Dave McLellan had been retired from GM for nearly three years when he arrived at the Corvette Assembly facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It was Thursday, 27 April ‘95; he’d left in August of ‘92 following a 17-year stint as the Corvette’s second chief engineer.
Under McLellan’s tenure the third-gen Corvette had come back to life after the negative blows of the ’70s nearly emasculated it. Later, he created a fourth-gen car using cutting-edge chassis, engineering, and assembly concepts that would leapfrog the brand back into world-class status. Then, with each successive model year, he oversaw the refinement of that original design, nurturing the C4 into a comfortable yet attainable GT masterpiece that would dominate SCCA racing for the rest of the decade. Yet even with all those accomplishments, the project McLellan considered his greatest triumph was the short-lived Corvette ZR1.
That exotic, four-cam machine was the reason McLellan was back in town. The following morning Chevy would mark the end of its production run with a grand ceremony at the Corvette plant. (The slogan for the day, in true PR reverse-speak, was “The Legend Lives.”) After the last ZR1 came off the line, Dave and Chevrolet’s then-general manager, Jim Perkins, would drive the Torch Red coupe a half-mile to the National Corvette Museum, where it was to be put onto permanent display. How, in just over half a decade, the ultra-sophisticated ZR1 went from corporate flagship to bittersweet museum piece is a tale wrapped up in politics, economics, and the unforeseen consequences of technology. It’s also an object lesson in the sheer power of simple designs.
Though always seen as a ‘90s phenomenon, the roots of the ZR1 go all the way back to the dawn of the C4 program, when Chevrolet Engineering was looking at various alternatives to the long-lived GM smallblock. Among those considered by the team was a series of twin-turbocharged V6s and V8s. The V6 idea died early on, largely because the division saw that a V8 was integral to the Corvette’s reputation. The twin-screw V8, meanwhile, got the ax due to some packaging and performance issues, but most importantly marketability. (Happily, the technical data gleaned to that point was handed to Callaway Cars, which developed the idea further and went on to sell turbocharged-V8 Corvettes out of Chevrolet dealerships).