Third generation Corvettes are the marque’s longest-running model series. C3 Corvettes span from 1968 through 1982. Sales totaled 542,861 cars. Later C3s have many similarities, so yearly exterior changes can be difficult to spot. Oftentimes, changes were mechanical or covered interior upgrades, such as adding a real glove box or changing the rear view mirror mounting location. A few key characteristics make it easier to approximate a model year. The 1976-up C3s can be separated into three subgroups: 1976-77, 1978-79, and 1980-82. All 1976-82 Corvettes were coupes. Any C3 convertible is a 1975 or older model.
The most noticeable external feature of 1976 and 1977 models is their traditional rear roof/glass treatment. These cars still had the recessed rear window with the twin sail panels. The rear deck is smooth, because the old Astro Ventilation system was eliminated. A rear view is also the easy way to distinguish 1978 and later C3s due to the new hatchback-style rear glass. The glass was fixed, but even so it greatly increased cargo capacity. The front of 1978 and 1979 models look like 1976-77 models. Two small rubber bumper guards flank the license plate.
Front and rear bumper caps/spoilers were substantially changed for 1980 and stayed the same through the end of the C3 model run. The spoilers are integrated and the old bumper guards were dropped. The update did wonders for the 1980-82 Corvettes. Many people consider the last C3s among the most handsome of the series.
The following details should help you tell one C3 Corvette from another.
The easiest way to tell a 1976 Corvette from a 1975 is the now-smooth rear deck. The fresh air vents that were part of the former Astro Ventilation system were eliminated. Assuming that the original emblems are intact, you can tell a 1976 from a 1977 by the front, rear, and side emblem styles. The nose and gas cap door emblems are round with red centers and crossed flags. The front fender script still says Stingray. The A-pillar/windshield trim is shiny stainless. Four-spoke steering wheels (the same as those used on Vegas) are a quick way to spot a 1976 from the interior, although non-tilting column 1977s (2,726 cars were so equipped) also used the Vega-style wheel.
Convertibles were gone for 1976, leaving just the coupe body style of which 46,558 were produced. Handsome Kelsey Hayes aluminum wheels (YJ8) were optional and were ordered on 6,253 cars. Note that the windshield A-pillars are bright stainless. This was the last year for the Stingray script on the front fenders.
The A pillar/windshield trim was painted satin black for 1977. The 1976 round medallions were replaced with simpler crossed flags. Crossed flags were mounted in place of the 1976 Stingray script above the front fender scoops, although some early 1977 Corvettes had no fender emblems. A running change was the elimination of the alarm lock on the left front fender. The lock was incorporated with the driver’s door lock on later 1977s. The vents at the rear of the hood were eliminated for 1977, because the air induction system changed in 1976. Air is drawn in at the front of the car. Most blocks were blue, but some early models were still orange. Leather seats became standard.
1977 was the last year of the sail panel roof treatment that debuted in 1968. The rear deck vents that were located just behind the rear window were eliminated in 1976 after the demise of the Astro Ventilation system.
The 350 small-block was available in 180 hp (standard) and 210 hp (optional) versions in 1977. The optional L-82 engine found 6,148 buyers. The L-82 wasn’t available in California. This is an early engine due to its orange paint.
Corvettes that were ordered with the N37 tilt/telescopic steering column came with a new leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel in 1977. The approximately 3,000 cars with a standard column still had the 1976 four-spoke Corvette/Vega steering wheel.
A large, new fastback/hatchback style rear window gave the 1978 Corvettes a radically changed appearance. This rear window treatment remained through the C3 model run. The easiest way to tell a 1978 from other big rear window C3s is the unique 25th Anniversary emblems on the nose and gas cap door. Considerable attention was given this momentous occasion. A special Silver Anniversary Paint option (B2Z) and an Indy 500 Pace Car Replica model highlighted the anniversary. The two-tone light silver over dark silver paint option was sold in unlimited quantities, which resulted in 15,283 cars with this popular livery. The Pace Car Replicas were limited to 6,502 units. Pace Cars have a “9” in the eighth position of the VIN compared to a “4” for regular 1978 Corvettes. Interiors were restyled for 1978. The dash was redesigned with gauge bezels that were squarer. A real glove box replaced the former storage pockets. The door panels and armrests were restyled. The armrests were separate units instead of being molded to the door panels as before. The unique Pace Car seats and front/rear spoilers hinted at changes to come.
Indy 500 Pace Car Editions were big news for 1978. This was the first year for the new fastback-style rear window glass. Luggage space was greatly increased, although the glass was fixed. The Pace Cars had unique front and rear spoilers.
Pace Car Corvettes are most often seen with Indy 500 decals, but the cars shipped without installed decals. Most dealers/buyers added them, but some unadorned examples exist. All Pace Car Replicas have the Limited Edition script beneath the fender flags.
All 1978 Corvettes should have this special 25th Anniversary emblem on the gas cap lid. There were also emblems on the nose and steering wheel hub.
Pace Cars had unique highback sports seats with deep side bolsters and unique silver upholstery. These improved seats became standard equipment for 1979. The 1978 door panels were redesigned with screw-on armrests. A real glove box replaced the former map pockets.
Pace Car Corvettes were all black over silver with a red pinstripe. The red stripe was added to the polished aluminum wheels. This same wheel without the red stripe is the optional YJ8 unit used on countless other Corvettes.
This was largely a carryover year. The easiest way to distinguish a 1979 from a 1978 is the presence of the highback seats and the absence of the 25th Anniversary emblems. The Pace Car highback, deep bolster sports seats became standard equipment in 1979. Pace Car spoilers were optional, but they only appeared on 6,853 cars. The 1977-style crossed flags nose, gas door, and front fender emblems were used again.
An all-time Corvette sales record was set in 1979 after 53,807 coupes rolled off the assembly line–even though the car was essentially unchanged from 1978. The 1978 Pace Car-style seats were standard, and the Pace Car spoilers (D80) were an option on 6,853 cars.
Vettes got a relatively modest restyling, but it made a significant appearance improvement. Integral front and rear spoilers were added to the bumper caps. The look was much smoother and more refined than the previous bolt-on spoilers, and they improved the coefficient of drag. The lower front bumper/spoiler area was extended and the bumper guards were vanquished. The new cap flowed with the front fenders to give the Corvette a longer, sleeker look. The rear spoiler added to the more pronounced wedge shape. Front and rear crossed flag emblems were elongated slightly over the 1979 emblems. A Corvette block letter script emblem appeared on the rear bumper cover. There weren’t any front fender emblems.
Integral front and rear spoilers did much to change the look of the 1980 Corvette. The spoilers were part of the front and rear bumper caps. The crossed flags on the nose are elongated compared to previous versions.
Exterior differences for 1981 are very minute as this was essentially a holdover year. The front and rear crossed flag emblems are wider and have a less pronounced “V” shape than the 1980 versions. Two-tone paint schemes were available, but only about 13 percent of the cars came with the $399 option. Another minute difference was the color of the headlamp and windshield wiper bezels. They were color-keyed to the interior for 1981, while all 1980 bezels were black. 1981 was the last year for 4-speed manual transmission C3s.
In 1981, Corvette production shifted from St. Louis to Bowling Green, with cars being built in both locations. Styling was carried over from 1980. Two-tone paint schemes were ordered on 5,352 cars. The N90 aluminum wheels were very popular, appearing on the majority of 1981 Corvettes.
A special Collector Edition 1982 Corvette marked the end of the C3 era. These fully loaded cars are easy to spot by their unique silver beige paint (code 59) and leather upholstery, unique multi-spoke cast aluminum wheels, and special cloisonné emblems. The rear glass is functional on Collector Editions. The telltale exterior sign is two black ovals near the rear lower edge of the glass where the gas support struts attach. A total of 6,759 Collector Edition Corvettes were produced. The sixth VIN digit should be a “0” for Collector Editions. Nose and gas door emblems changed slightly again. Now the crossed flags were narrower, taller, and almost straight across the top. Instead of getting out a micrometer to compare flag emblems, the easiest way to spot a 1982 is the “Cross-Fire injection” emblems on the front fenders above the scoops. The short-lived Cross-Fire induction system featured an elongated oval air cleaner reminiscent of the legendary 1969 Z/28 cross ram induction system. All 1982 Corvettes had automatic transmissions.
A special Collector Edition that was only available in this silver beige color marked the end of the long C3 Corvette run. The leather interior matched the exterior. The unique wheels were fashioned after the optional 1967 Corvette wheels.
A unique feature of the 1982 Collector Edition Corvettes was an opening rear glass hatch that greatly improved the car’s functionality.
A new induction system called Cross-Fire injection debuted on the 1982 Corvette’s 200- horsepower 350 V-8. The two electronic carburetors were controlled by a computer command control system for more precise fuel metering. An automatic transmission was the only choice in 1982.
Cross-Fire injection emblems on the front fenders above the scoops easily identify all 1982 Corvettes. Note the black louvered insert in the scoop.