When the original Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in 1953, it was a somewhat Pyrrhic effort to create something approximating a Jaguar XK120 using a fiberglass body and a lot of off-the-shelf passenger-car parts. It had neither scorching performance nor roll-up side windows and it sold poorly. It was nearly canceled in 1955 before salvation arrived in the form of Chevy’s new V8 engine, which gave its performance a much-needed shot in the arm. The Corvette also acquired a new chief engineer, a bright and mercurial Russian immigrant named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who did his level best to make it into a genuine sports car.
In 1958, legendary styling chief Harley Earl retired and his longtime deputy, Bill Mitchell, took over GM’s styling department. Mitchell was a car guy, fond of sporting iron and motorcycles. He loved the Corvette, although his vision for what it should be was sharply removed from Duntov’s notions of serious performance. The battle of wills between these two men in the normally stratified and reactionary corporate culture of General Motors would produce many clashes before both Duntov and Mitchell retired in the 1970s, but it also produced the classic Sting Ray and the fearsome third-generation Corvette, known to its fans as simply “C3” — a car of immodest looks and immodest performance. This car:
DUNTOV VS. MITCHELL
Although its styling changed significantly, all 1953-1962 Chevrolet Corvettes used evolutionary versions of the original chassis, itself derived from the standard Chevrolet sedan. In 1963, that platform was replaced by the spectacular new Corvette Sting Ray (known as the C2).
Not only did the Sting Ray have sexy looks, it had an advanced new chassis with a new fully independent rear suspension, which was still such a novelty in the U.S. in those days that Chevrolet felt the need to run magazine ads explaining how it worked. The Corvette Sting Ray was a fast car, but it was also one of the few American cars of its era with handling and braking matching its scorching straight-line performance. By modern standards, it was a bit slapdash, particularly in structural rigidity, but it was a formidable rival for any of its contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic.
The design of the Sting Ray had been the source of many clashes between Bill Mitchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov was contemptuous of the car’s nonfunctional styling gimmicks and poor aerodynamics; the C2 had low drag, but an alarming amount of high-speed lift. Duntov was only an engineer, however, while Mitchell was a vice president of one of GM’s most powerful departments. Although Mitchell never enjoyed the almost unquestionable clout of his predecessor, who had had the patronage of GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s senior management was well aware that Mitchell’s work was responsible for a great deal of GM’s market domination. In a clash between Duntov and Mitchell, the victor was inevitable.
Duntov wanted the Corvette Sting Ray’s replacement, which originally was slated to appear for the 1967 model year, to be smaller, leaner, and more aerodynamic, ideally with a rear- or mid-mounted engine. Mitchell, for his part, loved to make cars look aerodynamic, but he wasn’t terribly concerned if they actually were or not.
Like Harley Earl before him, Mitchell was a believer in the formula of longer-lower-wider, and he felt sports cars should have long hoods. He was no fan of the rear-engine layout that Duntov wanted, which he thought would be ugly. Mitchell envisioned the third-generation Corvette more like the XP-755 show car, known as Mako Shark.
Contemporary automotive journalists sneered at the many gimmicks of the Mako Shark and its successor, the 1965 Mako Shark II, both of which were the work of stylist Larry Shinoda, designer of the Sting Ray. Duntov didn’t care much for it either, but public reaction was favorable and in short order, the Mako Shark was approved as the basis of the third-generation C3 Corvette.
As for Duntov’s desired mechanical changes, GM senior management had no stomach for an expensive revamp of the Sting Ray platform. With Corvette sales on the upswing, there seemed to be no reason to mess with success. As a result, it was determined that the new Corvette would carry over most of the Sting Ray’s mechanicals, including the chassis, suspension, transmissions, and engines.
MOUSE AND RAT MOTORS
From 1957 through mid-1965, all Corvettes had used variations of Chevrolet’s small-block V8. Introduced in 1955, the Chevy small block was a compact, inexpensive, relatively lightweight engine with nearly infinite hop-up potential. It was officially called the Turbofire V8, but because of its modest size and great potential, it eventually became known as the “Mouse motor.”
In the mid-fifties, Chevrolet also developed a separate line of physically larger (“big block”) engines that could be expanded to greater displacement than the Turbofire. Sometimes known as the W engine, the big block was originally intended as a truck engine, but in 1958, it found its way into the passenger car line as well. Its initial displacement was 348 cubic inches (5,694 cc), later stretched to 409 cu. in. (6,702 cc) and immortalized in song by the Beach Boys. A second-generation version of this engine, the Turbojet, was introduced for 1965, becoming optional on full-size Chevrolets. The big-block Turbojet was larger, heavier, and meaner than the Mouse, so it inevitably became known as the Rat motor.
Originally, Chevrolet had no plans to offer the Turbojet in the Corvette, but the 1964 introduction of Pontiac’s Tempest GTO, with its optional 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) engine, upset the applecart. Duntov was loath to jam the heavy big-block engine into the Sting Ray, where it would compromise weight distribution, but he could not allow the Corvette to lose its supremacy as GM’s #1 performance car. He finally accepted that there was no choice and the Rat became an option on the Sting Ray midway through the 1965 model year.
In its initial form, the big engine displaced 396 cubic inches (6,488 cc) and made 425 gross horsepower (317 kW), a huge bump over the 375 hp (279 kW) fuel-injected small block that had previously been the Corvette’s top engine option. The “fuelie” was a better fit for the Sting Ray than the 396, which was about 150 pounds (68 kg) heavier, but the big Rat was both more powerful and cheaper to buy. The initial L78 big-block engine cost $292.70 compared to a whopping $538 for the L84 fuelie. In short order, the Rat overshadowed the Mouse, leading to the elimination of the latter’s most highly tuned variations.
The big block returned for 1966, now bored out to 427 cubic inches (6,996 cc), but the high-strung fuel-injected engine was gone; fuel injection would not return to the Corvette until 1982.
Duntov was no doubt dismayed when the new Corvette emerged as even more of a triumph of styling and gimmickry than the Sting Ray. The new car was nearly 7 inches (170 mm) longer than its predecessor and weighed about 150 pounds (68 kg) more, model for model. It had the Mako Shark II’s radically flared fenders and inward-sloping roof, giving it voluptuous, wasp-waisted proportions, but its packaging — the amount of usable interior room relative to exterior size — was disastrous. The pinched waist (it was actually a fraction of an inch narrower overall than its predecessor) and radical tumblehome made the interior extremely cramped and visibility over the broad fenders and sloping nose was poor.
Despite being delayed a full year from their originally scheduled inception, 1968 Corvette also tended to be poorly assembled. Car and Driver was so appalled by the build quality of their early demonstrator that they refused to test it.
The 1968 Corvette C3 offered the same engine lineup as the 1967 C2, including a pair of 327 cubic inch (5,354 cc) small blocks and five 427 cu. in. (6,996 cc) big blocks. A three-speed manual transmission was still standard, although most buyers chose one of the optional four-speed manual transmissions instead. The Turbo Hydra-Matic three-speed automatic was a new option, a vast improvement over the two-speed Powerglide that had been the Sting Ray’s sole automatic. Performance depended on engine and transmission, ranging from brisk to terrifying.
The big-block cars were naturally the strongest. The most powerful street engine was the L71, with high-compression heads, four-bolt main bearings, and three two-barrel carburetors. It was nominally rated at 435 gross horsepower (324 kW), which was enough to push the Corvette from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in a fraction over five seconds. On a whole other level was the L88, a highly strung engine intended for racing duty. The L88 approached 550 hp (410 kW), but was not suitable for civilian use; it was almost totally unwilling to idle, prone to overheating, and subject to severe detonation with anything less than 102 RON racing fuel.
Although the extra weight did its handling no favors, the Corvette C3 retained its predecessor’s fully independent suspension and benefited from wider fenders, which could accommodate fatter tires than the C2. The standard tires were now F70-15 Wide Ovals, reasonably impressive for the time, but smaller and higher in profile than the tires on many modern compacts and really inadequate for a sports car with such monstrous torque. (Chevrolet actually lagged behind the times when it came to tire technology; radial tires weren’t offered on the C3 Corvette until 1973.) The Corvette remained the only American car of its era with standard four-wheel disc brakes, which provided acceptable stopping power.
As Bill Mitchell wanted, the C3 Corvette was laden with every gimmick known to man. Aside from the flip-up headlights, a key novelty feature was concealed windshield wipers, which were hidden behind a vacuum-operated panel between the base of the windshield and the cowl vents. It made for a clean appearance, but in winter, snow and ice could pack the doors closed, rendering the wipers useless. The interior had a full set of instruments along with toys like a fiber-optic light monitor that activated warning lamps if headlights or brake lights were out. You could spend extra for a full assortment of gimmicks, ranging from AM/FM stereo to a speed warning device that would buzz if you exceeded a preset speed (although actual cruise control wouldn’t be offered until the late seventies). The Corvette now featured Chevrolet’s much-vaunted “Astro Ventilation” system, which was supposed to provide good flow-through ventilation with the windows closed, although critics complained that it never worked very well.
Coupes now had lift-off roof panels, of a design that would later be called T-tops. (Originally, the removable roof panel was intended to be one piece, à la contemporary Porsche 911 Targa, but completely removing the roof made the body too willowy; the center bar was retained for structural reasons.) The rear window could be removed, too, approximating the feel of a full convertible.
THE BARBARIAN TRIUMPHANT
However horrified Duntov may have been by all the gewgaws, buyers responded enthusiastically and Corvette sales climbed impressively throughout the C3’s 14-year run, improving nearly every year. In 1969 alone, nearly 40,000 Corvettes were sold, despite prices starting at a rather steep $4,781 — a lot less than a Jaguar E-Type or a Porsche 911, but still a lot of money in those days. A decade earlier, Chevrolet managers would have been overjoyed to hit even a quarter of that total. A decade later, Corvette sales would approach 50,000 units a year.
By modern standards, the C3 Corvette’s handling had decent balance, but very limited grip, a consequence of the modest tires. Its brakes, although strong by the standards of 1969, are only adequate, particularly on the heavier big-block cars. Comfort was not a strong point; the C3 was about as roomy as a packing crate, its ergonomics were dubious, and the Astro Ventilation system provided limited airflow unless the rear window was removed. Ride quality of big-block Stingrays was choppy thanks in part to the 690 lb (313 kg) mass of the engine itself. Moreover, no Corvette of this era felt very solid, shaking and rattling over rough pavement.
For all these faults, a big-block Corvette had one inarguable asset, and that was torque. Even with the mildest of the 427s, there was enough grunt to simply liquefy the bias-ply tires. The gearbox was largely a toy; the big blocks have so much torque that starting in top gear was not a difficult exercise. Assessing exactly how much real horsepower and torque the big-block V8s actually made is a matter of much debate, but it could be summarized as “way too much,” at least with period rubber. Acceleration was mostly a matter of traction; top speed, a question of gear ratio and intestinal fortitude, because you tended to run out of either revs or courage before you ran out of horses.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Zora Arkus-Duntov never quite gave up his dreams of a smaller, mid-engine Corvette. That dream came very close to fruition in the mid-1970s — there was very nearly a mid-engine C4 with a four-rotor Wankel rotary engine, but the Wankel program was canceled and the mid-engine was forgotten. Not long after that, Duntov retired. Bill Mitchell followed him in 1977.
As much as Duntov and Mitchell butted heads, in many respects they were similar: opinionated, sharp-tongued men who were willing to fight for what they believed in within a corporate culture that did not encourage individuality. After Mitchell was gone, GM management decided that there should be no more autocratic styling chiefs of his ilk. They wanted team players, and eventually they got them. Unfortunately, it also heralded a new era of cookie-cutter styling and corporate complacency that destroyed GM’s image and led to a long, precipitous loss of market share.
The C3 continued through several evolutions until 1982, long after its originally scheduled replacement. The C4 introduced in 1984 had a similarly long run. The fact that the Corvette survives at all despite continuing corporate ambivalence and a host of increasingly stringent federal and company rules, is remarkable; make no mistake, the engineers who designed and built the subsequent C5 and C6 Corvettes are rock stars. But there are no radical innovations in that realm, in either styling or engineering. Corvette styling remains a continual honing of the cues that Larry Shinoda drew back when John F. Kennedy was president and the idea of GM doing something as dramatic as the C3 today is hard to conceive.
In that sense, the Stingray is worth celebrating. Whatever its faults, it remains a bold statement in a world where bold statements have become all too rare. True, an over-styled, absurdly phallic fiberglass rocket packed with pointless gimmicks and a psychotic amount of horsepower is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the 427 Stingray is as glorious a gloriously useless device as America has yet produced.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included “1968 Chevrolet Corvette 427 Coupe: Beautifully styled, lusty, exciting — Chevy’s Corvette coupe is the automobile world’s Barbarella,” Car and Driver Vol. 13, No. 11 (May 1968); Robert C. Ackerson, “King Kong Sting Ray: 1967 Corvette 427,” Special Interest Autos #50 (March-April 1979), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Corvettes: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 62-69; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); Dave Holls and Michael Lamm, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); J. William Lamm, “1968 Corvette: A Second Rabbit from the Same Hat,” Special Interest Autos #112 (July-August 1989), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Corvettes, pp. 72-80; Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: America’s Sports Car (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997), and American Muscle, Second Edition (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1993); Mike Mueller, Classic Corvette: The First Thirty Years (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 2002); and Richard Prince, “Voracious Vette,” Special Interest Autos #173 (September-October 1999), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Corvettes, pp. 86-94.