chevrolet corvette zr1 convertible old vs new - almost 50 years apart
First introduced in 1969, the Corvette ZR1 has been offered for all generations since the C3, except for the C5 model. This pretty much makes it a constant presence in the Corvette lineup. However, when Chevy revised the ZR1 for the first time in 1990 after a 21-year absence, it didn’t offer a convertible version. The drop-top was ignored with the C6 model, produced between 2009 to 2013, too. Chevrolet finally took the roof of the ZR1 at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show, unveiled the convertible model only weeks after it launched the beefed-up coupe. This makes the C7-gen Corvette ZR1 Convertible the first topless ZR1 in 48 years, and the event requires a bit of celebration with a proper comparison between the two.
The ZR1 nameplate has come a long way all these years, and this comparison’s purpose is to showcase just that. Now a full-fledged, stand-alone performance model with radical changes compared to the standard car, the ZR1 actually started life as a package for a trim that wasn’t even the most powerful in the lineup. But let’s find out more about that in the comparison below.
Continue reading for the full story.
How They Came to the Market
The first ever ZR1 Convertible came to be in 1969, when the Chevy launched the ZR1 upgrade for the LT1 model. The bundle was conceived by Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus Duntov, who wanted a race-ready Vette with a small-block engine. Duntov applied the lesson learned from the big-block L88 model and used almost identical chassis preparation and drivetrain updates to develop the ZR1. Despite being labeled as a special engine upgrade, it was basically a small-block version of the all-conquering V-8.
The current ZR1 arrived in 2017, a full four years into the C7-generation Corvette’s life-cycle. Unlike its grand-grandfather, the C7 ZR1 received a brand-new, exclusive engine and a unique aerodynamic kit on top of the retuned chassis and suspension. It was also design as a stand-alone, full-time model and not just a package upgrade to existing versions like the standard Corvette or the Corvette Z06. You’re not buying any options and you’re not stuck with an engine already available in other models.
The ZR1 upgrade for the C3-generation was as subtle as they get design-wise, because there were no styling add-ons included. Customers got exactly what they ordered on the their LT1 models, nothing more, nothing less. Except for the wheel covers. While these were optional on all versions, they were removed from the ZR1’s list. This strategy basically placed the ZR1 below the L88, which came with a bulged hood and special graphics.
The C7-gen ZR1 is a significant departure from this concept, as it features a comprehensive aerodynamic kit. There’s a redesigned front bmper with large intakes, a unique engine hood, side sill extensions, a carbon-fiber splitter, and exclusive wheels. On top of that, customers have two wings to choose from. There’s a low wing that delivers the highest top speed and a high wing that offers maximum downforce and forces quicker laps on the race track. All told, the ZR1 is instantly recognizable when parked alongside the standard and Z06 models.
The story is pretty much the same here, as the ZR1 package added nothing to the C3 LT1’s interior. It actually removed a few things in order to keep it as light as possible for race-track duty. The power windows, the air conditioning system, the rear window defogger, and the radio were deleted from the LT1’s configuration.
Moving over to the C7-gen Corvette ZR1, it gets a number of unique features. The steering wheel comes with carbon-fiber inserts, while the seats are wrapped in leather and Alcantara. There’s carbon-fiber on the dashboard and center stack too, while a bronze aluminum trim adds more uniqueness to sporty cabin.
This is where the ZR1 magic happened for the C3 Corvette. Sort of. The upgrade mated a Muncie M22 heavy-duty four-speed transmission, known as the "Rock Crusher," to the V-8 engine and added an aluminum radiator with surge tank and metal fan shroud, a lightweight flywheel, and a heavy-duty L88 starter. The chassis was almost identical to the big-block L88 model and included special, stiffer springs and shocks, a stabilizer bar, and spindle-strut shafts. The ZR1 also gained J56 power brakes, but the power steering was removed for weight-saving purposes. The 5.7-liter V-8 didn’t change beyond the radiator, flywheel, and starter. Output was rated at 370 horsepower, which was pretty solid for 1969, but the LT-1 was no match for the 7.0-liter big-block engines output-wise. The ZR was actually upgraded to big-block LS-6 specifications in 1971, but the nameplate was changed to ZR2 for this model. Output increased to 425 horsepower.
Unlike its predecessor, the C7 ZR1 Convertible gets its own unique engine. Called the LT5, it displaces 6.2 liters, which makes it larger than the original LT-1. It also stands out for using forced induction in the form of a massive supercharger. The bundle generates 755 horsepower, more than twice as much as the original ZR1. It’s obviously quicker from 0 to 60 mph, needing less than three seconds to hit the benchmark, and hits a top speed of 210 mph, figures that were considered science-fiction back in the late 1960s. The modern ZR1 can also be ordered with an automatic transmission. The C3 model was restricted to a manual. Some say that having a manual is better for performance cars, but it’s nice to have options right?
Pricing and Production
The first-even ZR1 package was priced at $1,221, almost a quarter of the LT-1 sticker of slightly over $5,000. The ZR2 package was a bit more expensive at $1,747, as was the model it was based on in 1971, when the Corvette’s price jumped to $5,500.
The ZR1 upgrade was offered from 1970 to 1972 and total production included 53 units. Only eight convertibles were fitted with the ZR1 package in 1970, which makes it the rarest small-block Corvette in history. The ZR2 was very short-lived, offered in 1971 only. The big-block model was built in just 12 examples, two of which were convertibles.
The C7-generation Corvette ZR1 was launched with a starting price of $119,995. Compared to the C3 model, it’s a significant jump from the standard model and even the Z06, which retail from $55,495 and $84,055 for the 2018 model year. Just like its ancestor, production will probably span over a few years only, but Chevy will build significantly more C7 ZR1s. Thousands are likely to hit the streets until the C7 is discontinued.
Due to the first-gen ZR1 being so rare, mint-condition models fetch in excess of $200,000 at auctions, while well-maintained cars that need mild restoration go for at least $130,000. Yes, a 50-year-old ZR1 will cost you more than the current version.
Given the massive, near-50-year between the C3 and C7 ZR1s, this comparison is only a way to see how the nameplate evolved in half a century. The C7’s performance is colossal compared to the original ZR1, which is proof that technology has made tremendous progress. The most important fact here is that the C3 ZR1 was a pretty spectacular car for its era, much like the C7 ZR1 is stepping into supercar territory with more affordable pricing. Granted, the C7 ZR1 is the true king of C7 Corvette performance-wise, whereas the C3 ZR1 wasn’t as powerful as the big-block cars, but the latter still has a special place in Corvette history. The big question is will the C7 ZR1 be as desirable and expensive in 50 years as the C3 ZR1 is in 2017 compared to 1970?
Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Read our full review of the 2019 Chevy Corvette ZR1
Read our full review of the 2019 Chevy Corvette ZR1 Convertible
Read more 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show news.