Some might look back at the late 1970s and think those were the saddest years for American sports cars and muscle cars. From a power perspective that might be true thanks to—in no small part—stringent new emissions and safety standards. In 1978, car manufacturers were right in the middle of this debacle and trying to figure out how to give people the power they wanted without burning a bigger hole in the ozone layer, among other things. There’s no denying these new restrictions were a serious problem, but Chevrolet wasn’t about to let that stop them from producing America’s sports car. If anything, these restrictions made Chevy think outside the box and get a little creative, hence the pace car replica Corvettes.
Chevy originally planned for the 1978 pace car replicas to be a special-edition with a very small production run planned. Chevrolet was capitalizing on the fact that the Corvette was asked to pace that year’s Indy 500 (thanks in no small part to the fact it was the 25th anniversary of the Corvette). Production started out with the idea they would only make 300 pace car replicas in honor of their first run of Corvettes in 1953, of which only 300 were sold. As soon as word started to get out though, Chevy realized that way more than just a few hundred people were interested in purchasing this limited-edition replica. In turn, they ramped up production so that every dealer in the county got one to sell—about 6,000 total—plus a few hundred extra. By the end of it, Chevrolet claims to have built 6,502 total units.
That was 40 years ago. Many of these pace car replicas were probably driven into the ground or left outside to bake in the sun and rust in the snow. Forty years is a long time for decay to grab hold of something. Heck, even 5 or 10 years can do some serious damage. So it really is a wonder that we have any of these cars around without having been completely restored. But, thanks to people like Len Russo and his wife, Catherine, of Fairview, New Jersey, we do have some original time-capsules to still enjoy.
Russo’s example is about as original as it gets with only a handful of wear parts replaced over the years. Like other pace car replicas, Russo’s Corvette touts the beefiest engine option available in 1978, the 220-horsepower L82 small-block 350. The engine’s seemingly meager 220 horses doesn’t sound like much, but it is a sign of progression over the previous year’s 210hp L82. Feeding the 350ci small-block is the original Rochester four-barrel Quadrajet. The engine is so original that it even has the original oil in it! Well, maybe not. But with only 22,000 miles on the clock a large majority of the engine is straight from the factory. What did need replacing, such as some A/C components, were swapped out for OEM parts.
Bolted up behind the small-block is the factory-installed MX1 automatic transmission. Speaking of options and RPO numbers, the pace car replicas came standard with 14 specific options but we’ll get into some of those later.
The most notable and unique aspects of the pace car replicas was the paint scheme—black on silver. This was one of the only options available in ’78 that you could only get on a pace car replica. The two-tone paint is comprised of black on the top half of the car with silver on the bottom, separated by a thin red stripe. Russo’s Corvette retains its original black paint while the silver on the lower half received a respray. Like other pace car replicas, his retains its factory optioned aluminum wheels, RPO number YJ8, with the wider QBS tire option. Standard Corvette tire sizes were 225/70R15 but QBS upped the size to 255/60R15 all around. This increase interfered with the stock fenders so Chevrolet had to actually shave off a small amount from the fender lip for adequate clearance, a task handed to the St. Louis Corvette assembly plant.
Inside the cabin of Russo’s Vette is business as usual as far as ’78 Corvette interiors are concerned. While the pace car replicas didn’t receive any special treatment inside, all Corvettes saw a pretty extensive redesign. Russo’s interior is all original, including the new-to-1978 speedometer, tach, glovebox and redesigned door panels. One might also notice a little badge in the center console that will only be found on ’78 Vettes: a 25th anniversary limited edition placard.
Another fun detail on Russo’s car is the removable glass roof panels. This was RPO number CC1 and, although it was standard equipment on the pace car replicas, only appeared on 972 of all 46,776 Corvettes built in 1978.
Russo and his wife have owned the car for over 10 years now and although it is an outstanding piece of Corvette history, they don’t just lock it away in a garage. In fact, at the time we shot the car, it had just over 21,000 miles on the odometer but as we write this they are pushing 22,000. When we asked how often it’s driven, Russo told us, “At least three times a month.” Most of those miles are spent driving around town on the weekends and taking it to local shows where they have won numerous awards. So thanks to the Russos and their pristine ’78 Corvette pace car replica, we all get to celebrate 25 years of the Corvette 40 years later. Vette
Photographs by Bill Erdman