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1986 Corvette ZR-1 Prototype - Unstoppable!

Crushed, Destroyed, and Left For Dead. This Just Goes to Prove That the Heartbeat Is...

James Miles Nov 1, 2004
Vemp_0411_02_z 1986_chevy_corvette_zr1 Rear_bumper_shot 2/1

"You can't keep a good Vette down." That's the mantra for this Corvette. But it only describes half of the equation. The other half would be dedicated, unyielding, relentless, and driven. However, while all of these words are suitable for any Corvette, no matter the vintage, they aren't destined for the fine automobile we've come to love. No, these are words best used to describe the owner of this '86 ZR-1, Keith Beschi. But wait! Wasn't the ZR-1 produced from 1990-95? The answer to that question would be, "yes." But as we all know, several years of development go into any car produced by GM, and the ZR-1 was no stranger to this prototypical process. This is the story of one of them.

Back in 1985, GM took over Lotus Engineering in Norfolk, England. The C4 needed a flagship with unbeatable power; so why not get a company renowned for performance engine production to make it? Under the guidance of the very resourceful Tony Rudd, a project was under way using a V-8 engine that Lotus had already developed but had not been placed in any vehicle.

The criteria of no modifications to the Corvette chassis, coupled with 350ci, 4.4-inch bore and the other traditional stuff while needing to produce 400 bhp, was a tall order. A compromise was made and 375 bhp was settled on. So after much scratching of heads, the LT5 was spawned-a completely new engine with 16 valve heads.

The project started early in 1985, and the first engine (Phase 1) startup was on May 1, 1986. This testing showed many problems that lay ahead, namely that the single-row (simplex) timing chains were not up to the job. The engine design also had a tendency to release all its oil if run over 4,000 rpm, so a redesigned oiling system had to be devised.

Enter the Phase 2 engine with revised oil systems and, eventually, twin (duplex) timing chains.

By November 1987, a Phase 2 engine had achieved 200 hours on a test bed with a computerized load and part throttle program.

With the new LT5 proven, there was now a lot of road testing to be carried out. I've heard rumors of ZR-1s traveling in convoy at 150 mph on the M11 very late at night. Well it's a job and someone has to do it, right?!

Now that the engine was making good progress, external cosmetic changes were made to take into account the need for better airflow. The Phase 3 engines were very near to the final article, but much more internal refinement was required.

The Phase 4, 5, and 6 engines all had minor external changes and modifications made to them as the process neared a working product. The engines that finally made it into mass production were the Phase 7 motors, and, in fact, the 84 '89 ZR-1s were produced using this new standard.

When the ZR-1 was announced in 1989 and released to the press, the publicity was sensational. Almost everyone who drove the car raved about the performance. However, for various reasons, the new series of Corvette was held at pre-production stage until the '90 model year. None of the '89 models were sold to the public.

Sadly, the small, for GM, production of this brand of Corvettes came to an end in April 1995. Curiously, the last ZR-1 engine to be built at the Stillwater, Oklahoma, Mercury Marine facility was made on the 24th of November, 1993. All engines built for later years were stored for the relevant model, which included the more-powerful 405-bhp version of the engine, which made it into the '93 model year.

So ended the short but highly successful, albeit expensive, LT5 story. There is now a great shortage of LT5 engines, and some parts are more rare than the proverbial hen's teeth. However, the fact remains that the ZR-1 was and still is an amazing vehicle. ZR-1 Corvettes are still actively competed on the circuits around the USA, and we must not forget the 24-hour speed endurance record set by a "stock" ZR-1. I still vividly recall my memorable ride in a Lotus development '89 ZR-1 in the hands of their chief test driver around the Goodwood race circuit in UK when I invited them to our UK Corvette club race day back in October 1989.

I have had a love of all things automotive from a very early age. We're spoiled over here in the UK with our good choice of sports cars and the interesting twisty roads on which "to go and play." Following many European vehicles in my care, some exotic some not, I had a need for USA steel or, in this case, fiberglass. I researched the possibilities of importing a Corvette to the UK and made the decision to buy a new model. And so the Corvette life was set. The almost-last-produced L82 '80 model was found at a Virginia dealership, a deal was struck, and the Vette was exported to the UK for its new owner. Some 24 years later, I still own the Stingray. It has been real good to me, and I will never sell it. I even have it detailed in my will for exclusive use for my children (I now have an official food taster in case they decide to retire me early!).

Since 1980 I have been an active member (and past President) of the Classic Corvette Club UK, the largest Corvette club outside America. I have served on the organizing committee for 7 years and am proud to be a part of a club that has just reached its 25th anniversary this year.

Now no family can survive with only one Corvette in the garage right, so I also own an '87 Twin-Turbo Callaway (my second '87 Callaway). These are very rare here in the UK, and whilst considered a hybrid, still amaze and impress with the power output possible.

With all the work on the restoration project, it seemed a natural progressive step to run an importation business for European Corvette owners and supply many parts to owners here in the UK and Europe. As an experienced IT guy, C4 electronics are very familiar to me, so I also am able to run a mini Corvette school and advise centre based on my friend Gordon Killebrews "Gordon's School."

Late in 1994, a good friend and I discovered some Corvettes in a junkyard in Norfolk, England. On closer inspection, I was taken aback to see that among them was a yellow, narrow-bodied Vette complete with a Phase 1 LT5 engine. It was an early prototype Corvette ZR-1 that had been developed in the UK by Lotus for GM in 1985-86. Although badly damaged, the chassis was intact, and most of the engine and transmission components were in place despite having been attacked by sledgehammers and a backhoe.

Extensive research within Lotus UK confirmed that this car was in fact a unique find--a survivor of 20 "mule" cars that had been shipped over from the US in 1985 to be used by the Lotus/GM development team to test the durability and performance of each phase of the LT5 engine. The cars were scrapped in 1988 when the development team moved to using the wide-bodied Corvettes, which were then being produced at Bowling Green.

So the resurrection started.

The winter of 1994-95 was spent wearing three layers of clothing and spending endless time unbolting this and cleaning that while admiring the special Lotus parts and modifications to the car. The car was dismantled, tagged, logged, and stripped with every part tagged, bagged, and cleaned of mud and grime accumulated during the 6 years of neglect in the junkyard.

After a search, an '86 Corvette with a similar VIN number was found in the USA and purchased to be used for matching donor parts-which once shipped to the UK, meant even more stripping, bagging, and tagging while the donor was taken down to the bare chassis. The project workshop didn't resemble a high-tech, super-clean race car development area, but it did have lots and lots of bags with labels and endless tagged parts in the dismantling area.

At this point, enter Dennis, a welder extraordinaire. Taking a drill to the factory welds on the damaged roll-over hoop, he removed the broken windscreen frame and then he loosened the whole back end of the donor car, bodywork, glass, roll-over hoop, etc. Then we simply lifted the donor back end onto the prototype. The same was done with the windscreen frame. Measurements and angles were taken, and the whole lot was stitched back together at the factory welds-absolutely amazing! The fit was great, and the roof, doors, and glass all fit perfectly. Attention was then focused on the damaged part of the floor pan, which was cut from the donor chassis and stitched into the prototype. Dennis made it look so simple!

In the course of rebuilding the car, many modifications that were carried out by Lotus in the early development days were uncovered, such as the front crossmember, steering column, firewall, transmission tunnel, and air ducting, just to name but a few. The modifications have been done so well that it is only when you compare them to stock parts that you realize something has been modified. Such was the quality of the work carried out in 1985-86.

The largest of these modifications, not surprisingly, had been made to the wiring harness in order to match it to the LT5 engine, plus the Lotus-installed calibration equipment and the stock '86 L98 harness.

This set of tasks took most of the spring of 1995, and, in the meantime, the engine was shipped off to former Lotus LT5 engineer Geoff Jeal who had been recruited to help with the project. The engine was then stripped and declared rebuildable by Geoff.

In April 1995, I attended the "Legend Lives" weekend in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to see the last ZR-1 come off the production line. Over 300 ZR-1s attended the show, which was a stunning spectacle. I was lucky enough to meet Anthony Young, author of Heart of the Beast, and was fascinated by the presence of Jim Minnaker, the then-head of CPC engineering who was responsible for the LT5 development. As a GM man, he was interested in the prototype project but politely gave me the corporate quote of "that car does not exist!"

During that late spring and early summer ZF, the German gearbox experts, were persuaded to strip, check, and rebuild the prototype six-speed. It turned out that only two people in ZF Great Britain knew anything about these transmissions. But on investigation, they proved to be undamaged and were rebuilt with little problem; it was tremendous fun shifting one of them on a test rig at the ZF factory in Nottingham.

In September of 1995, I went to the Funfest weekend held at Mid America Designs in Effingham, Illinois, where a Phase 1 and a Phase 2 LT5 engine found their way into the large private museum there. Seeing Mike Yager like a kid unwrapping a new toy was amusing; he really has the Vette fever bad! Since then he has had the engines mounted and glassed over to resemble tall coffee tables; anyone attending functions at Mike's Museum can place their drinks on these unique parts of ZR-1 history. During that weekend I was thrilled to meet Zora over dinner for the first (and sadly the last) time and talk to him about his memories of England.

The car was now beginning to shape up as the minor repairs were finished off and the interior was painted prior to sending it "home" to the USA to be reassembled. When the shipper arrived, there was myself, the driver, one engineless car, and a shipping container 4 feet in the air. Luckily friends came to the rescue, and we literally lifted the car into the container. Despite the worries, it arrived safely in the USA where even more cleaning and prepping took place. A lot of time was spent (and a lot of beer was consumed!) doing all those things you never see, such as cleaning the underside of the car; polishing the suspension; attaching crossmembers, brakes, and pipes; and who knows what else. With a clean and painted underside and an engine bay plus sparkling suspension, the Vette went to the paint shop. It was no small task involving a lot of messing about with trailers and removing trim and glass. After the re-spray, all the major components went back in, like the radiator pack, fuel tank, and rear subframe. All of a sudden there was a ZR-1 starting to look like a successful project.

Back in the UK, the saga of the engine was unfolding. Many rare engine parts had to be sourced and modifications had to be made to some of the internals to give the notoriously unreliable engine some longevity. Geoff assembled the engine and built an engine rig in the garage at his house where, with a new computer and specially produced CAL chip, the engine spluttered into life in April 1996-a historic moment after years of neglect. It was to be some time before the engine would burst into life again!

The engine was flown out to join the Vette in the US in June 1996, and many hours were spent completing the car. Amazingly, in one day, the engine and transmission went in and all the accessories were hooked up in time for the grand unveiling at Bloomington Gold that year. In our Gold Workshop, none other than Dave McClellan, retired GM Corvette chief, and the one person largely responsible for the ZR-1 program performed the introductions. The organizers told us that this was the first time in the 17 years of workshops at the show that an Englishman had given a presentation and it was the first time that a UK car had been shown at Bloomington Gold. The Vette was magnificently displayed in the Mid America Coliseum and attracted a great deal of interest.

As all of you may realize, or know firsthand, any restoration project is very wearing on the mind, body, and soul-not to mention the pocket. I decided that since the '86 had now been publicly and successfully shown in the USA, I deserved some well-earned time off from the project in order to concentrate on my non-Corvette life. Since then, work and "real life" has taken my focus away from the Vette, which had been kept quietly in the USA when I attended only one more show in San Jose, California, in 1998.

I took the summer off from work commitments and post-teen children to finally complete the project and get this unique car fully back into the Corvette world. The car was shown at the May 2003 ZR-1 Gathering, and, of course, the not-to-be-missed June 2003 50th Corvette Birthday Celebrations-both at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The car proved a little troublesome for the last 5 percent of the project. A wiring short or crossover stopped the engine from firing up in the car again, and it proved time-consuming to complete. But after such a long gap, I actually enjoyed spending 12 hours a day on my back in intense heat, being bitten by mosquitoes with a spanner (wrench) in one hand and a telephone in the other, while Corvette gurus, such as Gordon Killebrew and Marc Haibeck, provided long-distance advice on what I was doing wrong! The modifications made to the wiring on the mule cars by Lotus proved elusive to fathom, and much time was being spent chasing, identifying, and, in some cases, eliminating all the relevant wires needed to fire up the engine.

After extensive circuit diagnosis (thanks to Gordon and Marc), together with my able and now grown-up son Steven (just 6 when I started this project), the relevant correct connections were confirmed and the engine fired into life. This prompted full checks on liquids and the exhaust before the trip to Corvettes at Carlisle in November. And it was there at 2:30 p.m. on November 23, 2003 that the only surviving '86 ZR-1 prototype with a Phase 1 LT5 engine was started by Chip Miller, owner of Corvettes at Carlisle, to the delight of the 100 or so assembled enthusiasts. This was the first time the engine had run fully since being installed in the car seven years ago.

Sadly, as we all know, Chip fell ill shortly after Carlisle from which he did not recover. My memories will remain, and I am so pleased and honored that he granted some time for me in his busy show schedule.

The next day of the show I drove the car around the ZR-1 show arena to receive a Celebrity Choice award nominated by Dave "Mom" Bright of the For me this was the drive of a lifetime; 15 years after the car was scrapped by Lotus, I was driving it under its own power!

After getting over the complete wow of the summer success, I continued to add to my UK/USA air-miles program and refine the now-living beast. The injection was focused on and after a strip-down and cleanup-bingo!-all eight cylinders fired and the motor idled. Now the task was to fit the exhaust. The original had rotted many years ago, so using some of the original pipework, a '90 ZR-1 system was cut and stitched into place. The engine idled even better now, steady at 800/900 but revealed the very noisy timing chain tensioner rattle that this phase of engine was renowned for. Whilst not sounding mechanically perfect, it was, and still is, a sweet sound of a project nearing completion.

My beautiful prototype is now firing on all eight cylinders but still needs some minor finishing to be museum ready. The ZR-1 Gathering 2004 was the venue to show off the success of the previous 12 months. So off we went in the now familiar fashion of my trusty Suburban pulling the trailered yellow beast. My ambition was to actually drive the car up Corvette Drive and past the NCM doors-this I managed to my intense personal gratification. Let's hope that with further negotiations, the car can find a place on display in the NCM.

In the course of this lifetime's mission, I have assembled a portfolio on the history and early days of the ZR-1 program and have many technical details that may otherwise have been lost in that junkyard back in England. I intend to use my collated knowledge and hundreds of resurrection photos to compile and publish a book about the discovery and restoration of the original '86 Corvette ZR-1 prototype that will preserve the details and stories for all Corvette enthusiasts.

All I have to do is find the time; that's the tricky part.

Team VETTE met up with the UK Corvette enthusiast and his labor of love at the 2004 edition of The Gathering. Drawn like bees to a flower (a yellow one in this case), we immediately spotted the prototype and played 20 questions with Keith about his subject '86. With the car talk out of the way and some quick wiring-related lessons from the owner on the test equipment left behind by Lotus when they junked the ZR-1, we headed down the street-behind the NCM-for a quick photo shoot. Not only did Keith get to drive up to the NCM that day (an event captured of film by VETTE's occasional freelancer and Keith's new friend, Jerry Heasley), the ZR-1 also got to break its land and speed record, covering the longest distance it has made since being put back together. Skies threatened us all weekend, and by sheer chance alone we were able to get enough light between thunderstorms for our purposes. As the last photo was taken and the film rewound, the clouds turned gray and eventually let loose a small shower-thankfully, as The Gathering was wrapping up. It seemed as if luck was on our side, but not nearly the same luck Keith experienced when he discovered this prototype buried in a salvage yard. This just does go to show you, crushed, broken, and "unsalvageable," the Heartbeat really is unstoppable!

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