The Rise and Fall of the C3 Corvette

Posted by Leah on 6/19/2014 to About Corvettes
 The third generation of General Motors’ Corvette fleet, referred to as the C3 generation, offered a series of firsts, and lasts, for this iconic collection of American-made sports cars. The first C3 was produced for the 1968 model year and these vehicles were manufactured through the 1982 model year with slight changes being introduced over this production time. CorvetteMods has a large selection of parts and accessories designed specifically for this generation of Corvettes. 


 C3 Corvettes are based on the Mako Shark II concept car by automotive designer Larry Shinoda. Shinoda designed the second generation line of Corvettes — the Sting Ray — which was inspired in part by the mako shark, so it seems appropriate that the third generation of Corvettes would maintain this shark inspiration. The fenders on C3 Corvettes are very prominent as they seem to form a high ridge over the front tires. The nose of the first C3 Corvette looks similar to a shark’s head and is pointed downward, as if the shark is submerging underwater. The sleekness of the C3 body is maintained by the use of pop-up headlights. When the headlights are off (and the pop-ups are closed), the C3 is a very sleek machine from front to back. When the headlights are on, the C3 still looks svelte as the headlamps look like a pair of seductive eyes that are sending you a message to “look at me.” The inaugural C3 Corvettes were available in coupe and convertible models and this was the first Corvette that was made available with removable T-top roof panels. The engine and wheelbase on the first C3 Corvettes were similar to its predecessor — the engine being a 300-hp 327 small block V8 — but optional engines were available, including the 350-hp 327 and the big block 427 L88. 

 Return of the Stingray 

 The Stingray name was reestablished for Corvettes in 1969 with one change; stingray became one word on the Corvette. This version of the C3 has the stingray name in chrome script on the fenders and at the rear of the car between the tail lamps. The one major change on this model from its predecessor was the replacement of the small block 327 engine with the new 350-cubic-inch V8. This engine made 300 horsepower in its original state and C3 buyers could choose the optional 350 horsepower L46 engine. General Motors teased power-hungry Corvette owners with another possibility when it came to engines, the ZL-1. This engine was patterned after the L88 big block V8 but it was made entirely of aluminum, resulting in an engine that was as powerful as the L88 but about 25 pounds lighter than a small-block engine. This engine was geared toward road racing. If anything, GM was announcing that the power possibilities for C3 Corvettes were endless. 

More Stringent Emissions, Less Power 

 During the 1970s, the thrill of brute power had to be curbed as a result of the looming energy crisis. As more strict emissions were introduced by the federal government, automakers had to curb the enthusiasm surrounding powerful engines. Base C3 engines were reduced from 350 horsepower to 270 horsepower and the LT-1 engines saw a reduction in horsepower from 350 horses to 330 horsepower. These changes in power continued throughout the 1970s. If there was ever an example of kicking a man when he is down, this occurred in 1972 when power ratings were changed from SAE gross to SAE net. As a result of this change, the base 350 engine on a C3 had a 200 horsepower rating rather than 330 horsepower. These engines performed at the same levels as before the rating change, but it sounds bad to refer to a Corvette with a 200 horsepower engine. Catalytic converters were introduced on C3 Corvettes with the 1975 model year vehicles which resulted in 1974 being the last year that Corvettes had true dual-exhaust systems. The catalytic converters required the use of unleaded fuel and this also lowered engine power. C3 Corvette owners could boast having base ZQ3 engines that produced 165 horsepower. The only option for power lovers was the L82 engine that topped out at 205 horsepower. The abrupt power changes in the early- and mid-1970s were not reflected in the styling of these vehicles as they did not change much appearance-wise. The chrome bumpers on pre-1973 C3 Corvettes were replaced by rubberized bumpers that were mandated by federal government bumper standards. As the 1970s progressed, the chrome Stingray lettering was removed and GM had the audacity to include a four-spoke steering wheel that was similar to the steering wheels on the Chevy Camaro and Vega. Why GM officials decided to use anything associated with the Vega on the Corvette is a question Corvette enthusiasts have been asking for almost 40 years. 
Anniversary Leads to Style Changes 

 The Corvette celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1978 and in honor of this milestone General Motors released two special edition models, a Silver Anniversary Corvette that featured a silver on charcoal paint job and a black on top, silver on bottom Indy Pace Car limited edition model. Prior to 1978, the Corvette was never used as a pace car at the Indianapolis 500. Both models, particularly the pace car edition, became collector’s items. CorvetteMods has Corvette body decals for the Indy Pace Car edition that have been reproduced from OEM kits. Most of the changes to 1979 C3 Corvettes were internal and were designed to give a horsepower boost to the L48 and L82 engines. 

 C3’s Swansong 

 The C3 went out like a lamb rather than like a lion as the focus continued to be on emissions and fuel mileage. Design updates were incorporated in 1980 to reduce the overall weight of C3 Corvettes by about 250 pounds from the previous year’s model. The base L48 engine produced 190 horsepower while the L82 churned out 230 horsepower in every state but California. California regulations mandated that 1980 C3 Corvettes could only be fitted with a 180 horsepower V8 engine and a three-speed automatic transmission. The option of a manual transmission was available in all other states. Manual transmissions were banished from Corvettes in 1982 and with sales down, the C3 was retired after the 1982 model year. 

 Although the C3 Corvette is not considered to be the best or most popular generation of Corvettes produced by GM, this car has many fans and mint condition C3s are still valuable investments. Additionally, despite not being the most coveted generation of Corvettes produced, the Indy Pace Car special edition Corvette is still a much sought-after automobile. The C3 also has another claim to fame; this generation had the longest production life at 14 model years.
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