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Last year I was finally able to get The Dragon on the track, something I have wanted to do ever since getting him. It was an awesome day at the Dunnville Autodrome enjoyed by everyone. The ZR-1 acquited himself perfectly, besting cars almost 20 years younger and entertaining everyone with his distinctive roar.

Sadly the Dunnville facility has been closed down and I thought that as a result of this I would be denied the opportunity to get on the track again, at least for this year. Luckily an opportunity has come up to drive the famous Mosport International Raceway track and get instruction from qualified drivers. This is a charity event and will benefit from the attendance of several ‘vette  celebrities, not least Ron Fellows from the Corvette Racing team. Continue reading

The big hot topic at the moment is the imminent arrival of the new ZR1. 6.2 liters, supercharged, 600bhp: what’s not to like? (Well if I were to be churlish I could say the fact that it’s still a wide-mouthed grinning frog C6!) Seriously though, there is a lot of technology in this car and a lot to admire about it (though the cheesy see-through hood does smack of an 11-year-old chief designer with a ‘Hot Wheels’ fixation).

Grinning frogs

Many owners of the older LT5 ZR-1 have given the car a lacklustre reception – myself included – after all we owe allegiance to the older ‘King’. Some have been pleased because they feel it will shine more of a spotlight on the special quality (and value) of the 90s car and many others have welcomed it as a sign that GM still loves the older cars and respects their position in history.

Sadly, I feel that the latter idea calls for more suspension of disbelief than I can honestly muster.

The new ZR1 and the older ZR-1 (careful with that hyphen!) have no real commonality, certainly not in terms of parts, but not even one of philosophy either.

The LT5 ZR-1 was a tour de force in engineering, the engine design – a masterpiece of mechanical efficiency and finesse born out of a maelstrom of blood, sweat and engineers’ tears. And not just the engine: the body work on the car was completely re-engineered from the doors back to give room for the extra wide tires. This wasn’t just the simplistic bolt-on wheel flares/body-coloured spoiler affair but a complete (and subtle) re-working of the entire vehicle. The transmission was selected from the best available rather than slapping in yet another GM off-the-shelf part originally intended for a granny-wagon. The tires were specially designed and constructed by Goodyear. It was, and is, an automotive work-of-art.

The new ZR1? Slap in a supercharger, rivet/glue on a couple of flairs and a tail spoiler, change out the ‘gills’. No one struggled to get this car off the block; no one did anything clever to make it happen. The only real question was – what’s the cheapest way to make even more power? GM has built this car for one reason and one reason only – they have learned that they sell every single Corvette they make. It’s the ultimate cash-cow for them.

And that, right there, to me is the big problem – not just with the new ZR1, but with pretty much every car that has been coming out of ‘Detroit’ since the 90s: the single biggest emphasis has been more and more power – to the point where the ZR1 (sans hyphen)  is beyond anything really practical for the street.

It’s a strange position perhaps, coming from a person who owns one of the legendary all-time fastest vettes around (180+ is NOT slow), that cars can have too much power, too much speed. But it’s not as incongruous as it first seems.

When the ZR-1 came out and I read all about the engine and the power, it undoubtedly tweaked my youthful testosterone strings. But that wasn’t the whole story. I was lapping up the stories of these, simply beautiful, cars grand touring all day through winding mountain roads. And in among all of this was the amazing fact that this car was not only powerful and extremely fast, but also efficient. As recalled in the ‘Heart of the Beast’ by Anthony Young, when Bob Schultz, General Manager, was informed that the LT5 met the new ‘gas guzzler’ tax, he responded, “You’re telling me we’ve got a 400 horsepower engine that can meet gas guzzler, and we’ve got a 245hp engine that can’t?”

Power. With efficiency. A completely different and infinitely more sophisticated approach than is usually the case in US car manufacturing. That was why I loved the car so much. There is an inherent beauty, a technological harmony present in something that is efficient, over and above any notion of sheer power. It’s the difference between a brawler and a master of the martial arts, or a hoodlum with a machete versus a graduate from Domenico Angelo’s l’Ecole d’Armes.

Making power has never been that hard. Auto-engineers have known how to do that since the very early days. The simplest way? Just make it bigger. This in fact was the ‘prime directive’ all the way up until the 70s and that was precisely what GM and every other manufacturer did. It wasn’t particularly clever; it didn’t have a lot of finesse. The maxim was simple: “there ain’t no substitute for cubic inches”. Sadly we seem to have been left with the legacy of this mentality even now, nearly forty years later.

It seems that nothing was learned from those black days of gas station line-ups and rationing. As soon as the artificially-inflated gas prices settled back down, what did Detroit do? They went back to the old ways of pumping out cars that were bigger, fatter, more powerful and less efficient.

Take the Corvette as an example. According to the standard testing procedures a base model 1990 Corvette made 16/25 mpg (19 combined), while a 2008 model gets 15/25 (18 combined). This is even using the new ‘cooked’ formula by the EPA designed to make the efficiency ratings look better. So the fuel efficiency of the Corvette has actually decreased (the 1990 ZR-1 was even more efficient) while the need for said efficiency has increased. Would anyone care to suggest that our oil supplies are somehow higher now than they were 30 years ago? That global climate change is less of a problem?

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Performance. That same 1990 Corvette made 245bhp; the 2008 base model makes 430bhp. Slice it anyway you like: that looks like a 70 percent rise in power to me. (looking at fuel consumption figures for all vehicles Bezdek and Wendling showed, in a recent study for American Scientist, that average fuel economy for all new vehicles has declined from 26.2 mpg in 1987 to 24.7 mpg in 2004 – so the 6% drop is across the board.)

So a 6% fuel efficiency decrease, coupled to a 75 percent power increase. That certainly seems clear to me where GM’s priorities have been. Remember too, that’s the base model; if you look at the Z06s and the new ZR1 these figures will look even worse. Also worth noting; these fuel economy figures are in a vehicle now approximately 500kg lighter – making them even more unpalatable.

Look too at the LT5 engine in the ZR-1. In ’93 Lotus reworked the engine to produce 405bhp. It still made the same mileage but the power differential between that engine and the new base model is only 6%. What’s more, Lotus also had a 450bhp engine in the wings ready to go. GM essentially threw away a highly efficient engine design in favour of a ‘Billy Bob’ special.

With the new fuel economy regulations that the US will introduce – 35mpg (by the rather laughable target year of 2020) – it seems likely that the Corvette in its current form will not survive. There is much talk about reducing power but lightening the car to retain comparable performance. All of which could have been done twenty years ago. And if GM and the other car manufacturers can find a way of getting round the new regulations, they will. One look at the exemption on the old CAFE standards for trucks – the most populous vehicles on our roads -shows just how cynical Detroit is about such things.

GM has now to all practical purposes abandoned the old ZR-1. They support their flagship vehicle of just 17 years ago not one iota. Despite people paying the highest prices ever for a GM vehicle (taking inflation into account) they have thrown the owners to curb. The people who do own them, who should be some of GMs biggest supporters, are instead its biggest critics.

And as for the new ZR1 itself? It seems probable that it, like its earlier somewhat namesake, will have a short life. It is being pitched once again as an exclusive, high-priced vehicle for the elite with lots of money. The result seems obvious to me even now, before the car goes on sale. But as my favourite author, Robert Heinlein, once said: “If the lessons of history teach us anything – it’s that nobody learns the lessons that history teaches us.”

It’s more or less the end of the ‘vette season here in the ‘great white north’; if I’m lucky the weather might stretch out to another few weeks of patchy driving for the ZR-1. It seems strange to imagine I only took delivery of ‘The Dragon’ on that icy night back in February; the summer has had a peculiar timelessness to it.

The first couple of months were filled with immense frustration, having taken delivery and then having to place him in storage where I couldn’t even get access particularly easily. After the journey up from Detroit he was covered in road gunk and looked a complete mess, like taking in a stray puppy and then not giving them a bath and a warm place to stay.

Black Corvette ZR-1 with snow and trees in background
I admit it; I pushed to get him out. We were lucky to have a fairly mild winter, which helped and I hoped to get him on the road for my birthday in March. That didn’t happen, but I did have my first real ride in him a week later. (Yes, that is snow in the background.)

So how was it? How did Achilles feel when he rode Xanthus? How would it feel to be a Dragon rider on Pern?

At first I was almost in awe of the Z, hardly daring to ‘loosen the reins’; though I have driven some fairly fast cars, nothing could prepare me for the sheer explosive nature of the Z when you ‘get on it’. The power kicks in and you think you must really be kicking ass, then a quick glance down informs you that you still have around half the rev band available! The power curve on the LT5 is quite simply awesome; the closest I have come to it previously was on the Jaguar V-12 engine, that red-lined at 6800RPM but had 25% less power.

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Just found out that an article I submitted for the ZR1 Registry magazine has been published in this issue. It’s a great feeling and I hope people find the piece entertaining.

The Registry has been an incredible source of information and very supportive both before and after getting ‘The Dragon’ and I have to thank everyone there for helping and answering my sometimes dumb questions.

So at the moment I’m feeling pretty chuffed!

It looks as though it’s official and the new 2008 Supercharged Corvette C6 will be known as the ZR1.

It’s hard to describe how I feel about this. In some ways it’s flattering I suppose, that the new super-vette will have a name closely related to the car I own – the car that I waited 17 years to own. Many people even within the ZR-1 community seem to feel this is a good thing, that it will generate interest in the ‘old’ ZR-1 (and many people who bought them as an investment hope it will lift prices too).

Firstly, the new car is the ZR1, not the ZR-1. This name originates back in 1971 when a highly limited production of eight cars were built as special race cars and not really intended for street use. The new car has no connection with the ZR-1 from the ’90s, either structurally, in design, or in intent. The ZR-1 was most definitely a production car, despite GMs attitude towards it.

Continue reading

Somewhat reluctantly I call the service manager at the local Goodwrench service center and I’m quickly booked in to get the speedometer correction gears installed. I’m not 100% sure they know how to do this job and they sound a little unsure when I quiz them. I console myself with the thought that this isn’t a reflection on the service center, it’s just a slightly unusual operation. I offer to bring in instructions on what needs doing, as well as the parts and they agree that will be useful, sounding somewhat relieved. I’m less so, as they didn’t admit not being sure until I pressed the issue. I’ve always thought it’s better to admit you’re not sure than barge ahead and screw things up.

So I take it in on the appointed day, my fiancée following in our regular car to ferry me on to my job. When I drop it off I’m informed that the service center is short staffed and they ‘might not be able to look at it that day but they hoped they would’. Here’s where I made my first mistake – I left the ‘vette with them.

Several calls later on that day and I finally establish that the car won’t be ready. They promise to keep it inside overnight, but it will be Tuesday before they can do the work. They also tell me that there is an oil leak on the car and I let them know that the oil pan bolts are known to work loose, so they might want to check them when it’s up on the lift.

Continue reading

I’ve had my ZR-1 a couple of months now and enjoyed it at any opportunity the weather has allowed. Spring has been unusually mild here in Ontario and given me much more of an opportunity to drive the car than I might normally have.

It’s been a fantastic few weeks; we’ve been out on a few runs with the Sudbury Corvette club as well as many more on our own and the car has behaved flawlessly – truly living up to my expectations.

It’s a strange dual-mannered Beast; with the power key off it’s fast, faster than possibly any other car I have driven. With ‘full power’ it’s mind blowing, accelerating like a bullet all the way through the gears till you back off. It’s also takes a while adjusting to the red-line on the LT5 engine; when accelerating I find I have a tendency to short-shift. Most cars don’t have the rev limits that the ZR-1 has.

Reprogramming my brain to take into account the full potential is a task that is entirely NOT arduous. 😉

The ZR-1 had a number of modifications when I bought it Continue reading

After several weeks of agonising, waiting for the weather to break somewhat predictably we managed to jump through the last few hoops needed to make the ZR-1 finally fully legal.

First of all we needed to get the vehicle safety inspected. This was largely a formality, because the car is a ’91 and being over fifteen years old is exempt from the RIV program and needs no modifications to be legal here in Canada.

Down we trooped to Canadian Tire to get the official sanction on the vehicle where we were greeted with a great deal of jokes about ‘having to keep it for the weekend’ and so on. I also wasn’t happy about the compulsory 4km test drive that they needed to do – a ‘crappy tire’ guy driving my ZR-1? Continue reading

I just took delivery of my Corvette ZR-1 last night. What a fantastic feeling to think that it’s finally here after all these years of dreaming.

The event itself was a bit of a suprise. I contacted the shipping company at around lunch time and was told it would be next week as they didn’t have a transporter coming up this way till then. Then at about 4.30pm I got a call and the guy says “I’m delivering your Corvette, I’ll be there about 8.30!”

Ten out of ten for nice suprises, but -1000 for customer contact skills. Also to make things worse, the storage facility I am going to use till Spring closes at 7pm.

So at the appointed time I go out to meet the transporter at a nameless Husky gas station on Highway 17. It’s pitch black and -7C, I have knots in my stomach from excitement and worry and I feel like a stolen car dealer – now where did I leave my ski mask?

The first thing I see as we pull up is the distinctive wide rear of the ZR-1, I’ve thought about these cars and ‘studied’ them so much I barely have to glance at it to recognise the shape. It’s dirty, filthy in fact, covered in road grime and gunk, barely recognisable as the car I saw a few weeks ago. But it doesn’t matter, it’s mine and I’m about to drive the King of the Hill. The Beast. Continue reading

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