When 1968 tic-toc'd in, Corvette owners world-wide had already enjoyed five glorious, fun years with C2 Sting Rays-some 117,964 RPO cars in all (model year 1963 through 1967). Long about 1965, Chevrolet displayed (mostly via photos) a futuristic pointy-nose Corvette prototype. Everyone then pretty much assumed this was what the C3 body styling would resemble. Not everyone liked the look. But others were ready for a change. The top C2/Sting Ray sales totals were for the '66 model year with 27,720 (9,958 coupes and 17,762 roadsters).
So how do you think the all-new '68 Corvette sold? In all, it blew right by those '66 record sales numbers with a total of 28,566 (9,936 coupes and 18,630 roadsters). Not only was the Mako Shark-look well received, '68 big-block engine sales increased by 2,920 over 1967 (12,627 to 9,707). Ironically, all of this increase came from 7,717 390hp 427 sales-compared to 3,832 in 1967. There were also 5,063 M40 Corvette Turbo 400 automatic transmissions ordered in 1968. Most were ordered with the 390hp 427. A new Corvette trend indeed emerged in 1968-a beefy three-speed automatic transmission with a smooth-idle, torquey 427. Combined with the '68's all-new look and upscale interior, it was a dazzler. I decided in 1968 to get my butt in gear and get my BA degree in college. My free time in 1968-'69 was spent studying, but my weekends were usually spent earning money by super-tuning Chevy engines in rural Iowa and at Cordova, Illinois, and Kahoka, Missouri, dragstrips.
To many, the 390hp 427 was just an overgrown 325hp passenger car 396. I have always considered both of them in factory-stock form to be somewhat lackluster performers due mainly to lean carb jetting and a slow ignition advance curve. But with a camshaft update, a super-tune, and some Q-jet carb jetting, these engines came alive! Just check the NHRA, AHRA, and IHRA Stock class record-holder and championship event winner lists from the era. Also check what oval port big-block engines did in the Camaros, Chevelles, and Novas. (They outran everything in their classes.)
Generally speaking, only minor exterior body chrome separated the '69 Corvette from the '68. The thing many liked the most was that the '69 had electrically-operated pop-up headlight assemblies. The '68s were vacuum-operated and used to pop open at will, often one at a time. We never did figure out the problem on our silver '68.
Overall, 1969 was a very solid Corvette year, race wins and otherwise. Would you believe that sales climbed to another all-time high? Try 38,762 (22,129 coupes and 16,663 roadsters). The total number of big-block Corvettes sold were 15,343- almost 40 percent of the total! Small-block L48, 350hp 350 sales were 12,846 (33 percent.) The base 300hp 350 engine total was 10,575 (27 percent). A lot of different buyers showed they had a lot of different driving interests. This actually is good. Credit a lot of Corvette-loving Vietnam armed forces veterans whose tours of duty ended in 1968 and 1969. Surviving that Southeast Asia fracas was cause to celebrate-and many did upon return, with a new Corvette or performance Chevrolet.
The '69 Corvette's high-water performance mark centered on the 116 L88, 550hp, 427 race editions and the 2,722 solid lifter, 435hp 427 high-performance street engines. The L88 race package retailed for a whopping $1,032.15 extra. Two RPO ZL1 427s turned up years later-referenced as RPO-built and legally sold.
For the record, Corvette engineers had two ZL1 "mules" (prototypes). One was white with an M22 four-speed and 3.70:1 gearing. The other was red with a TH400 transmission and 4.88:1s with drag slicks. Corvette Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov told me back in the mid-'80s that he ran 10.70s at 133-plus mph in the red mule at Milford. On Press Day back then, major magazine, tabloid, and newspaper editors and writers were said to have had best runs in the 10.90s at 132 mph. The white ZL1 street version ran in the low 12s at 116 mph.
In the mid-'80s, I was sitting in Chevrolet Product Promotion Chief Vince Piggins' office when he told me, "No '69 ZL1 Corvettes were ever built to be sold-none." Well, I referenced that two "supposedly" either got out the back door and were somehow legally licensed or were built elsewhere. One was yellow and restored by a Corvette shop around Houston, Texas, in the late 1980s. A third white Corvette popped up in Ventura, California, a decade ago. The owner dreamed of building a ZL1 and calling it legit. He was going to tell the tale that the owner was a Vietnam GI who never came home. But he knew little about sub-assembly date codes. I knew the gentleman who sold him all the necessary ZL1 parts except the aluminum block. This guy had already bought a heavily damaged aluminum block that had been patched up but not heat-treated. When the engine was assembled, then run on a dyno for break-in, it immediately came apart. So much for '69 ZL1 427 Corvette lore.
1970 was a pinnacle performance year at Chevrolet but not for Corvette. The most powerful big-block street engine, the LS6 (450hp 454) replaced the L78, 375hp 396 in the Chevelle and Nova early on, but was never offered in the Corvette. It was due to lack of assembly plant engine availability, and also because an LS6 454 Corvette would have been a performance monster to most drivers.
As a direct result, 1970 year-end sales plummeted 56 percent to a mere 17,316 (10,668 coupe and 6,648 roadster). There was a mild recession in 1970 and jobs were scarce, but we don't totally blame the economy for dismal sales. For reasons that we still do not know, all solid lifter big-blocks were axed for 1970. So were aluminum heads, the L88 race engine-even the $79 RPO MA6 heavy-duty clutch option.
Corvette did get the Z28 Camaro 350 (called LT1 for Corvette but rated 10 hp higher)-said to be due to a better exhaust system. The LT1 cost more than the '69 L71, 435hp 437 ($437.10 to $447.60). Only 1,287 LT1 Corvettes were sold. Today they are rare-as are all other '70 Corvettes. Lastly, there was also an RPO "Special Purpose Engine Package" called ZR1. It included the LT1, 370hp 350, heavy-duty power brakes, M22 four-speed, transistor ignition, special aluminum radiator, metal fan shroud, and special suspension. Its suggested retail price was a lofty $968.95. Only 25 were sold.
What were other Corvette owners and fans doing during 1968-1970? There are tens of thousands of stories about all of us who could not afford a new Vette. We were buying up C1 and C2 gems for cheap. We bought a red, 82,000-mile '62 Fuelie-less Rochester injection and correct four-speed for $600.00 from a Chevy dealership's used car lot. We still own it today. It essentially has not been driven since 1985.
Back in that day, C1 Vettes were really good deals. Most were priced between $500 and $1,500. A friend bought a nice 2x4 265 automatic, two top '56 Corvette for $450. He then pressure-washed the engine and detailed the car front to rear. He then sold it for a whopping $850 and was very pleased. He actually did not think it was worth much as it did not even have the correct wheel covers. A photo of the car revealed it to have early edition '53 Corvette spinner wheel covers! Like most of us, he has a few dents in his butt cheeks from kicking himself.
During this same time period, C2s were very popular and were usually in the $2,000-$3,500 range. This included '63-'65 fuelies on up to '66 L72 425hp 427s and '67 L71 435hp 427s. Thanks to a neighbor who was a policeman, we had the chance to buy a 2.3-mile white '67 L88 Corvette in pieces for $2,000. The original owner trailered it home brand-new then disassembled it to make it into a drag car. It never went back together. We did not have $2,000 laying around so we passed the deal on to a Corvette dealer. He re-sold it in one day to someone in Minnesota-who then re-sold it for considerably more (still in pieces) to a Corvette buyer in Wisconsin. It's a one-of-a-kind today and worth a fortune.
Got any "Remember When" true stories of your own you can share with Corvette Fever? Email Alan.Colvin@sorc.com.