The Corvette is an American icon. It is the only true American sports car that has lasted from the ’50s when the sports car market emigrated from Europe to this country, and numerous manufacturers on this side of the pond dabbled in making fun two-seaters. The styling of Corvettes had always been pleasing and powerful, much like in the glory days of the 1967 L88 cars with 430 horsepower (in reality more like 500-plus) that came as convertible or coupe and were generally considered to be one of the most beautifully styled cars ever built. People often wax nostalgic about them in sentences that include the Mercedes Gullwing and the Jaguar XKE.
Then came the gas crunch and the government involvement in building our automobiles. By 1976, the Corvette convertible was gone, and by 1981, the only engine available was an emissions-strangled 190 horsepower version that was pushing a bloated looking, rubber-bumper beast. At least it was still available with a 4-speed manual in ’81. In 1982, the automatic was the only shifter available until the redesigned C4 appeared in 1984.
By 1985, horsepower was sneaking back to 230, and small gains followed each year. By the late 1980s, the brains at GM were thinking long and hard about the future of the Corvette and they made the decision to infuse energy into the brand with a new engine option. Enter the ZR-1. There were actually 84 ZR-1s built in 1989, but none were sold to the public. Nineteen-ninety opened to tremendous excitement in the Corvette world and GM had its halo car. Big premiums over sticker were the dealer norm, and the new ZR-1 was on the fast track to being a sure-fire winner despite the $27,000 ZR-1 premium added to the base $31,979 Corvette price tag. The General sold 3,049 cars with this option in 1990, and the dealers were rumored to be getting an extra $20,000 or so on top of that. True or not, you can bet that few if any were actually sold at sticker. Some were driven, but many were kept in the wrapper in hopes of making a killing in the near future. In 1991, the total build dropped to 2,044; 1992 dropped again to 502 units, and from then until 1995, there were only 448 ZR-1s built each year.