Feb 07

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The Corvette Shark of 1968

This article was originally printed in the May 1980 issue of Cars & Parts

by Robert C. Ackerson

The shark-influenced design of the restyled 1968 Corvette set the basic body style for the two-place sports car that would transcend 13 model years.

The Experimental Mako Shark II

Top, rear view of the Mako Shark II Top, front view of the Mako Shark II
The experimental Mako Shark II provided the basic styling concept embodied in the ’68 design, even though the idea car was obviously more accentuated in sweep and flair. The 1968 production model, although significantly tamer than Mako Shark II, was considered by many a radical design for the late sixties.

When the 1968 Corvette debuted with its Mako-Shark II inspired appearance, it represented the fourth major body change for the Corvette in its 15-year history. Today, some 13 model years later, the body/chassis combination of 1968 still remains in production; the reigning champion of longevity among General Motors’ current crop of automobiles.

Whether this is a distinction to be proud of or a matter needing immediate redress depends upon one’s view of the Corvette. I t can, for example, be argued that the original form of the Stingray was advanced to begin with; thus the passage of a dozen or so years has, rather than making it obsolete, simply rendered it contemporary. Yet there’s no denying the Stingray is long overdue for a change. Thirteen years of production is a long time for any automobile design and during an age when the technological priorities of the automotive industry have been totally revamped as a result of governmental controls, consumer expectations and changes in the price and availability of fuel, it seems even more drawn out.

As everyone knows, Chevrolet has had replacements for the post-’68 Corvette ready for years but due primarily to uncertainties about the future course of government regulations and the enduring popularity of the Corvette as it is, the conditions just haven’t been right for their introduction. It just doesn’t make sense for a company like GM to tool up for a low volume automobile that could become a supersized headache if new and unforseen government mandates crop up.

There is the temptation to compare General Motors’ experience with the Corvette with that of BL and the MGB. Both cars date back to the mid-sixties and both cars in spite of their age have remained extremely popular among American sports car enthusiasts. But beyond that point the two cars have little in common. The changes made in the MGB during the ’70s have for the most part been detrimental, depriving it of its sporting nature for the sake of sales at any price.

The contemporary Corvette admittedly is in some respects also a mere shadow of its former self. The great LT-1 and L-88 Stingray have long since departed from the scene, for example. Yet the Corvette has been honed, refined and in many ways redeveloped to move a lot closer to the lightweight sports car originally envisioned by Zora Arkus Duntov. This is not to say, however, that all is well with the Corvette. Such thoughts, however, are best postponed for now. Instead, let’s take a look at the new 1968 Corvette.

Chevrolet had originally intended to introduce the Corvette with Mako-Shark II styling for the 1967 model run. This plan was shelved for several reasons, the most pressing being that several key areas including driver visibility suffered due to the somewhat extreme body form. A year spent toning down the new body’s fender, hood and rear deck lines was time well

When the 1968 Corvette appeared, there were some critics who faulted it on the grounds that it was too extreme but by and large its new look was greeted with enthusiasm. In terms of space utilization, the Corvette was grossly inefficient but when judged on the standards then acceptable for sports cars the Corvette scored high; still retaining the magic look of its predecessor while at the same time incorporating such features as a Kamm duck tail and flying buttress roof line into its overall styling theme. Both of these features had been used very effectively by Ferrari in the GTO model and certainly the new Corvette did not suffer by the comparison.

While its appearance suggested that the 1968 Corvette was superior in terms aerodynamics over the earlier model, there was actually little difference between the two cars in this regard. However, the new Corvette’s front spoiler was significant factor in reducing front end lift at high speeds.

Changes in the Corvette’s excellent independent four-wheel suspension system were limited to minor camber revisions at the rear and a slight change in the front spring rates. The result was an automobile that garnished high points for its cornering ability, high-speed stability and near perfect neutral steering. Supporting these strengths was a bevy of engines ranging from the standard 300-hp/327-cid V-8 up to the triple carburetor 435-hp/427-cid V-8. Outside the normal realm of Corvette reality lurked the L-88 engine first available in early 1967. The L-88 was a performance brute of the highest order.

Corvette News (Volume 10, Number 3) prefaced its introductory article on the L88 with the admonishment “proceed with caution,” and Karl Ludvigsen was later to write that the L-88 was “as pure a racing engine as Chevrolet had ever supplied for the Corvette.” The L-88 was strictly intended for competition, no heater/defroster system was available, its transmission was the noisy M22 heavy duty bone-crusher” model and no emissions control devices were fitted. Thus in some states it could not be legally used on public highways.

But if the L-88 was the King Kong of Corvettes, then the ZL-1 offered during the 1969 model run was the motoring equivalent of Godzilla. By virtue of its aluminum block (with cast-iron cylinder sleeves), it weighed 100 pounds less than the L-88, while at the same time sharing all of the ultra-strong internal components and 850-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor of the L-88, which was also beefed up for 1969.

In terms of the competition SS Corvette and Grand Sport scenario of Corvette history that never truly reached full bloom, the ZL-1 was one that escaped the clutches of corporate ” it isn’t nice to build such a fast automobile” thinking. Its top speed wasn’t far shy of the 200-mph mark and to run through the quarter mile with an end speed of 120 mph was easy work for this 585-hp Corvette.

Aside from the thunder of the ZL-1, the 1969 model run for the Corvette was most notable for the attention Chevrolet gave to tidying up some of the deficiencies inherent in the 1968 version. In terms of public image and awareness, the most serious error committed by Chevrolet in 1968 had been to officially abandon the Sting Ray label for the Corvette. This proved to be the wrong step and for 1969 the Real McCoy appeared as the Corvette Stingray. There had also been lots of groans and moans about the poor workmanship and the “Dear Lord it’s going to fall apart before I make the last payment” sensation some Corvette owners experienced while driving their cars on rough roads. The 1969 model was an improvement in both respects, but up to the present time Corvette assembly quality has not always been what it should be.

Among the 38,762 Stingrays built during the 1969 model run was the 250,000th Corvette manufactured. During the same span of time, Chevrolet had built millions of full-sized Chevrolets. By comparison, the output of Corvettes was miniscule but when measured on the excitement scale there was no question where the Corvette stood.

The type of automotive excitement Chevrolet packed into each Corvette was given a new twist for 1970 with the availability of the LT-1 engine option. Whereas most of the Corvette’s performance image since 1965 when the 396 cid V-8 bowed had been spearheaded by its heavily muscled-big engined variations, the LT-1 represented a step back in time to the days when Corvettes hustled down the path with relatively small V-8s nestled under their hoods.

1970 Stingray Coupe

The Stingray for 1970, shown here in coupe form, was the first to offer the hot LT-1 engine option. Although announced for 1969, the LT-1 option was not generally available until the 1970 model year due to the demand on production created by the popular Camaro Z/28.

The LT-1 had first been announced a 1969 Corvette option when the 350-cid V-8 replaced the older 327-cid unit as the base Corvette engine. The three-speed all-synchromesh transmission also became a relic of the past as the four-speed manual became the standard transmission for the Corvette. However, the demand for Z/28 Camaros, which was given priority over the LT-1 (and with good reason sales-wise), forced its real debut into the 1970 model run. In effect, the LT-1 was a Z/28 engine with 350 rather than 302 cubic inches, a big 850-cfm Holley four-barrel carburetor, high-lift cam, hydraulic lifters, plus lots more. The LT-1 was rated at a conservative 370 bhp at 6,000 r p m and 380 pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. It was very easy to click off quarter mile runs of 14 seconds with an LT-1.

1970 Stingray, right/rear view

This 1970 coupe reflects the sublety with which Chevrolet designers refined the Vette’s styling after the major body change in 1968.

Chevrolet’s supersized rat V-8, now with a 4.25″ x 4.00″ bore and stroke was theoretically available either as the LS5 with 390 hp or the LS7 rated at 460 hp. The latter engine proved to be a phantom option since none were actually sold. The LS7 was a victim of corporate policy (specifically GM’s anti-ultra high performance posture and an attempt to reduce Chevrolet’s lengthy and costly to honor option list), but its demise really represented the beginning of the erosion of Corvette performance by the rising tide of anti-performance sentiment in the U.S.

The Corvette was still a powerhouse machine for 1971, available with four engines ranging from the base 350-cid V-8 through the LT-1 high-output 350 V-8 and climaxing with the LS5 and LS6 versions of the huge 454-cubic-inch V-8. For competition Chevrolet still offered the ZR1 and ZR2 options, the first with the LT-1 engine, the second based upon the LS6.

Since every engine built for GM’s 1971 cars had to operate on 91-octane fuel, all Corvette engines had their compression ratios cut back to 9.0:1. Thus both maximum horsepower and torque dropped by approximately 10 to 12 percent. “Normal street performance (of Corvettes) is off very little,” reported Corvette News, which further explained, “Of course, the top end is down somewhat; this region, practically speaking, is seldom necessary.” Well, maybe so, but there was no denying that a great age of Corvette performance was coming to an end.

Beginning with the 1971 models, horsepower ratings for American cars were reported both in gross and net terms. Either way the trend was headed down the scale. The base Corvette engine dropped from 300 to 270 hp and the LT-1 lost 20 hp to end up with 330. The LS5 and LS6 remained officially unchanged at 365 hp and 425 hp, respectively, but it was virtually a sure thing that the 9.0:1 compression ratio plus a new cam with less overlap had stolen some of their get up and go.

Only the mildest of changes were made in the Corvette’s appearance for 1972. An interesting anti-theft device activated by inserting the ignition key into what appeared to be the trunk lock caused an alarm to sound if anyone attempted to open either the doors or the hood. This was a great idea to discourage people who desired a Corvette without pain (monthly payments), but there was little to toot about when it came to the Corvette’s engine lineup for 1972. Only three engines were offered. The standard engine, now saddled with an 8.5:1 compression ratio churned out 200 SAE horsepower, down from 210 in 1971. The LT-1 lost another 20hp to end up with 255 net horsepower. The days of the 454 V-8 as a Corvette puller were numbered as were those of a Corvette V-8 with mechanical lifters. The big V-8 dropped out in 1975 and the great LT-1 was replaced by the hydraulic lifter equipped L-82.

1974 Chevrolet Corvette

The 1974 Corvette marked the last year for the powerhouse LT-1, which was down to 255 net horsepower by then.

The L-82 with hydraulic lifters succeeded the LT-1 in 1975 as GM continued its push to defuse the super high performance wave that had swept the industry in the late sixties and early seventies.

1975 L-82 Chevrolet Corvette, rear view

A strong image as a spirited and sporty performer with sales to match pretty well negated the need for any major styling revisions throughout the 1970s. The Corvette, as evidenced in this 1975 edition, retains its status as America’s most recognizable car.

Whether or not the Corvettes of the latter seventies are proper subjects of what has been primarily a historical examination of the Corvette’s evolution depends upon one’s own personal perspective. Many enthusiasts will maintain that no automobile produced under such anti-performance conditions as prevail today is worthy of serious consideration. Yet it’s also apparent that performance hasn’t disappeared from the automotive agenda; it’s just a bit tamer. The situation reminds one of Denise McCluggage’s famous retort to a cynic who bemoaned the passing of the front-engined grand prix car, lamenting instead that the new era Coopers and Lotuses weren’t like the older racing cars. ” No,” Denise replied, “that’s true, the new cars are faster.”

Today’s high performance car isn’t, of course, faster than its older counterparts, but as a balanced machine its handling, braking and overall sophistication distinguish it from the super cars of the sixties with honor. Both ages produced great cars but times change and so do the measures by which automobiles are judged. Where does all this put the Corvette? Unfortunately, not where many of its greatest admirers would like it to be. Granted, Chevrolet engineers had endowed it with plastic bumpers front and rear, lightened it by a couple of hundred pounds and managed to give the L-82 enough moxey to avoid embarrassing its drivers. But the fact remains that a two-seater automobile that weighs close to 4,000 pounds ready for the road somehow is not in tune with the times. The Corvette still has an incredibly loyal following and Zora-Arkus Duntov’s successor, David McCellan, is a worthy replacement for Mr. Corvette, but how can a car with a chassis that dates back to 1963 and a body that has been in production for 13 years realistically be considered an automobile truly worthy of carrying the Corvette name into the 1980s?

To underscore the need for an entirely new Corvette that combines both the flavor of past Corvette models and the degree of superiority these enjoyed over their contemporaries, “The Real McCoy” will conclude in the next chapter with a look at some of the Corvettes that could have been but weren’t and how they would have fared against their domestic and foreign competition if they had been placed into production.

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