Chevrolet didn’t make a C4 ZR-1 Roadster, but Metalcrafters of California got the job done and today, Michael Beal of Connecticut is still enjoying this unique high-performance Corvette!
For most Corvette fans, there was “that day” when a Vette stole your heart. For Michael Beal, it was the jewel-like LT-5 engine that powered the C4 ZR-1 Corvette. The beautiful LT5 engine may well be one of the most underdeveloped engines in Corvette history. While the numbers don’t look impressive by today’s standards, when the first 375-horsepower ‘90 ZR-1 was finally unleashed, heads spun faster that the rear tires of the new beast. By ‘93, Corvette engineers tweaked here and there and bumped the LT-5’s power output to 405-horsepower. It is worth reminding readers that in March 1990, a race-prepared, Morrison Motorsports ZR-1 shattered records at the 7.71-mile Bridgestone Tire test track in Texas with an AVERAGE 24-hour speed of 175.885-MPH!!!
And least you think this was a stripped down, lightweight ZR-1 – no, no. FIA rules mandated that the car carry spare parts incase of a breakdown. Consequently, the ZR-1 was carrying an additional 300-pounds of gear! And, to add a little “sauce for the goose” for the story, the track was just three lanes wide and had no guard rails! One of the team drivers was the famous Kim Baker. You’ll get to learn a little of what Kim is up to these days in the below story. There’s also some insight as to how much red meat Chevy engineers left inside the LT-5.
Too bad the ZL-1/LT-5 didn’t arrive two or three years sooner. Too bad Chevrolet didn’t make a roadster ZR-1. Apparently, ZR-1 fans asked the same question, and a few did something about it! Below is Michael Beal’s delightful story of how he came to own one of the few ZR-1 Roadsters, and his meeting with Corvette legend, Kim Baker. Here’s Michael. – Scott
PS – Tommy Morrison was driving the ZR-1 for the final leg of the 24-hour record run. After he blasted the record, Tommy took two laps – AT FULL THROTTLE!
I hope we all recall the first time we saw the heart of the beast. For me, when I gazed upon the LT5 engine it was the proverbial “love at first sight” – a mechanical work of art. To possess the beast, the other love of my life needed accommodation. My wife was understanding of my Corvette “addiction” but would have no coupes in our garage – only convertibles would suffice. A ZR-1 convertible would have to appear if the beast were to be mine.
An inveterate searcher of Vettes, the challenge lay before me. And it did, indeed happen – advertised as “Here’s something different”, a steel blue metallic 1991 ZR-1 conversion with 30,000 miles appeared to me as I consulted the oracles at GOOGLE. After a brief negotiation with Corvette Mike of California, the beast was mine. Shipped to the frigid northeast I began to sort out the fascinating past of my acquisition.
Corvette Mike, hereinafter referred to as the broker, represented the car as a convertible conversion done by Metalcrafters of California and an engine modification to 475 hp done by “Ken Baker.” This information was provided me after the deal was struck and after I inquired as to the origin of the black motor as this was not a Doug Rippie “black widow”. The broker also told me that the work was done for the original owner, Dr. Larry Bartschi of California who they alleged spent some 175K on the purchase and modification of the machine.
Herein, dear reader, lies a problem you might be of some assistance in resolving. I have made attempts to verify that Metalcrafters did the conversion – they have not responded to my inquiries either yea nor nay. I have attempted to contact Dr. Bartschi and have received no response – I understand he is an outgoing individual who loves automobiles and loves to talk about them. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that his age and/or health issues might explain the non-response to inquiries about the great work he had done on this vehicle.
Astute readers have already likely noted that “Ken” Baker is actually Kim Baker, the storied wizard of Corvette engine preparation who was an integral part of the development of the LT5 and who was one of the eight drivers on the Morrison team that set the endurance record of 175 mph over a 24 hr period. I excitedly attempted to make contact with Kim hoping that he was the elusive “Ken” the broker cited. To my lasting surprise, Mr. Baker kindly responded, indicating that he remembered the car – remembered that “Larry” did a great job and money was no object.
Having destroyed all his records, which he does as a course of business after about a ten year retention, Mr. Baker invited me to come to his home for some pictures. I eagerly agreed to do so and on June 9, 2011, my wife and I made the pilgrimage to his beautiful home in Massachusetts. To say that we enjoyed the moment would be somewhat of an understatement. The man (Kim Baker) is as gracious as his home. If required to describe him, I would readily note that he is youthful, intently professional, confident in his skills as a driver and craftsman. He was able to share with me the fact that my engine (by virtue of the circumstance that I had removed the plenum and found that the “valet” vacuum controlled port doors were removed) was his third, last and best iteration of LT5 modification.
Although dynoed and a matter of record, no records have yet to be located regarding the horsepower – Baker mused that he did motors to the tune of 600-plus horses and he estimated that my motor was between 450 and 480 hp (the broker represented 475.) (One can’t help but wonder what an intercooled, supercharged LT-5 might produce. Ed) Baker and I both felt that his work probably pre-dated the Doug Rippie conversions. Kim had never seen the car in the flesh (had seen pictures) as the engine was shipped to him at his Wilbraham shop from California. He felt that the quality of work done on the car was impressive.
He expressed surprise that I had not received a response from Dr. Bartschi as he was a real “car guy” who loved to talk. I asked how old a man Bartschi would be and, after a moment’s reflection, Kim estimated him to be about 85 years old. We both wondered if his well being might explain the lack of response to my inquiries. Kim also recalled that Dr. Bartschi had crashed his Testarossa during the Nevada Silver State Classic Challenge – tragically, his wife was killed. I checked this and it did, indeed, happen during the 1991 event. The records indicate that the Doctor sold his ZR-1 in 1995 with about 24K on the odometer. It was then owned by an Arkansas doctor who put about 6K on the car from ’95 to 2010.
We said our “goodbyes” to Kim Baker and turned to head back to Connecticut. Baker inquired as to where we were in CT? “Middletown”, I replied. He then revealed that he makes the trek from his home to nearby Wallingford, CT (about a 160 mi. round trip for the intrepid racer) to drive Go-Karts at an indoor track. I have since taken the opportunity to witness Kim Baker take on the track. I know he does this to maintain fitness in his shoulders and arms (Kim is a solidly built world class athlete), and to sharpen his concentration – he readily confesses that he has been driving since the age of 5 and would do this every day – he’s a pro but he is clearly joyful with the task. And, does it ever show – the man carves his way around the track with astounding accuracy…and lap times to prove it.
So, Kim Baker has kindly filled in some of the blanks. I sincerely hope there is someone out there who can put some more flesh on my beast. I’ve heard on several occasions that people have seen this vehicle featured in an article in some periodical years ago. Perhaps someone has retained this old article – perhaps someone, somewhere has something that verifies what I already know – this is one heck of a ZR-1, as they ALL are. – Michael Beal, June 2011
PS – For more about Corvette racer Kim Baker, check out the February 2009 issue of VETTE Magazine feature story,
“Kim Baker – King of the Road” by Catherine Hildebrande, HERE.