In 1990, the American car market was just shaking off the Malaise Era of the mid-seventies to late-eighties low horsepower, poor quality, crapbox-on-wheels domestic auto production. Chevrolet needed an explosive halo car, one that could take on the world, a King of the Hill. It found that in the Chevy Corvette ZR-1. With an all-aluminum, 32-valve, DOHC V-8 producing 375 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque, the ZR-1 could hit 60 miles per hour from a dead stop in a scant 4.4 seconds, pushing on to a top speed north of 180 miles per hour.
The ZR-1 was equipped with wider bodywork from the rear of the doors back, FX3 Active Ride Control, driver and passenger power leather sport seats, a low tire pressure warning system, a Delco-Bose 200-watt AM/FM/CD system, and a six-speed manual transmission. The ZR-1 package pushed the sticker price of a Corvette coupe to over $60,000, but many dealers charged premiums that inflated the price beyond $100,000.
Pros: With total production numbering only 6,922, a C4 Chevy Corvette ZR-1 owner is guaranteed exclusivity. The performance is still very good compared to today’s sports cars. The ZR-1 was proven to be quite robust, setting seven world speed records in March of 1990, including 100 miles, 500 miles, 1,000 miles, 5,000 miles, 12 hours endurance, and 24 hours endurance, all at speeds in excess of 173 miles per hour.
Service for these rather impressive cars is available at most Chevy dealers. But the most notable item is this: as fourth-generation Corvette prices have reached their low ebb, so have ZR-1 prices. It is fairly easy to find a 1990 or 1991 model year in good condition, with low miles, under $25,000. For less than the price of a V-6 Ford Mustang fastback, you can have your very own world-class-performance Corvette ZR-1.
Cons: As can happen with exclusive cars of low production numbers, C4 Chevy Corvette ZR-1 parts can sometimes be tricky and expensive to find. Joining an online forum is helpful. For those who don’t know the difference, the ZR-1 looks like every other fourth-generation Corvette coupe. ZR-1 bodywork is unique from the doors back to accommodate eleven-inch-wide rear wheels. In order to achieve the chassis stiffness needed to cope with the initial 375 hp, and later 405 hp, the ZR-1 had to be produced as a fixed-roof coupe only. The ‘solar’ windshield was made only for this model, and can be both tough to source and costly to replace.
The interiors of all fourth gen ‘Vettes tend to wear poorly. Because of the high sills and massive transmission tunnel, getting in and out of them is akin to climbing in and out of a canoe. Starting in 1993, ZR-1 output jumped to 405 horsepower, courtesy of modified cylinder heads and valvetrain. As a result, 1993-1995 ZR-1s are more expensive.
Verdict: With most parts and service readily available, Chevy Corvette ZR-1 ownership shouldn’t be an overly-expensive proposition. Moreover, current sales prices on low-mile examples that have had good upkeep are well below the price of your average new car. For a rather reasonable admission price, you are rewarded with exceptional performance, a decent degree of comfort and options, and robust powertrain, all wrapped in a package that is overdue to appreciate. With the collector car market still quite hot, this is a performance bargain with a bit of exclusivity, poised to increase in value. One could find worse investments.