In the summer of 1987, the initial batch of pilot ZR-1s was built at the Bowling Green assembly plant. These were the first cars to be fitted with the wider body and 11-inch rear wheels that would come to characterize the production model. In June 1988, Chevrolet invited the press to Riverside Raceway to drive what was then slated to become the '89 ZR-1. The response was overwhelming, and the car was subsequently featured on the cover of most major car magazines. In March of the following year, a yellow ZR-1 and a cutaway chassis were displayed at the Geneva Autoshow. Twenty-five ZR-1s were also shipped to Europe to participate in a four-week ride-and-drive program for selected press members. Again, the response was very positive.
Production of the ZR-1 was well underway in 1989 when it was decided to halt the build process and introduce the car as a '90 model. The '89 ZR-1s already built could not be sold to the public, so they were either scrapped or used as test vehicles. One was sent to California and fitted with a V-12 racing engine built by Ryan Falconer. The longer powerplant required GM to stretch the car's front chassis to make room. This V-12 Vette-unofficially dubbed "Conan" in reference to its brutish power output-currently resides in GM's Heritage Museum.
Another '89 ZR-1 was used by Tommy Morrison to set a new 24-hour speed record. The car was already fitted with a rollcage and fire system, as it previously had been used by GM engineer Jim Minneker for powertrain-endurance testing. In March 1990, the Morrison team installed a production LT5 engine in the car and took it to a test track in Fort Stockton, Texas. The goal was to break the existing, 161.80-mph mark set back in 1940. The team covered 4,221.256 miles in 24 hours, averaging 175.885 mph in the process. This car is now on display in the National Corvette Museum.
A third '89 ZR-1 with a unique history is the "Snake Skinner," so named for its ability to outperform Dodge's then-new Viper. This was engineer and race driver John Heinricy's personal project car. Heinricy and his team of engineers removed the car's A/C, radio, and center console. They also replaced the large rear window with a Lexan unit and exchanged the fiberglass hood for a lightweight carbon-fiber duplicate. The stock flip-up headlights were converted to fixed units in the lower nose panel. Finally, carbon-fiber brakes were installed to help rein in the car's tweaked LT5 engine. In all, the modifications flensed a shocking 900 pounds from the car, resulting in a curb weight of just 2,700 pounds. We had a chance to drive the Snake Skinner with Andy Pilgrim, and it's still among the fastest street Corvettes we've ever experienced. If you happen to spy an innocuous-looking white ZR-1 on display at the NCM, take a closer look-it's probably the infamous Snake Skinner.
In 1990 the ZR-1 retailed for $58,995, but many were sold for well over their sticker price. In total, 3,099 units were purchased that first year. In August 1989, a handful of prototype '90 ZR-1s were built with a complex active-suspension system operated via computer and hydraulic controls. The intent was to offer the system as a $39,000 option over the base price of the car. While the idea was soon dropped, the cars were used extensively for testing, yielding valuable data that helped give rise to the active-suspension systems found on current Corvettes. The GM Heritage Museum displayed one of these rare cars at the '07 Corvettes at Carlisle event.
The original ZR-1 Corvette was a performance icon of the '90s, with the high-tech muscle to back up its supercar reputation. Despite its low build volume-a total of 6,939 cars were produced between 1990 and 1995-this is the car that helped reestablish the Corvette as a legitimate world-class performance car. It's a distinction the Vette hasn't relinquished since.