The C3 Corvette, the third generation of the iconic American sports car, arrived in showrooms in 1968. Over its 15-year lifecycle, this car was a reflection of the changing times, mirroring the ups and downs of the American economic landscape.
Prior to its release, excitement for a new Corvette model was at an all-time high. The previous generation of Corvettes, the C2 Stingray, was beloved for its stylish appearance and incredible performance.
The new ‘Vette needed to live up to its predecessor’s legacy and sate the increasing appetite for American muscle cars. Read on to learn all about C3 history.
In This Article
Zora Arkus-Duntov and Billy Mitchell, the engineers behind the C2 Chevrolet Corvette, joined Chevy’s engineering head Frank Winchell in developing the C3’s original design.
Their vision for the Corvette saw a radical departure from previous model years. They were inspired by rear-engine cars like the Porsche 911 and Chevy Corvair and wanted to take the new Corvette in that direction.
However, logistical difficulties surrounding the development of a rear-engine Corvette proved too difficult to overcome. A mix of budgetary constraints and the lack of parts supporting a rear-engine design meant the C3 Corvette would need to be a front-engine car.
While the C2 Corvette was known as the king of straight-ahead speed, the new model of Corvette needed more than just acceleration to compete in the increasingly-popular sports car market. The new era of American muscle cars could keep up with the Corvette when it came to raw speed and cost much less.
This led to Mitchell hiring Larry Shinoda, an upcoming designer. Together, they developed the Mako Shark II concept in 1965, which would become the blueprint for the C3 Corvette.
It featured a pointed front bumper, an aggressively-straked roofline, and a flat rear bumper. These features would earn the C3 Corvette the nickname “The Shark.”
The team hoped its radical styling would echo the likes of European sports cars and differentiate the Corvette from other muscle cars of the time.
Marrying the aggressive design cues of the Mako II with the aesthetic of the previous line of Corvette, the C3 finally arrived with the 1968 model year.
It featured a lightweight fiberglass body and was available as both a coupe and convertible. The convertible featured a soft-top or a removable hard-top. The coupe came with T-tops and a removable rear window.
The C3 Corvette boasted a number of engine options. Up to six choices were on offer, including two 327-cubic-inch small blocks and four 427-cubic-inch big blocks.
The original C3 specs were quite impressive. The standard small-block engine made 300 horsepower and while the big-blocks posted an impressive 430 horsepower rating.
Five different transmission options put that power on the road. These included Chevy’s new three-speed automatic and three- and four-speed manuals.
Unfortunately, a few issues plagued the launch of the C3. Its slim mid-section wasn’t ideal for heat dispersal and led to heat-soaking of the engine. Its pointed front end also impeded the function of its radiator.
The car was also criticized by some for its radical styling and its poor build quality compared to other cars at the time.
On the other hand, enthusiasts loved the C3’s performance capabilities. The big-block engines were virtually unmatched in straight-ahead speed, and the small-block models were nearly track-ready from the factory.
Once the 1970s rolled around, changes were on the horizon. Chevy attempted to fix some of the build quality issues, expanded the cockpit, and added features like wood grain and carpeting.
1970 also saw the release of the LT-1 engine. This engine allowed the Corvette to compete in the Sports Car Club of America’s Class-B production series.
While these were exciting times for Corvette enthusiasts, emissions laws put a damper on C3’s performance aspirations. Horsepower was reduced on most engine offerings in 1971.
That same year also saw the debut of the LS6, which offered 425 horsepower, and two racing packages. The ZR1 package came mated to the LT-1, and the ZR2 featured the LS6. These packages featured upgraded suspension components and a racing-inspired four-speed manual transmission.
In 1972, emissions regulations further dropped the C3’s horsepower numbers. The base engine now only made 200 horsepower, and the LS6, along with the ZR2 package, was discontinued.
An Anniversary Refresh
1973 marked the 20th anniversary of the Corvette sports car, and changes were in store.
It now featured a polyurethane front bumper, which improved its crash ratings, and an upgraded single-vent fender design helped improve airflow.
During this time, the C3 lost what was once considered its most unique feature. Up until this time, C3 Corvettes featured a vacuum-powered wiper door, but this was done away with.
By 1974, the oil embargo was in full effect, and the car saw even more horsepower reduction. Small block engines were down to just 190 horsepower, and their larger counterparts were only producing around 270.
This year also saw the adoption of a new rear fender design. It now featured downward-pointing rear bumpers, a departure from the sharp design of previous years.
Despite the tumultuous economic landscape, Chevy continued to improve the C3 wherever they could. Improved door construction and the standardization of seat belts kept the car in compliance with increasing safety regulations.
Noise dampeners appeared in the cabin, which dramatically reduced road noise and made the driving experience more pleasurable. The power steering also made driving easier.
The Chevrolet Corvette was now a full-fledged grand tourer, and the market responded in kind. Sales of the C3 were booming.
1975 to 1977 were pivotal years for the C3. This time period featured major landmarks in Chevrolet Corvette production.
The first was Duntov’s retirement. The ‘Vette would now be managed by Dave McLellan. McLellan’s leadership saw the Corvette through its biggest transition phase yet.
In 1975, catalytic converters made their way to the C3. This spelled the end of the old big-block C3s.
Other important changes from this time included the addition of a steel floor to further enhance the car’s heat dispersing capabilities and a farewell to the convertible option.
Chevy also upgraded the ignition system, added in-dash warning lights, and improved the emissions monitoring system.
To improve safety, Chevrolet made more changes to the design of the car’s bumpers, adding pads to further improve safety in the event of a crash.
During this time, the C3 only came with two engine options. The ZQ3 made 165 horsepower, and the L82 made 205 horsepower.
Finally, in 1977, the Chevy dropped the Stingray badging. The Corvette logo featuring two flags replaced it.
Return to Form
The C3 Corvette closed out the 70s with aplomb. With the oil crisis in the rearview mirror, sales were increasing.
1978 was the 25th anniversary of the Corvette. Chevy celebrated by releasing a special-edition model with a silver paint job. Another special edition debuted as the pace car for the ’78 Indy500.
Corvettes of this time period also adopted a fastback design and creature comforts like air conditioning, power windows, and AM/FM radios.
The engines still lagged behind the C3’s initial offerings, with an L48 making around 190 horsepower and an L82 making around 220.
These changes were well-received by the public. The 1979 Corvette went on to become the best-selling Corvette at the time.
End of the Line
The arrival of the 1980s meant that the end of the C3’s lifecycle was near. Its pointed design was smoothed out, leading to softer lines and a slightly less aggressive appearance.
This time period saw C3s getting even lighter than their previous iterations. They now made extensive use of aluminum components to help reduce weight and improve performance.
Engine options varied during the early 80s. 1980 C3s came with two engines, an L48 making 190 horsepower and an L82 making 230. California air pollution laws placed additional limitations on these Corvettes, limiting them to just 180 horsepower.
’81 C3s only came with one engine option: the L81 and its 190 horsepower. It featured steel exhaust manifolds and an upgraded computer system to improve its emissions. This model year was also the last of the C3 Vettes to come with a manual transmission.
1982 was the final model year for the C3 Corvette. It came with what would serve as the basis for the C4 Corvette’s power plant. This 350 cubic-inch engine made 200 horsepower and featured Cross Fire fuel injection technology. This form of fuel injection was short-lived, and it failed to live up to the lofty standards set by GM.
Chevrolet bid goodbye to the C3 with a special Collector’s Edition. It featured unique emblems, a silver paint job, and leather upholstery.
C3 Exhaust Systems on the Corvette
From 1968 through 1974 Corvette small block engines all had 2-inch manifolds. Engines with the higher horsepower continued to have 2.5-inch pipes and had a smaller 2-inch connection to the manifold.
The Big block engines continued to have 2.5-inch pipes with the exception of 1969, which used 2.0-inch pipes. 1968 exhaust systems can be substituted if 2.5-inch pipes are desired. The optional N11 off-road mufflers were still available on the 1968 Vette.
For an extra $147.45 you could order the N14 side exhaust. This was offered only in 1969 from the factory and had 2” inlet pipes with diecast chrome-plated aluminum covers.
By 1975 the Corvette had Y pipes. The Y pipes were from 1975 through 1982 and routed the exhaust through a single catalytic converter, before splitting to separate mufflers.
The C3 Corvette: An Enduring Icon
The C3 Corvette started with a unique vision, but its 15-year lifecycle was marred by environmental restrictions and oil shortages.
Despite this, the C3 carried the torch admirably. No matter what limitations it had to contend with, it always manage to post respectable performance numbers for its time. In its day, it was one of the most sought-after sports cars.
The 1969 L89 C3 Corvette Sting Ray made Vete Vues Top Ten Most Desirable PERFORMANCE Corvettes. Check out our article.
You can read more about Corvette’s History by generation. Check out these Corvette overviews:
- Chevrolet Corvette C1 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C2 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C3 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C4 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C5 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C6 Overview
- Chevrolet Corvette C7 Overview