1969 Corvette Stingray ZL1

Is anything more American than astronauts and Corvettes? As many Corvette enthusiasts are aware, there exists a fascinating connection between the Corvette and the U.S. Space Program. During the height of the Apollo program in the 1960s, Chevrolet ensured that astronauts got to ride in style on Earth through an innovative program that allowed them to lease new Corvettes for as little as $1 per year. 

The bond between Corvette and NASA astronauts was a natural one, as many astronauts were former fighter pilots who desired to experience the same speed on land as they had in the air. Chevrolet solidified this connection officially in 1962 when GM president Alan Shepard presented astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, with a specially-prepared 1962 Corvette as a gift from the company. Prior to this gesture, it was exceedingly rare for Chevrolet to provide vehicles as gifts, even to heroes like Shepard. However, this gift marked the beginning of a partnership that endured throughout the following decade.

And when it comes to the collector car world, the term “rare” holds varying interpretations. Where exactly does one draw the line? Is it a thousand examples? A couple hundred? Perhaps just a few dozen? However it’s defined, this 1969 Corvette ZL1 convertible undeniably qualifies as a rare gem, without question or excuse.

GM documents on file confirm that only two cars equipped in this manner were produced at the St. Louis assembly plant and delivered through their dealer network. The 1969 RPO ZL-1 was strictly developed as an FIA/NHRA homologation experiment and was never truly intended for sale to the public.

Yet, on the chilly afternoon of December 30, 1968, John W. Maher of Leechburg, Pennsylvania, arrived at Harold Breman’s West Penn Garage, traded in his keys (a 1968 L88 Corvette convertible), and completed the purchase paperwork for chassis 194679S710209, the first of these two factory-documented ZL-1 Corvettes. It is the only ZL-1 convertible ever built and, thanks to Maher’s influential connections, the only such Corvette ever sold new to a retail customer.

A Technical Marvel: The ZL1

At the core of the ZL-1 lies a refined version of Chevrolet’s 427-cubic-inch L88 V-8 engine. Featuring an all-aluminum block, sturdier connecting rods, a redesigned crankshaft, pistons, larger exhaust valves, a high-lift camshaft, and an enhanced “open chamber” aluminum cylinder-head design with four additional head bolts, the ZL-1 represented the pinnacle of Chevrolet’s engineering prowess.

Notably, the “open chamber” head design was not finalized until March 1969. Therefore, the pre-production version of this engine, originally installed in 710209, retains “closed chamber” aluminum heads.

To begin, buyers first had to select the $1,032 RPO L88 option before adding the $3,000 RPO ZL-1 package. The ZL-1 package included power-assisted heavy-duty brakes, a heavy-duty suspension package, a positraction rear axle, and transistorized ignition as standard features. 

Notably absent were a radio, heater, air conditioning, power windows, and power steering. Even the fan shroud was omitted to allow uninterrupted airflow. With a price tag of $4,718, the exorbitant cost of the all-aluminum ZL-1 package and its required performance enhancements more than doubled the base price of a new Corvette.

The Journey of Ownership: Maher’s Story

In the summer of 1968, Maher’s close friend Don Yenko excitedly told him about an experimental, all-aluminum racing engine for the 1969 Corvette. What really caught the attention of a dedicated racer like Maher was the fact that this new engine could be paired with the M40 automatic transmission, ideal for clutch dumps and full-throttle launches.

However, securing his order proved to be quite challenging for Maher. It was only with the assistance of Grady Davis, a two-time SCCA national champion and senior vice president at Gulf Research, who was then a secret partner to GM’s clandestine racing operations, that Maher was able to finalize his purchase.

Accompanying documentation from GM archives reveals that on November 21, 1968, the ZL-1/M40 powertrain configuration was approved for production. Remarkably, the very next day, Maher’s order (AVM236) for a Monaco Orange ZL-1/M40 Convertible (710209) was accepted. The choice of Monaco orange color was specifically selected as a token of gratitude for Davis’s assistance. This homage to his friend’s employer continued throughout Maher’s ownership, with the application of Gulf Oil racing livery.

Documenting Excellence: The Production Process

A comprehensive collection of GM documents thoroughly illustrates that the entire production process for chassis 710209, including its major components and final assembly at the St. Louis plant in December 1968, was meticulously documented. This process was preceded at every stage by a parallel chain of internal memos, synchronized approvals, and engineering change recommendations, all of which facilitated the fulfillment of Maher’s unique order.

The effective dates of several of these documents coincide with December 9, which matches the assembly date on 710209’s trim tag. Alongside Maher’s original invoice, tank sticker, and historical imagery, high-quality scans of all relevant GM paperwork for this factory-built ZL-1 are on file and available for review by registered bidders.

Chassis 710209’s original engine was assembled on October 22, paired with the transmission after November 29, and then installed in Maher’s car on December 9. An accompanying NCRS Shipping Report indicates that just 24 hours later, Maher’s one-of-a-kind convertible was ready for transit to West Penn Garage.

Drag racing modifications were promptly initiated, as indicated by the car’s original sales invoice, which mentions the installation of free-breathing side-pipes and a spare 4.11:1 rear end. Additionally, a set of intriguing GM internal documents on file reveals that in January 1969, a service bulletin was dispatched to the originating dealer, mandating the installation of a fan shroud (with clutch) into Maher’s ZL-1 due to overheating issues initially observed on L88/M40-equipped customer cars.

From February 1969 until November 1972, Maher and this extreme Corvette dominated hill climbs, autocross events, and drag races across Western Pennsylvania. Thanks to its M40 transmission, Maher affectionately dubbed his ZL-1 with the playful nickname “Winning Automatically.” By September 1969, the car’s original short-block assembly had succumbed to damage and was replaced by another short-block assembly provided under warranty by Chevrolet.

From Track to Showroom: The Evolution of the ZL1

In 1989, Maher brought the dormant ZL-1 out of storage with the intention of returning to competition. Bill Andrejko Auto Restorations of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, was entrusted with the task, and the outstanding result of their work was unveiled during the 1991 National Corvette Homecoming in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Over the next 15 years, Maher embarked on a schedule of exhibitions and competitions, during which this exceptional machine garnered awards at numerous Corvette concours and racing events across the country. Notable venues included Chip Miller’s Corvettes at Carlisle and the NCRS National Conventions in Charlotte, Orlando, Monterey, and St. Louis.

In 2007, Maher finally parted ways with the ZL-1, selling it to the consignor. After 39 years in Maher’s ownership, the car was undoubtedly ready for a grand debut with its new owner. Their first public appearance together occurred during the 2008 edition of The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering.

With Bloomington Gold certification as their goal, the consignor entrusted 710209 to Kevin Mackay’s Corvette Repair Inc. of Valley Stream, New York, renowned as the world’s premier restorer of historically significant Corvettes.

Upon disassembly, Mackay and his team discovered that the car was remarkably well preserved, with its blown engine being the only damage sustained during its racing career. Although not the original unit, the engine currently installed in the car is an extremely early, factory-correct, date-coded, all-aluminum ZL-1 unit.

After being refinished in its factory-correct Monaco Orange paint and black vinyl interior, Mackay completed the car in time for the 2014 Bloomington Gold show in Champaign, Illinois. Following meticulous scrutiny of its comprehensive factory documentation, 710209 was awarded Bloomington Gold certification, formally establishing it as the first of the two factory-built ZL-1 Corvettes. 

With this conclusive recognition as “the real deal,” the car has been warmly received at prestigious events such as the Glenmoor Gathering, Radnor Hunt Concours, Pinehurst Concours, and special Bloomington Gold exhibits in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A Legendary Legacy

In 2018, this ZL-1 convertible was loaned to the prestigious and internationally acclaimed Simeone Foundation Automotive Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it remained on display until recently.

Featuring an accurate, award-winning restoration by the most highly regarded restorer of historically significant Corvettes, the 710209 boasts exceptional provenance matched by its remarkable performance and unique specifications. With extensive factory documentation on file, this car stands indisputably as the finest and most unique special-interest production Corvette.

This opportunity marks the first time in 30 years that a factory ZL-1 has been publicly offered, and more significantly, the first time that the ZL-1 convertible has ever been made available to the public.

This legendary creation presents an unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire the ultimate cornerstone for any reference-grade collection featuring significant examples of “America’s Sports Car.”

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