Corvette is America's only true production sports car." Thus starts Chevrolet's sales brochure for the '76-model Corvette, and this statement was certainly as true as it had-or has-ever been. The domestic car industry was under pressure on all fronts. Stiffer safety and emissions regulations were coming from the government on a regular basis. Public desire for better fuel mileage (thanks to the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and '74) brought competition from overseas, and prompted domestic manufacturers to put most of their development efforts into their own fuel-efficient cars. The great musclecars of the late '60s and early '70s were indeed shadows of their former selves.
Even though more people bought '76 Corvettes than any previous model, it's tempting, in retrospect, to dismiss these cars as dim stars in the Corvette cosmos. In the context of the times, however, Corvette was still at the top of the performance heap. An article in the very first issue of VETTE, titled "The Stingray Lives," makes both points:
"For 1976 the Corvette Stingray is truly a mixed bag. It's more sophisticated, more luxurious and, according to government standards, is safer and "cleaner" than previous models. However, it is also heavier, slower and more expensive than last year's offering."
The same piece then goes on to say, "...the '76, while it is a far cry from the solid-lifter, high-compression killer cars of days gone by, is still America's only entry in this elite marketplace."
A look at what the competition had to offer is also telling. The tarted-up Pinto that was the '76 Ford Mustang did have a V-8 option, which put out a staggering 140 horsepower. The Corvette's stablemate, the Camaro, matched the Blue Oval offering with a new 140-horse, 305ci base engine; 145- and 165-hp 350s were also available. GM sibling Pontiac offered a 160-hp 350, a 185-horse 400, and a 200-horse 455. Those looking for more sporting capability than a '76 Vette with the 180-hp L48 or the optional 210-horse L82 had to look to Europe and the Porsche 911 Turbo to satisfy their power lust.
Still, it's evident from Chevrolet's 1976 sales brochure that the evolution of Chevrolet's premier offering was heading in a different direction (i.e., more luxury and, believe it or not, better economy.) The first section under "What you get" is "To help you save money." The Chevrolet Efficiency System, which included a new catalytic converter for 1976, also featured a new air induction system that fed the carburetor from the front of the car rather than the cowl, and "Early Fuel Evaporation" for more efficient warm-ups. The brochure also trumpets the new Vette's extended service intervals, including 22,500-mile spark plug changes
The majority of the rest of brochure is taken up by sections on exterior and interior features, and "Plenty of comfort and convenience." As for the exterior, not much changed from the '75 version, though there were several note-worthy changes. First and foremost, and for the first time in Corvette's history, you couldn't get a convertible-coupes only, please. You could, however, finally get the optional aluminum wheels that were first announced for the '73 model, though only 6,253 buyers ponyed up the extra $299 to do so. There were two different rear bumper logos used during the model run, one using recessed lettering, and a later, larger emblem that wasn't recessed. And the gas cap emblem was a '76-only item. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that the '76 Corvette was the last to wear the hallowed "Stingray" moniker on its fenders.
One other exterior change had a bearing on the "Plenty of comfort and convenience" area. With the addition of "Astro Ventilation," a power system that circulated air even when the car was at rest, the vents on the rear deck were deemed no longer necessary. An optional rear window defogger (as opposed to the previous "defroster") kept things clear. The interior was basically unchanged from '75, though one change-the sport steering wheel-was an unwelcome change, due to the fact that this part was also used on another Chevrolet offering, namely the Vega. Almost all who bought a '76 added the Custom Interior Trim and RPO N37, the Tilt-Telescopic Steering Column.
This shift in emphasis was also seen in the powertrain offerings. Although a wide-ratio four-speed was included in the '76's base price, and the M21 close-ratio box was still an option, a whopping 79 percent of the cars sold that year came with a Turbo 350 automatic, which was a no-cost option. The hot tip for performance was an L82 with the M21 tranny and optional 3.70:1 rearend (you couldn't get A/C with this setup). Even with a slushbox, though, and with the "High Altitude" 3.55:1 differential, the L82 option was stout enough to run a 14.96 quarter-mile at 92 mph for that first issue of VETTE (although the writer also referred to this powerplant as "sort of a castrated LT-1 or old 350/350").
One thing that stayed almost exactly the same was the Stingray's chassis. The '76 sat a little higher to meet Federal standards, and a new steel underbody section improved rigidity, reduced weight, and blocked out more heat. But these were fairly small changes to a car that could still outhandle just about anything else on the road at the time. Just before saying that Corvette's four-wheel discs were the best in the country, that old VETTE article goes on to say that the car is "nimble, agile, and offers enough stock performance to satisfy anyone's daily needs."
The public agreed. A record 46,558 '76 Corvettes were sold, making it the best-selling Corvette at the time. Even now, the '76 is fourth-best selling edition in the marque's long history. On an interesting note, the writers of that long-ago article in VETTE believed that the '76 would be the Shark-bodied Corvette's swan song: "It is quite evident that regardless of what restrictions the government or our econmical (sic) conditions place on us, the Corvette will come through with flying colors. A mid-engined model is on its way and if Dave McLellan can get through to the Ivory Tower corporate bean counters, it'll be available sometime in 1977." That, of course, was not to be. In fact, the then nine-year-old platform lasted, with cosmetic and interior changes, until 1982.
How can it be, then, that when things seemed to be at their worst for Corvette, the marque had its best-selling year ever? Although advertising, in general, tends to be heavy on exaggeration and propaganda, there's a part of that '76 sales brochure we think hits it pretty much on the head: "...you can look at the purchase of a '76 Corvette in many ways. As an immediate source of some of the most enjoyable driving you'll ever experience. As an automotive investment instead of a purchase. Or even as a valued legacy. What other car offers so much?" And that's the answer. In those tough times for car makers, no other car offered as much as a Corvette.