The words, "but it's only a car," have never ever been uttered in reference to the pilot line '96 Grand Sport serial-numbered 600005-at least not while owner Tim Barnes of Thornton, Colorado, has been anywhere near. Not only is Tim's Grand Sport one of the earliest and most unique '96 Grand Sports in existence, but it has also been a cornerstone in the lives of him and his loved ones, and it's at the center of seemingly too many coincidences to be purely coincidence.
"I Want That One."In November 1995, Tim's wife Willa was glancing at the 1996 Corvette sales brochure and was captivated by the image of a new Grand Sport in the desert at dawn. At that time, Willa was also undergoing her fourth round of chemotherapy in an unending battle against breast cancer.
Throughout the winter and spring of 1996 and into the summer, Willa continued to struggle against her cancer, and she never ceased to gaze longingly at the Grand Sport in the brochure. The cancer wasn't yielding to any of the treatments, but neither was Willa's resolve to survive it. "[The picture of the Grand Sport] gave her something to strive for during those bleak winter days during her chemo treatments," Tim tells us. "I can't tell you how many times I heard, 'Honey, I want that car.' I couldn't imagine any way that we'd ever own one, though."
Willa's fascination with the '96 Grand Sport wasn't just a passing fancy for some flashy new sports car. She and Tim were both serious Corvette fanatics, and their garage had been home to four Corvettes over the years, including a '67 roadster, a '67 coupe, an '86, and a '94 coupe. Willa felt a genuine passion for the new C4 Grand Sport.
Despite her ordeal, Willa managed to keep working at a local credit union through it all. At a business seminar she attended in July 1996, her employers emphasized that credit unions should do all they can to help their members attain those things that really matter to them. "She came home from the seminar with a commitment from the credit union to make her dream of owning a Grand Sport a reality," says Tim. With the CU's support to finance Willa's dream car, all Tim had to do was find one.
Since Chevrolet limited the production of Grand Sports to only 1,000 (810 coupes and 190 convertibles), and the '96 model year was near its end, finding one that was still available was a bit of a challenge. Most of the local dealerships had already long since sold their allotment of GS Corvettes. "One of the dealers had one, but they wanted $10,000 over sticker for it," Tim recalls. "It wouldn't be that one."
Finally, Tim called a friend at Purifoy Chevrolet in Ft. Lupton, Colorado. Although they didn't have a Grand Sport in stock, Tim's friend had a line on one from out of state. After a bit of research, Tim's friend called back very excited about what he'd discovered. "He said it was serial number 5 of 1,000, and it had only 278 miles on it." It was at a dealer in Nebraska, and Tim's friend had already made arrangements to have the Vette shipped to Purifoy Chevrolet. Tim and Willa would be able to see it the very next afternoon-which was music to Willa's ears!
The following day, the Grand Sport was parked in a very prominent spot on the dealership, and the Barnes spotted it immediately as they pulled into the lot. "We hadn't even gotten out of the car before Willa decided that was the car she wanted," Tim remembers. Thus, they drove it home the next evening, making GS Number Five their fifth Corvette!
Number Five came well documented, but it was still shrouded by several enigmas. The build sheet that was with this exceptional car indicated it was a pilot line car, assembled in late April of 1995, and officially shipped to Display Car Services in Centerline, Michigan. But neither the build sheet nor a tag on the Vette's key fob referring to it as "XS6YG07" could explain why the outer edges of the passenger-side tires were "all chewed up" despite only a few hundred miles on the car. Nor could anything else explain why there was a piece of black felt over the white indicator arrow on the headlight switch. Curious about their new Corvette's past, Tim sent an inquiring letter to Display Car Services.
A number of weeks had past, and as Willa was undergoing yet another round of treatments against the cancer, Tim had completely forgotten about the letter he'd sent. Then he received a phone call out of the blue from a gentleman with Chevrolet Advertising who shed light on that car's history. He explained that the code on the key fob was its designation at Chevrolet Advertising: S stood for show car; 6 was '96 model year; Y for Y-body (Corvette); G meant Grand Sport; and 07 was a coupe. As he told Tim that the felt piece on the headlight switch was used to "keep the glare from the flash out of the interior shot in the brochure," it suddenly registered with Tim. "In a flash, it sank in...Willa had actually gotten that exact car! I called her at work to let her know" says Tim. "She was so excited; the Grand Sport in her garage was the same one she'd swooned over in pictures of for months!"
Number Five's official build date was May 1, 1995 (although it's possible it was actually built during the last week of April since it was reportedly seen at the National Corvette Museum's "Legends Live" celebration on April 30), and it was received by the Chevrolet Advertising Department in Warren, Michigan, on May 16 before being shipped to Los Angeles. From there, it was trucked to Lake Havasu, Arizona, for the sales brochure photography. Next, Number Five was trucked back to L.A. before being sent to San Francisco for dealer driving footage to be used in television ads and action photography for various print ads. In November, GS 00005 was returned to Warren, Michigan, were it sat until being declared surplus. In March 1996, Service Technology Group retrofitted new brake rotors, shocks, and the parking brake cable, plus added the proper warning decals, an owner's manual, and some tire information-all to make the Corvette sellable. In June, the GS was bought at a dealer auction in Bozeman, Montana, by Masid Chevrolet in Nebraska with 243 miles on the clock. Then, on July 14, it was shipped to the Colorado dealership where an ecstatic Willa Barnes drove it home two days later.
The whereabouts of three of the four other "pilot" Grand Sports are known today, thanks to the GS Registry. VIN 001, a coupe with red interior, was an engine test vehicle and is rightfully in the hands of John Heinricy, the talented driver and former Corvette engineer largely responsible for making the '96 Grand Sport happen. Number 002 was another engine development vehicle and was scrapped by GM. Number 003 is an export ragtop with red interior that is currently owned by a gentleman in Germany, while Number 004, the convertible in the '96 sales brochure, is unknown. It is rumored that 004 was scrapped like 002, but Heinricy seems to believe that GM may still have it tucked away somewhere.
The Grand Sport special package, RPO Z16, created a truly distinctive C4. The only other Corvette to ever have its own unique VIN code is the ZR-1. Each '96 Grand Sport, whether coupe or convertible, wore Admiral Blue with an Arctic White racing stripe and a pair of red hash marks on the left front fender to honor its historic namesakes (the five original '63 Grand Sport racecars were all identical, other than having colored-coded hash marks to identify them on the track). The Z16 package also included a 330-horse LT4 powerplant, ZF six-speed transmission, embroidered power driver and passenger Sport Seats, and black-painted brake calipers with the silver Corvette script behind blacked-out aluminum five-spoke wheels. Only GS coupes, however, received the larger 17x9.5- and 17x11-inch wheels wearing 275/40ZR-17 and 315/35ZR-17 tires and the molded rear fender flares necessary to cover the massive rubber out back.
Number Five is quite unique in that, apparently, no other Grand Sport was ever built with exactly the same equipment package. Its option package includes a red and black interior; the FE1 Soft Ride Suspension; F45 Selective Real Time Damping; heated remote electronic side mirrors; 3.45:1 gearing; and the Preferred Equipment Group (PEG) One that includes electronic A/C control and a Delco-Bose stereo and cassette. Plus, it was the last GS coupe to have the molded rear fender flares attached only by adhesive backing.
Willa's cancer seemed to be responding to her newest treatment, and she was feeling pretty good through the fall. The story on her Grand Sport just elated her. But Willa's recovery, however, was brief. Her latest treatment, unfortunately, was no longer working either, and there was nothing more the doctors could do for her. "Willa managed to drive her baby twice while her strength permitted," Tim says. "The rest of the time she was content just to ride in her."
Willa hung on through the holidays and their 24th anniversary before passing on in February 1997. "While the car may be a legend, so is Willa. Her strength, courage, and determination touched many lives during her five-year battle with cancer," Tim tells us. "Her legend will continue to live in the hearts of those she touched." Before she went, Willa made Tim swear that no matter what ever happened, he was to keep her baby-even if it meant living in it. Willa's GS would continue to play a huge role in Tim's life.
Needless to say, the ensuing months were a very difficult time for Tim, but the Grand Sport and his many friends in the Corvette Community helped him through. That year, his club's annual April Fool's Rally honored Willa's memory, and Tim met many new faces there. Then in November, when his fellow club members in Down the Road Corvettes encouraged a reluctant Tim to go to Vettes on the Rockies, one of those new friends from April overheard that he didn't have a navigator for the road rally. She volunteered her sister Pat who had just moved to Colorado from Upstate New York to ride along and navigate for him.
The first stop, only 10 minutes into the drive, was a photo shoot the club had arranged for participants. "We got out and had our picture taken with the car, though, at the time, we both thought it was pretty pointless." Nonetheless, Tim and Pat survived the rally, lunched together, and ultimately spent most of the weekend together. "The truth of the matter was," says Tim, "that I was falling in love with her and didn't want to let her out of my sight!" The following year at Vettes on the Rockies, at the same spot and time they metTim proposed to Pat. And a year after that, on the same date they met, they were married and celebrated their honeymoon at where else-the VOTR!
Although GS 005 is now the lowest-horsepower Corvette in Tim's stable, "she is still a delight every time I turn the key," he says, and it still gets driven regularly. Although well pampered, Number Five still gets played with. It regularly runs 14.2s in the quarter at Bandimere Raceway (6,000-feet elevation) and loves carving those Rocky Mountain canyons. Tim's had her up as high as 162 mph and enjoys putting on "smoke shows." In fact, GS 600005 is now on her fifth set of rear tires with fewer than 50K miles! Somewhere, Willa must be smiling!