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1991 Corvette ZR-1 - Love On A Budget

Sometimes Your Lust for Horsepower has to Wait for Your Checkbook to Catch Up.

Kevin Shaw Jul 24, 2008

Having his taste buds tickled by the stylish curves of a '63 split window and the modern angular lines of an '89 coupe, Tony Melillo, of Torrance, California, wanted to find something that would satiate his cravings for both modern amenities and classic break-neck speeds akin to that of the big-block years of the Corvette. That led his focus to the ZR1. Legendary in its track prowess and subtle in its body modifications from the standard packaged late-C4s, the ZR1 was exactly what the doctor ordered in Tony's mind.


Engine: With a paltry 9,000 miles on the odometer, Tony had the brilliant notion -or complete lack of reasoning (we're not sure which)- to have the plant overhauled by Jim Van Dorn at Auto Masters. The heads were reworked with a 3-angle valve job, port matching, porting and polishing, as well as the intake, new camshafts, a larger throttle body, and Borla exhaust from Corvette Mike. Now, the ZR1 rips up the asphalt with an easy 500hp on tap.

Beginning his search for a low mileage and a fresh-from-the-factory coupe in 1993, he would soon learn the logistics would outweigh desire. Priced at $67,000, the standard of the elusive machine's pristine condition would need to be lowered considerably, in Tony's view, from what he originally aimed for. It would require nearly a whole year's dedication, but an unnaturally preserved '91 ZR1 with only a total of 9,000 miles and plastic still covering the seats would nearly fall in his lap.

Originally given as a present to the owner's wife, she could not - nor had much desire to learn how to - drive a stick. Dormant and a reminder of a present unwanted, the owner now merely wanted to offload the eyesore. Asking only $45,000 for the vehicle, Tony feared leaving the ZR1 alone though being $10,000 more than he was prepared to pay. Unsuccessful haggling ended in a stalemate, with both parties left exactly where they began. Six more months ticked by, Tony without the car of his dreams, and the owner stuck with a ZR1 that nobody wanted.


Finally, in October of 1994, Tony caved and called the owner of the '91 Polo Green ZR1. While traveling extensively for work, the owner didn't have the time to sell the Corvette, so it was still for sale, and still flawless. With $35,000 in cash on his person, Tony approached the owner one last time to see if he would take the lowered price. Looking over the banded stacks of $100 bills, the owner cracked and handed over the keys. (For all of you reading along, pay attention! Placing the cash in the owners mind is more powerful than any other bargaining tool.)


Interior: Though the outside has morphed from Polo Green to Candy Apple red, the interior is still stock. The leather, barely broken in, is still supple and soft and the controls are tights and responsive.

The car, which had sat untouched for so long, survived unmolested for only 6 months before Tony felt the potent ZR1 could profit from some minor tweaks. A trip to Corvette Mike out of Anaheim, CA, cracked open the differential and bolted in a 4.02 ratio ring gear and pinion set and tossed in a Borla exhaust system. Sure, the car's performance improved, but Tony still wasn't satisfied. Shortly thereafter, the ZR1 was given to Jim Van Dorn at Auto Masters in Palm Desert, CA, for what Tony called, "major surgery." Installing their "Street Skinner" package, the Merlin Marine-built, Lotus-inspired plant would undergo some serious tooling.


Paint: Tired of not standing out as much as a Corvette should, Tony sent the near perfect ZR1 to Gary Sveko at Performance Paint in Torrance, CA for a new coat of Candy Apple Red. Since that time, the Corvette has taken home several Best Paint awards as well as several class wins in almost every show the car enters.

The dual overhead cam cylinder heads would be ported and polished, given a three-angle valve job, port matched to the intake, which too would be port matched, polishing the plenum and the injector housings. Scott Skinner would personally degree the camshafts, while a DRM chip, a 160' thermostat, 63mm throttle body, K&N open air induction, and Lucas hi-flow injection system would be installed. Once finished, Jim Van Dorn estimated that the Corvette easily pressed out close to 500hp.

Gary Sveko at Performance Paint in Torrance was given the Polo Green ZR1 next and was put in charge of repainting the Corvette to Candy Apple Red. Why? You'll have to ask Tony next time you see him. But Sveko's reputation for outstanding quality is renown in California, having painted cars for hot rodders, musclecar guys, collectors, celebrities (re: Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris), and enthusiasts. Once cured and buffed, the ZR1 rolled over to Larry Hofer at TPI Performance in San Diego for some engine polishing and work on the suspension system.

Once the labor was finally over, Tony finally got the Corvette back and almost immediately put it on the show tour. In the past three years, it has garnered three Best Paint awards, three Best of Show Awards, and taken the win in nearly every class it enters. At the Southern California Association Car Show, the newly Candy Apple Red ZR1 has won Best of Show for two consecutive years, and is anticipating future wins. "I've always wondered how the original owner would react if he saw this car now," Tony says. "Maybe I'll call him and show him the car he once owned and finally have the opportunity to show him how I babied this car from the day I purchased it from him seven years ago."



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