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I’ve known about the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask!) ‘Gatherings’ for several years, even before I bought my ZR-1 and it has always been my intention to make the trip at one point or another. 2009 was a possibility but I wasn’t sure I’d want to go two years in a row and so we postponed until this year. This also coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the ZR-1’s ‘birth’ which made it even more special.

The drive down was through some terrible weather, rainstorms beat around our ears all the way and the Dragon looked almost as bad as when he’d been delivered to us in the middle of winter – despite having done an extremely thorough detailing job over the weeks before setting out.

The Gathering always has lots going on and the anniversary version no less so. There were presentations, Q & A sessions and the opportunity to meet some of the most famous people in the history of the Corvette and in-particular the ZR-1. It made choosing what to sign up for very hard – simply not enough hours in the day.

Our first event was a guided trip through the Kentucky back-roads by no other than Jim ‘Jingles’ Ingle himself. Jim was one of the original drivers at the ZR-1 press launches and entertained the crowd with his tire shredding ‘grenade’ exercises. Not only that, but Jim was in charge of the test drive and quality check program that GM put the ZR-1s through.

Jim’s quiet exterior is at complete odds with what he can do behind the wheel. On the first leg of the journey there were a few grumbles about ‘not going fast enough’ – but with a dozen or so ZR-1s travelling in convoy we were a rather conspicuous group! On the second leg, Jim turned his 2010 ZR1 up a notch to power through the gorgeous and challenging Kentucky roads, which quickly silenced everyone. Certainly no-one was complaining at the speed at our second stop!

The trip itself was a delightful romp through the countryside to the Z06/ZR1 chassis assembly plant where we were treated to a guided tour of the amazing Dana plant. The painstaking attention to detail and the technology that goes into putting together the aluminium chassis is remarkable. I tried to persuade the Plant Manager that they out to put together an aluminium chassis for the C4 ZR-1, but unfortunately he seemed to think I was joking!

The next highlight of our trip was the special barbecue hosted by Jim Van Dorn at his Automasters shop just across from the museum. JVD is the man who put together the Corvette Pirate Racing team in the 90s and effectively served as the test-bed for what became the official Corvette racing team. Not only that but JVD’s outfit was one of only three teams to officially race the ZR-1.

Due to the late return of the Jingles Tour, we ended up getting to the barbecue late as well. This didn’t seem too significant until we queried the whereabouts of our specially ordered veggie-burgers. JVD takes regular burgers and cuts them into Chevy bowtie shape before barbecuing them to perfection. We’d requested veggie-burgers and arranged with Jim to have them there.

After a detailed investigation by the FBI, Secret Service and Sherlock Holmes it became clear that the burgers had been eaten by those nasty meat-eater types. Jim was appalled at this and more annoyed than we were!

At the barbecue Jim showed a video detailing the ZR-1 anniversary run, an amazing feat that still is unrivaled by any production car, what made it an even more incredible event was that in the audience were Dave McLellan, Tommy Morrison, John Heinricy, Stu Hayner, Jim Minneker and Hib Halverson the key men who were involved in the development of the ZR-1 and the record attempt.

After the video finished, all the people involved took part in an ‘after-hours’ discussion on the attempt and the car, led by Dave McLellan. In that they revealed a lot of fascinating new details about the car’s unique development, the battles with GM corporate to get the car out and insights into what had been planned for future development.

When the discussion stopped Jim held an auction in aid of soldiers on duty in Iraq and again the ‘celebs’ led the way, showing entertaining skills (Jim Minneker and Tommy Morrison could probably do a stand-up routine if they ever wanted to!) as auctioneers. I managed to snag an LT5 cam-cover and took it around to all the guests for their autographs – a ‘trophy’ that is now the pride of my ZR-1 memorabilia collection.

With more discussions and talks and side events than you could imagine it was impossible to see everything. I focused on the technical presentations and the talks with the former GM people gaining a huge amount of information and insight into the car’s development. Sadly that meant I missed seeing John Heinricy resoundingly taking first in the autocross event, but with so much going on how do you choose?

One of the best moments was taking around my copy of ‘Heart of the beast’ and getting each of the celebrities to sign their part of the book. It’s hard to believe that these people would spare so much of their own time to talk to an enthusiast like myself and yet they made me (and everyone) feel like old friends. At the Gathering dinner Dave McLellan actually asked everyone there to sign a commemorative poster for him as a memento!  It truly brought home the community feeling associated with the Corvette and the ZR-1 specifically.

The museum itself is amazing. The number and rarity of the cars on display is incredible. From details of the early designs and designers all the way up to the latest and greatest, the presentation is world-class. Cars that belonged to Harley Earl, Zora Duntov and Ed Cole nestle in-between displays of modern C6Rs and concept cars. In reality you probably have to go around a few times for everything to sink in properly.

For the Gathering a number of cars had been brought in specially to form a display in the Main Hall, this included Tommy Morrison’s race Corvettes, “Queenie” a prototype ZR-1 from 1988 that was crushed only to later rise from the grave, not to mention the world record running ZR-1s.

As we were reluctantly loading the car to return home we spotted a gold coloured ZR-1 sliding up beside us. To our amazement it turned out to be Tommy Morrison himself who had been staying at the same hotel, unknown to us. I paid complement to Tommy’s one-of-a-kind custom ZR-1 which has some incredible unique details and he returned the same about our car. The thing was you could genuinely feel that he meant it.

Going down I wasn’t sure if I would want to go twice in a row. Coming back I was sure I would!

 

My goal for this weekend was to swap the amplifiers in my ‘vette and thereby restore the functionality of the stereo system. The 90’s Bose system is somewhat notorious for failure; some of the capacitors were of dubious quality and basically turn to powder with age. This leaves you with a system that howls like a banshee, brays like a donkey and squeals like a 5 year old on acid – often all at the same time!

The choices are simple. Buy a set of new amps from Bose, or one of the Corvette parts suppliers – this costs between $125 and $150 per amp. As there are four of them altogether this gets to be a pretty expensive solution.

The other option is to keep an eye out for a good deal on Ebay, which is what I did; a complete set of amps, tested working, for $100 – less than a quarter of the new cost. That had to be a bargain.

Removal of the speakers to access the amps is fairly straightforward, though requires a certain element of contortionist skills in places – especially when removing the front speakers. Despite this I had the two back speakers out in about an hour (mostly because I was deliberately working slowly to avoid any problems).

The two front speakers, well they took about an hour and a half, due to the aforementioned contortion issues. The driver’s side came out easily once all the trim was removed, the passenger side… well that was a little different.

Though removing the passenger side speaker was actually slightly easier than its mirror twin, as I pulled the unit out it snagged the carpet slightly and this was enough to tear off two of the plastic ‘tabs’ where the screws go to hold it in place.

You often hear about plastic becoming brittle with age, but this was ridiculous. There’s always something to bite you when you least expect it!

So… a quick trip to the local parts store for a number of alternative possible fixes, including some ‘plastic weld’. I tried this first and to my complete surprise it made a strong fix that was perfectly usable.

I was a little cautious re-installing the speaker unit, half expecting the weld to fail and the tabs to fall off again; but it worked perfectly and in about another thirty minutes everything was back reinstalled.

A quick test showed the amps to be doing their job perfectly and ‘The Dragon’ now has his voice back! How’s that for a successful weekend?

Now? It’s Miller Time!

Yesterday was a beautiful day here. The snow has largely gone, the roads are pretty clear (so long as you stay off the side streets) and the temperatures are hitting the pluses with reasonable frequency.

I couldn’t resist any longer. We picked up the gear necessary and went to wake The Dragon from it’s long Winter slumber.

After re-installing the battery he cracked into life first time and purred contentedly. Out on to the streets the beast rumbled sedately, stretching himself in the warm Spring sunshine as we made our way across town.

The first run is always fairly sedate, the tires aren’t really at operating temperature and I spend most of the journey listening to noises from the car, watchful for any telltale warning signs after the Winter hibernation.

There were no concerns. The Dragon was in fine shape, rumbling pleasantly all the way home.

At one point I couldn’t resist, dropping a couple of gears to bring the revs up and ‘exercise’ the secondary injectors. The Dragon reared forward, eager to pound the highway content to do my bidding, whatever that might be. A tingle of excitement jumped up and down my spine and the ‘permagrin’ settled on my face.

ZR-1s are pure excitement!

Dave standing by 1991 Black Corvette ZR-1

 

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

It’s definitely winter here in the Great White North, as attested to by the -20+ temperatures and the fact that my dog doesn’t want to spend much time out on the deck! One of the benefits of the long winter though is that at least it gives you time to do some update projects without having to sacrifice seat time.

At the moment projects are somewhat problematic. My garage isn’t built yet; I had hoped to get it done last year, but that was taken up almost entirely by wedding plans and preparation, leaving virtually no time for anything else (including driving the vette!). So, at the moment, the car is tucked away in a friend’s heated garage (thanks Ted!).

This is a great improvement on the first winter of having the car (I still have nightmares about putting the car in storage the way I had to then), but it also provides limited access and space for working on any projects. Reviewing the work I would like to do on The Dragon, it’s clear that most of it requires long hours of access not available without my own garage. Continue reading

According to the press the new Corvette ZR1 production has been suspended due to the financial problems that all of the “big Three” auto companies are having.

As I pointed out in my earlier article “Lessons from History” this, sadly, comes as little surprise to me. It looks likely that the 2009 ZR-1 could even be a one year only vehicle considering it is the kind of ‘high profile’ offering likely to be offered up to any government auditors as ‘proof’ that GM is behaving responsibly with its bailout money.

Believe me I hate to be proven right and I would be happy to be very wrong in this case. I’m not a big fan of the C6 or ZR1 personally but I would mourn their loss neverthless.

A journalist from Corvette Fever mentioned in a recent issue that he was looking for a part for his 1996 C4 in 2001 and GM had already withdrawn the part – just five years after the car was sold. It seems to me that this is the kind of issue that has brought GM (and the other manufacturers) to their current problems – not quality, not ‘gas guzzlers’ (this has been a recent impact solely on the back of increased gas prices), not building “cars that no one wants”.

GM have pushed and pushed to make cars commodoties with ever shorter product ‘life cycles’ that they want to push to maintain the ridiculous profit taking of their senior management. As I know all too well from my experiences with my ’91 ZR-1.

Perhaps if they put as much effort into supporting their customers as they do into trying to force them to buy the next model then they might have a happier future.

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.

Continue reading

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!

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