The world of high performance automobiles was starting to change in 1973. Things were definitely going to get worse before they got better. The Chevrolet Corvette soldiered on bravely, but ever-stringent federal emissions and safety regulations were affecting performance (and everyday) cars. Eventually intelligent engineering would overcome the obstacles and lead to a super exciting rebirth of Corvette high performance.
As a matter of compromise the Corvette became as much a luxury touring car as an all-out pavement burner. The long running C3 generation encompasses 1968 through 1982, but we separated the earlier years due to their greater performance levels.
The end of the big-block Corvette came in 1974 (also the first year of 5-mph safety bumpers on both ends) and what appeared to be the last Corvette convertible came in 1975. Neither demise hurt sales as they continued to rise. Four-speed manual transmissions weren’t available after 1981 and in 1980 California buyers got stuck with 180 hp 305-ci engines. The 350 was certified for California in 1981.
The 1978 twenty-fifth anniversary Pace Car Corvettes were a highlight of this generation. This same year brought about a new fastback rear glass design that improved cargo capacity. 1979 was the peak year for Corvette sales with 53,807 produced. It was obvious that despite some performance setbacks the Corvette was more popular than ever.
1973 Corvettes still had the same sensuous shape as the ’68-’72 models. Many people preferred the new body-color, urethane-covered front bumpers for their more integrated look. The new bumpers were necessary to comply with federal 5-mph bumper regulations. The chrome rear bumpers were carryovers from 1972.
The most noticeable change for 1974 was the new rear bumper system required by the federal 5-mph impact standards. The two-part urethane cover (there was a noticeable seam in the center) hid the aluminum bumper and its two telescopic impact brackets. Later covers were one-piece units.
Even though it was well known that 1975 would be the last of the Corvette convertibles only 4,629 of them were sold. It was poor sales, not safety issues that killed convertibles in the seventies.
Auxiliary hardtops were a popular Corvette option from 1956 through 1975. Most were body-colored, but starting in 1967 there was a vinyl-covered auxiliary hardtop option. In 1975 the split between regular and vinyl-covered hardtops was 2,407/279. The vinyl-covered versions gave the impression of a canvas top.
In 1976, the Corvette Sport Coupe was the sole body offering. In spite of there being no convertible sales still improved considerably. Horsepower ratings were up slightly.
The YJ8 aluminum wheel option (made by Kelsey Hayes) introduced in 1976 continued to be very popular on 1977 Corvettes. Sales more than doubled to 12,646 for the $321 option. Total 1977 Corvette production hit a new high of 49,213 units.
1978 Corvettes received a bold new rear window treatment. The large glass gave more of a fastback look. This design provided much appreciated additional luggage space. The glass was fixed and wouldn’t become an opening hatchback until 1982. 1978 was the 25th anniversary of the Corvette and it was chosen as the Indy 500 Pace Car. The 6,502 Pace Cars were considered a separate model and had unique serial numbers.
1979 marked a high point in Corvette sales with an amazing 53,807 coupes sold. Glass T-tops (introduced in 1978) provided an extra dimension to Corvettes. A new for 1979 exhaust system boosted the top horsepower rating by 5 hp.
Corvette engines in the late seventies and early eighties were nothing to get excited about. In 1980, the top engine was the optional L82. It was rated at 230 horsepower, but was only available with the automatic transmission.
1982 was the end of the C3 Corvette, which began in 1968 with a chassis based on the 1963 design. The long awaited replacement was delayed several times. To commemorate the last C3 (and hopefully stimulate sales) 6,759 Collector Edition Hatchback coupes were built. This was the first model to have a functional hatchback. The special wheels took their design cues from the optional ’67 wheels.
BY THE NUMBERS
Legend: cp=coupe, cv=convertible, T=total, TH=Turbo Hydra-Matic, PC=Pace Car, CE=Collector Edition