The cars we loved.
When the “new” Corvette was introduced in 1984, it represented the first true modern Corvette. A vast improvement over its predecessor, it sported modern electronic fuel injection and a more powerful V8 engine. Even with all those enhancements, the Corvette at only 200 or so horsepower could never muster the respect in the company of Ferrarr’s and Porsche’s.
With GM’s own F cars closing the performance gap with the Vette and tarted up versions of the Mustang chipping at its heels, Chevrolet sought to elevate the status of its flagship sports car. It used its vast resources to prove that it could produce the world’s fastest production car. It would seem odd to partner with Lotus (at this time a GM subsidy) and Mercury Marine, but Lotus’ expertise with lightweight advanced engines and Mercury Marines ability to mass produce them formed the perfect triad. The completed engines were shipped by Mercury Marine the Corvette factory in Bowling Green Kentucky.
The resulting car, was released in 1990 at nearly $60k, double the cost of a standard Vette. Not to be confused with the 70-72 ZR-1 option package, this ZR-1 was a completely new model. The center piece of which was an all aluminum 5.7 L V8. The four cam 32 valve LT5 engine produced 375 hp in its first year. Gradual improvements would boost power to 405 by 1995, the last year of the C4 ZR-1. This was the most advance production car GM had ever produced up to that point. Many features like variable valve technology increased performance and drivability at all engine speeds. The engines power was managed by a new 6 speed ZF transmission spinning fat low profile Goodyear Gatorback tires developed especially for the ZR-1. Traction control improved poor weather performance, but the rear wheel drive Vette was no Audi Quattro in the snow. Speaking of the rear, the rear tires were an astonishing 315/35-17, the widest factory installation on any American car up to that point.
The rear was also where the ZR-1 made its biggest visual distinction from the regular Corvette. Squared off tail lights where the others were round was the first cue that this car was special. The rear of the car was wider to accommodate the wider tires. Special wheels and of course the ZR-1 badge completed the package . Inside was much like any other Corvette, except for more comfortable seats , digital dash and subtle ZR-1 emblems. At just under 3400 lbs., the ZR-1 could get to 60 from 0 in only 4.4 seconds and reach 178 mph all with unmatched road holding abilities. As a super car, the ZR-1 was just as durable and rugged as any other GM product, establishing a number of endurance records. Instantly, the ZR-1 elevated Corvettes’ status as a high performance bargain, even if it never quite attained the worlds fastest production car title convincingly.
The glowing reviews from the press could not hide the fact that the ZR-1 was still a bit crude around the edges compared to a typical Porsche 911 and was looked down upon by European sports car buyers. At half the price of a 911 and able to out run almost anything at twice its price, the ZR-1 was a true bargain that was destined to become highly collectible. In the 5 years of ZR-1 production, just under 5600 cars were produced, with most being accounted for by advance orders at considerable dealer markup. In 1991 all Corvettes received styling updates that blurred the distinction visually between the base cars and the ZR-1.
The Corvette has evolved now to the point that a typical 2010 base coupe offers nearly the performance of the early ZR-1s with as much power with more efficiency and polish (inside and out). It was the ground braking ZR-1 that assured the high technology, high performance variants of the modern Corvette to come the Z06 and the Grand Sport. Sure there were more powerful Corvette variants from out side tuners like the 420 horsepower twin turbocharged Callaway Vette, but for fully warranted factory performance, you could not beat a ZR-1.