Ride with us as we buy and then drive a 2002 Chevrolet Corvette for 12,000km across America and into Canada over 7 weeks. Then we ship it back to New Zealand!

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

2023 USA Road Trip: Day 1

Landing at LAX, we spent just 45 minutes in the queue to get through customs and then all of five minutes getting through customs. We actually got – for the first time – an engaging and pleasant customs guy, who even managed to crack a few jokes. But we could see his obvious surprise and jealousy when we mentioned we were doing a 7-week road trip across the USA.

After leaving Wellington and its 15 degrees ‘heat’, at LAX it was 25 degrees outside as we queued for a  shuttle to take us to our C5 Corvette. The driver blew his tip when he said he gets lots of passengers from Australia. I’m sure this would not be the last time we were mistaken for being Aussies. We still tipped him.

I had been quoted $135 for a week’s storage at Fox Auto Storage but didn’t complain when the charge was $115. Sitting out in the yard was our 2002 C5 Corvette which we had only seen in photos until now. Other than being very dirty from sitting outside for a week, the car looks as tidy as I had expected. Inside was the box of car accessories I had purchased from West Coast Corvettes. In 2019, we struggled to get our suitcases and other bags into our C4 Corvette, but this C5 has a much bigger boot, taking our gear easily and leaving room to spare. We notice that the new number plates include the letters ERL in a row, so the car is now officially called ‘Earl’, after the Dixie Chicks song. If you haven’t heard that song, listen to it. Hilarious.

Thoughts of a dead battery disappeared when the car started, the LS1 V8 sounded pretty good. The clutch is heavier than I had expected as we eased out into LA traffic. We had a 30-minute drive to our Air BNB, and that meant changing my driving mindset to that of someone in LA. They drive hard and fast, and on the freeway indicators for changing lanes is entirely optional. Cars dart in and out of lanes very quickly so you have to be on the ball all the time.

Visions of the Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres being too old were thrown away – on the freeway they are just fine, even at speed. No need to purchase new tyres to replace these, even though they are 7 years old. The C5 definitely rides better than the C4, and while storage in the front is still limited, it’s more spacious than the C4 as well.

The aircon is blowing cold, so no problems there. Oil pressure and engine temperature are good too, with the temperature gauge reading just below the halfway point. It may be slightly higher off the ground than the C4 Corvette we last did this in, but it’s still so low. We’re looking at wheels of trucks and SUVs, and it’s quite disconcerting. The sills are lower than the C5 so that does make getting in and out easier. On the freeway, the rear three-quarter view is nowhere near as good as the C4, as the B pillar is a lot wider.

Back in the suburbs, one thing I’m going to have to fix is the skip shift. To save fuel, if you use less than 20% of the accelerator pedal when moving off, the car will force a 1-4 gear change. You can’t select any other gear until you move into fourth gear, first. While the C5 weighs less than 1,500kg and has a solid 483Nm of torque, it’s still a bit of a strain on the drivetrain and on hill starts (yes, there are a few hills in LA) it’s a PITA. For less than $100 I can buy and install a ‘skip shift eliminator’ that will stop this happening.

At the BNB we unload the car, and later a new Supra turns up and parks next to us, showing again just how low the C5 really is.

That evening, we made an obligatory visit to Walmart. This would include some bits for the car, like a combo jump start pack/tyre compressor (just in case) and some other car-related bits. Sadly, they did not have anything I was after. It really feels like they just want you to buy from their website.

We also noticed a huge jump in prices from when we were last here in 2019. A box of cereal on special at $6.78 (NZ$11.71) didn’t seem that special. Other foods were expensive too, so it seems inflation may have caught up with the US.

Another change in Walmart was noticed in the Men’s section. Around 80% of items – mostly underwear and socks – are now behind locked doors, so you have to ask a team member to come and unlock it for you. Who can be bothered with that to buy a pair of undies? Not me.

Petrol prices have also risen hugely since 2019, when they were around US$3/gallon in California. We’re seeing most petrol at over US$5/gallon, and that’s for the lowest octane. Even US$5/gallon works out at NZ$2.28/litre. As we drive across the USA the price will drop, and I hope it’s by plenty. We need fuel tomorrow, so I’ll try and shop around a bit.

2023 USA Road Trip: Day 2

Today will be a major service day as the car gets all fluids changed and lots of service items checked for wear. Looking at the owner’s handbook last night, in 2017 it had its last full service and has only driven 2,000 miles since then. Still, we’ll get everything done that we have on our list. That includes:

  • Oil and filter
  • Air filter (if it needs it)
  • Brake fluid flush
  • Clutch fluid flush
  • Gearbox oil change
  • Diff oil replaced
  • Rotors and pads checked
  • Any codes checked and cleared
  • Fuel filter checked and replaced if needed
  • Serpentine belt checked and replaced if needed

No doubt the team at J&D Corvette will find more things as they go, and that’s fine. We want to make sure we’ve done what we can to keep the car reliable.

After thirty minutes of checking, the report comes back. The air filter is new so nothing to do there, and the rotors and pads have been done recently too. We’re not going to replace the fuel filter unless the car starts performing badly.

Very clean underneath for 21 years-old

The coolant needs replacing, as do both the serpentine and aircon drive belts. The wiper blades are shot and will be replaced, the brake fluid will be replaced as will the clutch fluid, gearbox and diff oil. We’ll replace the oil filter and put Mobil 1 in the engine.

One bonus for the day is that the team at J&D Corvette checked out the harmonic balancer, and claim it’s fine. These are known to start wobbling on the LS1, meaning a long and expensive repair. Happily, that’s one less thing that needs doing.

Earl shows off his rear end

J&D Corvette don’t have a skip shift eliminator in stock and can’t get one today, so I’ve ordered one from eBay ($9) and am having it sent to our friend’s house in Lexington, Kentucky, where I will do the install myself. Apparently, it takes 5 minutes to install if you have access to a hoist, so it will be interesting to see how long it takes me without one.

While all this is getting done, we wander off to visit the LA County Fire Museum. We’re only going there because we have spare time and it’s just down the road. We found it on the internet and thought it might be good to have a casual wander through the place.

What we didn’t count on was the three retired firefighters who met us at the entrance and then took us for a tour of the whole place (it’s not huge) and gave us stories about some of the equipment there, showed us the fire trucks that have been used on TV and in movies, and lots of other information. It made visiting the LA County Fire Museum so much more worthwhile.

I think that the fact that we’re from New Zealand helped too, and one of the firefighters has some friends in Lower Hutt, just 20 minutes away from our house. These three men had both amazing and sad stories, and you can feel their passion for their careers. If you happen to be in the town of Bellflower in California, add a visit to the LA County Fire Museum to your list of places to go.

After the fire museum, it was back to J&D Corvette as they had thought the car would be ready by 3pm. It was all going well until I checked and they had forgotten to install the splash guards, so kept going to get that done. Once they were on, they were about to bring the car to the front for us to leave, when it all hit the fan. On the dashboard was the dreaded C5 Corvette error message, “Service Steering Column Lock”. For those who know computers, this is like the Blue Screen of Death for the C5 Corvette as it makes it inoperable. The car thinks the steering wheel is locked, and so disables the car. We weren’t going anywhere, and this was around 4pm.

But because thousands of others have had the same issue, there is a steering column lock bypass that can be installed quite easily to bypass this issue. I had already bought one to install as a “just in case” but of course, it was back at the BNB and we needed it now. That meant buying one from J&D Corvette, but at least they had one in stock. We got it installed in less than 30 minutes, but we still had the dreaded message and a dead Corvette. It was now after 5pm and we weren’t getting anywhere, so we took an Uber back to the Air BNB after being assured by J&D Corvette that they would get back on to it first thing in the morning.

That was a bit of a downer, as we are still planning to get away on Saturday morning, and it’s already Thursday night.

2023 USA Road Trip: Day 3

But at 8:30am Friday we got an email from J&D Corvette to say the car was fixed and ready to go. They had removed the steering column lock relay and also a plug from the Body Control Module, and this seemed to reset things to the point where the car was fine – no more error messages. Great news! So, our Friday plans were back on track, and we grabbed an Uber back to pick up the car, which had also been washed. It was filthy from sitting outside at the car storage depot for a week but was suddenly looking very smart in its Magnetic Red paint. Got to hand it to J&D Corvette, they did a superb job, and I would recommend them for any work needing doing.

After paying the bill, we go to fill the Corvette with gas for the first time. It needs premium gas, and that means paying US$5.59/gallon which equates to NZ$2.54/litre. That’s far too close to New Zealand prices for comfort.

Serviced and ready to go!

Next, we set the SatNav to head to Petersen Automotive Museum. I have been trying to get to this museum for many years and thought today wasn’t going to work either after the car issues. However, we headed that way, only to strike horrendous traffic all the way. It took over an hour to get there, mostly at a crawling pace. Such fun in a low-down sports car with a manual gearbox.

But we did make it, and it is worthwhile visiting. While I wouldn’t have time to go into the ‘Vault’ with its 250 extra cars, I went to the three main floors of exhibits. This museum is incredibly well laid out and extremely spacious. Every car or motorbike is perfectly presented, and the range of vehicles on display is wide, even though there are only around 100 of them. The exotic designs of one-off cars, the TV and movie car display, the Porsche exhibit – all superb. It’s an absolute must-see of a museum, even if you aren’t into cars. I saw many partners walking around with their husbands/significant other, and none looked like they had been dragged along.

The entire ground floor has an EV exhibit at the moment, so it’s mainly filled with Tesla cars, Tesla battery displays and the like, but again – very worthwhile walking through. The artist Daniel Arsham also has his own display at the museum at the moment, showcasing his interdisciplinary artistic flair. It’s quite incredible and is certainly not what you would find anywhere else.

Sitting right outside the museum

It was now 1pm and stomachs were calling for food, so we decided to head to Pinks Hot Dogs, a Los Angeles icon. It started with a man (Mr. Pink) with a hot dog cart in 1939, selling them for 10 cents each. In 1941 he built a building on the same site where his hot dog stand was, and this is the same building with exactly the same layout that we were going to. That did mean travelling in LA traffic, and it took an hour to travel the 15 miles to Pinks Hot Dogs.

I had thought that at 2pm there would be no queue, but yeah, nah. There were 15 people in front of us, standing in the 34-degree heat and waiting to get inside. When we left an hour later, the queue length was the same. It took me 30 minutes to get to order our food and another 15 minutes for it to arrive. This place is pumping, and a goldmine. Pinks Hot Dogs is owned by the daughter of the guy who originally started it and I can’t see how she’s ever going to sell it.

Once you can get inside to order and wait for your food, you can peruse the walls which have many promo shots of movie and TV stars who all apparently love Pinks Hot Dogs. The dogs were good though; I had a Brando Dog and my wife had the Lord of the Rings Dog, which was covered in onion rings. This place is well worth a visit.

It had always been on our plans to take the car for a decent drive before we hit the road the next day, so after checking the maps we decided to head to Malibu Pier and depending on how long it took to get there, go further up the coast. The reasoning is to see how the car goes on a longer trip, just in case something is so bad we’d need to get it fixed first. But of course, we didn’t count on LA traffic. We simply crawled along the coast road, often stopped. Then we’d speed up nicely for a few miles, then grind to a halt again. Halfway to Malibu we gave up and headed inland to get back to a freeway and head back to the BNB – this wasn’t a good test of the car on a long trip.

The traffic did flow a bit better inland until we got to some corners and then everyone braked and slowed down to a crawl – and this was going uphill. Those old jokes about Americans not being able to go around corners still stand true. Even 30mph corners were taken at 20mph. At one point we got past a few cars and could push the Corvette along just a little harder and left everyone behind.

Before heading back onto the 405 freeway, we stopped at an Amazon store to grab a coffee, but really to use their toilet. I’ve got to say I was very surprised by this sign:

You have to scan in with a card or the Amazon app to be able to enter the store. I’m sure the reasons are more around shoplifting than anything, as you can just walk out with food and your bank account automatically gets charged. Somehow – don’t ask me how – Amazon knew we bought two loose donuts from a cabinet, and what sort each one was. I’m not sure if they’re slipping some electronic chips into the donuts or what, but it’s a little freaky that they know that.

After donuts and coffee, we hit the road again – fighting traffic all the way. I can neither confirm nor deny that we eventually and briefly got the car up to 80mph, and still the tyres feel good – no wobbles, nothing out of balance. New tyres are off the shopping list, so that’s one less expense. We carried on, back into heavy traffic. At one point it took 58 minutes to travel 11 miles. I could not live in LA; this would drive me crazy.

But we made it back to the Air BNB in the town of Carson. We’re packed up – and very much enjoying the extra space the C5 Corvette has over the C4 – and looking forward to starting our 12,000km drive tomorrow.

The next entry in this travel blog is here.

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Fred Alvrez
How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm a driving instructor and an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.


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