I think it’s common for tech enthusiasts to look back on the innovations of yore and get a little misty-eyed. You know, those among us who would savor the opportunity to type on a pristine Apple PowerBook 500 Series or shoot landscape photography on a Kodak DCS 560 DSLR. The technology in these devices is immensely lacking compared to what we’re used to in 2021, but it’s still cool stuff that was quite advanced for their respective eras, and that’s why they’re fun to use today. The same goes for sports cars, and cars in general.
Enthusiasts love buying and enjoying older cars for exactly this reason. And, when it’s a car that features an immense level of collectability due to possessing technology that was far ahead of its time, it becomes a fascinating mix of arcane computer technology and historical significance. A brilliant example of this is a C4 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 that’s currently for sale over at Hemmings. It’s a one-of-four test vehicle with ahead-of-its-time active suspension.
The fact that it’s a ZR-1 is eyebrow-raising alone. I love these cars and their dual-overhead cam LT5s that were co-developed by Lotus and built by Mercury Marine.
GM owned a majority stake in Lotus in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and those engines weren’t the only thing they engineered. Lotus also developed the active suspension system in this ZR-1 test vehicle, which was originally written on the drawing board to be used in F1. F1 banned any form of non-passive (meaning, conventional damper) suspension in 1993, so why not throw all that accumulated R&D at road cars? GM invested $28 million dollars to further develop it as such, and Lotus got to work.
What it came up with was a very complex and heavy hydraulic-based system. This not only made it a potentially huge maintenance headache, but it also bumped the ZR-1s curb weight to nearly 4,000 pounds and zapped power from its high-revving V8. According to the National Corvette Museum, it took 3 horsepower to make the system work while at a stop, and as much as 25 horsepower under hard cornering.
This system utilized a central computer that would pump hydraulic fluid (pressurized to 3,000 PSI) to each corner’s damper depending on several variables. As Brendan Moran of Motor Trend explains, “Hydraulic fluid is diverted to all four corners via computer controls from the pump according to speed, steering, load, wheel position, and other sensors to react to the road much more effectively than traditional shocks and springs.”
Ultimately, this complexity is what prevented this system from being offered to the general public as an option. Its complexity meant it’d potentially be a nightmare for dealers to service and maintain -just imagine how much of a pain it’d be with so much extra crap going on under the skin of a tiny Corvette. Then, there was its immense, projected added cost of $35,000-$40,000.
GM scrapped the plan by the mid-90s, and that was that.
Thankfully, today’s non-passive systems are far less complex, don’t add much weight, and don’t utilize pressurized hydraulic fluid to do their magic, but rather magnetic damping. Well, McLaren’s method is some kind of wild, alien technology, but it’s far from rudimentary. Still, it was cool that GM and Lotus created this technology, and it would be an incredible experience to own and drive one in 2021. In a way, it’d kind of be like getting your hands on a Kodak DCS 560 digital SLR camera and snapping a day’s worth of photos with it. It’ll feel like a 10-pound barbell in your hands, have rudimentary software, and greatly underperform compared to modern-day, consumer-grade DSLRs, but it’d work. And the lineage and ahead-of-its-time aspect is fascinating.
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