1968-1972 Chevrolet Corvette

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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GM design chief Bill Mitchell and company had just the thing to make their baby, the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette, considerably more exotic at the relatively low price of a new fiberglass body. It was the Mako Shark II, one of the most famous show cars of all time.

The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette's contours were softer than those of its inspiration, the Mako Shark II show car.
The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette's contours were
softer than those of its inspiration, the Mako
Shark II show car.

The Motoramas were a thing of the past by the mid-Sixties, but GM was still gauging public reaction to its near-term models by displaying them as slightly exaggerated "concept cars." The Mako II was quickly recognized for what it was: a trial balloon for the next-generation Corvette. As if to support that view, the original nonrunning Mako II mock-up was retired during 1965 and replaced on the show circuit by a fully operational version. Completed in October of that year, this second Mako II was less radical than the first and thus -- tantalizingly -- more producible. The ever-busy Corvette rumor mill went into overdrive.

Executed under Mitchell's direction by young Larry Shinoda, the Mako II had been initiated in early 1964, more than a year before the first show model appeared. Although adaptable to either front- or rear-engine positioning, its basic design became the take-off point for a new front-engine "theme car" as an alternative to the more radical mid-engine shapes that had been proposed. Once the midships format was abandoned for good, the Shinoda/Mitchell car was sent to Chevrolet Styling under David Holls, where Henry Haga's studio adapted it for production on the existing Sting Ray chassis.

The result was much like the Mako II from the beltline down except for softer, less extreme contours. The one major change on the way to production involved the show car's "boattail" roof. Although retained for the first production prototype, this quickly gave way to a tunneled treatment adapted from the design a Duntov-led group had worked up when the mid-engine concept was still alive.

Chevy may simply have been seeking a different look or perhaps better rearward vision than in the Sting Ray fast-back. In any case, it was intended from the beginning that the vertical back-light -- as well as that portion of the roof above the seats -- be removable. Though the traditional Corvette convertible would continue. Chevy felt this new coupe configuration -- really a semiconvertible -- would appeal just as much to the open-air crowd while offering the better weather protection and structural rigidity associated with closed bodies. Porsche's 911/912 Targa convertible reflected similar thinking.

Unfortunately for Holls, Haga, and Duntov, the Mako II's basic shape proved problematic, and the production styling job didn't go as smoothly or as quickly as expected. For one thing, the new design turned out to have excessive front-end lift at high speed, which seriously compromised stability. A rear spoiler was added to help keep the tail down, but this only lifted the nose more.

Duntov had experienced something similar with the Sting Ray, and he was determined to lick the problem before production started. Additional wind tunnel work produced functional front-fender louvers that relieved pressure buildup within the engine compartment at speed, and also yielded a small "chin" spoiler below the grille to direct air around the car instead of beneath it.

The Targa-style roof also proved thorny. Its removable section had been conceived as a single piece of fiberglass, but production engineers found that the resulting body/frame combination wasn't stiff enough in torsion to prevent creaks and groans. Accordingly, they added a longitudinal support bar between the windshield header and the roof's fixed rear "hoop" section, thus creating the first T-roof. This solution came so late that it didn't appear in some early publicity photos of the new coupe. The Sting Ray name did appear on those pictures, though not on the car itself, another last-minute change.

The most serious deficit of the Mako-inspired styling was poor engine cooling, especially with the big-block mills carried over from the Sting Ray. With the new design's narrow engine bay and shallow grille, radiator air flow was found to be marginal in hot weather, especially with the air conditioning on. That didn't bode well for the annual long-lead press meeting in July 1967, so Duntov hastily cut two oblong slots into the body just above the front spoiler and made the spoiler deeper so as to force cooling air through them. That did the trick: The prototype, with its Mark IV 427-cid engine, kept its cool on the 85-degree press day, so the slots were ordered for production and the grille was blanked off, since it contributed little or nothing. Still, cooling problems would dog the fifth generation right to the end.

One Mako II feature that survived to production virtually intact was a vacuum operated flip-up panel concealing the windshield wipers. It was a great idea for a show car, flashy and futuristic, but something less than wonderful for a real-world car that had to contend with ice and snow. A good deal of development time was spent making it work, but the final product was none too reliable.

­Hidden headlamps were continued but were now simple flip-up jobs rather than the Sting Ray's rotating assemblies; they also operated via engine vacuum, versus the previous electric motors. An external trunklid was still conspicuously absent from both body styles, but the convertible retained Corvette's traditional rear-hinged top cover, and an accessory hardtop was designed to match the new Shark styling.

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The fifth-generation 1968 Chevrolet Corvette had its fair share of development bugs (like any new car), which explains why the new Corvette's introduction was postponed from 1967 to 1968. It was probably just as well. Although the government's first safety and emissions standards took effect nationwide with the '68 model year, Chevy would doubtless have seen to it that the engineering of an all-new '67 reflected the new standards.

As it was, the delay took some of the pressure off of "federalizing" the new design, to the undoubted relief of harried engineers who had to worry about government scrutiny of the five other model lines in the Chevy fleet.

Critics of the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette called its styling excessive.
Critics of the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette called its
styling excessive -- along the lines of
an "Image and Gadget Car."

The new-design 'Vette garnered decidedly mixed reviews. To many, its styling was wretchedly excessive. "We wish we could express more enthusiasm for the new model," Road & Track confessed, "but we feel that the general direction of the changes is away from Sports Car and toward Image and Gadget Car. And since the Corvette is America's only sports car, this direction is a disappointment to us." In particular, the magazine decried the new model's seven-inch gain in overall length (to 182.1 inches). There was less luggage space, too, and weight was up by some 150 pounds.

R&T went on to praise driving position and major control relationships, but deplored the difficulty of getting in and out and griped about the secondary gauges being in the center of the dash, away from the driver's direct line of sight. The editors also groused about inadequate interior ventilation despite the arrival of Chevy's new flow-through "Astro Ventilation" system with dash-mounted vents, exterior air extractors on the rear deck -- and no door ventwings.

As with the first Sting Ray, '68 powerteams were essentially those of the previous year, beginning with the standard 327-cid small-block V-8 hooked to a three-speed manual transmission. Equipped with a single four-barrel Rochester carburetor, it was good for 300 bhp at 5000 rpm. Options included a 350-bhp 327 that required a four-speed transmission, and 427-cid mills that generated 390, 400, and 435 horses, the latter two with triple Holley two-barrel carbs. The 435-bhp engine peaked at 5800 rpm and made 460 pound/feet of torque at 4000 revs. Fitted with a special cam, solid lifters, and an 11.0:1 compression ratio, it was available only with the close-ratio four-speed. (A rare aluminum-head L88 427 rated at 430 horses was still available, too.)

All other engines could also be had with a wider-ratio four-on-the-floor, and all but the 350- and 435-bhp engines A ere available with an automatic transmission. However, the autobox was now GM's fine new three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic rather than the old two-speed Powerglide.

The carryover Sting Ray platform meant the 'Vette retained a 98-inch wheelbase, five-member ladder frame, and fully independent rear suspension projecting from the frame-anchored differential. But that's not to say Corvette mechanicals were totally ignored for '68. Drum brakes were consigned to history as the previous all-disc option became standard equipment. Also, Duntov was able to order a change to higher spring rates to reduce fore/aft pitching, especially under hard acceleration. This also served to lower the rear roll center and was nicely complemented by newly standard seven-inch-wide wheels wearing low-profile F70X15 tires.

­With these modifications and the resulting wider track dimensions (now 58.7/59.4 inches front/rear) the '68 clawed the road even better than the Sting Ray The penalty was a perceptibly harsher ride.

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The 1968 Chevrolet Corvette's straightline performance earned plenty of kudos from "buff book" scribes. Some thought the big 435-horsepower 427 too brutish, but both small-blocks remained impressive. Ditto the Muncie four-speed manual transmission and the new Turbo Hydra-Matic.

As for handling, the press seemed to like the skidpad and slalom numbers they got, but not the way the car felt generating them. Several complaints were made about the harder ride, and nobody much liked the power steering and brakes. Road & Track labeled them imprecise and suggested that potential customers skip them entirely.­

Although the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette was criticized for poor workmanship, its performance was considered brilliant.
Although the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette was criticized
for poor workmanship, its performance
was considered brilliant.

But those comments were downright benign next to Steve Smith's attack in Car and Driver, which slammed everything from the ashtray to the new windshield wipers. Smith's biggest complaint was fit-and-finish -- or rather the lack of it. He raked misaligned body panels, a chronic water leak from the T-top, and a door lock so stiff it bent the key. For Smith, it all added up to "a shocking lack of quality control" in a car "unfit to road test."

Unhappily, such problems weren't confined to C/D's example. Today the '68 is generally regarded as the low point for Corvette workmanship, with bad paint, knobs that fell off, cooling bothers, and other problems. On the other hand, the Corvette had undeniably become more complicated than the pre-Sting Ray models of just six years before.

For example, power steering, power brakes, and air conditioning weren't available in '62 but were by '68. In addition, there were items like the electric rear-window defroster, speed warning indicator, AM/FM stereo radio, and futuristic fiber-optic light monitoring system, not to mention the disappearing headlights and that gimmicky, "peak-a-boo" wiper panel. With more gadgets, more was likely to go wrong.

But when everything was working right, a '68 Corvette was mighty satisfying. It had plenty of power (even in small-block form); its all-independent suspension, if not exactly state-of-the-art, was certainly more than adequate; and cooling woes aside, the problems noted in early road tests had nothing to do with basic design or mechanicals. The gadget glitches were irritating, but not major flaws in the overall package.

And, of course, they hardly affected performance, which remained brilliant. Testing a 350-bhp 327 roadster with a 3.70:1 final drive, R&T's Ron Wakefield reported a top speed of 128 mph, a standing quarter-mile of 15.6 seconds at 92 mph, and 0-60-mph acceleration of 7.7 seconds. Mileage was pegged at 11-15 mpg for a cruising range of only 220-300 miles from the 20-gallon tank.

Big-block cars were even thirstier -- but faster, of course. In a follow-up to its first test, C/D ran a 400-bhp 427 coupe with the same four-speed and axle ratio as in R&T's test car to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and posted a 14.1-second quarter-mile at a flashing 102 mph. (Incidentally, that car must have been screwed together a lot better than the one Smith drove, for construction quality was judged mostly "good" and "very good.")

To a great degree, the mixed press reviews reflected the compromise nature of the car itself. They certainly weren't as laudatory as those given the Sting Ray, and Chevy was particularly stung by C/D's initial pasting.

Yet for all the problems and press carping, more people than ever looked to the 'Vette. Model-year sales set a new record at 28,566 units, some 5000 up on the final Sting Ray, though only fractionally ahead of 1966, the previous all-time best year. (The people spoke in other ways, too. The new Corvette was chosen best all-around car in a magazine's annual reader's poll. The publication? Car and Driver.) Convertible production came to 18,630 units and marked the last time the 'Vette ragtop would outsell the closed model.

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As 1968 was the Year of the Big Switch, 1969 was the Year of Little Fixes, with 1969 Chevrolet Corvette engineering guru Zora Arkus-Duntov and company making as many detail changes as they could to remedy problems noted by owners and the press.

They began with the cockpit. Steering-wheel diameter was trimmed an inch for more under-rim thigh clearance, and Duntov pushed through a $120,000 tooling change for the inner door panels to open up a half-inch per side in extra shoulder width. Thanks in part to Ralph Nader's safety lobbying, interior door handles were revamped to be less lethal; control knobs were rubberized for the same reason. The previous dash-mounted ignition switch moved to the steering column, where it combined with the newly mandated column lock for additional security. A warning light was added to advise the driver that the popup headlights hadn't popped up completely.

The 1969 Chevrolet Corvette featured modifications designed to correct problems noted in earlier models.
The "improved" 1969 Chevrolet Corvette was
modified to correct problems noted in
earlier models.

Attempts were also made to increase Astro Ventilation flow volume, but Road & Track judged the '69 no better in this regard than the '68. Finally a flexible three-section map pocket was slapped onto the dash ahead of the passenger -- a poor substitute for a glovebox but more convenient than the pair of covered stowage wells behind the seats (where a third well held the battery).

Exterior alterations were minimal -- not that any were really expected in the second year of this way-out new design. The most obvious was the return of the Stingray designation -- albeit as one word -- in script over the front-fender louvers. A new headlight washer system was added, and the already overengineered wiper arrangement became even more complex. Not only were the washer jets put on the wiper arms, but an override switch was added so that the vacuum-operated panel could be left up in freezing weather and the wipers stopped for blade-changing. At the rear, the previously separate backup lights were incorporated into the inboard taillamps.

Engine alterations were more telling, seeing as how carmakers were in the second year of federally mandated, and still relatively straightforward, emission controls. The famed Chevy small-block was stroked about a quarter-inch to 3.48 inches, which boosted displacement from 327 to 350 cubic inches on the same 4.00-inch bore. Despite the expansion, horsepower ratings remained at 300- and 350-bhp. Significantly, peak power engine speed was lower by 200 rpm, to 4800 and 5600 rpm, respectively.

The all-cast-iron big-block 427 trio returned unchanged, as did the L88, which garnered just 116 orders. A pair of 'Vettes were built with aluminum-block 427s. These ZL1 engines shared the L88's advertised horsepower rating and 12.5:1 compression ratio, but weighed in 100 pounds lighter. (Over-the-parts-counter racing versions of the power plant were good for 585 bhp.) Both factory-installed ZL1 cars exist in the hands of collectors.

Transmission offerings stood pat, but Chevy did extend turbo Hydra-Matic availability right on up through the L88. Axle ratios ranged from a super-low 4.56:1 to a long-striding 2.73:1.

The frame was stiffened to reduce body shake, and standard wheel rim width went up another inch -- to eight -- for improved handling.

Although Chevrolet was supposedly tightening up Corvette quality control, the '69s showed only partial success. Road & Track, reporting on a 435-bhp big-block car, remarked that fit-and-finish was actually worse than on its '68 test vehicle. Again, the complaints involved mostly minor maladies like squeaks and rattles rather than major ills, but R&T staffers evidently expected more from Chevy's costliest car.

Appearing in R&T's June 1969 issue was an interesting GT comparison test pitting a base 350 'Vette with an automatic against a self-shift Mercedes-Benz 280SL, a manual Jaguar E-Type, and a Porsche 911T. To Chevy's likely consternation, none of the four testers chose the 'Vette as his personal favorite. Although the Corvette was the least expensive of the cars as tested, the clear implication was that it no longer led the sporting-car parade in performance-per-dollar. The magazine attempted to sum up the style and character of each car, and its description of the 'Vette was telling:

"The word that comes to mind is 'Plastic.' The image, like the styling, is flashy, with lots of deliberately eye-catching angles and gimmicks that aren't strictly necessary. Lacks finesse; like using a five-pound axe when a rapier, properly designed, could do as well. And with more grace. The personality we associate with the Stingray is the Animal, one who prefers to attain the goal with brute strength and bared chest rather than art and fast footwork."

Despite mixed reviews, sports-car buyers snatched up the 1969 Chevrolet Corvette.
Despite mixed reviews, sports-car buyers snatched
up the 1969 Chevrolet Corvette.

Car and Driver had its own explanation for that conclusion. "It being a mass-class sports car, the Corvette's excellent engineering tends to be obscured by some rather garish styling gimmicks... This confusing identity is the result of a confrontation on the part of Chevy engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov... and the Chevrolet styling department... Duntov on the one hand [views] his automobile as a purposeful well-balanced sports car, while his rivals see it as a Mash Gordon Thunderbird for the Hugh Hefner school of mass-cult glamour."

Nevertheless, Corvette sales took a vertical leap for '69, rising by over 10,000 units to 38,762 -- a record that wouldn't be broken until 1976. Evidently, at least a few sports-car buyers disagreed with the press pundits and their conclusions about the 'Vette's true value.

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Chevrolet issued another evolutionary Stingray for 1970. A United Automobile Workers strike forced a two-month extension of '69 production, which gave Chevy the time it needed to make the 1970 Chevrolet Corvette a better-built car, and was doubtless a factor in 1969's record volume. But the strike also delayed the '70s from reaching dealer showrooms until February, which pushed Corvette output to its lowest model year total since 1962 -- just 17,316 units.

Cosmetic changes were slight. The extreme bodyside tuck-under was found to be susceptible to stone damage, so Chevy flared the aft portions of each wheel opening, which helped somewhat. The grille went from horizontal bars to a fine eggcrate pattern. (The real radiator air intakes, Duntov's original slots, remained on the car's underside.) The eggcrate look also appeared on the front fenders in place of the previous four "gills." Front parking lamps switched from small, round units to rectangular fixtures with clear lenses and amber bulbs. The dual exhaust outlets also shifted from round to rectangular.

The 1970 Chevrolet Corvette was the last of the big-power Corvette models.
The 1970 Chevrolet Corvette was the last of the
big-power Corvette models.

Inside, seats were reshaped for better lateral support, more headroom, and easier access to the trunk. Shoulder belts, still separate from the lap belts, got inertia storage reels, thus ending some cockpit clutter. A Deluxe Interior package was added to the options list, comprising leather seats, full cut-pile carpeting, and ersatz wood trim on console and doors. Some people liked it, but purists sneered that the fake wood made the Corvette seem too much like the new Monte Carlo personal luxury hardtop coupe.

Engines were again the main Corvette news for 1970. The 300- and 350-bhp small-blocks returned unchanged, but they had a new companion, the solid-lifter LT1. Although listed for '69, the $447.60 option wasn't available until 1970, owing to development and manufacturing problems. It was right in line with Duntov's longtime goal of minimizing weight in a performance car growing ever heavier with more creature comforts. Unlike tamer 350-cube engines, the LT1 had more radical cam timing with more generous valve overlap, used the big-block mill's fat 2.5-inch-diameter exhaust system, breathed through the same 850-cfm Holley carb fitted to the L88/ZL1, and came with transistorized ignition.

When originally announced, the LT1 was listed at a sedate 330 bhp at 6000 rpm and torque at 380 pound/feet at 4000 rpm. But when 1970 Corvette catalogs reached print, it was rated at 370 bhp. The typical example could streak through the standing quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at 102 mph, comparable to big-block performance of just a few years before. Visual identification was subtle -- just a special domed hood with perimeter striping and discreet "LT1" lettering -- but there was no mistaking the rap-rap exhaust or the distinct tapping of mechanical lifters.

Meanwhile, big-block buyers got a 427 stroked out to a full 4.00 inches and 454 cid. Two versions were listed, one real, the other not. The former -- RPO LS5 -- offered hydraulic lifters, 10.25:1 compression, a single four-barrel carb, a fairly modest 390 bhp at 4800 rpm, and a massive 500 pound/feet of torque. Listed but never installed in production 'Vettes was RPO LS7, with an aluminum block and heads, mechanical lifters, 11.25:1 compression, higher-lift cam, and transistorized ignition. Depending on your source, output was either 460 or 465 bhp.

Like the previous year's enlarged small-block, the bigger big-block for 1970 was a response to the increasing stranglehold of emissions tuning. Also like the 350, the 454 produced less power per cubic inch than its predecessor, but a lower peak power speed made it some-what torquier and thus more flexible at low rpm.

The only test report of an LS7 'Vette seems to be that of Paul Van Valkenburgh, who drove the first one built from Los Angeles to Detroit in December 1969 for Sports Car Graphic. Reporting a standing quarter-mile of 13.8 seconds at 108 mph, he enthused that 'this car gives the impression that it could do anything you demanded... Never have we tested a car with such a secure speed potential." It was hardly refined -- "like taxiing a DC3 at full throttle up and down a freshly plowed runway." Maybe it was just as well that Chevy didn't run off many copies, because the LS5 version was smoother, vet almost as thrilling. Road & Track tried one with the automatic and obtained 7.0 seconds for the 0-60-mph run, a 15.0-second quarter at 93 mph, and a top speed of 144 mph.

The three-speed manual transmission was no longer offered on Corvettes. Turbo Hydra-Matic usage was scaled back a bit, too; 350-horse and LT1 small-blocks could be had only with either of the two four-speed stickshifts. Posi-traction and tinted glass became standard equipment.

As it turned out, 1970 would be the beginning of the end for big-inch, big-power Corvettes in the traditional mold. Besides skyrocketing insurance premiums and fast-falling demand for hot cars generally, they were doomed by GM president Ed Cole's desire to eliminate low-volume options and to retune all his company's engines for 91-octane fuel, correctly anticipating the catalytic converter that he knew would be needed to meet ever-tightening emissions limits. Cole also ordered that beginning in 1971, all GM divisions would quote engine outputs in SAE net measure rather than the usual gross figures, which did not reflect power losses to engine accessories, mufflers, and other components.

The results were steadily decreasing compression and lower outputs for engines with more realistic power ratings that only made them seem punier still.

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Engine emasculation was evident in the 1971 Chevrolet Corvette: 1971's base small-block (RPO L48) ran on mild 8.5:1 compression and was down to 270 bhp at 4800 rpm; the LT1 sighed to 9.0:1 and 330 bhp. (The 350-bhp L46 engine was dropped for '71.) These respective compression numbers also applied to a brace of 454s. The LS5 came in with 365 bhp at 4800 rpm, and a new aluminum-head big-block called LS6 boasted 425 bhp at 5600 rpm.

Clearly, '71 Corvette engines weren't weak. If they seemed so at the time, it was only in relation to the prodigious power outputs of their immediate ancestors.

Although the 1971 Chevrolet Corvette suffered a drop in horseower, it was still speedy.
Although the 1971 Chevrolet Corvette suffered
a drop in horsepower, it was still speedy.

Regardless of engine, the Corvette was still a speedway star. Car and Driver tried out all four 'Vette mills and turned in 0-60 times ranging from 7.1 seconds for the base 350-cid engine to 5.3 ticks with the LS6 big-block. The LT1 came through the quarter-mile traps in 14.57 seconds at 100.6 mph; the LS6 made the same run in just 13.80 at 104.7.

A ZR1 option, significant for its engineering, if not its production, was made available exclusively with the solid-lifter small-block. It was another racing package, of course, comprising the LT1 engine, heavy-duty four-speed transmission, power brakes, aluminum radiator, and a revised suspension with special springs, shocks, stabilizer bar, and spindle/strut shafts, all for $1,010.

Since it was competition equipment, the ZR1 could not be ordered with power windows, power steering, air conditioning, rear-window defogger, wheel covers, or radio -- which helps explain why this "regular" production option saw only eight installations for '71. A similar ZR2 package was listed for the big LS6. It was costlier ($1747) and just slightly more popular, with an even dozen sales.

Otherwise, Corvette again marked time for '71. Styling and equipment changes were virtually nil for at least three reasons: The 1970 run had started late; engineers were scurrying to meet emissions limits and upcoming safety regs; and the car still looked fine the way it was. With supplies healthy again after the UAW strike, sales made a satisfying recovery for model year '71, moving up to 21,801 units.

New for the 1972 Chevrolet Corvette was a standard anti-theft alarm system.
New for the 1972 Chevrolet Corvette was a
standard anti-theft alarm system.

Yet another stand-pat year was 1972, except that performance was further deemphasized as engines bore the full brunt of emissions tuning. And there were fewer engines with cancellation of the LS6. The LT1 eased from 275 to 255 bhp net in this, its final year. At least it could finally be ordered with air conditioning. The base engine was scaled back 10 net ponies to 200 and the LS5 454 shed 15 horses to 270 net.

Some detail refinements made for the 1972 Chevrolet Corvette were quite welcome. For example, the useful but distracting fiber-optic light monitors were deleted, thus cleaning up the center console considerably and a previously optional anti-theft alarm system was made standard in belated recognition of the 'Vette's high desirability among car thieves. Sales continued crawling back toward the '69 record, tacking on just over 5200 units for a model year total of 27,004.

By 1972, the fifth-generation Corvette had been through a lot, it's true, but there was a lot more to come. Soon, 'Vettes would begin to look and act differently, what with bumper safety requirements costing the car its front brightware in '73 and rear nerfs the following year, and tamer engines being driven almost exclusively through automatic transmissions.

But at the same time, sales rose dramatically, cracking through the 50,000 barrier in 1979. When production ceased in 1982, well over a half-million of the Mako-inspired Corvettes were roaming the streets. The press may have had its reservations, but enthusiast car-buyers surely didn't find the Shark repellent.

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Chevrolet had set the Corvette bar high with the widely acclaimed Sting Rays of 1963-1967; as a result, the next generation had big expectations to meet. Find prices and production for the 1968-1972 Corvettes in the following chart.

The scaled-back engine of the 1972 Chevrolet Corvette was a disappointment for power-seekers.
The scaled-back engine of the 1972 Chevrolet
Corvette disappointed power-seekers.

1968-1972 Chevrolet Corvette Prices and Production:

1968 Corvette (wb 98)
convertible roadster
Total 1968 Corvette

1969 Corvette Stingray (wb 98)
convertible roadster
Total 1969 Corvette

1970 Corvette Stingray (wb 98)
convertible roadster
Total 1970 Corvette

1971 Corvette Stingray (wb 98)
convertible roadster
Total 1971 Corvette

1972 Corvette Stingray (wb 98)
convertible roadster
Total 1972 Corvette


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