One-of-two 1969 ZL1 is holy grail of Corvettes, could sell for $3M

1969 Corvette Convertible Stingray ZL-1 front three quarter
RM Sotheby's/Motorcar Studios

In the collector car world, there are varying interpretations of the term “rare.” Where does one draw the line? A thousand examples? A couple hundred? A few dozen? However you define it, this 1969 Corvette ZL1 convertible is certifiably, no excuses, a rare beast.

This C3-generation ZL1 is one of two, to be precise, which means opportunities to buy them do not come up frequently. However, RM Sotheby’s announced yesterday that it will auction off the famous Vette at the company’s Phoenix sale in January. What we have here is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to own the rarest Corvette produced. If it sells, the car has a legitimate shot at becoming the most expensive Corvette ever sold at auction.

If you’re sitting there asking “what the heck is a ZL1,” allow us to illuminate. Chevy’s famous L88-code, 427-cubic-inch big-block engine hit the scene in 1967. You may recall from our article on the $2.7M L88 Corvette sale last year that this big-block was an all out racing engine one could order straight from the Chevy dealer. L88s were very high-compression V-8s with aggressive cam setup. Chevy advertised a respectable 430 horsepower, but these engines were widely rumored to make more like 500 hp in period. While the L88 put down impressive numbers, big-block Chevys are incredibly heavy lumps of iron. Gobs of grunt sure helps, but shedding weight from the front of the car does a lot more for balance and overall power-to-weight ratio. That’s why the ZL1 got an aluminum-block L88.

Even the ordinary L88 wasn’t widely publicized, so the trick was knowing how to order it. Buyers had to cough up nearly $1000 on top of a car whose base price was just over $4000.

If you thought the L88 was an expensive option, the ZL1 was prohibitively so. Just the engine alone added more than $4700 to the price tag with zero other options selected, which was more than double that of the base Corvette. That cost was a big reason only two Corvette owners decided to take the plunge.

1969 Corvette Convertible Stingray ZL-1 engine
RM Sotheby's/Motorcar Studios

For a little more background, this will be the first time since 1991 that a Corvette ZL1 comes to public auction. The car that changed hands more than 30 years ago is this orange convertible’s sister—a yellow and black coupe that was auctioned off for $300,000 reportedly after being seized by the DEA. RM Sotheby’s car due to cross the block in Arizona next month has never been offered for public sale; it was last sold in 2007, when the current owner bought it from the original owner. It then received a restoration by Kevin Mackay in 2014 and was certified by Bloomington Gold as the first of the two ZL1s produced. It’s since been extensively shown and displayed.

Naturally, a one-of-two Corvette ZL1 doesn’t come cheap. RM Sotheby’s is listing an estimate of $2,600,000–$3,000,000. Such a result would put the sale price in the category of top three Corvettes ever sold at auction. However, given that it’s such a rare and special vehicle, with no public sales for over three-decades, and a high degree of excitement sure to surround it, a final price is anyone’s best guess.

With the all-time Corvette auction record sitting at $3.85M for a 1967 L88 Coupe, the ZL1 has a fair shot at setting a new record. Whatever happens, don’t expect an offering like this to come around again for a very long time.

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    I met Mr.Maher at Corvettes at Carlisle in the early 1990’s and had a nice conversation with him regarding the details of this car. He started the car up and I believe it could be heard from any point at the Carlisle grounds.

    How did Chevrolet decide to create an engine and only sell two of them? This makes the ill fated Blackwing project look like a home run. As a $4700 option, it must have cost GM hundreds of thousands to offer a few, assumedly hand built, examples. That must have been a crazy time for some rabid engineers. Didn’t they even order a bakers dozen for themselves?

    Chevrolet created the ZL-1 for racing. More than three were built; 69 COPO Camaros also had the option. The engine was produced to homologate the aluminum engine block and specific ZL-1 heads for racing. Given their druthers, GM would not have sold it for street use at all. But sometimes, winning is an expensive proposition.

    The engine bits and pieces were used in many of the IMSA/Trans-Am cars during the seventies and early eighties as the rules suited. Both series were attempting to stop Porsche domination and produced some weird and wonderful cars. John Greenwood Corvettes, DeKon Monzas and numerous Camaros.
    The Corvette and Camaros used big blocks, the Monza was run with a small block and Al Holbert won the IMSA series with it. The big block was similar to the Reynolds castings for the Can-Am series, they may have even been the same for that matter.
    The GM distribution centre in Ontario Canada actually kept block and heads in stock at one time. That 427-ZL1 call out plate on the console also existed and was in inventory. I have one I’m staring at now. Produce two cars, yet stock an item like that? GM was like a candy store at one time, crazy parts I found in the various catalogues, bulletins showing cage structure and dimensions for Camaro cages used in the Trans-Am. That is the GM I still remember.
    A gentleman named John Burke had a McLaren M8 that was equipped with a 598CID version of that engine which produced 1,100HP. Last I heard of him, he was selling the car, “before it kills me”.

    You could buy the engine from Chevy and many did. No one ordered the cars as it was such a huge extra cost just to save some weight.

    It was originally designed for Can-Am racing, at Bruce McLaren’s behest. Only two ZL1 Corvettes sold, along with 69 1969 COPO 9650 ZL1 Camaros. I’ve read 229 ZL1 engines were made, 94 of which were produced in the Tonawanda plant and had Corvette prefixes: 80 manual transmission and 14 automatics. I’m not sure if the 229 includes the 165 between Tonawanda, the 2 Corvettes, and the 69 Camaros, or if it was 394 total. Suffice it to say, a good deal more than the 2 that made it into production Corvettes were cast and produced, but not very many at all.

    JeffS, NASCAR’s use doesn’t ever show up until the bottom line. Remember “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday?” Chevy sold many 283’s, 327’s and 350’s because of this engine. Those were very profitable for GM!

    JeffS, there were more than 2. They were created for racing. There were COPO Camaros built with the ZL1 in ’69. There were sold in limited quantities as service parts for racing and some wound up in IMSA or Trans-Am on some level. They had to pay to play. It was the best of times in some cases.

    I had always been told the only two ZL-1s made were a white couple and a yellow coupe. So, where did this car come from??

    The white one was not a real one. It was owned by Kevin Suydam and was a clone, It was also owned by Otis Chandler

    The automatic trans is a surprise – and while it may hold the bidding back to some degree, being the 1st of only two has strong appeal…

    Seems like the tranny should not much matter, since no one is likely to drive this anyway, and one can’t just hold out for the next 4-speed ZL1 to come to auction.

    Let’s see, conspicuous consumption? Check. $3mm seems like a good deal (hat tip, Fletch). This car doesn’t represent the collector market. It’s not out of reach, it’s silly.

    And an AIR pump set up on a ZL1 is a joke. I literally wouldn’t want it,mor certainly wouldn’t display it like that.

    Sounds like this ZL1 Vette spent a nice portion of its life doing what
    was supposed to do , being driven to victory… I hope it doesn’t become “Driveway Jewelry” in its next portion of history…

    One confusing thing about this beautiful car is that the auction description said it’s an early build (December 1968) so it has closed chamber heads not the later open chamber heads that are generally considered part of the ZL-1 engine design. But closed chamber heads have no provision for the four extra head bolts that are incorporated in the ZL-1 block design. Would GM have built a ZL-1 minus those 4 head bolts? (I built one of these engines so I’m pretty familiar with them).
    For over 40 years there were two documented factory built ZL-1s, the yellow coupe and the white coupe. When this car appeared in 2014 it was said to be the third ZL-1. But now it is said to be one of two. What happened to the white coupe?


    Yes… I agree!
    There Were 2 … The Yellow one is in Orlando, FL. Owned by a long time Corvette Dealer and the other was, I believe the White one which I recall was retained by GM.
    The Otis Chandler vehicle has been contested for a very long time as ‘not an originally built’ by Chevrolet but a modified example. Although it appears to be an ‘accurately produced’ example.

    While it’s fun to understand rarity and how it impacts value, I’d prefer more space be dedicated to useful stories. For example, Corvettes of the late 60’s and 70’s have a lot of notable mechanical deficiencies due to design and, heck, 50 years of use/storage. Find an expert and have him tell us what to watch for, or discuss the nitty gritty of this model. That a rare combination of rare options makes a big price is kinda ho hum. In the end, this will drive like most “sting rays,” which by C5 and C6 standards ain’t so hot. But in general, my thanks to Hagerty, and the (paper) magazine you publish is easily among the best car mags!!!!!

    I saw that photo and knew that it had to be John Maher’s car. I worked at another Chevrolet dealer in a nearby town for 3 summers in the mid-‘70s and the car was always parked at the back of our service department. We knew that it was a very rare car with the aluminum motor, but 1 of 2??? Amazing.
    Mr. Maher was the subject of many local legends.

    I worked at Ferrante Olds in Vandergrift, and Jhon used to bring that Vette over all the time. AWhen he pulled up to the garage, you could feel it through you feet as it shook the ground that much. I was always afraid it would break all the big glass in the showroom from all the vibrations it made. Was always nice to see it. Also got to watch it do a couple of Hill Climbs back then too. It was for sure a sight to behold. Watched it race at Keystone Dragway not long after he got it, against hisold 4 speed Blue 68 L-88, and got beat by it. LOL The Black Vinyl roof on it come off the old 68 car too.

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