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ZR1 Retrospect - From Racer Kit to Corvette Supercar

HOT ROD logo HOT ROD 5/13/2018 Hot Rod Network Staff
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For most of 2016 and 2017, it seemed that the C7 ZR1 would never arrive. The car was supposed to debut at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show but was a no-show. When Chevrolet announced a new "LT5" engine, speculation went wild over the possibility of another DOHC super engine. Then the April 2017 issue of Car and Driver featured a computer rendering of the ZR1 that was just about right on. Through the rest of 2017 there was a steady drip of images of camouflaged ZR1s and juicy details, including the announcement that the new ZR1 would have an eight-speed automatic transmission and be available in as a convertible. Rumor mills are so much fun. Finally on November 11, 2017, the sinister-looking ZR1 debuted in Dubai and didn't disappoint! Think Z06, but with more power and aero and a bigger price tag. Maximum-performance Corvettes have never been inexpensive.

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The C7 ZR1 is the third iteration of a performance model Corvette wearing the "ZR1" moniker. To see the progress of the ZR1, let's take a walk through the ZR1's lineage. The original ZR1 arrived in 1970 as a racer kit option that was the L88 suspension package with the solid-lifter LT-1. The package included the LT-1 engine; a metal fan shroud; a four-speed, wide-ratio transmission; heavy-duty power brakes; transistor ignition; a special aluminum radiator; special shocks and springs and front and rear antisway bars. There were no special badges or body parts. This car was strictly for racing and the RPO ZR1 package was very reasonably priced at $968.95. For just $6,160.95, a customer had the basics for a SCCA B/Production Corvette. The ZR1 option was offered from 1970-'72 with a total of 53 units sold. There was supposed to be a ZR2 racer kit with the LS7 454, but it didn't make it into production in 1970, but was available in 1971 with the slightly milder LS6 454. Just 12 ZR2 '71 Corvettes were sold.

The ZR-1 moniker resurfaced around 1988 when rumors about a super Corvette under development surfaced. Most Corvette fans said, "What's a ZR-1?" The car's development nickname was King of the Hill, a tag that lives on to this day for C4 ZR1s. This would be the first time Chevrolet offered a separate performance model Corvette. Performance engine options had been around since 1956, but the C4 ZR-1 was a complete package Corvette that was very exotic. The star of the C4 ZR-1 was its all-aluminum, Lotus-designed, fuel-injected DOHC 350ci engine. The engine is still a beauty nearly 30 years later and is iconic for its unique eight-pack abs-style intake manifold. The regular Corvette's L98 engine had 250 horsepower; the ZR-1's LT5 had an extra 125 horsepower. Yes, 375 horsepower in 1990 was a very big deal.

But this wasn't just an exotic engine stuffed under the hood of a stock Corvette. To handle the extra power, special 315/35ZR17 Goodyear Z-rated tires were mounted to 11-inch-wide rear rims. To cover the larger tires, the body gradually tapers out from the end of the front fenders to cover wider rear tires. The taillights were square-like with rounded corners and the exhaust tips were rectangular. All of the Z51 suspension and brake parts were standard.

The ZR-1's price was staggering. The base Corvette cost $31,979 and the ZR-1 option was an additional $27,016, for a grand total of $58,995, plus options. From 1990-'95 a total of 6,922 ZR-1s were sold. 1990 was the best year with 3,032 units sold. By 1993 engineers bumped the power up to 405 horsepower, and in 1994 very handsome-looking five-spoke wheels helped make the ZR-1 look unique. The one critique was that it didn't look much different from a regular Corvette. From 1990-'93, one has to look for the ZR-1 badge, or have a keen eye to notice the wider rear-section. Looks and price aside, the ZR-1 was universally praised for its power and handling.

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When the C5 came along, it was such an improvement over the C4, no one was pining for a ZR1. Then when the C5 Z06 arrived in 2001, offering ZR1-level performance, for around $20,000 less than a '95 ZR-1, the old King of the Hill was definitely out to pasture. The C5 and C6 Z06 was the new Corvette performance champ. Fast-forward to 2007-'08, the Corvette rumor mill was heating up with rumors of a new super Vette called the Blue Devil. When a test mule was caught on a smart phone video with the distinctive whine of a supercharger, the cat was out of the bag.

When the '09 ZR1 made its debut, heads exploded. Unlike the C4 ZR-1, the C6 ZR1 was an in-your-face, $103,300, 205-mph velvet brute of a Corvette. The C6 ZR1 was built on the Z06 platform so it had all of the C5-R racer-inspired hardware. Like the C4 ZR-1, the big news was under the hood. Z06 customers thought their 505-horsepower LS7 was a brute, but the ZR1's supercharged LS9 packed 638 horsepowe with 604 lb-ft of torque. The all-aluminum LS9 engine was not only supercharged, it had an intercooler, port fuel-injection, a 10.75-quart dry-sump oil system and a LUK dual-disc clutch. The TR-6060 six-speed transmission was beefed up and the gear ratios are closer than those in the Z06.

Modern Corvettes are all about suspension and brakes. The Speedline forged aluminum-alloy wheels measure 19x10 in the front and 20x12 in the rear, and are shod with Michelin Pilot Sport tires measuring 285/30R19 on the front and 335/25R20 on the rear. The Brembo carbon ceramic rotors are vented and cross-drilled; measure 15.5x1.6-inches in the front and 15x1.4-inches in the rear. Six-piston calipers are in the front; and four-piston units are in the rear; with pads that are twice the size as those used on the Z06; and will last a lifetime for street use. The Z06 suspension used the next-generation Delphi Magnetorheological variable shocks, softer springs, larger antiroll bars and revised rear suspension geometry.

The entire front end and roof section was made of carbon fiber. Clearcoat covered the carbon-fiber chin spoiler, rocker panel, and roof section. The new hood was 1-inch taller than a regular Corvette's and a Plexiglas window shows off the LS9's intercooler. The front and rear fender flares were the same as the Z06, but the front fenders had larger, more aggressive vents and the back end was finished off with a short, full-width spoiler. ZR1 badges adorn the front fenders and rear bumper cover; and the interior is trimmed with ZR1 badges and embroidery on the seats. The speedometer goes up to 220, but there was a 205-mph governor on the car. The C6 ZR1 was another super-expensive Corvette. Costing $103,300, the '09 ZR1 was over double the $47,895 base Vette. The '13 ZR1 went for $112,575. From 2009-'13 Chevrolet sold 4,684 ZR1s.

The C7 ZR1 carries the traditional ZR1 status of being a true GT supercar. All of the C7's delightful attributes are present, plus a lot more. For the first time, a ZR1 is available as a coupe or convertible; and with a seven-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission. The 6.2-liter (376ci) LT5 engine is similar to the Z06's LT4, but with a 56 percent larger Eaton supercharger, additional port injection, a stronger crankshaft, a more efficient electronic bypass valve and higher volume intercooler fluid. The dedicated 10-spoke wheels are the very similar in size to those on the Z06; the ZR1's front wheels are a half-inch wider. The ZR1 uses the Z06's Z07 Package, but with refined spring rates and dampers. Traction Control and Active Handling is a must, and is standard.

The ZR1's aggressive front end looks that way because it has five extra cooling radiators. Intercoolers are stacked ahead of the radiators in the outer positions. Like a race car, the front underwing extends back to the front wheelwell openings. At the back end, the basic ZR1 has a low fixed wing. For those that want more, there's the $2,995 ZTK Package with a taller, adjustable rear wing and winglettes on the outboard edges of the front splitter. Weighing in at 3,600-pounds, the C7 ZR1 had an all-time low power-to-weight ratio of 4.76:1. Now the rest of the story the price. The basic ZR1 coupe lists for $119,995, the convertible goes for $123,995. A ZR1 convertible can max out to just under $156,000.

The new ZR1 lives up to its predecessor's reputations and exceeds all performance levels. This will most likely be the "finished" C7 Corvette. At the Dubai debut, Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter said that his engineering team did everything they could possibly do to the C7 platform when developing the ZR1. Do you realize what that means? They are already working on the C9. 

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