Gone but not forgotten
- Jan 30, 2001
- Hermosa Beach, CA
- 1987 Z51 Silver Coupe
From "The Corvette Anthology":
Long, Live the King!
by Peter Cook, 1997
Nine years ago, I sat in Phoenix, Arizona, with hundreds of other dealer representatives from all over the country. The event was a Certified Corvette Specialist program; a week of lectures, discussions, driving instruction, and simply tearing around Firebird International Raceway with folks like Stu Hayner, Doc Bundy and Tommy Archer riding shotgun and teaching us how to drive... real fast.
One evening, as all of us were gathered into the banquet hall of the hotel to hear Chevrolet big-wigs Doug Robinson and Jim Ingle give their presentation. There, by the podium, was the car we all had been waiting for under wraps.
...It's been called the "wide body", the "super-vette", and the "king of the hill".... And as Doug Robinson said that, Jim Ingle pulled off a car cover to reveal the first, real ZR-1 I had ever seen in person; an '89 red on red prototype. As all the cameras flashed around the hall, time seemed to slow down, and stop. You could feel the excitement and the emotions in the room; they couldn't have been any stronger if they had pulled the wraps off a naked Cindy Crawford.
No one would argue that the ZR-1 was the most greatly anticipated car of the last twenty five years. And ever since production halted, the ZR-1 has become the forgotten date for the evening, disregarded in favor of some flashy, but late arrivals. The Viper, the Acura NSX-T, the Porsche Boxter, the Mercedes SLK, and the Ferrari F-50, to name but a few. Although some have caught the camera's eye, none have come close to the legend called "ZR-1". Now relegated to be a part of automotive history, the ZR-1 was retired early from service with vehicles like GM's EV-1 to be the hallmark. Those who know, however, have not forgotten that the ZR-1 is the living and reigning "king of the hill". A symbol worthy of our fidelity; it still can capsize all of these stragglers in its wake. We were all ready for the birth of the ultimate Corvette. One that was as American as the USA itself; a combination of different ethnicity's. Right down to its soul, the ZR-1 is no pure-bred; and it makes no apologies for being so. Like all Americana, it tries to be the best it can be and drew internationally from the parts bin. In result, the ZR-1 is a mixture of the best the world has to offer. It's heartbeat was born within Lotus of England. It's long legs came from ZF in Germany, and its physique came from a native born design and chassis.
GMs board should have killed the ZR-1 program in its infancy. Its character isn't one of political correctness. It is not a zero emission vehicle, it seats only two, and it doesn't get 100 mpg. Rather, it is socially unacceptable to the masses; illogical, illegal and immoral. The cars concept is so shamelessly one of personal gratification, that your guilt will lead you to expect that a sandal-clad Greenpeace member will hurl themselves beneath your wheels to stop all this fun. But fun was just the point with the ZR-1; it was not built for mass consumption, but for a few select drivers to experience an intimate exchange between car and driver. The ZR-1 is the ultimate sports car; an untempermental, drive-around-the-town, supercar. Pristine ZR-1s can still be had for a fraction of their original price. And although many of the ZR-1's little brothers (the C-5's) can be had for less money, we all know who would win the brotherly brawl; and which one would capture the checkered flag worthy of the name Corvette.
It's amazing that I was able to sit there in Phoenix, and witness a small part of automotive history. It's also amazing that such an unveiling took place; GM has always reacted to other manufacturers offerings, and rarely taken the initiative. But nine years ago, on that evening, it was GM's moment. GM actually had done something right and was on the cutting edge with a new product. GM was the first to recognize the supercar market, and actually build a niche sports car for it; the ZR-1.
It's an easy car for the average pedestrian to miss; just another Corvette roaring by. But even the average car enthusiast would notice the center-high-mounted-stop-lamp atop the glass rear hatch... on a late model C-4 Vette? Further inspection would reveal that the name Corvette isn't sculpted into the body, but is written in bold, convex letters on the end cap. This car looks bigger... pumped, like a body builder finishing a set of biceps curls. Oh they'd comment with a smile, that's a ZR-1.
Every magazine has featured not one, but several articles on the ZR-1. It has graced countless magazine covers, simply because publishers knew it would ensure huge circulation numbers. In the beginning, as in the end, they all raved about the car. Media encounters with the supercar (superstar?) ended in all too short interviews. Most people could only imagine what the car was like; it had personality, and it seemed unreachable. Everyone had seen Jim Dunne's telephoto spy photos on the cover of Autoweek back in '88 that showed a wide, mean and elusive King of the Hill Corvette. But back there in the real world in Phoenix, sat the car in person to touch, smell, and sit in. The ZR-1 had arrived.
On walking up to the ZR-1, you still notice just how low it sits, under four feet high. As you open the door, you plant you right leg into the foot well, lean forward, and squat into the driver's seat as the left leg follows. Many have complained about the effort required to get in and out of the Corvette, but these happen to be the same people who don't really understand biceps curls either.
As you adjust the outside rear-view mirror, it's easy to notice a little more curve in the driver's door compared to a standard Corvette. The ZR-1 is 3 inches wider than its C-4 sibling, and the subtle 1 1/2" bulge per side reminds the driver that they are piloting a very special and powerful Corvette. In looking around the familiar cockpit, the driver feels at home. The interior layout was updated back in '90 with the car's premier, and in '92, with many of the dash bezel areas changed to matte black finishes instead of the original gray color. At your fingertips, the feel of the air-bag equipped steering wheel is unmistakably European; its texture and material are not unlike one of the German offerings. The European feel is no coincidence for GM's world class sports car.
As you scan further, you notice that the interior's designers intended to have you feel integrated with the car, as if you wear it. The instrument panel is covered by a black, semi-circular hood that descends into the driver's door arm rest, and the center console, both also in black. The resultant "U" wraps around the driver and blends the control panel nicely to its surroundings. It also contrasts well with the rest of the inside of the car, as long as your interior isn't black.
The instrument panel fans out and houses a large 7,000 rpm analog tach on the left, a digital speedometer in the center, and four analog engine/function gauges to the right; voltage, oil pressure, water temperature, and battery voltage. The dashboard curves down gently from the windshield, and gives the effect of a spacious cockpit.
The standard sports seats are great in feel and aroma, incorporating electric bolsters (for width control) plus an adjustable three section lumbar support. The seats are so effective at holding the driver in place, that few after market seat suppliers have made sales from Corvette customers looking to change them.
As you look below the CD player with am/fm cassette, you notice a key with words above it; "normal" and "full". This and the 7,000 rpm tach are the only telltale signs of this special Corvette's capabilities.
As you turn the ignition key to the "on" position, you hear the ferocious buzz of the primary fuel pump for a few seconds, and then it pauses, waiting for you to light the engine; there is also a secondary fuel pump for those demanding situations. As you crank the engine, you hear the high pitched and rapid "nyet, nyet, nyet" sounds of the starter and the engine fires with a soft, yet fast idle. Your heart races even though you=D5ve driven the car many times before. Like an old love dear to your heart, the ZR-1 has a special hold on our emotions.