Photography by Jerry Heasley, Historical Images Courtesy of the NAHC
The introduction of the C3 Corvette was met with unprecedented success. However, the success didn’t come as complete surprise as Chevrolet had been watching the incredible public response to the 1965 Mako Shark II concept vehicle, the internationally acclaimed show car that became the basis for the third generation Vette.
The new Corvette, while not as extreme as the Mako Shark II, was sensational. Body lines were toned down from the concept car, yet the essence of its overall look remained. From the high arched front fenders to the bold rear end lines, the Corvette was muscular from every angle.
Chevrolet dealers were having the time of their lives pushing out more Corvettes than ever before, but the behind the scenes, the situation at Chevrolet was another story. The combination of the new radical design and Chevrolet’s decision to focus their engineering talents on the high-volume Camaro left the 1968 Corvette with a myriad of quality problems. Given a new Corvette to test, a national automotive magazine writer simply refused to test it, claiming that, “With less than 2,000 miles on it, the Corvette was falling apart.” To address these issues, Chevrolet assembled a small group led by Zora Arkus-Duntov to improve Corvette’s quality.
Through their efforts, most of the quality issues were addressed for the 1969 model, and the Corvette was on a roll again. For the first time the “Stingray” emblem was one word, replacing “Sting Ray” from the previous year. To keep things fresh, several changes were made for the model year. The ignition was relocated to the steering column, and the backup lights were integrated into the center of the inner taillight. The troublesome door depression button was eliminated and replaced with a key lock cylinder. Inside, door panels were redesigned to improve shoulder room, and the steering wheel diameter was reduced. Several new exterior and interior colors were added to the order sheet.
By 1969 the horsepower race was at fever pitch, and Chevrolet wasn’t about to let Corvette fall by the wayside. The 327 cubic-inch V-8 that had served Corvette so well for the past seven years was replaced by a 350 cubic-inch version. While the new small block added 23 cubic inches, horsepower mysteriously remained the same. However, the big-block options weren’t ignored. The 435 horsepower, solid lifter, L71 tri-power engine was carried over from 1968, as was the mild-mannered, 390 horsepower L36 and the race ready L88. New for the year was the hydraulic cammed, tri-power L68. Rated at 400 horsepower, the 427 cubic-inch V-8 provided both decent fuel mileage and outstanding performance. For those dreaming about being shot out of a cannon, the new, all-aluminum ZL1 was added to the lineup. This monster wasn’t for the faint of heart considering it was barely streetable and added nearly $6,000 to the Corvette’s price after all other required options were checked.
Perhaps the most balanced engine for the model year was the L89 big-block, rated at 435 horsepower. Chevrolet started out with a four-bolt main, cast iron block, then engineers crafted a pair of high flow, lightweight, aluminum heads to top it off. Resting between the heads was an aluminum tri-power intake manifold with three Holley Model 2300 carburetors. While the L89 was rated at the same 435 horsepower as the iron-head L71, the L89 was known to produce slightly more power thanks to its larger exhaust valves (1.84 inches versus 1.72 inches). It also weighed about 75 pounds less, thus reducing unnecessary weight from the front end and helping handling characteristics. The option didn’t come cheap though – it required an additional $832. A cast iron transistorized distributor was standard for all L71 and L89 engines.
Because of a UAW strike in early 1969 and a large number of unfilled orders, the newly appointed head of Chevrolet, John DeLorean, decided to extend the model year to 16 months. The extended model year helped Corvette set a new sales record of 38,762 vehicles. And of those, only 390 rolled off the St. Louis factory floor with the L89 option. But those that did represent some of the fastest and most balanced C3s ever made.
Fuel For Thought
Only 390 aluminum-head L89s built in 1969
L89 heads had 2.19-inch intake/1.84-inch exhaust valves
L89 heads featured a 107cc, closed-chamber design
On November 7, 1969, the quarter-millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line
Number built – 390
Construction – Body-on-frame, fiberglass body construction
Engine – 427 cubic-inch, aluminum-head V-8
Power/Torque – 435 horsepower, 460 lb-ft torque (RPO L89)
Transmissions – Wide ratio four-speed manual (M20), close ratio four-speed manual (M21), close ratio four-speed manual (M22), three-speed automatic (M40)
Suspension front – Unequal length A-arms with coil springs, tubular shocks and anti-roll bar
Suspension rear – Independent, fixed differential, transverse multi-leaf springs
Steering – Re-circulating ball; 2.9 turns lock to lock
Brakes – 11.75-inch front and rear discs
Length/width/height – 182.5/69.0/47.4 inches
Wheelbase – 98.0 inches
Weight –3,280 lbs. (coupe)
0-60mph/quarter mile – 4.7 seconds, 13.6 seconds at 105 mph (Car and Driver, March 1967 when testing an 1967 L89 Corvette four-speed)
Top speed – 142 mph (Car and Driver, March 1967)
MPG – 10 - 15 mpg est.
Price – MSRP - $4,781 (coupe); Today – $60,000 - $80,000
Insurance cost is $481/year for a $70,000 1969 Corvette. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Engine – The 427 cubic-inch Mark IV engine lived up to its name of being a powerhouse. All high performance big-blocks, including the L89, featured a forged crank; all others were equipped with a cast iron crankshaft.
Handling – Slight improvements were made to improve handling. The frame was strengthened, and the Corvette now ran on eight-inch wheels. Suspension was tight, steering was responsive, and braking with standard four-wheel discs gave the Vette an edge. L89 and ZL1 Corvettes had the advantage of a lighter front end.
Photo Courtesy of NAHC
1969 Boss 429 Mustang
Number built – 859
0-60/quarter mile – 7.1 seconds, 14.0 seconds at 102 mph
Top speed – 135 mph est.
Price – MSRP - $4,798; Today – $98,900 - $285,700
Photo Courtesy of GM Archives
1969 Camaro ZL1
Number built – 69
0-60/quarter mile – 5.3 seconds, 13.3 seconds at 110 mph
Top speed –135 mph est.
Price – MSRP - $7,200; Today – $156,100 - $465,300
Improved quality from 1968
Plethora of engine options
Parts readily available
Outstanding styling and performance
Frame rust issues
Many don’t have original powertrain
Possible to overspend on a restoration
Rare NOS performance engine parts expensive
While many 1969 Corvettes could be classified as occasional drivers, those with rare engine options tend to be trailered to events.
What To Pay
MSRP – $4,781
Low – $60,000
Average – $70,000
High – $80,000
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Corvette & Chevy magazines are sold.
Exhaust manifold $396.99
A/C compressor $449.99
Left side front grille $59.99
Power steering pump (rebuilt) $299.99
Front fender $304.99
*Based on information from Corvette America,
The Complete Book of Corvette: Every Model Since 1953 by Mike Mueller
The Corvette Factories: Building America’s Sports Car by Mike Mueller
Corvette Black Book 1953-2008 by Mike Antonick
Corvette Restoration Guide, 1968-1982 by Richard Prince
Corvette Fifty Years by Randy Leffingwell
The 1969 Corvette evolved into a refined road car with performance unmatched by any other mass-produced automobile. The L89 heads were another maddeningly low-production GM option that gave the lucky few owners an amazing high-rpm experience, while the rest of us can only dream about it.