Car of the Week: 1986 Corvette convertible

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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

If there is such a thing as a “sleeper” Corvette, Mark Kiel can make a pretty good case for his 1986.
Sure it’s a C4 — the “lost generation” Corvette that has not yet generated the same kind of following among enthusiasts as most of the other Corvette iterations. But spend a little time with the car, and hear guys such as Kiel extoll its virtues, and you find out it’s an easy car to love.

Not only is Kiel’s car beautiful, very well preserved and relatively rare — it’s darn quick, too. Not all 1986 Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars got the hot rod treatment right after leaving the factory, but Kiel’s car was one of a relative handful — it’s unclear exactly how many — that were fitted with a Paxton supercharger and other go-fast goodies that made for a full-blown performance ’Vette.

“It’s kind of a unique vehicle. It was made high-performance by the track firm Performance SE. It’s got a supercharger and all kinds of performance stuff on it,” notes Kiel, a resident of Dolton, Ill., while displaying his Corvette at the Iola Old Car Show. “They didn’t do it to all the cars. It just happened to be this one. They did it to some of the cars, especially the ones that went out on the track in front of the pack. This one originally had only 240 horsepower. It’s hard to peel away from the pack at 90 mph with 240 horsepower. So they modified a lot of them back then. The ’78 [Corvette] Pace Cars were modified, too, to help with their performance a little bit.”

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Dolton has a handful of yellow Corvettes in his fleet, and it’s obvious he has a soft spot for his 1986 Indy Pace Car. The convertible is in fantastic original condition, shows a few clicks over 35,000 miles on the odometer and, according to Dolton, remains a blast to drive.

He had been looking for something in the C4 family, and he found more than he bargained for when he got a line on his yellow ’86 back in 2006.

“I wanted a Corvette pace car that wasn’t a 1978. That had only about 180 hp. That was really a low-performing car,” Kiel says.

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The 1986 Corvette was the second fiberglass Chevrolet two-seater to pace the Indy 500 (the 1978s were the first). On race day, the track usually has 40 to 50 cars at its disposal, some of which are modified with performance goodies to get in front of the race cars during the Indy 500. Kiel’s Corvette “was a field car” used to drive dignitaries around and be in the parade — quickly, if need be.
“I wanted one of these and looked for many yeas and I finally bumped into a guy who lived in Kalamazoo, Mich., and made a deal with him and I’ve had it ever since.”

The all-new C4 Corvettes arrived as completely new machines for the 1984 model year, following a model year where no new ’Vettes were officially built. Production issues held up the new model and the design team struggled to iron out all the bugs that came with launching a radically different car.
The wait was finally over when the new generation of ’Vettes began showing up in the spring of 1983. Tweaks and improvements continued in the years that followed, and for 1986 the big news was the addition of the first ragtop Corvette since 1975 and a new standard computerized anti-lock braking system (ABS).

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Styled like the Corvette convertible that would serve as the 1986 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car, the new convertible went on sale late in the model year. The actual Indianapolis 500 Pace Car was Yellow, differing from showroom models only in its special track lights. Chevrolet considered its “Indy Pace Car” to be synonymous with “open top,” so all convertibles were considered Indy Pace Car models. Special decals were packed in the car, but not installed. The ’86 Corvette was the first street-legal vehicle to pace the 500-mile race since the 1978 Corvette Indy Pace Car. Instead of a conversion by an outside company, as had become the practice for most 1980s ragtops, Corvette’s convertible was built by Chevrolet right alongside the coupe. Problems with cracking of the new aluminum cylinder heads meant the first 1986 models had old cast-iron heads. The difficulties were soon remedied. It was estimated that the new anti-theft system would require half an hour’s work to overcome, which would dissuade thieves who are typically in a hurry. A total of 6,242 Corvettes had removable roof panels installed and 12,821 came with the Z51 performance handling package. Only 6,835 Corvettes carried the MM4 four-speed manual transmission.

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“In these years they had an interesting transmission with the 4+3,” Kiel noted. “It’s got an electronic overdrive so you’ve got a four-speed, and you can go into overdrive in second, third or fourth gear, so you really have a second transmission.”

The new ABS arrangement was based on a Bosch ABS II design. During hard braking, the system detected any wheel that was about to lock up, then altered braking pressure, in a pulsating action, to prevent lock up from happening. Drivers could feel the pulses in the pedal. This safety innovation helped the driver to maintain traction and keep the car under directional control without skidding, even on slick and slippery surfaces. Corvette’s engine was the same 350-cid (5.7-liter) 230-hp tuned-port-injected V-8 as 1985, but with centrally positioned copper-core spark plugs. New aluminum cylinder heads had sintered metal valve seats and increased intake port flow, plus a higher (9.5:1) compression ratio. The engine had an aluminum intake manifold with tuned runners, magnesium rocker covers and an outside air-induction system.

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The beefy Paxton supercharger mounted on the port side of the engine nearly doubles the power output of Kiel’s Indy Corvette — he estimates the horsepower rating about 450. The “Performance SE” decals below the Indy 500 decals on the front fenders advertise that the car is not a standard issue 1986 model. It’s one of the reasons Kiel likes the car, but certainly not the main reason.
“’86 was the first really well done C4 car, which I think is why they picked it as a pace car. A lot of people like it, but a lot of people don’t like the design of the car. It’s got a full electronic dash with no analogue gauges. It’s all electronic. Everything works on the car. It’s got cruise control, air conditioning. It’s got the works. They bought them loaded and it’s a great car to drive.”

Other than routine maintenance, Kiel’s convertible has had no work done to it in its 29 years. The cloth tops still looks great and folds up neatly. The paint is more than presentable, and the interior reflects the few miles the car has traveled.

“I’m very careful with it. We just drive it in parades and special events, or if we just want to take the old car out cruising,” he says. “And I have a 1986 plate on it and in Michigan where I keep the car, they say you can’t take them out for everyday driving with that kind of plate on them.”

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It’s possible that the C4 styling will never help those cars rival their older and younger siblings when it comes to collectibity and popularity among Corvette lovers, but Kiel is certain of one thing: the C4 cars are a screaming deal these days.

“Right now the best bargain Corvette to buy out there is a C4. They reached their lows a few years ago, but you can buy them for $5,000 or $6,000 — not the convertibles, but the hardtop automatics,” he says. “And they are a great car for a guy who wants to get into the Corvette hobby. They are inexpensive. They take regular gas, 87 octane. They are not high-performance, but the handling is great.

“And, hey, it’s a Corvette!”

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One thought on “Car of the Week: 1986 Corvette convertible

  1. mattmurphy

    A great article on the 86 Pace Car…..not bragging I think I have a nicer one ! Mine is yellow, one owner, 12500 miles, I was the Zone Mgr for Chev. during the race, mine was a back-up track car, and used as a VIP car….many pics with Chuck Yeager the Pace Car Driver. Also, we did a poster of the race, I had all 33 drivers sign the poster…also, my Indy Commemorative plate was 75 for the 75th., Anniv. of Chevrolet that year…and I had Bobby Rahal the winning driver sign the plate. I would love to do a article with you on my Car..it is very special. Matt Murphy

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