The Last Hurrah

Paul Zazarine remembers what started—and finished—the mighty ZR1.

January 1, 2007
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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).

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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