When Corvette fans first feasted their eyes upon the late summer 1967 car magazines, fans were expecting a new “Shark” Corvette. Chevrolet had been working the crowds and stoking fans with the Mako Shark-II show car. Once again, the new Corvette was drastically unlike anything else on the road.
To rush the car into production, the new Corvette used the existing C2 Sting Ray engine lineup, running gear, chassis and basic structure. So, “all they had to do” was make a new body and interior. But the problem was the front fender humps! From the curb, the Mako Shark-II was a real sex-pot, but the view from the driver’s seat was not so good. Toning down the humps and maintaining the Mako’s character was a challenge, but the new Corvette was enthusiastically accepted. Unfortunately, it was quickly slammed over quality issues, as it was obvious that the early 1968 Corvettes weren’t quite ready for production. By 1969, quality was brought up to speed, although it was an issue on many C3 Corvettes.
Amazingly, Chevrolet got away with using the same basic chassis for 20 model years! Designed in 1960-1961, the Corvette’s steel perimeter frame was a big improvement over the C1’s structure. In its day, the C2-C3’s four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes were head-and-shoulders above any other production American car. It’s a testament to the design that engineers were able to configure the handling properties from relatively mild to racer tough.
In 1968, Corvette customers had six engine choices in two configurations, in flavors mild to wild. This was the same 1967 lineup, with the base 300-horsepower 327. The hottest small-block was the $105, L79 327/350, a rather stout combo. If maximum velocity was your passion, there was a 427 big-block. The entry level 427 was the $200, 390-horsepower L36, with a mild cam, hydraulic lifters and a single four-barrel carb. Next up was the $305, 400-horsepower L68 with the sexy 3x2 carbs and triangular air cleaner setup and hydraulic lifters. But the hot street ride was the $437, 435-horsepower L71, with a hot cam, solid lifters and the 3x2 carbs. This was a frighteningly powerful car.
But wait, there’s more. For L71 engines, a paltry $805 for the RPO L89 aluminum heads could shave 75 pounds from the front end. For customers that wanted to road race their Corvette, the $947 L88 427 was a full package, near race car. The L88 put Corvettes back on top in road racing. In 1968, only 80 L88s were built and in 1969 116 were made. For 1968 Corvette customers, the $226 Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed transmission replaced the two-speed Powerglide automatic.
Performance continued to improve for another two years. In 1969, the 327 small-block grew into a 350 and lasted to 1996. In 1970, the 427 grew into a 454 and lasted until the end of the 1974 model year. For 1970, the hot small-block was the $447, 370-horsepower LT-1. Performance began to wane in 1971 thanks to three factors: tightened emissions, reduced compression to accommodate unleaded gasoline and increased pressure from insurance companies. But in 1971, in an act of defiance, the $1,221, 425-horsepower 454 LS6 big-block was available. Only 188 LS6 Corvettes were built, making them very valuable today.
1972 saw a big perception of a performance downgrade when GM started publishing horsepower ratings measured by “net” rather than “gross.” The net ratings included the normal reduction in power due to a full exhaust system, power-robbing accessories, and warm, under-the-hood air. While more accurate, it didn’t look good on paper and for bragging rights.
Safety concerns began to pile on in 1973 with required front crash bumpers. In 1974, crash bumpers were required on the front and rear, soon to be followed by side guard door beams. Corvette engineers and stylists met the challenge with soft, body-colored bumper covers in 1973 followed by soft body-colored rear bumper covers in 1974. Customers liked the fresh new look because Corvette sales started seriously taking off in 1973. Sales went from 27,004 in 1972 up to 53,807 by 1979. Then fans were shocked to learn that there would be no convertible model in 1976. Ironically, 1975-’79 Corvettes consistently weighed in at their all-time high of around 3,550 pounds, with base engines ranging from 165 horsepower in 1975 to 195 horsepower in 1979. The optional “performance” L82 was rated at 205 horsepower in 1975 and 225 horsepower in 1979.
In 1975, when Dave McLellan took over as Corvette Chief Engineer from Zora Arkus-Duntov, he inherited a troubled car line in troubled times. McLellan had to keep the Corvette fresh-looking on a limited budget, improve performance, meet new regulations, design an all-new Corvette and work out the logistics for the new Bowling Green plant. The 75-year-old St. Louis plant was often described as “dungeon-like.”
In 1968, the base Corvette listed for $4,663. By 1982, the base price ballooned up to $18,290. There were two main factors. First, as regulations were implemented, Corvettes became more complicated to build and manufacture. Engines had to be EPA certified, cars had to be crash tested, and there were more stringent pollution and painting regulations. Then there was the issue that was hurting everyone: inflation. In the 1970s America experienced runaway inflation that was eating everyone alive.
The most amazing part of the C3 story is that despite the rising prices and lower performance, 1979 still stands as the best sales year ever for Corvettes: 53,807 units. Come 1984, it’s the second best with 51,547 sales due to the extended sales year for the all-new design, and the third best year was 1977 with 49,213 Corvettes sold. Part of the sales success was because the Corvette, Camaro Z28, and Firebird Trans-Am were the “last men standing” from the old muscle car days. Chevrolet marketing-men transformed the Corvette from a bad-boy sports car to a luxury boulevard cruiser sports car. Since Corvette sales were at all-time highs who was to argue that management was wrong?
If the Tuned Port Injection L98 had been introduced in 1980 instead of 1985 the final years of the C3 would have been called “The Comeback Years.” The 1980-’82 Corvettes had a distinctive new look that was refreshing and edgy thanks to the new front and rear bumper covers. The only thing lacking from 1980 to 1982 was grunt. It was 1980 and it was the last year for the performance option L82 and it was the best year for the L82 since 1975 with its 230-horsepower rating. McLellan and his team reduced the weight down from 3,503 pounds in 1979 to 3,336 thanks to lighter roof panels, hood and doors. Also, the differential and crossmember were now made in cast-aluminum. And lastly, the base 180-horsepower engine used the L82’s aluminum manifold.
The 1981 Corvette was the first year since 1955 that did not offer a “performance engine” option. The base engine’s power was up from 180 horsepower in 1980 to 190 horsepower, had steel tube headers and Chevy’s Computer Command Control unit that automatically adjusted timing and airflow. In 1981, it was also the last year for a four-speed transmission, but the three-speed automatic had torque converter clutches for Second and Third gears.
Come 1982, it was arguably the most refined of all of the C3 Corvettes. On the upside, the 1982 Corvette was once again a “fuelie.” The new Cross-Fire Injection system used two injectors mounted to a modified Z28 dual-quad high-rise aluminum manifold with an improved Computer Command Control module that now made 80 adjustments per second for improved fuel metering and throttle response. Cold air induction was back thanks to a new solenoid-operated door on the underside of the hood at the base of the windshield. Smaller and lighter catalytic converters helped reduce exhaust backpressure. Weight was only up 25 pounds to 3,342. Unfortunately, there was no performance engine option or manual transmission. The C3 swansong option was the Collector Edition for $4,247 that included special paint, trim, decals, pinstriping, a hatchback rear window and Mako Shark-II-styled turbine wheels. Chevy sold 6,759 Collector Edition 1982 Corvettes.
A 1968 427 Corvette versus 1982 Corvette comparison is really apples versus oranges. Though the same basic car, they are vastly different cars, from different times. The 1968 big-block 427 did the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds and 0-60 in 6.3. A 327 1968 Corvette ran the quarter-mile in 15.6 seconds and 0-60 in 7.7. The 1982 Corvette did the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds and 0-60 in 9.2 seconds. The “performance” Corvette was staged for a big comeback!
K. Scott Teeters has been a contributing artist and writer with Vette magazine since 1976 when the magazine was titled Vette Quarterly. Scott’s Corvette art can be seen at www.illustratedcorvetteseries.com. His muscle car and nostalgia drag racing art can be found at www.precision-illustration.com.