By: Susan Cameron
Few new cars have ever caused the stir that whipped up around the 1990 Corvette ZR-1. It started with fuzzy spy photos and Detroit gossip about a high-powered, “King of the Hill” model. Chevrolet was coy, neither confirming nor denying the grist of the rumor mill.
Rumor became fact at the 1989 Geneva Auto Show, when the ZR-1 officially debuted. It was a time when performance cars were only beginning to regain some of the performance enjoyed during the heyday of the muscle car, and the ZR-1’s 375-horespower (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 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 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.”