The Story of the C3, C4, C6, and C7 ZR-1/ZR1 Corvette: Part 1 of 4

From “Racer Kit,” to World Class Sports Car: Waiting for the C7 ZR1 & Looking Back at Past ZR1s

Dateline: 7/7/17 (This story was first published in the Sept 2016 issue of Vette Vues Magazine

Suddenly… its 2009 again! Is it “Déjà vu” all over again? It kind’a seems that way. In the summer of 2008, as the presidential election was heating up, Wall Street and the economy was shaking and quaking until finally in October 2008 the stock market crashed so badly that the candidates had to suspend their campaigns for a few days to vote on the big, bank bailout bill.

What followed was another deep recession that hammered the already stressed auto industry. 2009 was pretty ugly and the Mighty Wurlitzer, called “the Internet” was starting to get cranked up over C7 Generation Corvette speculation.
In 2007 Chevrolet sold 40,561 Corvettes – the best sales year since 1984 when 51,547 Corvettes were sold. Then in 2008 they sold 35,310 Corvettes. Yes, sales slipped, but that’s still an impressive sales figure. Then in 2009 the bottom fell out with only 16,956 Corvettes sold – that is a 48-percent drop! The introduction of the 205-mph supercharged ZR1 didn’t help sales, as only 1,415 ZR1s were sold, but then again, the starting price of the ZR1 was $103,300, that’s 215-percent more than the $47,895 base price of a 2009 Corvette!

Speculation on the Internet took off and almost overnight; the C6 was a “one-hit wonder,” “yesterday’s bread,” and “past its expiration date.” At least, that’s what we were reading on the Internet. How could that be?
Then in February 2009, the Corvette Stingray Concept Car, aka, “Sideswipe,” the “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” character-car, made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show. The wild looking, “love me, or hate me” car took the Internet by storm and C7 fever was off and running. It only took three years and 11 months before the C7 debuted. The entire time, speculation, rumors, and “leaked information” (true and false information) ran rabid.

Now, here we are, almost eight years later and after a slight drop in Corvette sales from 2014 with 37,288 Corvettes sold, to 34,240 Corvettes sold in 2015, the 2016 sales year is not looking good. As of this writing (early July 2016) the total for 2016 Corvettes is not in yet, but month-by-month, sales are significantly off.

Overall in GM, the May 2016 sales were off by 13-percent, with GM claiming that was because there were two fewer sales days in 2016, compared to 2015. However, demand for Chevrolet Malibu and Cruze, as well as Cadillac XT5 and CT6 has exceeded supply. Also, sales of GM crossover vehicles and trucks are still showing growth.

So, what’s up with the Corvette? Is the C7 now deficient? I don’t think so. But GM is even offering rebates to move cars. I have setup my Google Alerts account to send me daily notifications of Corvette-related stories and most of what I’ve been getting for months now are stories about the “C8 Mid-Engine Corvette.”
When this story first broke it seemed like an obsession from the olden days before electronic suspensions. Even Tadge Juechter was saying, “Oh no, we have no plans for that…” Later it was confirmed that “Yes Margret, there WILL be a mid-engine Corvette, finally!” GM added some spice to the issue when they recently took out a trademarks on the terms, “Zora” and “ZR1.”

As of this writing, we haven’t a clue when the C8 will debut or when the C7 ZR1 will be officially shown to the public. This leaves us with a big pile of questions with no answers – just speculations.

* Will the current C7 “wrap it up” at the end of 2018?

* Will the current C7 continue on, along side of the C8 mid-engine Corvette?

* Will there be a ZR1 version of the C7, perhaps with AWD in 2017?

* Will the mid-engine C8 be called “Zora”? (I’d vote for that!)

* Speculation has it that the C8 will cost in the neighborhood of $150,000 and GM doesn’t expect to sell very many, and the car will be GM’s new Halo car. So if the current C7 continues on for a few more years after the C8, will the C7 finally be the “cheap Vette”?

* Corvette design has always been “evolutionary” and never “revolutionary.” Will GM abandon that formula and make the C8 a low-volume, halo car, a high-end American exotic, to take on the new Ford GT. Imagine “winning” Le Mans, and not just the GTE and GTLM classes, but 1st over all! There’s a Chevy vs Ford race I’d like to see.

* If GM takes the high road, won’t they be abandoning Corvette’s unique marketing position of being a sports car with world-class capability, at an “everyday-man’s price”?
So many questions and we have a year-and-a-half to speculate and conjure. Hence, “Suddenly its 2009 again!”

The 1970-1/2 – 1972 ZR-1: There have been three distinctive “ZR-1 / ZR1” Corvettes since 1970. The first ZR-1 was actually the last of Duntov’s “Racer Kit” option packages, designed to provide a Corvette customer with the basics needed to go SCCA racing. Offered from 1970-1/2 to 1972, the RPO ZR-1 (and RPO ZR-2) were strictly “under-the-skin” hardware packages. There were no special badges, scoops, vents, limps, bumps, or budges. From the outside, the ZR-1 looked like any other LT-1 or 454 (as with the ZR-2) Corvette. These unique cars were not “marketed” in any way at all. You had to know about them to seek one out, and most of them, likely never saw street use.

The 1990 – 1995 ZR-1: The C4 1990-1995 ZR-1 was a separate model for street use, with unique body panels, and the jewel-like, double overhead-cam, all-aluminum LT4 engine. Regular Corvettes only had aluminum heads atop of a classic, cast iron small-block Chevy block. The LT4 engine was SO exotic in 1990 for a Corvette engine. When released in 1990, the ZR-1 option cost $27,016 on top of the car’s base price of $31,979 – making the ZR-1 THE most expensive option up to the introduction of the C6 ZR1.

The 2009 – 2013 ZR1: The C6 2009 ZR1 seemed to come out of left field! It left us all smiling. Truly, no one was looking for a supercharged Corvette, as fans were still giddy over the bad boy, quasi-racer Z06. It’s too bad that the C6 ZR1 arrived as the economy was tanking. From 2009 to 2013 Chevrolet only sold 4,664 ZR1s, compared to 8,159 Z06 Corvettes in 2007 alone. But then again, the 2007 base price was $44,995 and the Z06 cost $66,465, that’s a $21,470 difference. Priced at $103,300, the 2009 ZR1 was OVER DOUBLE the price for 2009 base Corvette.
In the spring of 2016 Chevrolet debuted the 2017 Grand Sport model. Will they unleash a ZR1 version of the C7 as a 2018 model, and then call the mid-engine C8 the “Corvette Zora”? That certainly would be a fitting tribute to Zora Arkus-Duntov. It was Zora’s obsession with the “mid-engine platform that never made it into production,” that is the reason for the ultimate dream of a “mid-engine Vette.”

Regardless, you have to give credit to GM for its ability to not only engineer and style a world-class sports car, but to keep their fans on the edge of their seats. It’s all the stuff of delicious Bench Racing. And there’s plenty of time for jaw’n between now and January 2018. So, for now, lets take a look back at the three previous versions of the ZR-1/ZR1. The 1970-1/2-1072 was practically invisible. The second iteration, the 1990-1995 looked only marginally different from the outside. The 2009-2013 C6 ZR1 was an in-your-face, bad-ass – the quickest and fastest production Corvette to that time.

There’s one thing the next ZR1 must and will be: a solid 2-Second Club (0-60-mph in less than 3-seconds) car and the fastest production Corvette ever built. But till then, let’s take a trip down Memory Lane.

Behind the scenes, the “power party” was over in 1970 and the brass at GM was making plans for radical changes for ‘71 and beyond. The performance hangover from the ‘60s became new theme of the ‘70s. There was a growing awareness that lead from car exhaust was not good for living beings, so unleaded gas would be the new standard fuel. Compression rates fell and performance dropped like a rock.

There was also increased pressure from insurance companies to curb the rise of power in cars. Yes, too many claims from young people driving muscle cars, or so we were told. Yes, it was 1957 again, and just like the infamous “1957 AMA Ban On Racing,” GM put the kabosh on performance, but thanks to Corvette engineer, Zora Duntov, not completely. Zora was also pushing for a mid-engine Corvette.In February of 1969 John DeLorean was the new general manager at Chevrolet. Knowing the direction that GM president Ed Cole mandated, DeLorean and his Corvette product planners were tasked with creating a new theme for the Corvette – the luxury sports car. The Custom Interior Trim option, cost just $158 and included leather seats, wood grain trim on the console and door panels, as well as special carpeting.

This was just the beginning of added creature comforts that would define Corvettes of the ‘70s as more “boulevard car” rather than “performance sports car.” (“Wood grained trim” does not enhance a car’s performance!)
But Zora Duntov wasn’t about to let the hardcore performance crowd go without some goodies to race with. The L88 was history and the ZL-1 was hyper-expensive, only available as a separate purchase, and not installed in open-production Corvettes. The hot new performance options for 1970 were the LT1 350 small-block and the LS5 454 big-block. Sales of 1970 Corvettes looked WAY off, however that was thanks to shell games of an extended production of 1969 Corvettes and the January 1970 introduction of 1970 Corvettes. For 1969 Chevrolet sold 38,762 Corvettes and only 17,316 Corvettes for the 1970 season.

If racing was your intention, initial plans were made to offer a 350 LT1-based RPO ZR1 option, and the 454 LS7-based RPO ZR2 option. Unfortunately, the ZR2 never made it to the order forms in ‘70, but made a brief appearance in ’71 with the lower compression 454 LS6. 1971 was the only year for the $1,747 ZR2 454 option, with just 12 units produced. The cure for the lower compression LS6 engine was simply a set of dome-top pistons to get the big-block’s compression where it needed to be for racing.

The RPO ZR1 and the RPO ZR2 were officially designated as “off road,” which translates to ”racing only.” Like the ’67 to ‘69 L88 cars, the ZR Corvettes were not happy machines for street use, but provided an excellent base to build either SCCA A/Production or B/Production racers. The ’70 RPO ZR1 package cost $968 and included the following: the solid-lifter, 370-horsepower LT1 engine, M22 4-speed transmission, heavy duty power brakes, transistor ignition, special aluminum radiator, a metal radiator shroud, special springs, shocks, and front and rear stabilized bars.There was also a long list of options that were not available with the RPO ZR1, that included: power windows, rear window defroster, air conditioning, power steering, deluxe wheel covers, alarm system, AM/FM radio, AM/FM stereo, and automatic transmission. In other words; things that a racer would have to remove anyway! Racing fender flares were included in the trunk space and the cold-air scoop and header side exhausts were sold separately.

Like the 1967-1969 L88 package, Duntov wanted to discourage buyers from buying a car that wasn’t for street use. In ‘70 there were 25 ZR1 units built, with 8 units made in ’71, and 20 units in ’72, for a total of only 53 C3 ZR-1 Corvettes built. When the 454 ZR2 option was released in ’71, only 12 units were built. All of the ZR Corvettes were built by Chevrolet’s “Repair Department” in St. Louis.

The ‘70-1/2 Corvette also received a minor makeover. There was the revised, egg-crate-style grille that matched the new egg-crate-style side vents, square front turn signal lights, rectangular exhaust tips, and flares on the back end of the front and rear wheel openings. The LT1 and ZR1 option included the big-block hood with special pin striping and “LT-1” lettering. Positraction and tinted glass were standard and there was no charge for transmission choice.

It would be 18 years before the ZR1 name would resurface in ’90 and another 19 years for the ‘09 version. It was definitely worth the wait!

Coming up next, the C4 ZR-1, the most exotic and expensive Corvette ever offered to that date! – Scott

Check out the slide show on this Mecum Auction Info page for a rare, 1970-1/2 ZR1 Corvette, HERE!

(This story was first published in the Sept 2016 issue of Vette Vues Magazine