An unfortunately experience as a youth meant American Automobiles didn’t rank to highly on Andrew Frankel’s list of must drives…But then he got behind the wheel of the mighty ZR1
It took a long time for me to swing to the American way of thinking. When I was 14 I spent a fortnight trawling up the east coast of America with my father in an AMC Concord, and I don’t think either of us ever really got over it. It was an appalling car, failing to come within a mile even of our most modest expectations. I was at an age when I’d drive anything that moved around any car park I could find and the fact that, having found the biggest parking lot in the State of Massachusetts, I climbed out of the Concord within seconds, defeated entirely by its all or nothing brakes should tell you all you need to know about this disgraceful vehicle. It was a decade before I climbed into another American. It was a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.
Frankly, I had not been expecting much. I knew of its power, all 375bhp of it courtesy of the Lotus designed twin-cam, 16-valve cylinder heads that had been bolted onto GM’s antediluvian 5.7-litre V8 but that did nothing to alleviate the sense of impending doom. The Concord had shown me American cars were dull and talentless. One with 380bhp seemed likely only to add dangerous to the list. Besides, I’d heard about Corvettes and how they usually came second to super-tankers for handling delicacy.
The first sign that this ‘Vette might be different was the sight of one powering through a curve at Goodyear’s French test track with more opposite lock on than you’d credit a car not shortly to be introduced to the tyre wall. Oddly, its line through the corner (as opposed to its angle of attack) was entirely conventional but I still convinced myself I’d witnessed one of the luckiest saves in automobile history. And I continued to think exactly that until it came through the same corner again at the same speed and at the same ludicrous angle. And it happened again and again until forced to conclude that whatever the undoubted talents of the bloke behind the wheel, he was receiving an unreasonable amount of help from his car.
This was interesting. It sounds fine too, with a typical Detroit V8 grumble overlaid by the rather higher pitched gnashings you’d associate with a European supercar. It reminded me, more than anything, of an old Aston Vantage which, from my vantage point watching it slither around the track, seemed like no bad thing at all.
Still, my hopes took a tumble when I stepped behind the wheel. The interior was a monument to bad taste and ergonomic insanity. The leather was of the tight, shiny variety, complementing the plastic to a truly offensive degree. The instruments were horrid and the switchgear, sold as the most cohesively arranged of any Corvette, made an old 911 look the very model of interior efficiency. My eyes, however were drawn to the ‘young gun’ switch. This little device is designed specifically for that moment when finally you give in to your offspring’s pleadings, bribery and blackmail and let them drive it. One flick of the key and suddenly your fire-breathing 32-valve ‘Vette is a rather more tepid 16-valver with 200bhp if you’re lucky. The result turned Ferrari Testarossa-rivalling performance into Golf GTi performance, leaving you at least some chance of the Corvette making it home in one piece.
My job, that sunny day nine years ago was to record acceleration figures for its road test in Autocar. Chevrolet was making some fairly bold claims, among the more eye-catching being that it would reach 60mph from rest in considerably less than 5sec flat. It wouldn’t. At least, not with me driving. I’d been told the car was unbreakable and not spare it the whip, but the best I could do was 5.6sec, which was quick but not quick enough. Chevy’s chief test driver at the time was a bloke called Jim Ingle who lost little time giving me one of those ‘step aside’ looks. In he jumped, off he streaked, first run of the day and 4.9sec to 60mph. Crestfallen, I asked him to show me where I was going wrong. It took little time to discover where our techniques differed: when I ran out of revs I bothered to put one foot on the clutch and take the other off the accelerator before changing gear. Jim didn’t. Like the man said, the car was unbreakable.
Now fired with more than a certain respect for the ZR1, I headed for the hills to find whether its talents ran deeper than performing impressive but ultimately pretty meaningless stunts on a race track. Hours later I returned, still unable to find the flaw. This American ran straight and true when asked, howled through corners at improbable speed and with unquestioning security and would show a true 150mph on straights so short it qualified at once for that select club of cars where extracting its maximum became an exercise in restraint.
In 1989 it was a dumbfoundingly good car, not just by my perceived standards of its homeland but any standards at all. It was nearly as quick as a Testarossa, better looking than a Testarossa and a deal more friendly on the limit too. Its engine was not as good as a Testarossa’s but it ran it closer than you’d think. The real difference was that, when GM was thinking of selling the ZR1 here which never happened the price they batted was £35,000. At the time the already ageing Testarossa retailed for £96,795. The Corvette ZR1 blew apart my prejudices about American sportscars, and now, while many are more bad than good, as a genre I love them. The next inter-continental missile to be fired at us was called the Dodge Viper which was quicker, prettier and more outrageously good value even than the Corvette. By then I no longer needed convincing. Verdict Good Egg