Eric Dahlquist, writing in the May 1969 issue of Motor Trend, gushed about the Vette he had just sampled in a test session, attended by Zora Arkus-Duntov, outside of Phoenix.
“Sting Ray ZL-1. Say the name over in your mind, amplify it, taste it. It has the same sort of precise tonal delight as Lamborghini Miura or Ferrari 365 GT or Aston Martin DB6, and it is an iron-clad, money-back guarantee that individuality and something called élan are alive and well in Detroit, at least as long as Zora Duntov is still there.”
It was Duntov, said Dahlquist, who convinced the powers-that-be at Chevrolet to build the 1969 Chevy Corvette Stingray ZL1 as more than just a “gimmicked-up cop out. Duntov, the man, is man in his old, pure, adventuresome, non-vinyl person, and that’s why he was able to create an American Ferrari that’s not even partially contemporary Woolworth.”
The ZL1–powered Vette, Dahlquist said, “has Ferrari speed plus, Ferrari handling and Ferrari brakes, but without Ferrari fuss and bother so you can enjoy it, the car, more. Even without the super Ferrari leather interior and Ferrari coachwork, it is still better than a Ferrari in its own right because there is no distraction and everything is in perspective, aluminum engine, fiberglass body and all, the ZL-1 is nearer a 2G Chaparral for the street.”
That allusion to the Chaparral was no accident. The all-aluminum, 427-inch ZL1 engine was born to race, initially built for Bruce McLaren’s Can Am cars so he could compete against the Chaparrals Jim Hall had fitted with his own alloy motor.
The ZL1 was offered in the Corvette for just one year—1969. With sewer-pipe-size valves, 12.5:1 compression, and a high-lift cam, the ZL1 would “have no difficulty manufacturing 550 honest horses with a single four-barrel carburetor,” said Dahlquist (though the official factory rating was a silly 430 hp). “In all other respects the ZL-1 is identical to the more familiar alloy cylinder head L-88, except, of course, it’s lighter. And that is the whole big deal—a complete 550-horsepower ZL-1 427 weighs 20-25 pounds less than a fully assembled 350-horsepower 350!”
With that motor, an M22 Rock Crusher four-speed, 3.70 rear gear, F41 heavy-duty suspension, and fat Firestone Wide Ovals stuffed under flared fenders, the white ZL1 “doesn’t just accelerate because the word accelerate is inadequate for this car,” Dahlquist insisted. “It tears its way through the air and across the black pavement like all the modern big-inch racing machines you have ever seen, the engine climbing the rev band in that kind of leaping gate as the tires hunt for traction, find it, lose it again for a millisecond, then find it until they are locked in. If the car had a higher gear, one of the engineers casually mentions, it will bust 195, possibly 200.”
Dahlquist’s first experience in the ZL1 is riding shotgun with Duntov hot-lapping a tight, twisting 1.5-mile course. Later they swap positions, and Dahlquist calls the Vette “so predictable that your confidence builds rapidly. In three laps Duntov remarks that you look good, but it is mostly the car.”
Nicely done, Zora. Way to keep him humble.