This car is one of 84 1989 ZR-1s built and never released to the public. It was used for media events and auto shows and is sold on a salvage title.

As with all Heritage Collection cars, this vehicle will be conveyed to the buyer with a “salvage” title. The buyer is responsible for ensuring that the restored vehicle complies with all applicable laws and regulations prior to any sale or use of the vehicle on public roads.

SCM Analysis


Vehicle:1989 ZR-1 Pre-Production Coupe
Years Produced:1989
Number Produced:84 (pre-production only)
Original List Price:$58,995 (1990 ZR-1)
SCM Valuation:$40,000–$60,000
Tune Up Cost:$500
Distributor Caps:n/a
Chassis Number Location:Lower-left windshield corner
Engine Number Location:Lower rear side of crankcase
Alternatives:1987–91 Corvette Callaway Twin Turbo; 1988–89 Corvette Challenge racer; 1996 Corvette Grand Sport
Investment Grade:B

This car sold for $55,000, including buyer’s premium, at the 39th Annual Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, on January 19, 2010.

Prior to the delayed launch of the 1990 ZR-1, Chevrolet built 84 early-production 1989 models for a spectacular media launch event in France. So if you want to get technical about it, the 1989 Corvette ZR-1—a model never officially released for sale—is among the rarest of all Corvettes. Putting this in perspective, far more original 1953 Polo White roadsters (300), 1963 Z06s (199), and even 1969 L88s (116) were made.

In this case, the $55,000 question is, does rarity in and of itself impart value? Whooping cough is also rare, but this doesn’t mean you want it. The point here is that rarity without historical significance is worthless. And this begs still another question: What is the historical significance of the 84 stillborn 1989 ZR-1s?

Fueled by an explosion of interest in racing and performance cars, and championed by Chevrolet general manager Jim Perkins, the ZR-1 launched in late 1989 to worldwide acclaim for its Lotus-designed 32-valve aluminum LT5 V8.

The car delivered a then-euphoric 375 horsepower and Euro-type engineering cache that promised Corvette would compete—in performance as well as sophistication—with cars like the similarly powered Porsche 928 S4. So anticipated was the ZR-1 by the media that it reportedly garnered more magazine covers than any car in history.

Not all that glimmers is gold

How wrong they all were, because in a matter of six years both the ZR-1 and Porsche 928 would be in their graves—the expensive ZR1 RPO eventually replaced by an equally powerful pushrod C5 Z06 model, and the V8 Porsche ignored by disinterested cognoscenti in favor of the “real” Porsche, the 911. (Harley-Davidson later repeated the mistake by introducing a high-tech V-Rod with a Porsche-designed liquid-cooled OHC V-twin, which the H-D pushrod-faithful also avoided.) This shows that certain nameplates like Corvette, Porsche, and Harley-Davidson carry tremendous inertia, and they can be very hard to steer anywhere besides straight ahead.

All of which brings us to this particular 1989 ZR-1, which sold out of the GM Heritage Collection. The scarce auction copy, perhaps a few minutes’ masterwork for some staff attorney, first implies that the car cannot be licensed, and then disclaims that the buyer is responsible for its legality before doing so. But the fact that this car carried a real VIN tag beneath the windshield suggests that it would be fairly simple to register in one state or another, as long as that state’s DMV’s database doesn’t flag the VIN.

It that case, a dealer plate would surely get you by for the occasional foray into the public domain. Let’s hope the buyer knew the score on this matter, because with only 344 miles showing on the odometer, this 21-year-old relic has a lot of life left, with a few good stories to carry along with it—so long as they can be discovered.

Double the ZR-1 market value… and worth it

The body already has enough chips, cracks, and scrapes that you’d scarcely notice a few more, picked up at a track day or else charging across the Appalachians. Missing its original ZR-1 badges and sporting mismatched front wheels (fortunately with the correct ones stored inside), rusty iron brake rotors, and filthy wheelwells, this relic had the long-slumbering demeanor of Punxsutawney Phil and seemed unprepared for the spotlight at auction. But all those visible warts likely meant the sellers weren’t trying to hide any other flaws.

As to the price paid, this ugly duckling pulled roughly twice what an average-condition first-year 1990 ZR-1 will fetch this year. Nevertheless, I like “stories” when they’re the good kind, and this car has fascinating chops. To me, the hammered condition makes it all the more appealing, because these battle scars are the proof points of a life well lived. And with most of the other pre-production ZR-1s probably scrapped or exported, this one is actually a rare duck. Time, care, and research will make it well bought indeed

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