Text and photos by Bruce Caldwell and Jerry Heasley.
Corvettes are considered mass-produced sports cars, but in 1990, Chevrolet brought out a special edition Vette that rivaled hand-built European exotics such as Ferraris, Maseratis, and Porsches. Dubbed the “King of the Hill” Corvette, it was officially known by its RPO code, ZR1. The super Vette had long been rumored and teased in car enthusiast magazines, where it acquired the “King of the Hill” nickname.
Chevrolet was so confident of the ZR-1’s merits that it was unveiled at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland. The press launch was held in the mountains of France. To prove how good the new ZR-1 was, Chevrolet had a Ferrari Testarossa, Lamborghini Countach, and Porsche 911 Turbo on hand for comparison drives. The press loved the new ZR-1, which helped fire up already eager customers.
World-class sports car superiority doesn’t come cheaply. RPO ZR1 (the RPO code doesn’t have a hyphen, but the model name does) listed at $27,016 and quickly jumped to $31,000-plus for the remaining years. This was on top of the base coupe price, which varied from approximately $32,000 to $37,000. That easily pushed prices into the mid-sixties. Some overly eager customers paid nearly $100,000 for the privilege of being the first ZR-1 owner in their neighborhood. First year sales were strong at 3,049 units.
High prices and styling that many buyers felt was too similar to non-ZR-1 Corvettes dampened enthusiasm for 1991. Sales were still respectable at 2,044 units, but dropped drastically in 1992 when only 502 ZR-1s were sold. The writing was on the sales department wall. Only 448 ZR-1s were produced for each of the final three years. Besides decreased demand, the final numbers were influenced by the supply of LT5 engines. Mercury Marine (which hand-assembled each engine) produced the final LT5 in November 1993. The remaining engines and tooling were sent to the Bowling Green Corvette assembly plant.
The limited sales of 1992-95 models have helped their collectability. Such a unique Corvette with production numbers in the mere hundreds can’t help but be collectable.
THE AWESOME LT5
Detailed articles have been written about the unique 5.7-liter (350 cubic inch) LT5 engine, but the important thing to know when considering a ZR-1 purchase is that the engine is the pivotal/crucial part of the car. Without an excellent-condition LT5, all you’ve got is a very expensive repair bill in a handsome wrapper.
The all-aluminum, four-cam, 32-valve LT5 was a joint project between Lotus Engineering in England and Chevrolet. It was designed and assembled with the care and precision of a racing engine, so unless a particular example was thoroughly abused, it should be reliable. Also, many ZR-1s still have very low miles. Nonetheless, it would be wise to have a potential purchase inspected by a ZR-1 expert.
The engine management system was quite sophisticated for its time. The ECM allowed the engine to run at low power around town. Under acceleration (but below 3500 rpm) horsepower increased to 245 – running on only half of the 16 injectors and half of the intake valves. Once the engine hit 3500, all systems were go! The LT5 has an impressive power curve and it revs like crazy. The LT5 is very smooth, all the way from its 650-rpm idle to its 7,200-rpm redline.
The initial LT5 was rated at 375 horsepower and 370 lb-ft of torque. In 1993, horsepower was increased to 405, with 385 lb-ft of torque. Improvements to the cylinder heads and valvetrain components accounted for the increases. These later LT5 engines also received four-bolt main bearings, which is another big plus. The sole transmission for all ZR-1s is the ZF six-speed manual.
A sad fact about some of the wildest performance cars is that they’re not much fun to drive in everyday situations. Sure, they’re a blast under full power, but around town they can be rough and temperamental. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the ZR-1. Given the multi-stage nature of the engine mentioned above, the ZR-1 is quite civilized at low speeds. The RPO FX3 Selective Ride and Handling control also contributes to the ZR-1’s multiple use functionality. All the brake and suspension components are first rate and help make the car easy to control.
We had the privilege of driving and living with several new press fleet ZR-1s for a week at a time. Traffic and road conditions meant that many miles were covered at speeds attainable by boring econo-cars. The athleticism and responsiveness of the ZR-1 were still fun in commuter conditions, but it was when we traveled far, far out of town that the LT5 revealed its full potential.
We took the ZR-1s to some of our favorite super isolated roads. When you earnestly put your foot in it, the ZR-1 launches and pulls like a drag racer. The LT5 is incredible. It pulls like it has no rev limit and the sounds are pure bliss to any performance enthusiast.
The biggest challenge to enjoying all that a ZR-1 has to offer is finding safe driving venues. Chevrolet was onto something with the ZR-1’s European introduction, because the car is ideal for super highways like the Autobahn.
Prices have dropped considerably from what original ZR-1 owners paid. Now is an excellent time to buy a ZR-1, because supplies are still good, prices are reasonable, and there are still lots of low mileage examples available. We don’t foresee prices dropping much further for pristine, low mileage examples. The ultra high-mileage examples could easily drop, but then the risk of repairs increases. And, for outstanding collectability nothing beats low, original miles.
Scanning the asking prices of recent ZR-1 ads turned up prices as low as $9,500 for a high-mileage 1990 model, to $36,000 for another ’90 with a mere 179 miles on the odometer. There are lots of cars in the low-to-mid twenties, with most ZR-1s falling in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. Many of these cars have less than 30,000 miles on them.
Super low mileage cars, limited production colors, last year (1995), and 1993 cars with the Z25 40th Anniversary Package can command higher prices. We found a 13,000-mile Anniversary Package ZR-1 at a dealership for $35,000. That tells us you can expect to do even better with a private seller and remember, dealers need to sell cars. Dealers are always negotiable and not prone to indecisiveness like some reluctant private party sellers.
In our opinion, there are two ways to go in terms of finding the best ZR-1 buys. For long-term collectability we’d choose a super low mileage ’95 model in a bold color such as Competition Yellow (49 sold) or Torch Red (140 sold). Other colors are much more rare (e.g. 12 Admiral Blue and 16 Dark Red), but we feel bright colors have more impact and therefore, better sales appeal. Our second long-term choice would be a pristine ’93 ZR-1 with the Ruby Red paint that was exclusive to the 40th Anniversary Package even though over half (245 of 448) of the year’s ZR-1s had the Z25 option. Competition Yellow and Torch Red were new ’93 colors, so they would also be good choices.
If you just want to have the ZR-1 experience at a reasonable cost with minimal financial risk, look for the best condition, lowest mileage 1990 or 1991 model at or near $20,000. Twenty grand seems to be a current plateau where low miles, good condition, and reasonable supplies meet. A quality ZR-1 under 20K could even be a moneymaker.
The key to finding a great deal on a ZR-1 is to act quickly before prices rebound. Buy your King of the Hill ZR-1 while prices are still in the lowlands.
All ZR-1 Corvettes are desirable, but among the most collectible ones are the 1993 models with the 40th Anniversary Package (RPO Z25). A total of 448 ZR-1 coupes were built in ’93, and 245 of them were painted Ruby Red as part of the Anniversary Package.
This is a 1993 ZR-1 LT5 engine, which is the year that horsepower jumped from 375 to 405. That increases the collectability of the ’93 models.
This plaque next to the six-speed shifter lists the details of the LT5 engine: displacement, horsepower, torque, and compression ratio. Below the shifter boot was the Ride Control knob for Touring, Sport, and Performance settings.
The ZR1 option was very expensive, topping $31,000 for all but the first year. This 1992 window sticker shows that the $31,378 option brought the total price to a whopping $66,513 before any additional dealer markup.
ZR-1 Corvettes are three inches wider in the rear quarters, but that isn't always evident without a regular Corvette for comparison. ZR-1s all had roof-mounted center brake lamps even after 1991 when the lamps were moved to the rear fascia panel on standard coupes. This is one of 2,044 ZR-1s built in 1991.
The wider rear quarter panels were necessary to accommodate the 17x11-inch rear wheels and 315/35ZR17 tires.
Unique doors were also necessary to blend with the widened rear quarters. The changes from a normal Corvette are extra tough to distinguish on black ZR-1s like this 1992 model.
1990 ZR-1s are by far the most common, with 3,049 produced. That makes them the easiest to find and the most likely to be priced under $20,000. This ’90 ZR-1 has 1994-95 wheels.
This 1990 ZR-1 has the correct ’90 wheels. Bright Red was by far the most popular Corvette color for 1990, and it’s an excellent choice for a ZR-1.
The 1991 ZR-1s are the second most common with a production total of 2,044 units. The front tire size was 275/40ZR17.
A modest sized Chevy Bowtie and raised ZR-1 logo on the lower right rear fascia helps sharp-eyed enthusiasts spot a ZR-1. Four exhaust tips were used on 1990-91 ZR-1s.
The heart of the ZR-1 is the all-aluminum LT5 engine that features four camshafts, 32 valves, and 16 fuel injectors. All LT5 engines were hand-built to the same exacting standards used on racing engines. Although the LT5 was unique from other Chevrolet V-8s, it still displaced 350 cubic inches.
There were three different wheel styles: 1990 (directional), 1991-1993 (directional, shown), and 1994-1995 (five-spoke, non-directional).