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1968-1972 Chevrolet Corvette

1969 Chevrolet Corvette

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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