It takes a lot to be a legend. And when the subject turns to legendary Corvettes, we're really talking about "legends within the legend." For many years America's Only Sports Car, Corvette still reigns as America's Favorite Sports Car; the marque is a cultural icon with a storied past, the car little boys and girls (and more than a few adults) have dreamed of owning for years. To gain exalted status within the Corvette legend is no small feat. There are the fuelies of '57 and '63, the split-window, the big-block mid-years, to name a few; and, of course, the '90-95 ZR-1.
The new, sleek, and aerodynamic C4 Corvette had barely hit the pavement before talk of the need for a new, powerful, world-beating engine started deep within General Motors. The new Vette was an immediate success, but the Cross-Fire powerplant did leave something to be desired. The 1985 upgrade to the 230hp L98 brought some degree of respectability, but the car's success in Showroom Stock racing made it obvious that the new platform could handle much more power. Corvette Chief Engineer Dave McLellan definitely wanted more power.
GM was also concerned with maintaining its leadership in the American sports car market. The Japanese had taken over the economy car market, and had their sights set higher. GM like such as Vice President Lloyd Reuss saw this as a serious threat, and was among those at GM who were determined to keep Corvette on top.
Anyone's who interested already knows that the development of Chevrolet's first new small-block V-8 since the '50s ended up in the capable hands of Lotus Engineering (See the accompanying article by Richard F. Newton, "ZR-1: The Ultimate C4," page 46). This process in itself is the type of story that lends itself to legend. Although Lotus had been discussing possibilities with Chevrolet starting in mid-1984 (one of these being the adaptation of four-valve, double-overhead cam heads to the small-block Chevy), the agreement to build an entirely new engine, one that would make 400hp and still be completely civilized, was not struck until May 1985, and Lotus did not get started until August of that year. The first engine had to run in May of '86-it had to make it into a car by August. It would be understatement, to say the least, that this was an incredibly short amount of time in which to design and build an engine from scratch. But those involved got it done.
VETTE's May '88 cover captured...
VETTE's May '88 cover captured the excitement that came with the first look at the ZR-1.
The development process was another story. Lotus began the arduous detective work inherent in ferreting out the flaws in a new engine-problems such as oil control and breaking cam chains. While work progressed across the pond, it shifted into high gear here in the States. The MerCruiser Division of Mercury Marine was chosen to build the LT5, and had the unenviable task of setting up an assembly line before the final specs of the engine were even finalized. Changes came on a daily, if not hourly basis, but the commitment was there, and it was strong. Chevrolet had preproduction LT5s to show off in early 1988, and introduced the ZR-1 to the press at the now-defunct Riverside Raceway in the middle of that year.
At this point, Chevrolet decided to wait and introduce the "King of the Hill," as it had come to be known, as a '90 model with all the changes planned for that year. But the buzz was there, and this was the car that American enthusiasts were talking about and dying to get their hands on.
Most of us in the Corvette hobby know what happened at this point: The 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 was introduced to the press in France, where the members of the third estate were quickly convinced of the new super-Vette's capabilities, and then it was time. The public could finally get a shot at the Corvette of Corvettes.