Chevrolet's success with building a real true-to-mankind sports car just might be attributed to their going about it in a serious way. No weird setups like doors disappearing into fenders, and no discomforts like side curtains and cutaway doors which Americans have outgrown.
No other U.S. car maker has even hinted at equaling Chevy's Corvette production since the first one rolled out in 1953, complete with Powerglide and six-cylinder engine. More than 28,000 Corvettes were built and sold in the '68 model year and more could've been sold if production capacity had been greater. That's saying a lot for this generation's affluence. Base price on a coupe is just under $5000, and the convertible goes for $4500 plus some change. Our L-88- equipped test car was over $6500, and you can't get much other than an L-88 engine when it is ordered. The option price for the aluminum-head VB is $1032.15.
Almost every Corvette we've driven has had an abundance of convenience items, from air conditioning to stereo AM/FM receivers. This one had an L-88 engine, Turbo Hydra-Matic, and little else that you could see. But heavy-duty disc brakes, special-purpose suspension, transistor ignition, and Positraction rear axle have to be ordered first. The thousand- dollar L-88 option buys the motor and a bubble-top hood. Things like power steering, radio, and electric windows can't be had. The steering pump would probably thrash itself to pieces at the rate of rpm climb an L-88 will exhibit, and ignition-developed impulses cause too much radio static.
Done up right, 'Vettes will eat their competition with unceremonious aplomb. It just comes naturally when the car's prepared. But there are two ways to go with a Corvette: It can be left as it is, showroom fresh; or it can be refined, altered, and made ready for racing. The L-88, even in showroom form, is closer to being a racer than a cruiser, and it would seem almost sacrilegious to see an L-88 Vette serving duty as a transportation machine only.
Low-speed operation and idling are poor phases of this car's operation. At stop lights, with the trans left in gear, the engine pulls down low on speed, and will sometimes quit running. It will surge when in gear at rest, and the only effective control is to put one foot on the throttle and the other on the brake, or to put the lever up to neutral. Then the idle speed goes up over 1500.
The Turbo Hydro is the best thing that's happened to big-engined Corvettes since high-octane gas. The high-performance unit ($290.40 option) takes a great amount of power from the engine at the low end. The torque multiplication isn't great, nor does it need to be with this engine, and there's very direct coupling to the rear wheels with high-friction clutches. Idle speed drops better than 1000 rpm from neutral to a driving gear. Left in drive range, the upshifts occur right at 6500 rpm (stock condition recommended red-line).
The engine carries a rating of 430 hp at 5200 rpm, and a torque figure of 450 lbs.-ft. Both measurements are less than the triple two-barrel-carbed 427, but don't let that fool you. The L-88 is the top runner in this family. A single 4-bbl No. 4150 Holley, with 13/4-inch primary and secondary bores, feeds minimum 103 research octane fuel to the 12.0:1 compression ratio firing holes. The heads have a new combustion chamber, identical to those fitted to the new all-aluminum 427 (the ZL-1), but that's not surprising, since it is the same head. The high compression and the absence of a fan shroud to suck air in when the car is stopped are two big reasons against low-speed use.
Luck wasn't with us for getting everything right on this car. The order sheet photography: Eric Rickman and Pat Brallier requested a 4.56:1 rear gear; we got a 3.36:1, which in some Chevrolet spec books is called a “performance” ratio. Evidently Zora Arkus-Duntov isn't writing spec books. The tall gear in back made 13.56 seconds at 111 mph seem respectable, but we know it's two seconds from where it should be. The only “performance” that big rear gear netted was when it got us over 10 miles per gallon for one tank of gas.
Without a clutch to control takeoff, there's no way to get this car off the line with enough power to keep it from bogging. It absolutely must have a lower ratio, preferably nothing less than 4.11:1, to do any good quarter-mile work. Just as it's passing the last speed light in the traps, the engine wants to go to work. It gets the quarter-mile done in second gear. We can tell you about potential but, because of a wrong axle ratio, not about hard cases.
And did we tell you about high-speed movement? Well, there's a lot of it with this setup. The 6500 red-line won't happen in high gear until just a hair over 150 mph! This is an on-paper top end, but if any car has a chance of reaching its theoretical top speed, it's this one. When the throttle is kicked down at mid-range speeds (normal ones), say 30- 45 mph, the gear downshifts all the way to low, and it's “hang on, 'cause we're goin' “ time. What a good sound it makes as it snaps to 6500, bangs into the next gear, and starts the climb again!
L-88's can be quickly spotted by the bubble-top hood, although it won't be long before specialty fiberglass houses have duplicates. Then every policeman in town will think he's seeing L-88's. The Chevrolet-supplied hood fits the air cleaner into the plenum chamber air inlet, and the hood underside lies tight to the carb opening, preventing air from entering any other way. The high-rise hood really doesn't keep you from seeing anything. You're so low, anyway, that almost everything else is above you. Then too, you can't see the leading edge of a Corvette with the normal hood, so the difference is scant.
High-speed driving couldn't be any better, and the 3.56 gearing is suited for freeways. At 70 mph the tach is resting at 3000 rpm in third gear. The design is so slippery that we drove quite a distance in a heavy crosswind without realizing it was there. Trying to push a door open against the wind was tough. The special-purpose suspension required with an L-88 plays an important part in its being the best-handling car built in this country. It outdoes many imports, some of them costing twice the Corvette price. While this is a car built for those who like to drive and know how to drive, it can provide driving expertise to those far down on the list of skillful drivers. Safe cars have always been the best-handling one, and vice versa.
We expected to find shoulder belts to use when we reached around behind the seat backs, but there weren't any. Seems there's a bit of incongruity in the latest Federal laws, and our test car - being a convertible- is exempt from the mandatory shoulder harness requirement. They can be ordered, but they come standard only in hardtops.