Snobbery is defined as the conduct or arrogance of those that think they are better than others. For years, European automotive aficionados thumbed their noses at American performance cars. Their belief was that any performance car produced in the states was inferior to anything on their side of the pond. The Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 put the world on notice and showed the Europeans that American ingenuity could produce a sports car that could take on Europe’s best contenders.
1990: King of the Hill
The 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 was introduced at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show. What better place to show off the ZR-1 than a part of the world ruled by the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche? Following the début, an exclusive group of media were invited by General Motors to experience the ZR-1 by driving from Geneva to Carcassonne in the south of France.
At first glance, the ZR-1 looks similar to the base Corvette. However, a closer inspection of the ZR-1 reveals a three-inch wider rear, with body flaring starting at the front door edge. The wider rear was built to house the massive 315/35ZR-17 Goodyear Eagle Gatorback tires that are exclusive to the ZR-1. The ZR-1 also features an arched rear bumper with square-shaped taillamps and ZR-1 badging on the bumper’s bottom right edge.
The heart of the ZR-1 is an all-aluminum 32-valve, 5.7-liter LT5 V8 with dual-overhead cams, port-fuel injection, and aluminum block and heads. The powerplant also features aluminum pistons, a forged steel crankshaft, and an 11.0:1 compression ratio. The ZR-1’s LT5 V8 was jointly crafted by Chevrolet and General Motors’ Group Lotus Division and built by Mercury Marine in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The naturally aspirated LT5 is rated at 375 horsepower and 370 lb.-ft. of torque. The LT5 is mated exclusively to a fully-synchronized ZF six-speed manual transmission. Oh, and for the daring, top speed is 175 mph.
The ZR-1 was equipped with a wealth of performance equipment. For starters, the ZR-1 inherits the base Corvette’s Bosch ABS II anti-lock braking system, Z51 suspension, FX3 Selective Ride Control, and low-tire-pressure monitoring system. The ZR-1 was also equipped with a thicker rear anti-roll bar, enhanced steering system, and vented disc brakes created by PBR Automotive.
Road and Track flogged the ZR-1 and achieved a 0 to 60 time of 4.9 seconds and a quarter mile time of 13.4 seconds. Car and Driver garnered slightly better times with a 0 to 60 time of 4.5 seconds and a quarter mile run of 12.8 seconds. Even by today’s standards, these times are still pretty impressive. Car and Driver even went as far to say “the ZR-1 is at once the most exciting and responsible high-performance car ever conceived in Detroit, let alone ever built.” Those are pretty high accolades.
At almost $60,000, the ZR-1 was the most expensive car built at the time by General Motors. In fact, the ZR-1 option itself added approximately $27,000 to the cost of the Corvette. Chevrolet produced just over 3,000 ZR-1 Corvettes during the 1990 model year.
1991: If It Ain’t Broke…
All Chevrolet Corvettes, including the ZR-1, underwent a minor exterior refresh for the 1991 model year. The refresh included a new rounded, wraparound nosepiece with integrated turn signals and halogen cornering lamps. The refresh also included horizontal front fender gills, broader body side molding, and a new Corvette emblem adorned the front and rear of the Corvette.
The 1991 ZR-1 was available in five interior colors and ten exterior colors, including new paint shades called Medium Quasar Blue Metallic, Steel Blue Metallic, and Turquoise Metallic. A new feature for 1991 was a new delay feature that supplied power to the radio and power windows for up to 15 minutes after ignition shutdown or when the driver’s door is opened. You could also charge up your cell phone via a new power plug connector.
In their April 1991 issue, Car and Driver pitted the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 against one of its oldest rivals – the Porsche 911 Turbo. This time around, both contenders possessed the most power under the hood in their history. The ZR-1’s 375 horsepower versus the 911 Turbo’s 315 horsepower. Even though the 911 Turbo seemed a bit outgunned by the ZR-1, the 911 Turbo was slightly quicker from 0 to 60 and in the quarter mile. However, after all was said and done, the magazine’s testers seemed to favor the ZR-1. Per the article, “The ZR-1 triumphed over the 911 Turbo for one simple reason: it goes fast better. A ZR-1 in full stride is a highly talented athlete. It’s always on its toes. Its moves are intuitive. Its speed is sudden and explosive. If you lust after a ZR-1 for any other reason than the thrill it delivers when you hammer it, perhaps you will be disappointed.” Car and Driver also stated price was another reason the ZR-1 triumphed over the 911 Turbo. The ZR-1 was approximately $37,000 cheaper than the 911 Turbo. Ouch!
By the end of the production year, 2,044 ZR-1s rolled out of Bowling Green onto the streets of America.
1992: Keeping the Momentum Going
The ZR-1 remained mostly unchanged for the 1992 model year. On the exterior, “ZR-1” emblems were placed above the side fender vents and dual rectangular exhaust outlets were added to the rear.
Climb inside the cockpit and you’ll notice some minor refinements to the instrument cluster. For starters, the gauge graphics are enhanced and easier to read. The digital speedometer has also been moved above the fuel gauge. In addition, all-black instrument face plates and buttons replace the previous year’s gray-black color combination.
The ZR-1 still came nicely equipped. Standard amenities include six-way power seats, air conditioning, a PASS-Key theft deterrent system, and a driver-side airbag. The only available option was either transparent or body-color roof panels.
The LT5’s horsepower and torque were still rated at 375 and 370, respectively.
New for 1992 was Acceleration Slip Regulation (ASR) developed by Bosch. This system uses sensors that monitor when one or both wheels are starting to lose traction. Once slip is detected, the system works initially by impeding ignition timing, then, if needed, closes the throttle and applies one or both rear brakes. Drivers would know when the system was activated by a subtle push back on the accelerator pedal.
Production was way down with only 502 Corvette ZR-1s built for 1992.
1993: 40 Years Young
The Corvette turned 40 this year and to celebrate, a 40th Anniversary Package was available for all Corvettes, including the ZR-1. The package included Ruby Red metallic paint, a Ruby Red interior, and 40th Anniversary exterior badging and wheel centers. A mere 250 ZR-1s were created with the 40th Anniversary package, making it an instant collectable.
The big news for 1993 was the upsurge in power for the ZR-1. Horsepower increased from 375 to 405 horsepower as a result of adjustments made to the cylinder heads and valvetrain. Platinum-tipped spark plugs, electrical, linear exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), and a Mobil 1 synthetic oil requirement are also credited with this boost in power.
This increase in horsepower helped Car and Driver rack up a 0 to 60 time of 4.7 seconds and a quarter mile time of 13.1 seconds at 111 mph. Compared to the Ferrari 512 TR, the ZR-1 runs neck and neck from 0 to 60 and is just 0.2 seconds slower in the quarter mile. Did we mention the ZR-1 has four fewer cylinders than the 512 TR and, when new, the ZR-1 was nearly $120,000 cheaper?
1994: Still King of the Hill
Changes to the ZR-1 for 1994 were mostly cosmetic. To further distinguish the King of the Hill from the base Corvette, the ZR-1 now featured non-directional 5-spoke aluminum wheels.
Base price of the ZR-1 was now $67,993. To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to $129,000 in today’s dollars.
A search of the web revealed several low-mileage 1994 ZR-1 models selling for quite a premium. At Mecum’s Kissimmee 2022 auction, a 1994 ZR-1 with only 48 miles gaveled at $82,500. A Hemmings classified listing revealed another black 1994 ZR-1 with only 33 miles listed for $124,950.
1995: All Good Things…
After a six-year model run, the last Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 rolled off the Bowling Green assembly line and made a short journey to its new home at the National Corvette Museum. 447 more rolled off the line, making their way to their happy owners and into the history books.
The ZR-1 came along at a time when many believed the fourth generation Corvette was in a lull and injected some much-needed excitement into the marque. Even though the base price of the ZR-1 was almost double the cost of the base model, many were happy to pay that price for the pride in owning a ZR-1.
There are those that say the ZR-1 fell short of its potential. Then again, some have said the ZR-1 was the best Corvette ever built. One thing is certain. The ZR-1 put the world on notice and proved that an American sports car had what it took to take on Europe’s best.