Some say that back in the late 1960’s, General Motors developed an engine so powerful that it ran on liquid hot magma, and could make the earth spin backwards when fully unleashed. A motor of this caliber was sure to make it a legend in its own time and the car it was harnessed to, an iconic and lustworthy machine. So what is the name of this legendary powerplant? The ZL-1.
While the ZL-1 doesn’t burn molten lava (would it even be possible to burn lava?), and the Earth’s rotation seems to be intact, it has become one of the most storied engines ever created by GM. Engineered with racing in mind, the all aluminum ZL-1 took the basic format of GM’s L88 motor and improved upon it with burlier connecting rods, larger heads, a higher lift camshaft, and significant weight reduction over its cast-iron cousin. It makes a whole steaming pile of horsepower too: Some estimates put it at over 580.
GM shoehorned the ZL-1 into the engine bay of the 1969 Corvette Stingray, creating the Corvette ZL-1. While the ZL-1 engine itself was rare, it’s whispered that only two production Corvette ZL-1s were ever built. This rarest of American muscle cars would make the sprint to 60 mph in around four seconds, and do the quarter-mile shuffle in the low 11’s to low 12’s. This car was properly fast even by today’s standards.
Flashback 50 years and you’re in a Chevrolet dealership, looking over the options list for the ’69 Corvette. You read down the page until you get to the really important part: engine choices. You could get your ‘Vette in base V8 flavor, you could also opt for the exclusive and more powerful L88 motor. Or, depending on how rich you felt or how quickly you could mortgage your house, you could purchase yours with the ZL-1. A Corvette with the ZL-1 option box checked would run you over $10,000. In 1969 money! Other features include a Positraction rear axle, upgraded brakes, and special front and rear suspension. This price threshold meant that not a lot of people bought one, which has only added to the car’s mystique.
Rarity can do funny things to objects that turn out to be pretty ordinary. But, when a car packs an engine as exotic as the ZL-1 and puts down the incredible performance figures that it does, there’s no question that the Corvette ZL-1 really is the stuff of legends.