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1971-1974 Chevrolet Corvettes - Remember When...

Thoughts From The Automotive Past

Doug Marion Mar 31, 2010
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Since the V-8 Corvette was introduced in 1955, it has been synonymous with special high performance, both under the hood and under the tires. To most of us, "Corvette" truly defined the term. But the early '70s bought this all to a screeching slowdown.

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To clean up the dirty air we all breathed back then, the U.S. Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act in 1965. Compared to today's automotive programs and procedures, ways and means to reduce engine pollutants seemed rudimentary-and they were. I just happened to be working in downtown Los Angeles, California, where some of the very worst smog was. The natives used to laughingly say, "Don't trust air you can't see." Well, it gave most, including me, a massive sinus headache every afternoon. I was at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and worked for three of its departments-including the Clean Air Department. It was my job to read all pending California legislation to see if the Chamber of Commerce agreed with the pending legislation. In short order, California's "smog laws" were tougher than those federally-mandated. I was 26, married, fresh out of college with one year of grad school. We had a '56 Nomad with an 11.0:1 compression 301 small-block V-8. We also owned a '62 fuel-injected Corvette. Earning $650 a month, a new Corvette was out of our reach. But not for others.

With reduced power and efficiency under the hood, new Corvette sales for the '71-'74 model years were surprisingly good. Try 21,801, 27,004, 30,464, and 37,502! When General Motors mandated lower compression and lesser camshaft profiles to help reduce emissions, we high-performance mavens cried the blues but everyone else (seemingly) looked to the Corvette more for its engineering, handling, braking, and image. In 1971, the LS6 454 sales were a mere 188. Twelve of them were dressed up with the $1,747 extra-cost ZR2 package. The '71 330hp 350 LT1 had 1,949 sales but only eight had the $1010 ZR1 package. Both packages had ultra-duty suspension and shock absorbers, heavy-duty brakes, special cross-flow aluminum radiator, transistor ignition, Muncie M22 "Rock Crusher" heavy-duty four-speed transmission, and more. Both the ZR1 and ZR2 Corvettes were ultra rare new, so you can imagine how super-rare they are today-especially any with documentation paperwork.

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In 1972, horsepower ratings were "net" instead of "gross." In 1973, the glorious LT1 350 was replaced with the L82 250hp 350. The base Corvette 350 was rated at 190 horsepower. Surprisingly, the L82 was a great running street engine. Thanks to increased traction and handling from the new radial tires introduced a few years earlier, an L82 was capable of running in the low 15s at 90 mph at sea level. Base prices for '71- '74 Corvettes ranged from $5,400 to $6,000. Car & Driver magazine did a great comparison that year on an L82/four-speed, an LS4 454/four-speed, and an LS4/TH400 automatic. In the quarter-mile, the L82 clocked 15.1 e.t. at 95.4 mph. The LS4/4-speed went 14.6 e.t. at 95.7 mph, and the LS4/TH400 automatic went 14.7 at 97.2 mph. These engines had to no-end power but they still produced plenty of torque. All three are rare today. The 250hp L82 cost $299 extra and sales totaled 5,710. The 275hp big-block LS4 454 cost $49 less at $250 and final sales were 4,412.

So, new Corvette sales in the early '70s were as good as they could hope to be. So were pre-owned/used Corvette sales. Something we have never seen written about is the maturity factor of the Corvette and the Chevrolet high-performance owner. Those who bought new Corvettes in the late '50s matured via age over the next ten years. As such, they earned higher incomes. Many now had families.

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These people-numbers were so huge that the used Corvette and Chevy market really came alive in the '70s and beyond. A used high-performance Corvette or Chevrolet was the world's best bang-for-the-buck. Myself and hundreds of thousands of others coast to coast and border to border had families and mortgages, and could not afford a new, loaded $7,000 Corvette. But we could afford a used beauty. Any Corvette in your driveway certainly is status enough. At one time, we had five! Our total initial investment for these five Corvettes was $5,150. We bought a maroon '62 ex-fuelie Corvette (VIN #1004663) at a 7-11 store for $1,500. We couldn't pass up a great running '64 coupe (VIN #100126) for $1,200. From our own newspaper ad seeking '62 Corvette parts, we bought a non-running, complete '57 for $1,000 ( in partnership with Source Interlink's John Barkley). Soon thereafter, my wife found a hardtop for it for $100-at a garage sale. We also bought a silver '68 T-top Corvette with a smoked engine for what the owner owed his bank-about $850. For $100, we bought engine gaskets and a ring set, then tore the engine apart and had the collapsed piston skirts knurled. After our reassembly, the engine then ran great, and a friend somehow talked us out of the car for what we had in it.

Also going full tilt in the early '70s, generally in the Midwest, south, and east, was the National Council of Corvette Clubs. Out west was the Western States Corvette Council. Also, the very beginning of the National Corvette Restorers Society pleased many. I was an early member. From these Corvette organizations (Save the Wave!), many have said that Corvette owners led the way in ponying-up correct restoration processes and procedures. The Chevy and Corvette restoration trade would soon be growing by leaps and bounds.

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The one Corvette that I did miss buying in the early '70s was a 2-mile '67 L88 coupe, white with blue interior. The original owner trailered it home new-then tore it apart for drag racing but never got it back together. I could have bought it for $3,000. But who had $3,000 in 1972-'73? Someone else did! It was bought for $3,000 and sold the next day for $5,000 to someone in Minnesota-unassembled. Then it ventured south to Wisconsin-assembled-for big bucks via private Corvette investment brokers. Many of you probably know where this Vette is today.

I was also buying and rebuilding Rochester fuel injection units and doing super-tuning. I still have a plethora on NOS and good used FI parts today. Ah, the Corvette life-long beat goes on! Next up: 1975-1981.



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