The key to unearthing gems from the Petersen Publishing photo archive is knowing how to navigate the archive’s logbooks. The loose-leaf binders hold a chronological record of all the film that passed through the company’s photo department beginning in 1955. Photo jobs were logged by date, the magazine requesting the photos and a brief—and sometimes cryptic—description of the photo subject. A vague description like “Detroit trip,” for example, could encompass visual records of all sorts of activities that the photographer experienced while in Motown, from drag races to sneak peeks of Big Three engineering prototypes.
So when we saw a photo job labeled “1983 Corvette” by Eric Rickman, we were intrigued. There was no 1983 Corvette.
As early as the mid-1970s, Chevrolet designers and engineers were working on the fourth-generation Corvette. Company brass had set high goals for the car: more room for passengers, better aerodynamics and more contemporary-looking proportions. For a time there were both front- and mid-engine proposals moving through the process, with the Aerovette concept car making a strong visual case for the latter. But the engineering side of the house was limited in powertrain choices for such a layout, the X-car’s 2.8-liter V-6 being their only option. Bringing it to a level of output expected from a Corvette would be a pricey proposition. So it was decided to retain a conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout.
At the same time, Chevrolet recognized it needed a new manufacturing facility to produce the C4 Vette. The already cramped St. Louis plant couldn’t accommodate the changes needed for the all-new car. In 1978, GM took over a former Chrysler facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and quickly (in corporate time, anyway) converted it to Corvette production. Once GM knew it had a place to build the C4, it could green-light the new Vette, which it did in 1980 and planned to introduce it as a 1983 model.
But the challenge of meeting the car’s new design and function parameters, coupled with the retooling required at Bowling Green, pushed production of the first C4 Vettes into early 1983. It was Bob Stempel, Chevrolet’s general manager, who decided that the new car would be considered a 1984 model. Since C3 production ended with the 1982 model, there would be no 1983 Corvettes available to the public.
The C4 was shown to the press at Riverside Raceway in December 1982, where Rickman shot the car. His are the black-and-white photos seen here; it was Bob D’Olivo, head of the PPC photo department, who paired the first and latest Vettes for the color photo. We don’t know the exact date Stempel made his 1984 decree—and we weren’t at that 1982 press conference to know for sure—but when Rickman tripped his shutter, he considered this Vette a 1983 model.
Photography by Petersen Publishing Archives, Eric Rickman, Bob D’Olivo