In a moderate way, 1978 was a monumental year for Corvette. While Detroit continued to reel, trying to cope with ever-increasing federal safety and emissions standards, as well as a serious oil crunch, many onlookers wondered if the heyday of the American sports car was indeed past. While a few despaired in the late '70s that the passion and performance that defined Corvette were gone forever, Chevrolet sold more 'glass cars during that era than ever before or since. And, GM's Corvette Group engineers remained quietly industrious, looking for ways to keep the Feds from sucking the life out of these cars.
In hindsight, we see today that Corvette was simply suffering a bit of mid-life crisis, and 1978 marked a breakthrough year-a year the enthusiasm began to again overcome the regulations. It most notably also marked the Corvette's milestone 25th anniversary and the first time that a Corvette would pace the Indy 500.
A revised look, more power, improved handling, and a plusher interior marked Corvette's 25th model year. The introduction of the fastback-style coupe marked the most significantly redesigned Corvette since the C3's introduction in 1968 and only the second real facelift given to the Gen-Three Sharks (the first being the introduction of "rubber" bumper caps in 1973-74). The larger, wraparound rear window not only looked swoopier, but it also increased the Sharks' extremely limited cargo-carrying capacity from 7.8 cubic feet to 8.4 cubic feet. A retractable security cover was included to protect the more exposed stowage area.
A four-page driving impression of a '78 Silver Anniversary Edition with standard suspension, standard engine, and automatic in the Mar./Apr. '78 issue of VETTE began, "A cross between a two-passenger Seville and a genuine GT sports car, the '78 Corvette and its magic qualities continues as America's premier head-turner." It's a description that is even more apt with today's C5s. The '78's interior was redesigned, including a more squared-off layout of the speedometer and tachometer, the reintroduction of a glovebox that replaced the exposed map pockets, and revised door panels with larger, screw-on armrests that replaced the molded type used since 1965. According to that 1978 review, "The '78 Corvette is more luxurious, more comfortable, and less like a hard-core sports car than ever before. You win some, you lose some!"
As for performance, both the standard L48 and the optional L82 engines picked up several real horsepower. A new, dual-snorkel air cleaner package, lower-restriction dual exhausts with redesigned mufflers, and a single cat raised the L82 to 220 hp and the L48 to 185 hp-except in California where emissions standards only allowed the base performer and pulled 10 ponies back out of it. A 24-gallon fuel tank replaced the former 17-gallon tank. Room was created for the extra capacity by going with a smaller, lighter spare tire. While a variety of suspension packages from moderately firm to rather plush were still offered, fatter rubber was offered as an option in '78 in the form of Goodyear P255/60 R-15 tires. These meatier shoes looked beefy and provided more grip, but, at least on early-production '78s, they required front fender grinding at the assembly plant for clearance.
Before 1978, Chevrolet had never produced a special or collector-oriented "Anniversary Edition" Corvette. That would change, however, as the Corvette crossed the quarter-century mark, and it was chosen (at last) to be the pace car for the 1978 Indianapolis 500.
In his fall 1977 View From the Top editorial, VETTE Magazine's founding editor, Marty Schorr, spoke of a "customized, two-tone silver and gray '78 1/2 Aero-Coupe [to be] built to commemorate the use of a Corvette as Pace Car for the 1978 Indy 500." The proposed special edition sported red pinstriping and unique Goodyear tires with "Corvette"-lettered sidewalls. A prototype in this configuration was actually featured in the Jan./Feb. '78 VETTE.
Depending on your source, proposed production estimates for pace car replicas ranged from 300 to commemorate the '53 Corvette to as high as 1,000 cars, but none of these accounts come near the final figures. As interest and public demand grew, so did GM's production numbers, and Chevrolet ultimately built two different special editions. The Indy Pace Car Corvette turned out to be two-tone black over silver with red accent stripes, and 6,502 were built-offering one to each and every Corvette dealership (plus some extras). The Limited Edition Indy package (RPO Z78) was assigned its own VIN number sequence-another Corvette first-and featured a special silver interior with new high-backed sport seats, unique front and rear spoilers, 15-inch alloy wheels with 255/60-series Goodyear tires, and removable tinted glass T-top roof panels. The full array of '78 options were standard.
The original two-tone Indy Pace Car paint scheme-light silver uppers with dark silver lowers-grew into the RPO B2Z "Silver Anniversary Paint" option. This anniversary package included the same sport mirrors and alloy wheels as the Pace Cars. It was available with red, oyster, or black interiors and whatever option combinations desired. There was no limit to the silver anniversary paint, and 15,283 Vettes rolled out of St. Louis with it.
Corvette certainly made a statement on its silver anniversary. It promised that passion and performance were not entirely forgotten. Despite a slight dip in total production figures from 1977, Chevrolet still built 46,776 Corvettes in 1978-the fourth highest quantity ever, behind 1979, 1984, and 1977 respectively. As we look back now from the sports car's golden anniversary, we know the promise was true.
Editor's Note Our thanks go to Corvette Mike in Anaheim, California, (800-327-VETT) for providing the flawless, all-original 230-mile '78 Pace Car shown here.