It's uncanny how often automotive history repeats itself, sometimes with ironic twists. The Chevrolet Corvette has had more than its share of both irony and déjà vu. Take the fifth generation 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. Like the new Corvette of 10 years before, it was greeted in many quarters as a step backward -- fatter and flashier than its well-loved predecessor, and thus something of a disappointment. It certainly was not the mighty leap forward 'Vette fans had been led to expect.

Then again, the 1963-67 Sting Ray was a very tough act to follow. The fourth generation had literally remade Corvette's image, so it was logical that the fifth would be expected to be another swoopy trendsetter. Perhaps a mid-engine car, thus confirming all those rumors that had circulated since 1958. Or maybe a rear-engine slingshot based on Corvair technology -- something like Bill Mitchell's exciting Monza GT and SS show cars of 1962-63. But even a big outfit like General Motors has its limits, and for a variety of reasons, none of this came to pass.

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The design of the fifth-generation 1968 Chevrolet Corvette lasted until 1982.
The "Shark" design of the fifth-generation 1968 Chevrolet
Corvette lasted until 1982. See more pictures of Chevy Corvettes.

What did was a Corvette given to more compromise than any previous one. In concept, the new "Shark" design was a very different sort of sports car: less dual-purpose race-and-ride machine than lush and powerful boulevard cruiser. This domestication gained momentum once the federal government got involved in car design and many would-be Corvette buyers went to Southeast Asia for military duty, though a good many other Detroit hot rods suffered the same fate.

But let's not be too hasty. Though initially flawed, the '68, like the '58 (and even the first Sting Ray), would improve and mature into a car precisely right for its time, which in the case of the fifth-generation 'Vette would last until 1982. And make no mistake: The times demanded changes -- especially in the fields of safety and fuel economy -- even if they weren't the sort Detroit was used to making.

Remember, too, that although the Corvette was highly profitable in the Sting Ray years, it remained a fringe product by the standards of Chevrolet Motor Division -- in some corporate minds, more a public relations gimmick than a serious business venture. That explains why the Shark was allowed to hang on year after year with only enough change to keep it saleable and/or legal. Yet even with most everything conspiring against it, the Corvette remained anything but dull.

Traditionally, Detroit begins working on new designs even before the old ones go on sale, and so it was with the '68 Corvette -- initiated almost from the moment the Sting Ray went into production. Over the ensuing five years it would be shaped by at least three market developments and a rivalry within GM itself, which in retrospect made the finished product more or less inevitable.

The Sting Ray's second year, 1964, was pivotal to fifth-generation development in that it ushered in two new kinds of American performance: the big-engine mid-size "muscle car" exemplified by Pontiac's GTO, and the winsome "ponycar" as pioneered and defined by Ford's Mustang. By 1967, the market was awash in muscle machines like the Olds 4-4-2, Dodge Charger, and Mercury Cyclone, as well as such Mustang clones as the Plymouth Barracuda and Mercury Cougar.

Chevrolet could be expected to play tough in these fields, and it did, offering hot ones like the intermediate Chevelle SS 396, turbocharged versions of the compact Corvair, and a bow-tie ponycar, the new Camaro. Even full-size Chevys of the day could be equipped for 0-60-mph times on a par with those of recent Corvettes. And they were also priced well below the Corvette.

Europe, meantime -- Italy in particular -- was starting to produce sports and GT cars a lot more sophisticated than the Corvette. Granted, they also cost a lot more, but the leading-edge mechanicals and exotic style of cars like the mid-engine Lamborghini Miura made the Corvette's traditional formula seem dated. GM may be a giant, but its pride is easily wounded. To design chief Bill Mitchell, 'Vette engineering guru Zora Arkus-Duntov, and the Chevrolet Engineering Center under Frank Winchell, the Miura and its ilk represented a challenge that could not go unanswered -- or at least not unexplored.

Which brings us to the intramural rivalry we mentioned -- actually a friendly competition among several GM departments, all envisioning a far more radical new Corvette than the one that would ultimately come to pass. Introduction was targeted for 1967, and there were at least two separate lines of development. Significantly, both of these assumed the mid/rear-engine format that had fascinated Corvette planners since before the stillborn Corvair-based proposals of the early Sixties.

Ultimately however, these and other efforts were just so much wishful thinking and for one rather obvious reason. A rear- or mid-engine Corvette demanded mechanical components that just didn't exist at GM, and the design and tooling expense to create them for a low-volume model would have sent 'Vette prices out of sight.

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