It was a chance phone call to Lawrence Millen of Bauer Millen, the GM dealers of Peter Street, Manchester, to chew over the fat about new American models that did it. Would I like to view next year’s Cadillac, which had been shipped over by GM for an assessment and, while I was about it, would I like to drive a ZR-1 they happened to have in stock? Less than 48 hours later I was gasping at the sheer magnitude of Chevrolet’s land rocket, in terms of looks, power, concept and, let’s face it, audacity.
There has always been something very sexy about American “muscle cars”, primarily those mid-Sixties Mustangs, TransAms and Z28s. These were cars that stood out from a grey collection that emanated from the other side of the Atlantic. In recent years, though, there has not been many adrenalin-pumping machines coming from the States, despite the continuation of the Mustang and Corvette model names. The 180 mph Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, however, changes all that.
Any car that has a 4-cam, 32-valve, 5.7-litre aluminium dohc V8 engine mated to a ZF 6-speed gearbox has got to be taken seriously, at least as far as performance in a straight line is concerned. I had heard, though, that this car also scored well in the handling stakes. I was eager to know!
Let loose in the 375 bhp beast, I set off for the Fylde coast eager to find out, but aware that on the public road, I was unlikely to find out the true handling chracteristics of the machine and whether there were any flaws. Lawrence Millen had warned me about the CAGS, the computer-aided gear selection which is not, as first feared, reference to a semi-automatic box, but rather the manufacturer’s way of ensuring the car passes the stringent fuel consumption regulations. In effect, below 20 mph, but with other aspects such as engine temperature, engine speed, the car’s speed and the throttle opening taken into account, and it becomes impossible to change from first to second. The gear lever is automatically re-routed to fourth gear. Thereafter it is possible to change down to second, but only via this circuitous route. In normal driving such a handicap is no bother, 20 mph quickly passed on the way to more exciting speeds, but in town, it becomes a bit of a chore. Stuck in downtown Manchester’s mid-afternoon traffic, and crawling along between lights, I found myself wanting to change early out of first just through sheer habit. Instead of second, all too often I found fourth. Fortunately the enormous torque of the engine, at 370 lb at 4800 rpm was enough to stop the car stalling, but it was a little annoying all the same.
This, however, was a minor gripe after three hours of driving bliss. The interior was a little tacky, too much plastic for a car of this calibre, although the excellent Chevrolet/Bose sound system installed as standard partially made up for it, but the sheer exuberance of the performance was breathtaking. Between 4500 rpm and 6000 rpm in any gear, and that V8 sings, but such is the speed in any car that it cannot be maintained on the open road for too long like that. The amazing thing about the car, though, was the fact that when I was caught in heavy traffic, the car was quite happy to chug along at less than 20 mph without showing any signs of distress at all.
Had I wanted to, but chose not to, I could have used the “valet” key. When turned to the left, it instructs the computer to block out 16 of those valves, thereby dropping the horsepower by some 155 bhp to 210 bhp. How does it do this? Well the quad cam engine has a secondary row of valves which only come into play once a certain engine speed has been reached, but they can be over-ridden on the instructions of the driver. It has the effect of turning an Arnie Schwarzenegger into a Danny deVito. Altogether, though, the engine is a great credit to Lotus and Chevrolet who developed it and to Mercury Marine who manufacture it.
I had come across the 6-speed box in the Lotus Carlton and was aware of its characteristics, a box that likes to be worked hard and quickly. The 50% overdrive sixth gear was only used briefly on the motorway, but since the engine was barely ticking over at 70 mph, it seemed a little superfluous.
I was fortunate in finding a small length of private track on which I was given permission to drive the car (in return for some photographs being taken) and was able to assess, to a limited extent, the handling characteristics. With massive Goodyear 315 section Gatorbacks at the rear, it is difficult to get the car out of line, despite the enormous power transmitted through them. When it came to the edge, though, on a increasingly tightening right-hander, the tendency was for slight understeer. I would dearly loved to have put it on a test track to find out what happens when pushed too hard to see which end breaks away first.
Due to a computer-assisted suspension set-up, the ride and handling could be varied according to the driver. Each shock absorber is individually equipped with its own little brain which tightens up the damper movement with the increasing speed of the car. The stages can be varied as well as the speed to which they react by a dial in the car. The softest option was comfortable whilst the hardest setting was more akin to riding a glorified go-kart. Superb for those race tracks which have smooth surfaces, but not for the public roads in Britain.
It was with great self-restraint that I turned off the Motorway towards Manchester and didn’t carry on south to London. Of the 4000 or so examples that have been made, there are only six in the country, so there is a certain amount of snob value about it. Would I pay the £32,000 asked for this 6000 mile example? If I had the money — yes. — WPK