General Motors captured the spotlight at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction from January 11–18, 2009, when it released 252 cars from its Heritage Fleet for no-reserve sale. (The Heritage Fleet must be differentiated from GM’s Heritage Collection; the former are surplus or less important cars, the latter are the milestone cars that represent GM’s 100 years of contribution to automotive history.) While many came with a scrap title (odd when you think who’s selling the car), that was related to federal regulations, which don’t have much to do with making a car work well. In the past, most of these vehicles would have been crushed, including 34 Corvettes, which provided a fascinating insight into dreams and ideas (good and otherwise) that surround the launch of a new model—in this case the C4 and C5. You’ll have to do your own research on the blown big-block 1987 Chevrolet Sprint, the 1999 two-millionth Saturn, and the 2001 Pontiac Aztek Daytona 500 Pace Car (we are not making this up). Here we analyze ten of the most important Corvettes from the fleet that came under the hammer.
1989 Corvette DR-1 Convertible—Lot 1218 Sold for $286,000 on Saturday, January 17, 2009
While Chevrolet never sold a ZR-1 convertible, the possibility was investigated. Two ZR-1 coupes were converted into convertibles by Lotus and Chevrolet for evaluation. Also, a standard 1989 L98 convertible with an LT5 engine installed was built for engineering executive Don Runkle, which became known as the DR-1. While hardly as well known as the Snake Skinners or the Big Doggie, the Ice Blue DR-1 was the highest selling Heritage Fleet Corvette. Why? No one has ever said auction results were the least bit logical, and this is one of those results. Besides, think of the bragging rights the new owner has.
1989 Corvette ZR-1 Coupe—Lot 1230.4 Sold for $198,000 on Saturday, January 17, 2009
Chevrolet built 83 pilot ZR-1 Corvettes in 1989, 25 of which were sent to France for the now-famous press introduction. Since the ZR-1 was officially released as a 1990 model, most of the ’89 cars had to be destroyed. This was one of the survivors, which was loaned to the automotive press and displayed at auto shows. Though this car, and most of the GM Heritage Fleet cars, can never be registered for street use, the new owner can proudly say he owns one of the few ’89 ZR-1 Corvettes in existence, and its value can only increase in years to come. Well bought. And besides, between dealer plates and Alabama titles, never say never to getting a car on the street.
1989 Corvette ZR-1 Coupe “Snake Skinner”—Lot 396.1 Sold for $176,000 on Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The 1990 introduction of the Dodge Viper prototype stole some of the ZR-1’s thunder. John Heinricy, Corvette engineer and racer, built the “Snake Skinner” as a response. Heinricy took one of the 83 1989 ZR-1 pilot cars, and using a Kevlar hood, plexiglass rear window, and other tricks, pared its weight to 2,700 lb. Mercury Marine also built a special 475-hp LT5 engine. The result was very fast—Heinricy broke the long-standing 0-to-100-to-0 record of 14 seconds set by a 427 Cobra with a time of 12.8. I’m surprised this was not the high-selling Corvette of the Heritage Fleet cars, since it received press in almost every magazine at the time, but it was priced about right just the same. A second Snake Skinner was built by Heinricy in 1991; that car (lot 1302) sold for $73,700.
1989 Corvette ZR-2 “Big Doggie”—Lot 97 Sold for $71,500 on Monday, January 13, 2009
One thing the ZR-1 lacked was the unique, torque-heavy performance of a classic big-block V8. In response, engineer Scott Leon built the ZR-2, a 1989 Corvette powered by a modified 454 truck engine. It became known as the Big Doggie and was featured in many magazines and shown at Bloomington Gold in 1992. At a time when Corvette sales were dangerously low, GM considered building a production version, but assembly concerns (the engine did not fit between the stock frame rails) and challenging CAFE standards killed the project. This was an outstanding buy of a well-known and shockingly fun-to-drive one-off Corvette.
1989 “Active” Corvette ZR-1 Coupe Prototype—Lot 82 Sold for $150,700 on Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Computer-controlled, hydraulically adjusted active suspension was developed in Formula One racing and was so successful in increasing cornering grip and controlling vehicle dynamics that it was ultimately banned. The “Active” Corvette was built by Chevrolet Engineering to test a similar setup on the Corvette. Road & Track magazine reported, “Bumps and dips are not in the dictionary of an active suspension. They cease to exist.” It was predicted that active suspension would be in production in a few years, but it would have been a nearly $40,000 option, and it consumed as much as 40 hp, so it was never offered. A good buy on an important and unique engineering study.
1991 Corvette Convertible—Lot 907.2 Sold for $110,000 on Friday, January 16, 2009
In 1991, two ZR-1 convertibles were built on the Bowling Green assembly line. Adding the ZR-1’s special wide bodywork and tires to a convertible would have required extensive re-engineering, so these cars were essentially stock L98 convertibles with the LT5 powertrain added. ZR-1 convertibles were considered to bolster sagging sales, but it was felt the convertible chassis was not strong enough for the LT5’s additional power, and the project was cancelled. Vehicles used for engineering, testing, and marketing evaluation are normally destroyed, so this unique survivor was well bought and sure to appreciate.
1990 Corvette Right-Hand Drive—Lot 1356 Sold for $27,500 on Sunday, January 18, 2009
Bob Lutz has said the seventh generation Corvette would be developed in both left- and right-hand-drive versions. It wouldn’t be the first time GM considered a right-hooker Corvette, since some RHD countries like Australia severely restricted the use of LHD cars (this has now relaxed somewhat). This 1990 Corvette was converted to RHD by Chevrolet Engineering, but the development, tooling, and certification required to produce such a car at Bowling Green were deemed too expensive for the limited market it would have served. While hardly a news-maker like the Snake Skinner or the Big Doggie, a one-of-a-kind engineering study for the price of a new Malibu is an excellent buy. And if you live in England, Australia, or the Maldives, here’s the Corvette for you.
1989 Corvette “Splash” Custom—Lot 1599 Sold for $71,500 on Sunday, January 18, 2009
Chevrolet built 60 RPO R7F cars for the 1989 Corvette Challenge series. Of those, 29 were equipped by organizer Jim Powell for the series. This car was one of those 29, but it never raced. Instead it was used by Chevrolet as a promotional vehicle for the series and displayed at auto shows and other events. The eye-catching paint scheme was designed by Corvette stylist John Cafaro. The Corvette Challenge cars are starting to show signs of life in the marketplace, and this one, with its unique history, may be one of the most desirable.
1997 Corvette “Alpha Build”—Lot 470.1 Sold for $41,800 on Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Long before the first C5 Corvette rolled off the Bowling Green assembly line, engineers racked up thousands of development miles in 14 “alpha” cars. Though crude compared to the final product, these cars helped refine the design. Pre-production cars rarely see the light of day, and most are destroyed either during development or after they are no longer needed. GM wisely kept one of the “alpha” cars, and the new owner has a piece of Corvette history that cannot be duplicated, and may someday be as valuable as other one-of-a-kind Corvette prototypes.
1997 Corvette “Beta Build”—Lot 470 Sold for $41,800 on Wednesday, January 14, 2009
After extensive development of the “alpha” prototypes, the C5 team built about 30 “beta” cars that were even closer to the final design. Like the black “alpha” cars, the white “betas” were heavily camouflaged to protect them from automotive spies. Sold as a set with the “alpha” car, the new owner now has two of the most important development Corvettes ever shown to the public, much less sold to the public. General Motors did Corvette fans a huge favor by saving these special cars from the GM Heritage Fleet for future generations.