Chevrolet Corvette: 60 Years of an American Icon, Part 1

1953-1982: C1, C2, and C3

Drew Hardin Jan 12, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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Soft Bumpers
Federal regulations mandated that all '73 model cars be fitted with bumpers that could withstand a 5-mph impact. So the Corvette's chrome bumpers were replaced with soft, body-colored urethane units. For '73 the nose received the soft-bumper treatment; by '74 both ends of the car had the energy-absorbing systems. That makes the '73 models the only ones with soft front and metal rear bumpers.

1973 Chevrolet Corvette Side 2/41

The new bumper lengthened the car overall by 2 to 3 inches, but it added less than 40 pounds to the Vette's overall weight. The new nose also allowed the Corvette's designers to render a new hood, one that drew cold air into the engine via cowl induction and also got rid of the doors that hid the windshield wipers. And though not related to the new hood or crash standards, the '73 Vette also lost the previous models' removable rear window.

The new rear-bumper design was the only styling difference between '73 and '74 models; for '75 the styling was also carried over, though the rear bumper cover became a single piece rather than two, and the convertible body style disappeared -- for a while, at least. In '76 the cowl-induction hood was replaced with a more conventional hood, and there were two different "Corvette" treatments on the rear bumper cover, with letters that were recessed and letters that weren't. This also marked the last appearance of the Stingray fender badges.

1974 Chevrolet Corvette Rear Three Quarter 3/41

In the final year of this Vette iteration, Chevy's stylists put a new crossed-flag emblem on the car's nose and blacked out the A-pillars.

Beneath the skin changes were many, and few were good. For the '73 model year, engine choices were down to three: the 190hp base L48 small-block, the 250hp L82 small-block, and the 275hp LS5 454. The L48's output rose by 5 hp in '74, but that was the final year of the 454 option; by '75 the L48 was rated at a dismal 165 hp, and the L82 dipped to 205 hp, thanks to the addition of catalytic converters.

1977 Chevrolet Corvette Front Three Quarter 4/41

The '75 model year marked another milestone: the retirement of Zora Arkus-Duntov. The man known as the "father of the Corvette" handed the reins to Dave McLellan, who had been with GM since 1959 and worked closely with Duntov during the final six months of his tenure.

As if to reassure Duntov that the Corvette could soldier on, output grew just a bit in '76, with the base engine making 180 hp and the L82 210. Those numbers would hold through '77 as well.

Fastback
The '78 model year marked the Corvette's 25th anniversary, and Chevrolet made some significant changes to take the shark into its final five years of production. Most obvious was the new fastback-styled back window, which both increased rearward visibility and made more room inside the car (though adding hinges to that fastback to ease cargo loading wouldn't happen for a few more years). All '78 models received 25th anniversary badges; some buyers opted for the special Silver Anniversary paint scheme, a two-tone job with dark-silver panels under a lighter-silver upper body.

1978 Chevrolet Corvette Rear Three Quarter 5/41

This year also marked the first time a Corvette was used as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, and a limited run of pace-car replicas was built to commemorate the event. Well, sort of limited. Though initial plans were to make just 300 of the Limited Edition models, eventually more than 6,500 were produced, dashing the hopes of many who thought they had an instant collectible on their hands.

1978 Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car Replica 6/41

The '79 model's styling carried over from '78, but in the '80 model year, Chevy's designers shook things up a bit by restyling the front and rear bumper covers, giving the car a more aggressive look, and returning the ducktail spoiler to the car's rear end.

There were no styling changes to speak of for '81, but the year marked a huge shift for Chevrolet, as Corvette production moved from St. Louis to Bowling Green, Kentucky. The new assembly plant would be solely dedicated to the Corvette, allowing an increase in manufacturing rates, better build quality, and new painting processes (the single-stage lacquer used in St. Louis gave way to two-stage enamel in Bowling Green). It also set the stage for production of the C4, though that wouldn't happen as early as planned.

1980 Chevrolet Corvette Right Side 7/41

Tasked with keeping the current Corvette fresh while developing the next-generation model at the same time, McLellan issued a new limited-edition model in '82, the Collector Edition. It finally offered a hinged version of the fastback glass window, plus special paint, turbine-style wheels, and leather upholstery that matched the exclusive paint color outside. It notched another Corvette milestone, too--the first Vette to retail for more than $20,000.

Yet the '82 Corvette was home to some significant engineering developments as well. From a powertrain standpoint these final shark years were pretty depressing, with engine offerings hovering around the 180-230hp range (and California customers having to make do with even less, thanks to the state's restrictive smog laws).

1982 Chevrolet Corvette Front 8/41

But McLellan was eager to show off some of the technology destined for the C4 Corvette, so the '82 model was home to a 350-inch small-block equipped with the first "Cross-Fire" fuel-injection system. Cross-Fire mounted two throttle-body fuel injectors on an intake manifold that looked a lot like the cross-ram intakes used on the Trans-Am Camaros. Trick as it looked, the L83 small-block was good for just 200 hp, a 10hp increase over the '81 L81 motor.

Backing the new engine was a new automatic transmission, the first 700-R4 four-speed. It was the sole transmission available in '82, the first time since '54 that a Corvette could be ordered with an automatic only. McLellan had more -- much more -- up his sleeve with the planned introduction of the fourth-generation Corvette in 1983. But just as fans of the Mako Shark II had to wait for the production version to arrive, the C4 would prove to be tardy, too.

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