Corvette History 1968-1982

C3 Corvettes: The Mako Shark

Based on the Mako Shark II show car designed by Larry Shinoda and displayed during 1965, the third-generation Corvette’s styling was flamboyant in its overall shape but restrained in its details. The fenders seemed almost to burst over the tires, but there were no phony scoops or extraneous chrome anywhere on the car. The nose seemed to almost be plowing into the ground and used pop-up headlights to keep things sleek.

There was a slight kickup to the car’s tail that was at least a bit reminiscent of Chapparal Can Am racecars. This generation of Corvettes has never been as beloved as the second generation, but it’s still a car that commands attention wherever it goes. “Getting emotionally ‘hung up’ on the Corvette’s styling takes somewhat longer than becoming enthused over its great driving characteristics,” wrote Motor Trend, “but not much.”

Again there were coupe and convertible Corvettes offered for 1968. The convertible again stowed its top under a hinged hard cover while the coupe featured swooping buttresses on either side of a tunneled-in rear window. The most unique element of the coupe, though, were the two removable roof panels — the first “T-tops.”

However, though the body was all new, the chassis and drivetrains were all familiar. The wheelbase was still 98 inches and the standard engine was still a 300-horsepower 327 small-block V8 topped by a four-barrel carburetor. The optional engines included a 350-horsepower 327 and all the big-block 427s from ’67 including the awesome L88.

Though it replaced a beloved icon, the “Mako Shark” ‘Vette proved a hit during the ’68 model year with Chevy selling 9,936 coupes (starting price $4,663) and 18,630 convertibles (starting at $4,347). That was yet another record, and it was accomplished despite calamitously bad quality control.

For 1969, the Sting Ray name returned, though now spelled out on the fenders as one word — “Stingray” — in chrome script and the quality of assembly improved markedly. Minor changes included moving the ignition key to the steering wheel, and incorporating the backup lights into the taillights. The most significant mechanical change was the replacement of the 327-cubic-inch small-block V8s with new 350-cubic-inch versions. As with the 327s, the 350s were rated at 300 horsepower in base form and 350 horsepower in the optional “L46.” The 427s also returned in force carrying the same power ratings as ’68’s.

There was, however, one earth-shattering addition to the line: the ZL-1. The ZL-1 engine was basically an L88 427 big-block V8 done up in all-aluminum construction, which made it 20 to 25 pounds lighter than a small-block. Intended for road racing and equipped accordingly, only two of the 585-horsepower ZL-1s were produced. Motor Trend got to drive one of them. “The ZL-1 has Ferrari speed plus,” Eric Dahlquist, then the magazine’s editor, wrote, “Ferrari handling and Ferrari brakes but without Ferrari fuss and bother so you can enjoy it, the car, more. Therefore, even without the super Ferrari leather interior and Ferrari coachwork, it is still better than a Ferrari in its own right because there is no distraction and everything in perspective, aluminum engine, fiberglass body and all, the ZL-1 is nearer a Chaparral 2G for the street…. The ZL-1 doesn’t just accelerate because the word ‘accelerate’ is inadequate for this car. It tears its way through the air and across black pavement like all the modern big-inch racing machines you have ever seen, the engine climbing the rev band in that kind of leaping gate as the tires hunt for traction, find it, lose it again for a millisecond, then find it until they are locked in.”

The four vertical side vents on each front fender of the ’68 and ’69 ‘Vettes gave way to a new crosshatch pattern for the 1970 model and amber front signal lights and square exhaust outlets also appeared. And finally a four-speed manual transmission was made standard equipment, replacing the desperately lame three-speed no one was buying anyhow.

The engine lineup for ’70 was also revised with a new, thoroughly friendly 370-horsepower “LT-1” 350 joining the lineup and all the 427s departing in favor of two new 454-cubic-inch big-block V8s — a 390-horsepower “LS5” wearing a four-barrel carburetor and a tri-power equipped “LS7” making a claimed 460 horsepower. However, the LS7 carried a $3,000 option price and there’s no record of any having been built. It would be a long while before Corvettes would be so powerful again.

With stricter emissions controls in force, the compression ratios on all Corvette engines dropped for 1971. The base 350 now plugged along with 270 horsepower, the LT-1 350 dropped to 330 horsepower, and the detuned LS5 454 now made a mere 365 horsepower. Gone was the LS7 454 and in its place was an “LS6” 454 four-barrel V8 rated at 425 horsepower. Those are still heady numbers, but the diminution of Corvette performance would continue throughout the rest of the decade. Except for the power losses, the ’71 was essentially the same as the ’70.

The power drain would continue for 1972 and was exaggerated by a switch from SAE gross to SAE net power ratings. So the base 350 now carried a measly 200-horsepower rating, the LT1 made just 255 horsepower, and the sole big-block, an LS5 454, could only muster 270 horsepower. About 30 ’72 Corvettes were powered by a special “ZR1” version of the LT-1 350 as part of a club-racing package.

A body-colored rubberized front bumper took up residence on the 1973 Corvette, replacing the chrome strip used previously. Furthermore, the side vents were now single, almost vertical, openings and radial tires were standard for the first time. And power dropped again, with the base 350 now rated at 190 horsepower and a new optional “L-82” 350 made 250 horsepower. The sole 454 was an “LS4” rated at 275 horsepower.

The ’73 Corvette’s rubber nose was paired with a matching wedge-shaped, body-colored tail on the 1974 Corvette as designers elegantly coped with new bumper regulations. There was some more jiggling of power ratings on the engines, but the big news was that this would be the last year for the big-block V8.

Ordering a 1975 Corvette was simplified down to two engine choices: the base 350 V8 making a hideous 165 horsepower or the L82 making 205 horsepower — both exhaling through a catalytic converter. A modification to the bumper system meant the ’75 Corvette’s rear bumper cover was now a one-piece molding, unlike the ’74’s that had an unsightly seam down its center. But the Corvette was still amazingly popular with Chevy selling 33,836 coupes and 4,629 convertibles during the ’75 model year.

Chevy sold exactly zero 1976 Corvette convertibles by simply stopping production. The base “L48” 350 was now rated at 180 horsepower as engineers were beginning to grasp the intricacies of emissions regulations and the L82 350 jumped to 210 horsepower. Both engines breathed in through four-barrel carburetors.

Inside, the ’76 Corvette got a new four-spoke steering wheel similar to that used on the Vega and Camaro — a wheel that was instantly despised by most enthusiasts — and the dash was now grained with “stitching” molded in.

The Stingray lettering was excised off the 1977 Corvette’s fenders and steel reinforcements were added to the hood, but otherwise the car was a carryover from ’76.

1978 Corvette Pace Car
1978 Corvette Pace Car

To celebrate the Corvette’s first quarter century, the 1978 model’s tail was redesigned with a huge wraparound rear window replacing the buttresses that had long been one of the coupe’s signature design elements. However, while the large window did increase luggage capacity, it didn’t open so loading was still a matter of working around the seats. The interior was comprehensively tweaked and that included new instrumentation, a lockable glovebox and the relocation of windshield wiper controls to a stalk on the steering column.

The base L48 350 was now rated at 185 horsepower and a new dual-snorkel intake bumped output of the L82 version to 220 horsepower. The standard transmission was still a four-speed manual with a three-speed automatic optional.

Two special-edition models became instant collectibles during the ’78 model year. The first was a “Silver Anniversary” edition that featured a two-tone silver-on-top/charcoal-on-bottom paint job, and the second was the iconic black-on-top/silver-on-bottom limited-edition Indy Pace Car that also featured a deep chin spoiler and ducktail rear spoiler. This was the first time a Corvette had paced the May classic and buyers snatched up the pace cars. Many pace cars wound up going directly into storage and ultralow mileage examples still regularly show up at auctions and on eBay. However, the pace cars aren’t particularly rare as Chevy wound up making about 6,500 of them.

Though it was hardly the quickest Corvette ever, the ’78 was tremendously popular with Chevy building 40,725 of them — the first time the company had sold more than 40,000 units.

On the outside, changes to the 1979 Corvette were indiscernible. A dual snorkel air cleaner now fed the L48 350 and that boosted output to 195 horsepower. The L82 was treated to a new cam, larger valves, a higher-compression ratio and a more efficient exhaust system which all combined to push the engine to 225 horsepower. For some inexplicable reason, production jumped to 53,807 during the model year — yet another record — and the Corvette’s first production push beyond 50K.

An extensive design updating and weight reduction program had the 1980 Corvette looking more angular and weighing in about 250 pounds lighter. In every state but California, the base L48 350 now made 190 horsepower and the L82 was rated at 230. Both were available with either manual or automatic transmissions.

Californians, however, were stuck with only a 305-cubic-inch V8 making 180 horsepower that was lashed to a mandatory three-speed automatic transmission. Sales of the ’80 Corvette slumped to 40,506 units.

What changed about the 1981 Corvette was the adoption of a new, much lighter fiberglass transverse rear leaf spring and a new, 190-horsepower “L81” version of the 350 V8 that was the only engine available. For most of the country, the L81 was no great shakes, but it was a definite step forward for California. In June of that year, Corvette production moved from St. Louis to a brand-new facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Manual transmissions were banished from the 1982 Corvette, all of which were equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission for this year. Also, back after a 17-year absence was fuel injection — this time an electronic throttle body system known as “Cross-Fire Injection.” The injection system boosted output of the L81 350 to 200 horsepower with much better drivability.

Also offered during ’82 was the “Collector Edition” Corvette that featured silver-beige paint, special graphics, multivaned wheels, bronze-colored glass roof panels and a rear glass window that opened hydraulically for easier storage access.

With sales down to 25,407 units for the ’82 model year, it was obvious the “Mako Shark” ‘Vettes had exhausted their welcome — finally.

Edmunds: Chevrolet Corvette History

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