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One Of 44: Rare ZR-1

Scott Ross Mar 14, 2013
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Remember when the C4 Corvette ZR-1 was introduced back in 1990? To many Vette lovers, it represented the ultimate evolution of the marque.

More than two decades later, its still an amazing Vette, with an engine thats just waiting to be hot-roddedmuch like the one in David Johnsons Admiral Blue 94.

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Its color makes it among the rarest of the ZR-1s production run (only 56 got that shade in Bowling Green Assemblys paint shop, and only in 1994 and 95), but that doesnt make this one a museum piece. In fact, Johnson says that treating it gently is the wrong thing to do with a ZR-1.

If you buy the car and dont drive itthats the worst thing you can do, he says. The car is like a Ferrari: Its made to be beaten, but you also have to take [the Ferrari] in to have very expensive maintenance done, compared with inexpensive or no maintenance for the ZR-1.

If you drive it hard, and engage the secondaries, you dont run into issues down the road. But if you let it sit for six months, a year, or two years at a time, the juices wont flow.

Good advice for a stock ZR-1, but what about his own 94? The only stock items left on it are, in Johnsons words, the engine block and the paint. He entrusted his cars LT5 to an expert on these still-exotic powerplants.

Theres a gentleman in Chicago named Pete Polatsidis. Hes really made a name for himself over the past eight years. Polatsidis ported and polished the 32-valve heads, plus he had a set of four custom-ground camshafts made. He also tuned the LT5 once it was bolted back together.

Vemp 1303 06 Z One Of 44 Rare Zr 1 Michelin Pilot Super 6/10

The result is way more than the 405hp figure that Chevrolet claimed as the LT5s peak back in the day. These are things that GM thought about doing in the early 90s, says Johnson of the mods to his ZR-1s engine. The General did put some of those tweaks into practice on a few factory-authorized Black Widow ZR-1 prototypes, which were in the works for a 475hp option when GM canceled the LT5 engine program.

But when it came to upgrades, Johnson didnt stop at the engine. The cabin features lots of high-grade custom leather, with ZR-1 logos embroidered on the sport seats headrests by Lux Motorwerkes in Keyport, New Jersey. Huge Michelin Pilot Super Sports on five-spoke Fikses fill the fenderwells, ahead of C6 Z06 disc brakes.

When it comes to the ZR-1, and how to make the most of it, hes got plenty of company. Weve got a huge group. There are about 35 to 40 ZR-1 owners who get together regularly, and we work on [our] cars, says Johnson of WAZOO (Washington Area ZR-1 Owners Association), for which he serves as events and public- relations director. We upgrade brakes, upgrade suspension parts, put in Dana 4.10 rears, put on headers, change fuel injectors, and troubleshoot issues.

They also step in to lend a hand in some unlikely places. Theres a dealership in Pennsylvania that asked one of our guys to change fuel injectors for them, Johnson recalls, adding, We have such a reputation for doing stuff that dealers ask us questions.

One reason why their expertise is in demand is the very nature of the ZR-1 and the LT5. These cars need to be somewhat modified, says Johnson. (If only Dave McLellan and company could have heard this!)

Johnsons ZR-1, a masterpiece in the eyes of many, is still a work-in-progress to him. Since the photos for this story were shot, hes made some more additions and upgrades. I did a polished throttle-position cover, and Im putting a polished spare-tire-delete bracket on, he says.

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But despite his obvious affinity for modifications and aftermarket equipment, Johnson knows that a modicum of restraint is key to a successful custom. Ive seen so many things that people do to cars that are so over the top that they didnt look right, he says. Ive tried to do my car with taste.

Thats something Johnson says show-goers notice right away when they see his ZR-1. When I take it to shows, theres a crowd around it, he says, noting that the cars color is perhaps its most attention- getting attribute.

These cars need to be somewhat modified David Johnson

People ask, Is this original paint? It really came like that? The confusion is understandable. As mentioned above, the Admiral Blue went on at the factorybut only on 55 other ZR-1s (43 other 94s, and just 12 of the last-year 95s).

Asked what the car is like to drive, Johnson replies, In ZR-1 terminology, its called a PermaGrin. He explains further: What I tell people is, when you get in the car, and youre test-driving it, put your foot on the floor and get it to 7,000 rpm. Once the engine revs above 5,000 rpm, you get this big grin, and when you rev higher, its a PermaGrin.

And his advice for those seeking a PermaGrin of their own? If youre looking for a car to drive and enjoy, [the ZR-1] is the one. Its something that really grows on you. He adds, People who own it are aeronautical engineers, nuclear-sub captains, state troopers, CEOS, CFOs, building managers, sales directorstheres such a diverse range in owners, but the biggest thing is the love, the passion for a sophisticated, well-built car.

01 Only 44 94 ZR-1s were painted Admiral Blue at Bowling Green, including David Johnsons tastefully upgraded example.02 Four-cam, 32-valve LT5 puts out much more than its 405hp factory rating, thanks to ZR-1 Pete Polatsidis.03 Outside, subtle custom touches include these bicolor export taillights.04 Michelin Pilot Super Sports on five-spoke Fikses reside at each corner.05 For looks and stopping power: C6 Z06 disc brakes with one-piece Hawk pads.06 Lux Motorwerkes stitched up the seat covers, which include these embroidered ZR-1 logos.07 Supple custom leather, plus a high-end Pioneer sound/navigation system, highlight the cabin.08 Harness-bar/ B-pillar brace adds much-needed stiffness to the C4 chassis.

Spec Sheet
1994 ZR-1
Owner David Johnson; Bel Air, MD
Block LT5 aluminum with four-bolt main-bearing caps
Displacement 350 ci
Heads LT5 32-valve aluminum, ported by ZR-1 Pete Polatsidis
Valves Stock 1.54/1.39
Camshafts Custom profile developed by Pete Polatsidis
Pistons Stock cast aluminum
Compression 11.0:1
Crankshaft Stock nitrided forged steel
Rods Stock forged steel
Oil System Stock
Intake Ported stock with custom Braml stainless-steel airbox
Fuel Injectors Stock
Fuel Pump Stock electric
Ignition Stock electronic
Exhaust Stainless Works coated headers, Corsa dual exhaust
Transmission ZF six-speed manual (built by Bill Boudreau at ZR51 Performance)
Clutch Stock
Driveshaft Stock aluminum
Rearend Stock Dana 44 with 4.10 gears
Suspension Doug Rippie Motorsports coilovers all around with 32mm front sway bar
Brakes C6 Z06 front and rear discs with Hawk one-piece pads
Wheels Fikse Profile 5 forged aluminum; 18x10 front, 19x12 rear
Tires Michelin Pilot Super Sport; 275/35ZR18 front, 345/30ZR19 rear
Current Mileage Approximately 68,000



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