Rare air: 1971 Corvette ZR1 convertible

1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 right front 3/4 side high

When it comes to rarity, “one of one made” is the ultimate trophy. What that means, however, varies depending on the kind of car.

This 1971 Corvette convertible, spotted for sale on Hemmings, is one of 7,121 Vette convertibles made for 1971. But it’s the only one that was ordered with Regular Production Option (RPO) ZR1, “Special Purpose LT1 Engine Package” (seven of the 14,680 ’71 Vette coupes also had the option).

So, although the car isn’t in the same “one of one” neighborhood as a true one-off coachbuilt Packard, Rolls-Royce, or classic-era Ferrari, in the Corvette world it is indeed a unicorn. The ZR1 ragtop shows just 16,400 miles from new, so it’s also something of a time capsule.

1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 right rear 3/4
1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Bob Russo

Sold new by Mancuso Chevrolet of Skokie, Illinois, the lone ZR1-option convertible is well known in the Corvette world. It was owned for more than 25 years by Gary Konner, who managed Malcolm Konner Chevrolet in Paramus, N.J., with his brother, R.J. Konner. (Their father, Malcolm, died in 1983.) Billed as “the world’s largest Corvette dealer,” it held large Corvette shows that Zora Arkus-Duntov would attend, and for which GM would routinely lend Corvette concept cars for display.

Konner bought the ZR1-optioned convertible when a customer traded it toward a 1987 Callaway Corvette. The car had the correct Steel Cities Gray paint when Konner got it, but he found the car had at one point been repainted black. The 1971 ZR1 convertible comes with full documentation and NCRS (National Corvette Restorers Society) validation.

Trail of the ZR1

What some might be wondering is, “What is a 1971 ZR1?”

1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 right front 3/4 low
1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
Bob Russo

Many recognize the badge for “super Vettes” from the more recent past. First was the 1990–95 ZR1 with a DOHC, 32-valve, 5.7-liter LT5 V-8 engineered with help from Lotus. A top speed of 175 mph put that ZR-1 in Ferrari territory, but the option nearly doubled the price of a Corvette to about $59,000 in 1990 (that’s about $113,000 in today’s economy). Although demand started strong, it declined steadily in subsequent years. Chevy built 6,939 of them.

The badge returned for the C6-generation 2009–2013 ZR1, which could top 200 mph with its 638-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter aluminum V-8. Chevy made 4,684. In its final year of production in 2013, the price was $113,575.

Under the direction of Chevy engineer and Corvette “godfather” Arkus-Duntov, Chevy had begun sneaking racing chassis and brake components onto the Corvette’s option list in 1957. RPO 579E, which became known as the “Airbox” package for its cold-air intake, and RPO 684, Heavy Duty Racing Suspension, went on 43 cars. The 1963 Z06 package likewise equipped a Corvette for road racing, as did the 1967–69 L88 engine package.

Chevy had planned a successor to the 427-cubic-inch L88 for 1970, the 454 LS7, but that engine never materialized. The L88’s other road-race chassis and brake features, however, were combined for 1970 with the top-performance small-block, the LT1, which was new that year. With high compression and a solid-lifter cam, the 350-cu.-in. LT1 was high-revving and rated at 370 hp. It was also used in the 1970–72 Camaro Z/28.

1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 hood shot
1971 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 Engine

The resulting ZR1 Special Purpose LT1 Engine Package for the Corvette prepped the car for road racing, specifically in SCCA B-production. (The RPO ZR2 package, offered only in 1971, was similar but with the LS6 454 big block; only 12 were built.)

In the 1970 Corvette, the LT1 engine was a $484 option over the base L48, and it went into 1,949 Corvettes that year. The $1,010 ZR1 package included the LT1, but equipped with transistorized ignition, lightweight flywheel, special starter, special aluminum radiator with expansion tank and steel fan shroud, and deleted ignition shielding. The package also added the Muncie M22 “rock crusher” four-speed transmission (nicknamed for its noisy operation), aluminum driveshaft, and Positraction differential.

The rest of the ZR1 package focused on stopping and handling, with J56 heavy-duty brake package and F41 suspension using a heavy-duty front sway bar, seven-leaf rear spring, heavy-duty shock absorbers, and heavy-duty rear spindle struts.

The ZR1 package could not be ordered with air conditioning, power windows, power steering, radio, alarm system, or rear window defroster. Oddly, the $158 Custom Interior trim option was available, which included leather-covered seats, cut-pile carpeting for the floor and lower door panels, and imitation wood trim on the upper door panels, dash and console. This 1971 convertible has that option.

In total, Chevy made 53 Corvettes with the ZR1 package: 25 in 1970, eight in 1971, and 20 in 1972.

“I wish I had never sold it,” said Gary Konner, who today sells real estate in Florida. “It was such a great car to drive. I used to take it to the gym.”

Konner, who had done some Corvette racing, might have been more tolerant than other drivers of the ZR1-package Vette’s racing-oriented suspension, unassisted steering,and lack of amenities. While he misses that car, Konner still owns a yellow C4 1995 ZR-1, serial #1 for that year, as well as a 1988 Corvette Challenge racecar, also serial #1. As consolations go, he’s done alright.