Keepers: Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

By Christopher Smith

February 15, 2010

Take a close look at the title, and reserve your letters of correction until you finish reading this piece. We’re not talking about the current Corvette ZR1, which eliminates the hyphen according to GM’s present day alpha-numeric designations. Nor are we talking about the 1970-1972 Corvette, 53 of which were sold with an optional ZR1 package that swapped luxuries like power steering for performance upgrades. There’s only one generation of Corvette that used the designation ZR-1, and from 1990 through 1995 it positively ruled the roadways of America, not to mention holding its own against the world’s best super cars of the day. We’re of course talking about the original “King of the Hill” Chevrolet, the Corvette ZR-1.

The fourth generation Corvette was little more than a 205 horsepower, stiffly-sprung ironing board with a sci-fi instrument cluster when the 1984 models finally hit dealer showrooms. The C4 ‘Vette gradually progressed through the auto evolution of the 1980s to become a reasonably enjoyable sports car, but it still lacked the beans and bite to be a world-class athlete. Rumors of a new super Corvette were pretty rampant by the end of the decade, but the car unveiled to the world in 1989 was something nobody expected. Consider the ingredients: an all-aluminum V-8 engine jointly designed by GM and Lotus. Double overhead camshafts. 16 tuned intake runners. 32 valves. And the most impressive number of all—375 horsepower at a high-revving 6000 rpm. Labeled the LT5, this engine shared the 5.7 liter displacement of other C4 Corvette mills but was a complete departure from the pushrod plants the General was—and still is—known for. In fact, GM contracted Mercury Marine to assemble the engines, which were then shipped to the Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky for installation. Advanced computer control varied the horsepower as needed, and a valet setting limited power to 250 ponies for those times when unfamiliar faces were behind the wheel. Though initially a 375 horsepower piece of marvelous engineering, minor tweaks and redesigns would see this engine ultimately develop 405 horsepower before the ZR-1's retirement in 1995.

The Corvette ZR-1 was more than just a fancy engine, however. Adjustable suspension allowed the ‘Vette to retain some civility while still offering a proper sports car swagger when set to firm. Leather seats, power everything, and a dash that still had some ‘80’s digital with a blend of proper gauges helped the interior immensely, and steamroller-sized rubber—315/35 ZR-17s in the back—helped the ZR-1 put its power to the pavement. Thankfully, the only transmission offered was a six-speed manual, and though it wasn’t the most delightful box to shift, it was up to the task of shuffling all that power to the rear wheels without exploding. With everything in sync, the ZR-1 could reach sixty miles per hour in a scant 4.6 seconds, turn quarter mile times just north of 13 seconds, and with no electronic nanny limiting the fun, continue all the way to about a buck eighty. To prove the 'Vette's longevity, GM sent a ZR-1 and several drivers to a 7.7 mile track in Texas to see how tough it really was. Within 24 hours the car set numerous records certified by the FIA, the most notable being 5000 kilometers at 175 miles per hour, 5000 miles at 175 miles per hour, and 24 hours at, you guessed it, 175 miles per hour. To achieve those feats, the ZR-1's eight drivers had to run flat out the entire time, barring short stops for fuel and driver changes. That’s crazy impressive for 2010 standards; drop back about 20 years and, well, you can see why it’s a Keeper.

Only about 6400 of these monsters were built, and with sticker prices around $60,000, they weren’t exactly cheap. We’ll walk through the finer points of ZR-1 shopping next time around, but until then, enjoy the ZR-1 eye candy in the gallery above, courtesy of the fine folks at the ZR-1 Net Registry.