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Fiberglass and Foreign Intervention: The Viper RT/10 and Corvette ZR-1

There is no well-defined road to the pantheon of American automotive fame. Any of the icons that find themselves parked about the theoretical exhibition halls blazed their own trail whether by ingenuity, infamy, or some combination of cultural relevance and stupid luck. With that in mind, please consider the below my nomination for the Dodge Viper RT/10 and Corvette ZR-1:

The Dodge Viper initially debuted as a design study at the 1989 North American International Auto Show, where the response to the design was so rabid that Chrysler really had no choice but to build what they viewed as the spiritual successor to the Shelby Cobra. This is a statement that they were contractually obligated to make, as at this time Carroll Shelby had been paired up with Chrysler since the early 1980s at the behest of Lee Iacocca. Up until this point, Shelby's primary role was to oversee development of sinister forced-induction hatchbacks, sign Cobras with a Sharpie, and generally get in all kinds of legal quagmires from his previous entanglements.

Chrysler management, seizing the moment with once-in-a-generation styling, threw gasoline, gunpowder, and krokodil into an electrical fire in the form of "Maximum" Bob Lutz and officially set out to create Chrysler's attempt at a supercar.

As you might expect, Bob "I Bought A German Light Attack Aircraft Upon Retirement" Lutz tapped the Chrysler group's fully-owned subsidiary Lamborghini (which they had purchased in 1987 to celebrate their fiscal responsibility after having been bankrupt just 8 years prior) to help them modify the 25-year-old iron block LA-series V8 into an aluminum block V10. Production consisted of dropping all 8 liters of the truck-adjacent engine on a tube-frame chassis with some fiberglass panels bolted to it. The company sold the car with a piece of canvas lightly draped over the top, A/C as optional, and a mandatory set of three-spoke wheels.

The car was immediately plastered on bedroom posters worldwide for obvious reasons, the least of which being a cop show based on the car that ran for four seasons. The show was a vague rip-off in the vein of Knight Rider, except they replaced any acting talent with whatever was leftover of Chrysler's promotional budget that didn't go to the making of Twister.

Don't look this up, but it was the greatest show ever made.

As a historical footnote, Chrysler then sold Lamborghini in 1994 to Megatech Automotive, a company owned by a soon-to-be convicted murderer and the youngest son of the president of Indonesia that had the financial foresight to force a hostile takeover of Vector Aeromotive. Before you ask, he committed the murders after owning Lamborghini and Vector at the same time, which doesn't justify them but might have bolstered any insanity plea.

By contrast, Chevrolet designed and built the ZR-1 as an entirely in-house effort with a traditional development that involved some light modifications to an existing platform with the modest goal of being the company that produced both the fastest production car in the world and the Cadillac Cimarron.

Included in those light modifications was a brand new 4 cam, 4 valve per cylinder engine that was designed and built by the ground up by then wholly-owned subsidiary Group Lotus and manufactured by the legendary sports car engine manufacturer Mercury Marine out of Stillwater, Oklahoma. In the course of my research for this piece I received unverified reports that they also dabbled in boats.

The entire suspension system was replaced by a unit developed by Bilstien similar to their application on the Porsche 959, but with additional consulting work performed by the Lotus Formula One team. Twenty-five active suspension prototypes somehow left Bowling Green in 1990, but were cancelled as a production option both due to the cost per car being $4,000 higher than a base Corvette and because General Motors had hit its quota for good ideas for the fiscal year.

The improvements that made it through to production resulted in an MSRP that was nearly doubled from the stock C4, adding $27,016 to a $31,979 base price. However, the heavily reworked model was easily distinguished from the pedestrian standard version in three dramatic ways:

  1. one (1) ZR-1 badge on the rear bumper

  2. a convex rear fascia that was rolled out to the rest of the lineup exactly two years after being introduced

  3. a rear track that was widened three inches which involved modifying every body panel from the doors back but can only be identified by either using a tape measure or by the 1.5 inch black plastic gap on either side of the license plate

Chevrolet, in 1990, trucked a mostly stock car out to an unbanked test track in Fort Stockton, Texas, where they broke a 50-year-old average speed record of 174.885 mph over 24 hours. That record would stand until Volkswagen rolled out their W12 concept to their Nardo test track more than a decade later. Editor’s note: there are no W12 Concepts for sale on our local Craigslist, the same of which cannot be said of the ZR-1 as of the date of publication.

In the throes of a global pandemic and hunkered down in quarantine, bringatraileritis has set in fairly heavily, which brings us to the reason this post exists. we've stumbled on to the odd market circumstance that you're able to find $35,000 examples of both the ZR-1 and the Viper on sale today. After some gnarly development in the late 1980s and lingering in to the 1990s, these natural competitors are facing off once again near the bottom of their depreciation curves.

I'm uncertain as to which approach to the hall of automotive fame I admire more, whether it was Bob "Every Cell In My Body Represents One Thousand Incendiary Opinions Yelled At Earsplitting Volume" Lutz's No Replacement for Displacement wrapped in a body most at home in a L.A. Gear ad or General Motors' chaotically dousing the Corvette program with a firehose of American Dollars, Pounds Sterling, and doctoral engineering degrees. What I can tell you is that tonight in the humid Texas air, the spirit of Radwood is alive and burning.

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