The Last Hurrah

Also from Issue 30

  • Milford Proving Grounds visit
  • History: Two-Rotor Corvette
  • C4 pickup truck
  • Market Report: C5
  • History: 1958-59 design
  • Racing: GT1 title tightens
  • How-To: TPI fuel injection rebuild
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Designated LT1, this heavily revised smallblock (“Gen-II” in GM lingo) became the Corvette’s standard engine for ‘92, breaking the LT5’s stranglehold on buyers’ imagination. Suddenly, the LT5 didn’t seem so glamorous anymore—only expensive.

But it was the Gen-III V8—an all-new, all-aluminum, two-valve, pushrod design sharing the old smallblock’s basic layout but no common pieces—that fully doomed the LT5. By early ‘90 McLellan’s team was working on the next Corv­ette, and their initial plan called for an LT5-based four-cam making 450+ bhp. However, the all-alloy, pushrod Gen-III penciled out to be so much smaller, lighter, and cheaper that even the techies had to admit that the four-cam’s romance had been superceded by events on the ground. When faced with performance data showing a Gen-III-powered C5 could outrun an LT5-powered ZR1 at a fraction the cost, the question was settled.

That didn’t mean the ZR1 was a failure. Quite the opposite. As a marketing tool the exotic package put Chevrolet back on the supercar map, and as a driving ma­chine the turbine-like smoothness and sensual howl of the LT5 made a whole generation of writers and enthusiasts re-embrace the American sports car. Sales were respectable enough at the beginning as well, with 3049 examples sold in 1990, followed by 2044 in ‘91. But by the time the LT1 arrived for MY ’92, Chevy al­ready knew the ZR1’s days were numbered. Sales fell to just 502 units that year, the same season in which the upmarket model lost two of its most powerful angels—Lloyd Reuss was pushed out (along with CEO Bob Stempel) of the GM boardroom, while Dave Mc­Lellan went into retirement.

In November of ‘93, Mercury Marine was officially notified that the LT5 production line was to be shuttered. At that time Stillwater had assembled, sealed, and sent out 1350 still-unused en­gines, now rated at 405 bhp (thanks to small top- and bottom-end improvements). Spread out evenly, those engines plus a few others already in the pipeline meant Chevy could build just under 450 ZR1s each year for the next three years while still keeping a handful in reserve for warranty claims. In theory, that was enough to keep RPO ZR1 on the op­tion sheet through the end of the C4’s life.

What with one delay and another, the C5’s launch was held back until MY ‘97—but at this point, that day was still in the future. On this late-April afternoon in ’95, Dave McLellan was back in Bowling Green to share with Corvette fans the car that he felt was his crowning achievement. With the targa removed from the final ZR1, as he and Jim Perkins drove to the NCM, Dave Mc­Lellan, the Corv­ette’s “Quiet Genius,” smiled and waved for the crowd.