From Show Car to Sports Car
Given the popularity of today's Corvette, and the collectability of its earliest models, it's hard to imagine that the car wasn't an immediate hit right out of the gate. The prototype made a big splash when it debuted at GM's New York Motorama car show in January 1953 -- thousands of people reportedly wrote to GM wanting to buy one -- but it would take a few years of growing pains before the Corvette was anything close to a success.
Waldorf Astoria, New York...
Waldorf Astoria, New York City, January 1953: The Corvette prototype on display at the Motorama is mobbed, and thousands write GM wanting to buy a copy.
To truly appreciate how revolutionary the first Corvette was, it helps to remember what other Chevys looked like in the early '50s. From a styling standpoint they hadn't come all that far from the immediate postwar era, despite a redesign in '49 that made them a little sleeker. Still, to today's eye they look something like a refrigerator turned on its back and wearing headlights and a grille.
Then, too, there was no clear-cut demand for a two-seat sports car among American buyers. A few companies tested the waters with cars like the Nash-Healey and Kaiser Darrin, but those were made in very limited numbers. Any desire for a small, nimble two-seater seemed to rest with a small cadre of enthusiasts, many of whom were former GIs who were bringing European sports cars back to the U.S. after being introduced to them during the war.
It wasn't a huge movement, but it was enough to get the attention of Harley Earl, the head of GM's Styling department. Earl had a long-time fascination with hot two-seaters; in the late '30s he had overseen the design of GM's first concept car, the Buick Y-Job, and also the futuristic LeSabre concept in the late '40s, both two-place roadsters. He was fascinated with the sports cars being made in Europe and believed there should be an American entry in that market. In 1952, he threw his weight behind a new concept car, a small, low-slung two-seater that would be revolutionary not only in looks but also construction, as it would be built using a fiberglass body.
Earl had a mockup made of the car and then ran it up GM's corporate flagpole, gaining an ally in Chief Engineer Ed Cole before taking it to the top brass. GM's President Harlow Curtice OK'd the design, liking it so much that he wanted a running prototype built for the New York Motorama show the following January. Internally known as EX-122, the prototype was initially called Opel at the mockup stage. Many names were suggested for the new car, but it was Myron Scott, an account exec at Chevy's ad agency Campbell Ewald, who came up with the idea of naming the new car after a small, fast, lightly armored warship.
To assemble the show car quickly, as many parts and component groups as possible were taken from Chevrolet's existing inventory. That included the driveline: a 235ci Blue Flame inline six-cylinder engine mated to a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. The curvaceous body was made from hand-laid fiberglass, which at the time was perceived as the quickest way to get the car shaped up for the show, but not necessarily the right way to build a production version.
EX-122 was a huge hit at the Motorama. When Curtice gave the concept the go-ahead for the show, he also had Cole and company draft plans for a production version. So groundwork had already been laid when Curtice announced, just a day after the car's unveiling, that it would be available for sale to the public. Though GM's engineers assumed a production Corvette would be made from steel, the fiberglass body proved such a popular feature among Motorama visitors that a supplier was found to produce the bodies in fiberglass. That supplier, in Ohio, would ship finished bodies to an assembly line that had been set up in Flint, Michigan, where the cars would be completed.
After the fiberglass bodies...
After the fiberglass bodies were laid-up in Ohio, they were shipped to a small assembly line in Flint to be mated with the rest of the car.
Just 300 Corvettes were built in Flint for the '53 model year. All were painted Polo White, had red interiors, and were powered by the Blue Flame Six and Powerglide two-speed. Chevrolet saw fit to warm up the six some, boosting compression and fitting it with a more aggressive camshaft and triple side-draft carburetors to bring its output up to 150 horsepower. The cars were equipped with conventional Hotchkiss-style rearends -- solid axles suspended by leaf springs -- though power from the transmission was delivered via a driveshaft/U-joint assembly, not the crude torque-tube setup found on other Chevy passenger cars.
Weighing in at less than 3,000 pounds, the Corvette could deliver brisk, if not stellar, performance. It was clocked by magazines of the day at 11 seconds from 0-60, through the quarter-mile in under 18 seconds, and at a top speed of nearly 110 mph. The car's base price was right around $3,500.
Initially, Chevrolet tried to maintain an exclusive image for the new sports car by making it available only to GM executives, celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile customers. The tactic backfired, though: just over half of the first 300 were sold through the VIP program.
Corvette production moved to St. Louis for the '54 model year, and there were minor changes to the car as well. While most were still painted Polo White, other colors, including Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black, were made available. The color of the convertible top went from black to beige, and beige was available as an interior color. Underhood the Blue Flame Six received a new camshaft and new air cleaners, and output increased to 155 hp.
GM had hoped that annual Corvette production out of the St. Louis plant would tally around 10,000 vehicles, but just 3,640 were made in '54, and only about two-thirds of them were sold. The Corvette had the look of a sports car, but it was hampered by its six-banger and the lack of a manual transmission option. Something would need to change, or Harley Earl's pet project would face the wrath of the corporation's accountants.
The V-8 Savior
To get some wheel time in...
To get some wheel time in the new V-8 powered Corvette in 1955, Motor Trend Editor Walt Woron had to borrow one owned by a friend.
Salvation for the Corvette -- or at least the beginnings of a turnaround -- came in the '55 model year with the introduction of Chevrolet's 265ci overhead-valve V-8. Ed Cole was instrumental in the development of the small-block engine, and he initiated a test program with the new motor in a Corvette prototype in the spring of 1954.
While the base passenger-car V-8 produced 162 hp, the version that went into the Corvette was upgraded with a hotter cam, dual exhausts, and a four-barrel carburetor, bringing output up to 195 hp. The Vette's performance improved, too, with 0-60 times dropping to 8.8 seconds, the quarter-mile e.t. to the mid 16s, and top speed up to 118 mph. Though the Blue Flame Six was still available at the beginning of the model year, reportedly just a handful of '55s were equipped with the six-banger. Performance got an additional boost late in the model year when a three-speed manual transmission became available as an option.
All this was good news, but it wasn't enough to spur flagging Corvette sales. A scant 700 Corvettes were made for the '55 model year, but that would change, almost overnight.
The First Restyle
The '56 model year was a watershed for Corvette. A thorough exterior redesign maintained the basic shape while updating some styling cues and addressing some of the issues potential buyers had with the car. Outside door handles were added, as were roll-up windows. The car's signature recessed headlights and protective grilles were replaced by lights mounted on the leading edge of the front fenders, while the protruding taillights were recessed into the fenders to give the rear a more slippery look. This was also the first year of the fender coves, a styling element that began at the trailing edge of the front wheel opening and came to a bullet-shaped point midway through the doors.
Changes were made beneath the skin, too. Output from the V-8 grew to 210 hp, while an optional, twin-carb version of the small-block was rated at 225 hp. In a reversal from the previous year, the three-speed manual transmission became the standard gearbox, while the Powerglide automatic was offered as an option.
Betty Skelton poses with the...
Betty Skelton poses with the ’56 Vette used as the pace car in Daytona.
There was a third engine option available in 1956, one that was fitted with a solid-lifter "Duntov" cam that brought the motor's horsepower up to 240. The cam, of course, was named for Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgian-born engineer who went to work for GM in May 1953. He had been among the throngs at the New York Motorama and, like many who saw it, immediately fell in love with the Corvette. Though his initial duties at GM were not Corvette related, he was soon assigned to the car by Ed Cole and began working on ways to make its performance match its looks.
Duntov's high-performance cam was just the start of his influence over the '56 Corvette. Once he had coaxed that additional power from the engine, he proved the Vette's mettle by taking it to Daytona Beach and running it at more than 150 mph at the NASCAR Speed Weeks. A month later, a four-car Corvette team entered the Sebring 12-hour endurance race, where one of the cars finished First in class and Ninth overall.
From the outside it's difficult to tell the difference between a '56 and a '57 Corvette, but under the hood the changes were profound. The 265-inch motor was enlarged to 283 cubes, and the output of the standard, single-carb engine grew to 220 hp. The optional dual-carb version was rated at 245 hp, while the hot motor with the Duntov cam produced a remarkable 270 hp.
Ed Cole had asked Duntov to help develop a fuel-injection system for the Corvette, and that high-tech induction system debuted with the '57 model. The fuelie V-8 was available in two states of tune: a hydraulic-cammed model made 250 hp, while the solid-lifter, Duntov-cammed version produced 283--the fabled one hp per cubic inch of displacement. (A third variant, the "air box" model, used a fenderwell-mounted intake plenum to feed cooler, denser outside air to the engine.) Magazines in the day clocked the injected Corvette from 0-60 in 5.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 94 mph.
More racing-inspired parts became available for the Corvette in '57, including a heavy-duty suspension, a heavy-duty brake package, and Positraction in the differential.
The ’56s and ’57s may look...
The ’56s and ’57s may look identical, but there’s no mistaking the ’58, with its new quad headlights, bigger bumpers at the front corners, and air inlet ducts behind the bumpers.
If it was hard to tell a '57 from a '56, there was no mistaking the '58 model, with its new quad headlights, hood louvers, cove vents, and chrome trim on the trunklid. About the only thing that was simplified on a '58 Corvette was the grille, which now sported nine teeth instead of the 13 found on previous versions.
The dashboard underwent a revision for '58, the first since the Corvette's introduction. In earlier models only the speedometer was in front of the driver; the other gauges, including the tach, were mounted in the center of the dashboard. For '58 all the gauges moved in front of the driver.
Horsepower rose again at the high and low ends of the V-8 lineup. The standard motor's output went from 220 to 230 hp, while horsepower from the solid-lifter fuelie motor rose from 283 to 290.
Though it wasn't yet reflected in the Corvette, behind the scenes Harley Earl left his position as GM's styling chief in December 1958 and was replaced by Bill Mitchell, who in just a few short years would have a huge impact on the Vette's look.
The Corvette's styling was toned down a bit for '59 with the removal of the hood louvers and trunk trim strips. Beneath the now-less-adorned trunk, the solid axle was fitted with radius arms to eliminate wheel-hop issues. Two racing-inspired options were made available: sintered metallic brake linings in the heavy-duty brake package, and a 24-gallon fuel tank that replaced the standard 16.4-gallon tank. This big-tank (or "tanker") option required the addition of the removable hardtop, as the big tank left no room to stow the soft top.
Inside the car the seats sported a new shape and different upholstery, with the pleats now running east-west rather than north-south. It sounds like a small thing, but the return to north-south pleats for the '60 Corvette was one of that model year's few changes.
The '60 Vette's carryover status turned out to be a big disappointment for fans of the car, as several reports in enthusiast magazines, inspired by the XP-700 concept car and Bill Mitchell's Stingray race car, seemed to indicate a redesign was on the way for the model year. A redesign was on the way, but not for '60.
A taste of what Corvette stylists...
A taste of what Corvette stylists had in store for the car in another couple of years was offered in the rear-end redesign of the ’61 model.
A hint of those changes appeared on the '61 Corvette, which featured a raised and pointed tail-end that was very similar to the rear styling found on the XP-700 -- and also foreshadowed the rearend styling of the coming redesign in '63. Incorporated into the new rear were dual round taillights on either side of the car, a styling cue that would be a Corvette trademark for years to come.
A new cylinder-head design brought more power to the fuel-injected motors, with the hydraulic-cammed version up to 275 horses, and the solid-lifter version now pumping out 315 hp. The exits for the dual exhausts were moved to behind the rear tire, rather than under the bumper, while aluminum was used for the car's radiator and four-speed manual transmission case to shave a few pounds.
The ’61 Vette’s front end...
The ’61 Vette’s front end was restyled too. Gone were the grille teeth, replaced by a simpler mesh.
Chevrolet's seemingly constant revisions to the small-block V-8 led to another major upgrade for the '62 model year, as the 283ci motor was bored and stroked to 327 inches. That translated to an increase in power across all of the engine variants, from the base engine -- now good for 250 hp -- to the solid-lifter fuelie, which made 360 hp.
Styling changes for the '62 model year were fairly minor: the front grille was blacked out, the side coves lost their chrome trim (and therefore the option of two-tone paint), and the cove vents were redesigned.
In less than a decade, the Corvette had undergone an amazing transformation. The promise of the Motorama dream machine, which seemed to dim and almost disappear at first, became fully realized as a powerful, honest sports car that won hearts in the showrooms and races on road courses here and abroad. Had the Corvette's development stopped right there, the car would have been considered a major success. But, of course, the end of the Corvette's first generation was only the beginning of even better things to come.
Between various concept and racing cars--the Mako Shark and Stingray among them -- and the Vette's rear-end redesign in '61, Chevrolet stylists had been dropping hints for years about the future of Corvette styling. As had happened 10 years before with the very first Corvette, the dream cars became reality for the '63 model year. But this time there were some significant engineering changes that went along with the Vette's new look.
Like a lot of overnight sensations, the groundbreaking redesign of the '63 Corvette was years in the making. As far back as 1957, Chevrolet stylists penned a design study called the Q-Corvette, a coupe whose sleek silhouette had all of the '63's major styling elements. The concept was revised over the years through several iterations; the final version was designed by Larry Shinoda, who had also drawn up Bill Mitchell's Stingray and the Mako Shark show car.
The second-gen redesign allowed...
The second-gen redesign allowed Chevrolet to offer the Corvette in both coupe and convertible forms for the first time.
As had been the case with previous Corvettes, Mitchell incorporated some of his own design ideas into the body, most notably the pointed "stingers" at both ends of the car. A sharp-nosed bulge that flowed across the top of the hood was carried over the roof as a ridge-like crease that continued down to the car's trailing edge, where the boattail-like roofline came to a sharp end. To ensure the continuity of the roof crease, the back glass was split in two pieces, leaving a channel in the roof for the crease to flow through.
This design element was controversial to say the least, both within and outside of Chevrolet. Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette's chief engineer, reportedly hated it, critical of its negative effect on rearward visibility. Motor Trend called it "designed more for looks than practicality" and said, "Any decent view to the rear will have to be through an exterior side-view mirror." The split window generated enough negative response that it was replaced with a conventional single window backlight for the '64 model year.
The ’63 Corvette’s split-window...
The ’63 Corvette’s split-window styling cue was a Bill Mitchell edict, as he wanted the “stinger” points at both ends of the car joined by a raised ridge that carried through the roof.
Under the skin things were more harmonious -- and far more advanced than in previous years. To improve the Corvette's handling, Duntov had been experimenting with independent rear suspension designs on several concept cars, including his CERV I and II engineering prototypes. The IRS setup finally came to a production Corvette for '63. Though Duntov wasn't thrilled with the use of a transverse-mounted leaf-spring pack under the differential (in concept form, the IRS incorporated coilover shocks), he was very happy with the new Vette's chassis design, calling the car, "a Corvette I can be proud to drive in Europe."
The redesigned Corvette sat on a smaller wheelbase -- 98 inches, down from 102 -- and its ladder-style frame allowed passengers to sit lower in the car. For the first time, power brakes were offered as an option, as was power steering.
"We thought the old model cornered darn well, but there's no comparing it to this new one," wrote Motor Trend's technical editor Jim Wright in the May 1963 issue. "It does take a little different technique, but once the driver gets into it, it's beautiful."
Mark IV and L79
Chevy kept changes to the Corvette at a minimum for the '64 model year. Mitchell's split rear window disappeared, as did the faux louvers in the hood. New cylinder heads and a more aggressive cam brought the output of the top carbureted 327 from 340 hp to 365, while the fuel-injected version jumped from 360 hp to 375.
Much bigger underhood news would come for the '65 model year, with the introduction of two landmark Corvette engines: the L78 big-block and L79 small-block.
The Mark IV big-block became...
The Mark IV big-block became available as an option for the ’65 Corvette, nicknamed the “porcupine” motor for its unusual valve arrangement.
The 396ci Mark IV big-block was a descendant of the "Mystery Motor" 427 that Chevy campaigned in NASCAR in 1963. Nicknamed the "porcupine" engine because of the unusual valve configuration in the heads, the L78 was rated at 425 hp in the Corvette -- though that was likely a conservative estimate on GM's part.
Duntov and his team had labored hard to optimize the Corvette's front/rear weight balance in the second-generation Vette, work one would think would be negated by the 396's extra 150 pounds over the nose. But reviewers liked how well you could steer the Corvette with the throttle, thanks to the motor's 415 lb-ft of torque. The eye-bleeding acceleration offered by the big engine seemed to offset any complaints of heavier steering effort and some understeer.
Buyers who didn't need all that power and preferred a better balanced Corvette could now opt for three variations of the 327-inch small-block, including the new L79. Essentially a hydraulic-cammed version of the L76, it produced an honest 350 hp while proving to be more livable on the street than the solid-lifter L76. At the top of the small-block heap was the fuel-injected 327, but not for long; this was the last year for the fuelie motor.
Not every performance upgrade for '65 was underhood. This was the first year the Corvette came standard with four-wheel disc brakes. Motor Trend's Bob McVay called them "just great -- the final component that gives an already good sports car stopping power to match its go power."
On the outside, the easiest way to tell a '65 from a '64 is to look at the front fenders: the '64's two horizontal louvers became three vertical louvers for '65. This also marked the first year for the optional side pipes.
For '66, Chevy enlarged the...
For '66, Chevy enlarged the Mark IV big-block from 396 to 427 cubic inches.
Following the "more is always better" rule, GM's powertrain engineers bored the 396 out to 427 cubic inches for the '66 model year, so the L78 option gave way to the mighty L72. With big ports in the heads, a solid-lifter camshaft, 11:1 compression and a 780-cfm Holley carb, the L72 was conservatively rated by Chevrolet at 425 hp, identical to the L78. Those in the know, though, realized that further up in the rev range, the motor was making more like 450 hp.
Jerry Titus, who tested an L72 coupe with the close-ratio four-speed in the December 1965 issue of Sports Car Graphic
, made the 0-60 sprint in 4.8 seconds and hit 100 mph in 11.2. He didn't post a quarter-mile time, possibly because he borrowed the car from a local dealer and didn't take it to a track. But according to his article, he didn't need to: "All you need is a two-block-long straight. From a 70 mph cruising speed you can accelerate to the redline in top gear (140 mph) in roughly a mile. Sixty to 100 mph in top gear takes a mere 7.2 seconds. Tell us you'd like a hotter performing road machine than this and we'll call you some kind of nut!" (Motor Trend
put a 427 convertible -- also with the close-ratio four-speed and 4.11 gears -- through its full battery of tests, and in its March 1966 issue reported a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds and a 13.4-second quarter-mile at 105 mph.)
Less-nutty Corvette buyers had several other engines to choose from. The standard engine in '66 was the 300hp L75 small-block; the L79 remained, and a 400-horse 427, the L36, was also available.
The '66 model saw a few exterior changes, too, including new wheels covers, a new egg-crate grille behind the bumper, a "Corvette" badge on the hood, and the removal of the vents on the coupe's B-pillars.
One More Year
Many regard the ’67 model...
Many regard the ’67 model as the pinnacle of the C2 years.
Chevrolet originally planned to introduce the all-new, Mako Shark II-based third-generation Corvette in the '67 model year, but the new car just wasn't quite ready in time. So the second-gen model hung on for one more year. That didn't mean, though, that Chevy made do with a carry-over '66 Vette. No, Duntov and his crew made enough changes to vault the '67 model from mere epilogue status to a car that is widely considered the best of the C2 generation.
Among the styling tweaks for...
Among the styling tweaks for ’67 was the new placement of the backup lights above the license-plate frame.
Externally, the badges were shaved off the fenders, the hood script also disappeared, and a new set of fender louvers -- five louvers raked forward -- gave the car a more purposeful look. This year marked the first appearance of the five-slot steel Rally wheel, while the optional multi-blade cast-aluminum wheel lost its knock-off hub and bolted on conventionally. A new "stinger" hood was used on big-block models, some with stripes that either matched or complemented the car's interior color.
Under that stinger hood beat a 427-inch heart, but Chevy's powertrain engineers yet again upgraded the big-cube mill. The '66 L72 gave way to the L71, which replaced the single four-barrel with three Holley two-barrel carbs. Tri-power induction had been a mainstay of GM muscle cars for years, and in the Vette it boosted the 427's rated output to 435 hp. (An L68 version of the 427, essentially the L36 with triple carbs, was rated at 400 hp.)
Big-block Vettes received...
Big-block Vettes received this new “stinger” hood for ’67.
But Duntov wasn't yet finished with the 427. Late in the model year came the L88, which topped the Mark IV four-bolt block with aluminum cylinder heads that offered big intake and exhaust ports and, working with the forged aluminum pistons, squished the compression ratio up to 12.5:1. A high-rise aluminum intake manifold was home to an 850-cfm Holley carb, which was topped by an unusual-looking air-cleaner assembly that sealed to the stinger hood (made functional for L88 applications). Again, Chevrolet conservatively rated the L88's output at 430 hp, but its actual power peak was likely more than 500 hp.
The L88 was intended as a race-only option, and it came with the M22 "Rock Crusher" Muncie four-speed, heater and radio deletes, heavy-duty suspension, Positraction, and metallic brakes. Just 20 Corvettes were sold with the L88 option in '67, and many of these early cars were plagued with connecting-rod failures, a design flaw that was fixed for the '68 model year.
The C2 was the shortest-lived Corvette generation of them all, yet the cars produced during those seminal years truly brought the marque up to world-class sports car status. By the close of C2 production, the Corvette was able to run with the best Europe had to offer, and it finally made Duntov proud.
Z06 and Grand Sport
Bob Bondurant (in car number...
Bob Bondurant (in car number 614) and Dave MacDonald (behind Bondurant) were among the racers who first campaigned Z06 Corvettes.
Officially, Chevrolet adhered to the ban on factory support of racing instituted by the Automobile Manufacturer's Association. But Zora Arkus-Duntov, a hot rodder and racer to the core, would not be denied. He circumvented the ban as best he could, offering full-race parts for private buyers and also developing competition cars despite the corporation's no-race edict.
In the fall of 1962, as Chevrolet unveiled the first of the '63 Corvettes, Duntov made ready RPO Z06, an option package that would turn the Corvette into a SCCA production-class racer. It included stiffer springs and shocks; a bigger front sway bar; and a dual-circuit, vacuum-assisted brake package with ducts, scoops, and holes designed to keep the brakes cool. A 36.5-gallon fuel tank was initially part of the Z06 package, as were knock-off wheels, but both were deleted from the package a few months later (though the tank was still available as a stand-alone option). "Mandatory options" with the Z06 included the 360-horse fuel-injected L84 small-block, close-ratio four-speed, and Positraction axle.
Just 199 Z06 coupes were built. It was an expensive option for the time, with a $1,818 price tag that was more like $2,500 with the mandatory options factored in. The Z06 also had a hard time keeping up with Carroll Shelby's Cobras, which were quite a bit lighter.
Three Corvette Grand Sports...
Three Corvette Grand Sports were taken to the Bahamas by Texan John Mecom, to race at the Nassau Speed Week.
Duntov had Shelby in his sights when he proposed a lightweight competition version of the '63 Vette that would become known as the Grand Sport. Based around a tubular frame, the Grand Sport featured super-thin fiberglass bodywork (with giant wheel openings to clear fat racing tires), a reinforced version of the production IRS, and disc brakes at all corners. Though initial plans called for the Grand Sports to be powered by a 377-inch aluminum small-block, the engine wasn't ready for the car's debut, so the cars first raced using an all-aluminum version of the fuel-injected 327.
Duntov had grand plans for the Grand Sport, hoping that 125 would be built. But just five were finished before GM's brass clamped down and forbade further production or development. Before the hammer fell, though, three of the Grand Sports raced at the Nassau Speed Week in 1963 and handily beat Shelby's Cobras. The five then went to privateer racers, with two losing their roofs in an effort to improve their aerodynamics.
In the end, the Grand Sports weren't afforded enough development time to live up to their potential, potential that was lost when GM opted to follow rules that other factories ignored.
Barely five years elapsed between the introduction of the '63 Sting Ray and the close of the C2 generation in the '67 model year, and during that time the Corvette stayed on a track of steady improvement that resulted in a world-class sports car. Things would be different in the Vette's third go-around. Not only was it the longest, at 15 years, but this Corvette generation had to weather a turbulent era that made it tough to hold on to its top-echelon status.
The Shark is Born
The mighty L88 big-block was...
The mighty L88 big-block was available for ’68 and ’69; note the emissions equipment that showed up in ’68.
The sleek lines Larry Shinoda penned for the Mako Shark II concept car provided clear inspiration for the next iteration of the Corvette -- as well as the generation's "shark" nickname -- but turning concept into reality wasn't easy. The Mako's styling cues, particularly its tall fenders and upswept tail, made for a sexy show car, but not one that was easy to live with -- or see out of.
So Shinoda and his designers worked on making the Mako more livable, while Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette's chief engineer, figured out how to fit the Vette's mechanicals within the new body envelope. Under the new skin the Corvette was essentially a carryover from the C2's later years -- same 98-inch wheelbase, chassis layout, and engine choices -- but the Mako Shark's front-end styling didn't allow for much airflow to the engine. The front air grilles were opened up, while an air dam was added under the car to help direct flow to the radiator. Front fender vents proved to be more than decoration and actually let hot air escape from the engine bay.
Can-Am champion Denis Hulme...
Can-Am champion Denis Hulme tested a ’69 Corvette with a 435hp Tri-power 427 for Sports Car Graphic in the fall of 1968 and said it “might be just too quick for the roads in America."
The previous IRS design was incorporated into the new car, but the front suspension was revised to help keep the tires planted under hard acceleration. The standard Rally wheels grew in width to 7 inches, allowing for big F70-15 meats at all four corners.
In addition to cutting down the Mako's tall fender In addition to cutting down the Mako's tall fender bulges, Shinoda's team also replaced the show car's dramatically styled boattail rear end with a vertical back window recessed between two buttresses. Initially the car had a lift-off, Targa-style roof, but without the reinforcement of a fixed panel, the body flexed too much. So instead, a strut was positioned between the windshield and the B-pillar arch, and removable roof sections flanked that strut, forming the Vette's T-tops.
Chevrolet released this photo...
Chevrolet released this photo of the St. Louis assembly line to mark the build of the 250,000th Corvette on November 7, 1969.
The new Vette's interior was completely revised. The instrument panel now had a big speedometer and tach in front of the driver and a raft of other monitors in the center console. "Astro" ventilation -- which drew fresh air from the cowl and exhausted it via vents behind the back window -- was new, as was the removable back window.
As was the case in '67, engine options ranged from a 300hp 327 to the mighty L88. One big powertrain change was the addition of the three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic transmission, which replaced the long-in-the-tooth Powerglide.
Reportedly, early customers weren't happy with the quality of the fiberglass bodywork on the new '68 Corvette, but that didn't stop Chevrolet from selling 28,566 of them, a significant lift from the 22,940 '67s sold. From a sales standpoint the Corvette would just get hotter and hotter, even if its performance parameters would soon suffer.
Motor Trend was one of the...
Motor Trend was one of the few magazines to test a ’70 Vette with the 454ci LS7 V-8 -- a motor that never reached production.
While the shark generation of Vettes lasted a long 15 years, the car's look was refreshed every five years, neatly breaking the C3s into three different sub-generations. The early C3s, the '68-'72 models, are distinguished by their chrome front and rear bumpers. Spotting the differences between those first five years gets a little trickier. The '68s, for example, did not wear the Stingray name, but the '69s did, and now the beast was spelled as one word, not two. Side exhausts were a one-year-only option in '69, as was bright trim for the fender louvers. The door buttons used in '68 were gone by '69, and the backup lights moved into the inboard taillights.
For the '70 model year (which was cut short by strikes and is often labeled '70-1/2), the front grilles and the fender louvers were redesigned with egg-crate patterns, the wheel openings were flared at the back, and the exhaust tips went from round to rectangular. That body style remained unchanged for the '71 and '72 model years.
The “super big 454,” as Dahlquist...
The “super big 454,” as Dahlquist called the LS7, featured aluminum open-chamber heads and a single 800-cfm Holley in place of the three two-barrels fitted to the L71.
There were more dramatic changes taking place underhood. The muscle-car era essentially peaked and then died between 1969 and 1972, and the Corvette's powertrain options mirrored those highs and lows. In '69 the base engine was enlarged from 327 to 350 cubic inches (though the 300hp rating remained the same); while at the other end of the engine spectrum, the all-aluminum, 427-inch ZL1 engine was added to the options list. Like the L88 the ZL1 was intended for racing use only, and like the L88 the ZL1's output was laughably underrated by GM brass at 430 hp.
Two new engines appeared for the '70-1/2 model year. Though the L88 and ZL1 were no longer available, the more garden-variety Mark IV big-block was stroked from 427 to 454 cubic inches, creating the LS5. Its 390hp rating was the same as the L36 427, but peak torque jumped from 460 lb-ft to 500. (A second optional big-block, the LS7, was mentioned in some dealer literature and featured in a couple of magazine road tests but never made it into production.)
In the April ’71 Motor Trend...
In the April ’71 Motor Trend pitted a V-12 Jaguar against a Corvette powered by the LT-1 small-block and liked the Vette better.
A significant new small-block also came on the scene. Called the LT-1, it was an evolution of the 302ci small-block Chevy used for Trans-Am racing. With a solid-lifter cam, big valves in the heads, and 11:1 compression, the LT-1 pumped out 370 hp in the Corvette and 380 lb-ft of torque, and yet delivered those numbers in a package far lighter than big-inch motors offering similar output. Less weight over the nose, of course, meant a better-handling Vette.
When Motor Trend tested the...
When Motor Trend tested the ’72 Vette, it included a sidebar comparing the latest model with a fuel-injected ’64, which was quicker, faster, and got better fuel economy than the LT-1-powered new car.
Sadly, '70 would be the pinnacle powertrain year. Big-block buyers could still get a serious stump puller when the 425hp LS6 big-block was made available in Corvettes for '71, but otherwise, compression ratios were cut in a corporate-wide edict to reduce emissions. The LT-1 went from 350 hp to 330 in '71, the LS5 from 390 to 365.
And that was just the beginning. In the '72 model year it looked like every manufacturer's power numbers fell off a cliff, as the industry went from "gross" to "net" power ratings. The Vette's standard 300hp 350 was now rated at 200 hp, the LT-1 dropped to 255, and the LS5 to 270 hp.
Yet despite the decline in power, and despite the car's rising price -- a coupe cost more than $5,000 for the first time in '70 -- Corvette sales remained strong. And they would grow again with the '73's mid-cycle redesign.
Motor Trend’s clocks found...
Motor Trend’s clocks found the ’73 Vette, in both big- and small-block versions, were just as fast and quick through the quarter-mile as the ’72s -- all low 14-second cars at 92-93 mph.
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.
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 federally mandated 5-mph...
The federally mandated 5-mph bumpers caused a restyle of the Vette’s nose in ’73 and its tail in ’74.
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.
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.
The ’77 model was the final...
The ’77 model was the final year of the soft-bumper body style before the fastback redesign in ’78.
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.
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.
For its 25th anniversary,...
For its 25th anniversary, the Vette had a fresh look, thanks to the fastback styling of its new rear window.
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.
Motor Trend tested an L82-equipped...
Motor Trend tested an L82-equipped ’80 Corvette and managed just a 16.18-second quarter-mile at 85 mph, “less than dazzling numbers we attributed partly to the extreme heat and humidity of the day.”
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.
The ’82 model year marked...
The ’82 model year marked the end of the shark era, and Chevy commemorated the event with the Collector Edition Vette.
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 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.