Corvette ZR-1 made its debut at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show. It was a time when performance cars were only beginning to regain some of the underhood strength enjoyed during the heyday of the muscle car, and the Corvette ZR-1’s 280 kW LT5 V-8 engine – with its DOHC configuration and four-valve heads – was an intoxicating breath of high-octane excitement.
The all-aluminum LT5 engine’s design was a collaboration of GM and Lotus Engineering, sharing only a 5.7-liter displacement with other small-block engines. The engine was built by Mercury Marine, which was renowned for its aluminum machining capability. Engineers were justifiably proud of the LT5’s refinement and smoothness; so much so that it was claimed a nickel placed on its end on top of the engine wouldn’t fall over when the engine was started. The challenge was immediately taken up – and the LT5 roared to life while the nickel remained standing.
The Corvette ZR-1 was more than merely a more powerful Corvette – it was a complete performance package that included wider rear bodywork to accommodate humongous rear tires and a unique, convex rear fascia with rectangular taillamps that made the car recognizable at a glance. The distinctive exterior elements contributed to the car’s mythical status among enthusiasts and auto critics. At its launch, the Corvette ZR-1 was found on the cover of just about every automotive publication around the globe, with Car and Driver dubbing it the “Corvette from Hell.”
Proving the Corvette ZR-1’s performance lived up to its instant legend status, a production model was sent to a high-speed test track at Fort Stockton, Texas, and set seven world speed records – the most notable being a 24-hour endurance run that averaged 283 km/h and recorded more than 4,200 miles.
During 1990, the Corvette ZR-1 recorded 3044 sales. Subsequent model years didn’t quite match the buzz created by that first year, even with a horsepower increase to 405 SAE (302 kW) in 1993. This was due partly to all Corvette models from 1991 through 1995 – the Corvette ZR-1’s 1995 final year – wearing convex rear fascias that made them almost indistinguishable from the higher-performance “King of the Hill” models. Total production of the Corvette ZR-1 was 6939 cars between 1990 and 1995.