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1976-1982 Corvette Guide

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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

Easy-to-own C3 Corvettes

To say that Corvette prices cover a wide spectrum is a huge understatement. Prices range from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the most desirable collector Corvettes, to a couple thousand dollars for the least desirable Vettes. The expression “Something for every pocketbook” definitely applies to the used Corvette market.

One of the best values in used Corvettes is the latter half of the C3 generation. C3 Corvettes encompass the years 1968 through 1982 – a 15-year span that is the longest generation of Corvettes. The C3 era can be subdivided a couple ways. Enthusiasts break out the ’68-’70 models, as they were the epitome of pre-emissions regulations high performance. The ’71 models are sometimes included, although compression ratios were lowered that year. The ’68-’72 models have been grouped as the chrome bumper era. When C3 Corvettes are split in half, the two groups are ’68-’75 and ’76-’82. The 1975 cutoff represents the last availability of a C3 convertible.

Styling differences can further delineate the latter-half C3 Corvettes: 1976-77, 1978-79, and 1980-82. The ’76/’77 are extensions of the ’74/’75 models. They have the rounded rear bumper cover and sail panel roof treatment. The new fastback style rear window glass makes the ’78/’79 Corvettes look much different from earlier models. 1978 Pace Cars and 1979 models with the optional D80 spoilers look significantly different, especially from the rear. Integral front and rear spoilers cleaned up and noticeably changed the ’80-’82 styling. Many Vette fans consider this last C3 subset the best looking, most fluid version.

Our focus is ’76-’82 C3 Corvettes. These Vettes represent a time when horsepower was way down, but sales were amazingly strong. They’re not the most exciting Corvettes ever built from a performance standpoint, but they’re nice looking and very affordable. The ’76-’82 Corvettes are an excellent way for a newcomer to get into the Corvette hobby without taking out a second mortgage or winning a lottery.

There was some initial resistance to the covered bumper styling of the 1974-1982 Corvettes, but the look (especially from the front) has stood up very well. In retrospect, these cars managed to bridge the gap between the radical ’68 Corvettes and contemporary Corvettes. These cars maintain the classic ’68 profile, while slightly elongating the nose. The new-for-1978, fastback-style rear window further enhanced their smooth profile. Attractive styling is one of the high points of ’76-’82 Corvettes.

Engine performance isn’t a big selling point. The mid-Seventies to mid-Eighties weren’t the best times for high performance. Manufacturers were still refining the delicate balance between performance, fuel economy, and emissions. The small-block V-8 remained as the Corvette powerplant, but horsepower ratings dropped as low as 175 during the 1976-1982 period. On the plus side, the highest rated ’76-’82 engines produced 230 hp in the form of the optional 1980 L82 350.

A pathetic spec chart entry for these cars was the 305 cubic-inch, 180-hp engine mandated for 1980 Corvettes sold in California. To add further insult to injury, the 305 could only be had with the automatic transmission. The little 305 at least produced five more horsepower than the 1978 California emissions version of the base L48 (rated at 175 hp). The least powerful C3 of all was the 165-horsepower 1975 350. Stacked up against the legendary pre-1971 Corvette engines, these smog hogs were an embarrassment.  

The lower horsepower California cars represent a dilemma in an already sorry performance situation. California is a Corvette hotbed, and the metal chassis/undercarriage components fare better in California than most other states. That’s a plus, but the smog-restricted engines and lack of four-speed manual transmissions is a negative. Our advice is to seek the optional L82 cars, which eliminates the low performance California cars.

The lower performance characteristics of ’76-’82 Corvettes made these cars better suited to luxury touring than dragstrip domination. If you want to go really fast, these Vettes aren’t your best bets. Optimum use of these handsome cars is as affordable, luxurious touring cars. Toward that end, we suggest seeking the most highly optioned cars. By embracing the positive traits you’ll get the most enjoyment and value.

At present, these Corvettes have limited collectability value. The two biggest exceptions are the 1978 Indy 500 Pace Car Editions and the 1982 Collector Editions. A third possibility is the 1978 Silver Anniversary Paint option (B2Z). All ’78 Corvettes were considered anniversary cars, but the Pace Car replicas and the Silver Anniversary Paint option cars went beyond the standard emblems. The 6,502 Pace Cars have unique VIN numbers (the eighth digit is a “9” instead of the “4” for regular ’78 Vettes), which is a big collectability plus. In addition to the special black over silver paint, these cars have unique front and rear spoilers. The cars were shipped plain, but most people installed the factory supplied Pace Car door decals.

Prices have dropped, because too many “investors” thought the special edition Corvettes would be worth more than they are. They squirreled away pristine, low mileage examples hoping for future payoffs. Too many speculators did this, which saturated the market and lowered prices. Add the current economic troubles and that’s a formula for excellent values. It’s a buyer’s market.

Prices for these cars could very well rebound, so now is an excellent time to buy premium examples at affordable prices. Even if there aren’t big price gains, current prices are low enough to justify these Corvettes as good transportation values. For the price of a boring new or late-model compact car you can get a unique, exciting Corvette. You could either pile on tons of miles and drive the value out, or keep the mileage down and probably sell later for at least your purchase price. Both scenarios make good economic sense.

Given the relative bargain prices of ’76-’82 Corvettes, the best deals are the best cars. Beaters, super high milers, restoration projects, and cars with incorrect components cost more to fix/restore than they’re worth. The price gap between mediocre cars and outstanding ones is too small not the buy the best possible cars. You can’t make a lesser car into a high quality car for the price differential. And, no matter how much you polish a car you can’t beat low mileage/original condition.

Over 300,000 Corvettes were produced between 1976 and 1982, so supplies are excellent and prices are even better – what more could you ask for in a classically styled, very affordable vintage Corvette?  


1976-1982 CORVETTE TIMELINE

1976: Coupe only body style. Optional L82 engine rated at 210 hp. 46,558 units produced.

1977: Last year of sail panel roof treatment. Hood vents eliminated; air intake system changed. 49,213 units produced.

1978: New fastback style rear window glass. 25th Anniversary of the Corvette. Unique Indy 500 Pace Car Replica Editions (6,502 units). 46,776 total units produced.

1979: New standard high-back seats (previously only on ’78 Pace Cars). Record sales of 53,807 units.

1980: Mild restyling with integral front/rear spoilers. 305-ci/automatic only California engine/transmission. 40,614 units produced

1981: Carryover year. First cars built at new Bowling Green, KY, assembly plant. 40,606 units produced.

1982: Final year of C3. Special Collector Edition (6,759 units) with functional rear hatch. New Cross-Fire injection system. No four-speed manual transmissions available. 25,407 total units produced.

 

 

1978 is a key year for ’76-’82 C3 Corvettes. The styling changed significantly with the new rear window glass, and it was the 25th anniversary of the Corvette.

 

 

The coupe body style was the sole choice for 1976. The convertible was on an extended hiatus. This was the last year that the “Stingray” script appeared on the front fenders. This ’76 has the optional L82 engine, which was rated at 210 horsepower, compared to the base 180 hp 350 V-8.

 

The sail panel roof design was a key styling feature of the new C3 Corvettes and lasted until 1977. The earlier cars had vents on the deck area, but these vents (part of the Astro Ventilation system) were eliminated in 1976. Sales were strong in 1977 at 49,213 units.

 

Cracking and discoloration is a potential problem with C3 urethane bumpers. Replacement bumpers are available from companies like Mid America.

 

The base engine for the 1978 Corvette Pace Car and all other ’78 Vettes was the L48 350, which was rated at 185 hp (up 5 hp from 1977). The easy way to tell an L48 engine is the corporate blue paint on the stamped steel valve covers.

 

The optional 1978 L82 engine (seen here in a Pace Car) can be quickly distinguished by its cast aluminum, ribbed/finned valve covers. Note that the intake manifold is silver, where the L48 intake was corporate blue. The L82 350 was rated at 225 hp and is definitely worth seeking.

 

 

Interiors were upgraded for 1978 with new armrests and a real glovebox. The unique, high-back bucket seats with substantial side bolsters were Pace Car specific in 1978, but became standard Corvette seats in 1979. A plaque on the center console was just one of many 25th Anniversary emblems.

 

The most prominent 25th Anniversary emblems were those on the gas filler door and the nose between the headlamp doors.

 

This angled rear view of a 1979 Corvette shows how the smooth rear window glass improved the car’s appearance. The ’78 Pace Car spoilers (RPO D80) were a $265 option in 1979. Almost 7,000 cars came with the spoilers, which actually reduced drag and improved fuel economy. This was a case of form benefitting function.

 

C3 styling changed subtly, but significantly in 1980 when integral front and rear spoilers were added. The look was much cleaner than the previous add-on spoilers. The spoilers were part of the front and rear bumper caps. Many fans feel the ’80-’82 models are the best-looking C3s.

 

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1981 Corvettes are virtually identical to 1980 models. There were small differences in the crossed flags emblems. There were no optional engines, just the base 190 hp 350 V-8, although the four-speed manual transmission was a no-cost option.

 

Body changes for 1982 were again very minor. The crossed flags were slightly different, but you really need to see the ’80-’82 emblems side by side to spot the tiny variances. There were 16 color options, including two-tones.

 

A significant 1982 change was the new opening rear glass hatch that was exclusive to the special Collector Edition. All 6,759 Collector Edition Vettes were painted silver beige with matching leather interiors. The unique wheels were inspired by the optional ’67 Corvette N89 cast aluminum wheels.

 

Fuel injection returned to Corvette engines in 1982 in the form of the unique twin throttle body injection Cross-Fire Injection system. The new injection system helped boost horsepower to 200 and improved emissions. It wasn’t very popular, and only appeared on 1982 and 1984 Corvettes.

 

The quickest and easiest way to spot a 1982 Corvette is the Cross-Fire-Injection emblems on the front fenders above the side scoops.

 

One of the most handsome Corvette wheels of all time is the various iterations of the optional YJ8 aluminum wheel manufactured by Kelsey Hayes for ’76-’82 Vettes. Quality originals can be difficult to find, but there are excellent reproductions available.

 

Leather and cloth interiors were available in C3 Corvettes. Leather seats are more common than cloth. This ’82 red cloth interior is one of only 905 produced compared to 4,444 red leather interiors.

 

T-tops were standard equipment on ’76-’82 Corvettes, but starting in 1978, buyers could get the optional CC1 Removable Glass Roof Panels, which gave the interior a more open feel.

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