Jalopnik Fantasy Garage: Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

Up to now, our rapidly growing Fantasy Garage has been devoid of American cars. This is a shame, as hundreds of USDA Choice machines await our consideration. Sure European rides are sexy and all that and the Japanese have built some heroes, but Uncle Sam invented the musclecar, bro. What to nominate? I have again returned to my youth and am presenting to you the upside of a vehicle I paid almost as much attention to as that one girl in French class with the black-and-white panties. Who am I kidding? I'm sure the pages of my Car and Driver with the cutaway illustration of that 5.7-liter 48-valve DOHC Mercury Marine-built masterpiece are still stuck together. Yes friends, I'm talking about the King of the Hill, the Corvette ZR-1 — this week's Fantasy Garage nominee. Now jump.

At the start of the 1980s, Corvettes were coming out of their own special version of the dark ages. Though the C3 started out righteous enough in 1968 when it was introduced to the world (much to the chagrin of the General) as the "Custom Corvette" Hot Wheel, the model eventually hit craptacular in 1975 when the base model limped out a sad 165 SAE net horsepower. Worse, the optional L82 mill stonked excreted just 205 hp. Even more depressing, at 7.1 seconds to 60 mph, the C3 'Vette was the fastest accelerating American car in 1976. Very little changed by the end of the production cycle in 1982, when the totally limp, 200 hp L83 was the only engine offered. Americans didn't care much, as 1979 marked the highest Corvette sales year ever (53,807 examples). Luckily for us Jalops and those who think like us, the engineers cared. They cared a great deal.

The year 1984 saw the introduction of the C4 (Chevy had so many issues with production in 1983 that they just skipped that year altogether) and enthusiasts were titillated. Instead of straight-line performance, the boffins decided to focus on left and right. Despite everything Jeremy Clarkson has ever said, the transverse composite leaf springs developed for the C4 were a major breakthrough. They weighed less, lowered the center of gravity, reduced unsprung weight and had much greater wear characteristics than the coils they replaced. Plus, as they span the entire width of the chassis, they acted as anti-roll bars. You know how the current Z06's LS7 engine dispels all myths about pushrods being obsolete? Same diff. Still choose to buy Jezzo's bull? I've been lucky enough to enjoy a few autocross laps in the C6 and the current Z06, both of which sport composite, transverse leaf springs – he's full of shit.


The ladder-frame and fiberglass blob that was the C3 got the boot and in its place Chevy devised a Lotus-inspired steel-backbone for the transmission/differential, then bolted the unit and the engine directly to a steel unibody then attached the fiberglass body to the structure. This saved 250 precious pounds over the C3. The C4 weighed it at a trim 3,220 lbs (for comparison, today's carbon fiber, titanium and magnesium appointed Z06 weighs 3,147 lbs). The C4 was much stiffer than its predecessor, too, so, handling was vastly improved over all other Corvettes (and most other production cars of the time). But what to do about that 230 hp engine? Exactly what we probably wouldn't do; they called Lotus.

As fate would have it, General Motors purchased Chapman's seemingly moribund Lotus in 1986. Corvette engineers approached their British brethren about the possibility of building the fastest car in the world. And while Lotus knows a thing or two about lightening cars and tuning Isuzus, word on the street is that they know bupkus about engines. But, like has happened many, many times in the past, an American/British partnership yielded spectacular results. Picture the Shelby Cobra, the Ford GT40, Patton and Monty, etc. This time the result was stunning, stupendous and totally spectacular: the LT5 V8 engine. As I partially mentioned up top, this all-aluminum wonder had four-overhead camshafts (just like the Lamborghini Countach) and 32 valves (just like the Porsche 928). True, it did have the same bore centers as the small-block in the regular C4 (350 cubes) but that's it. Also, the LT5 is the only non-pushrod engine ever to be installed in a Corvette. Ever. GM had a bit of trouble actually building the engine, so they outsourced it to Mercury Marine in Oklahoma. This move likely contributed to the LT5's legendary reliability.

What about power? How do 375 mean old horses tickle your fancy? By our deeply spoiled-rotten 2007 standards that may not sound like much, but please remember the Porsche 911 (964) Turbo of 1989 was making 360 hp, the 928 just 316 hp, the SVT Cobra 'Stang 235 hp and the much heavier Ferrari Testarossa made 390 hp with four-more cylinders. And for model year 1993, new cylinders and headers jacked the LT5's output to 405 hp. Only the maniac 25th Anniversary Countach had a significant power advantage over the LT5, with its bored out 5.2-liter 48-valve V12 (supposedly) spewing forth a blistering 455 hp. But the LT5 was a much better – and more important, cooler power plant – for one not-so-simple reason; it was a transformer.

To discourage "Dad, can I borrow the 'Vette?" hoonage, GM installed a "valet key." With the safety switched on, half of the LT5's valves shut down, as did half of its 16 fuel-injectors. Rad. This allowed the ZR-1 to scoot about town to the sound and relative fury of 250 ponies — still 5 hp more than the base C4. Once father was in a position to know best, he could turn the valet key and reactivate all the valves and injectors, unleashing the full stable of beautiful horses. We love this. We love this so much it's silly. Modern cars are just starting to get into this bi-modal way of thinking. The new M5 is able to go from 400 to 500 hp at the push of a button and the Veyron needs a separate key in the floor to achieve its top-speed mode. Vishnu tuners up in Danville, CA will sell you their XEDE chip that lets you toggle between two performance modes. We love these kinds of antics too, of course, but somehow the LT5's valve trick is cooler. The feature was wholly unnecessary in 1990, what with gas costing $1.20 a gallon. Which makes it that much better. Look, if you put a gun to my head I'll admit that the Audi RS4's 4.2-liter is the best V8 in the world. But can I shut off half the valves? And why not?


As far as performance went, the ZR-1 was the fastest car in the world the same way the Lakers and the Dodgers are "World Champions." Moving on. Top speed was just about 180 mph, which is plenty fast considering the general state of tires and brakes back in the late 1980s. Our friends at Automobile said it reached 60 mph in 4.2 seconds (though most other sources quote 4.6). One quarter of a mile? 13.4 seconds. For some perspective, Ferrari Testarossas back in the early 90s were shuffling to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds and doing the 1/4 mile in 14.2. Even better, while the top-dog Ferrari could pull 0.87G, the ber-Vette was hustling 0.93G. Some claim much higher. But the best of all were the crazy international endurance records that a stock ZR-1 set in Texas on March 1, 1990. Three of these records are "irrespective of category or class" and still stand today unbroken by either the C5 or C6 Z06. Or any other car.

5000 km @ 175.710 MPH; 5000 Miles @ 173.791 MPH; 4,221.256 Miles @ 175.885 MPH

That's a hell of a friggin' engine. What's more, certain pistonheads (usually members of Corvette forums) claim that the LT5 is the most reliable engine ever made. Also, 5,000 miles at 174 mph means you could drive from New York to Los Angeles and back in 30 hours!! That's a hell of a friggin' car. We're not going to mention that the ZR-1 option essentially doubled the price of the car. What do we care — we're pretend rich! Nor will we mention how stupid the square/round taillights are. We are, however, going to state that anyone voting against the Corvette ZR-1 for induction into the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage is missing part of their frontal lobe. We'll take ours in yellow, thank you. Wait, we mean black. You know, we might just take two.



Gawker Media polls require Javascript; if you're viewing this in an RSS reader, click through to view in your Javascript-enabled web browser.

The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage appears every Tuesday. Readers vote the cars in or out. The idea is that we'll have 50 cars in our fantasy garage, the world's greatest mechanic and endless wads of cash. If you would like to nominate a car for our Fantasy Garage, email tips@jalopnik.com with the subject line "fantasy garage."


Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, So Far:
Maserati Quattroporte Executive GT
1978 Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Honda 1300 Coupe 9
1931 Daimler Double Six 50 Corsica Drophead Coupe
Ferrari 288 GTO


Jalopnik Fantasy Garage; Lutz Says Corvette SS Project Safe, in Final Tuning Stage [Internal]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter