, and a NASCAR-style rear lip spoiler that could also be set up to have a wickerbill in the center to add even more downforce, or you could splurge out on the options list and get a GT-wing version. It also upgraded the already strong 6- and 4-piston steel Brembo brakes of the Z06 to carbon ceramic-matrix brakes, which were second generation carbon ceramics that did not suffer the sudden “grabbing” that many first generation carbon ceramic brakes did for many manufacturers.

Detail of Corvette C8 Z07 package including carbon brakes and carbon fiber wheel
The newest inclusion in the Z07 performance package includes Carbon Revolution hollow carbon fiber wheels. The Z07’s carbon ceramic-matrix brakes are also visible. Image via GM Authority

With the C8 Z06 available now, the Z07 performance package carries the same major upgrades, such as carbon ceramic-matrix brakes, front and rear carbon fiber aerodynamic pieces, but both the Z06 (option) and Z07 (included) takes it one step further by offering the first GM-provided carbon fiber wheels on a Corvette, called Carbon Revolution. Compared to the standard motorsport-grade aluminum wheels of the standard Z06, these wheels remove 10.25 lbs per corner, or 41 lbs unsprung weight. It may not seem like 41 lbs would make a difference, but as unsprung weight, every ounce counts, and even Chevy estimates that at most mainstream tracks like Road America, Virginia International, Sebring, and the like, the carbon wheels could reduce lap times by up to 2 seconds.

However, for us, we’re just happy that the Z06 performance version of the Corvette is here to stay this time, and we’re quite sure that were Zora still around, he’d have given it a major stamp of approval to reuse the badging.