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.

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.

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.

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).

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 old 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 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.


The Mid-Engine Corvette

In the ’70s, nearly every magazine article about the Corvette made mention of the “upcoming mid-engine” model that was always right around the corner. How could so many writers get such a fact wrong so many times? Credit (or blame) Zora Arkus-Duntov. He had long tinkered with the idea of a mid-engine Corvette, as far back as his CERV I engineering study in 1960. To a racer like Duntov, the advantages of a mid-engine sports car were obvious: Taking weight off the nose lightens the steering, centralizes the weight in the car, and provides more design freedom in locating the cockpit.

Several mid-engine Corvette prototypes were built from the late ’60s through the mid ’70s. Not all were from Duntov. Frank Winchell, a GM engineer who had worked with Jim Hall on his Chaparral Can-Am cars, penned a concept in 1967. Initially called XP-880, it hung an L36 427 motor ahead of the rear axle and used a steel frame with off-the-shelf Camaro and Corvette suspension components. The car was dressed up for promotional duty and dubbed Astro II before it debuted at the New York auto show in 1968.

Duntov’s team built a mid-engine prototype, the XP-882, soon after, and it was examined for a short time as a potential Corvette successor. It, too, hit the auto show circuit but went nowhere as a production vehicle.

It was Ed Cole, father of the small-block V-8, who tried to champion rotary engines at GM. The corporation had bought the patent rights to the Wankel rotary in 1970, and Cole commissioned a concept vehicle, the XP-892, to house a two-rotor engine. Duntov, figuring he could do better, altered his XP-882 to run a four-rotor engine developed by Gib Hufstader. It debuted just a month after the Two-Rotor experimental Vette, so in hindsight it’s no wonder the media was caught in a mid-engine frenzy where the Corvette was concerned. That frenzy was stoked just a few years later, when the Four-Rotor Corvette was fitted with a small-block V-8 and dubbed the Aerovette.

In reality, GM abandoned the idea of a rotary-powered Corvette soon after the prototypes were built, due to emissions issues. Not long after, the company closed the books on the idea of a mid-engine Vette. The car was selling so well as it was, why mess with success? It was a huge disappointment to Duntov, who retired not long after.