The arrival of the C3 Chevy Corvette occurred far sooner than many enthusiasts would have predicted. The C1 Corvette had been produced over a period of ten years, albeit with significant design and mechanical improvements along the way.
While the first-generation, solid-axle Corvette had shown continual improvements in its sales numbers, critics agreed that it had outlived its time, and, by 1962, a new Corvette had not only been highly anticipated, it had been long overdue. Although Duntov and Mitchell’s second-generation Sting Ray had achieved massive success and was a favorite amongst both enthusiasts and critics alike, they knew that there was no way they could let the car remain unaltered for such a long duration again.
2 Door Coupe (68 – 82),
2 Door Convertible (68 – 75)
They literally began work on the next generation Corvette even as the paint was still drying on the second-generation mid-year models.
The birth of the third-generation Corvette occurred during a time when the United States, and indeed the whole world, was immersed in social and political controversy. The United States was entrenched in the turbulence of the Vietnam War. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was staggering, with more than a half-million troops stationed in Southeast Asia.
One of the most controversial and heavily publicized battles of the entire Vietnam war – the Battle of Khe Sanh – began in late January of 1968, and would fuel protests against the war that would result in major eruptions of violence that would ultimately lead to the untimely demise of presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr later that same year.
King’s death led to race riots in many major U.S. Cities that lasted for several days. The women’s rights movement began to get a foothold on the world, as did the emerging sexual revolution. The widespread experimentation with drugs exploded as a social student pastime on college campuses. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert H. Humphrey to become the next president of the United States.
Amidst all of this tumult, and perhaps (in part) because of it, a new Corvette was released in 1968 that was considered very different from its predecessors, and every bit as controversial as the era itself.
The C3 Corvette, which was commonly referred to as the “Shark” generation, was more than just a re-imagining of the earlier C2. Instead, the C3 was an entirely new take on the sport car persona for which the second-generation Corvette had been so highly regarded.
The C2, which had been as much a race car as it had been a cruiser, was about to be replaced by a Corvette which would be much more closely focused on becoming a plush but powerful “boulevard cruiser.”
Almost from day one, the third-generation Corvette would fall under the discriminating eye of enthusiasts and critics alike, especially given that the second-generation Corvette had become so revered around the world.
The C2 had literally rejuvenated the Corvette franchise, and it seemed reasonable to assume that the C3 would take the next, progressive step in the car’s evolution. Enthusiasts were doubtless hopeful for a mid-engine Corvette, as had been rumored since 1958 – or perhaps even a rear-engine design akin to Edward Cole’s Chevy Corvair or Bill Mitchell’s Monza GT and SS show cars. However, for a multitude of reasons, the new Corvette would evolve in a completely different direction – one that would go from starting its life as being a “flawed” design to (as with each Corvette generation before it) becoming a car that was a near perfect fit for the era which it was intended.
The evolution of the third-generation Corvette actually began early on in the career of the second-generation Sting Ray. As early as 1964, the concept of a third generation Corvette was already gaining traction amongst the executives and engineering teams at General Motors.
1964 was actually a pivotal year in the annals of the third-generations early history for two specific, though unlikely, reasons: the arrival of the big-engine, mid-size muscle car (as exemplified by the Chevy Nova), and the birth of the “ponycar” with the arrival of Lee Iacocca’s Ford Mustang. Both styles of car would prove immensely popular with automotive enthusiasts, and would inspire other manufacturers to follow in the same direction.
By 1967, the automotive market was riddled with muscle cars like the Olds 4-4-2, the Dodge Charger, and the Pontiac GTO, and even the Chevy Chevelle SS 396. Similarly, the ponycar market would prove lucrative and would give rise to a number of competitors – including Chevrolet’s very own Camaro.
The rise of both muscle cars and “ponycars” would force designers of the Corvette to take pause and re-evaluate why consumers would consider the Corvette of value when it was more expensive, and less accommodating than the emerging alternatives.
Where the second-generation Corvette was an asphalt pounding, straight-line missile that was capable of producing impressive acceleration numbers, there were a number of other cars on the market – including many of Chevy’s own models – that were capable of producing the same straight-line speed for a fraction of the price.
If the Corvette was going to continue to compete with this new onslaught of competitors, it would have to offer more than just quick starts off the line.
On the other end of the automotive spectrum, European manufacturers were producing automobiles that were deemed considerably more sophisticated than the Chevy Corvette.
These higher end sports-cars showcased leading edge advances in mechanical technology and exotic bodyline styling that made the Corvette seem dated by comparison.
Amongst the leaders of this “European evolution” were cars like the Italian mid-engine Lamborghini Miura, and the German rear-engine Porsche 911, both of which introduced newer automotive technologies than anything that had been considered for the Corvette prior to that point.
DID YOU KNOW: When developing the third-generation Corvette, the body design concept quickly became known as the Coke bottle design. It was so named because the car’s profile did resemble a glass bottle like those used by the Coca Cola bottling company in the 1960’s. What is not as commonly known about this design styling is that Pontiac nearly beat Chevrolet in developing a “Coke” bottle design when they introduced their 1965 Banshee, a two-seater convertible sports car that would have been stiff competition for the Corvette. Fortunately for Chevrolet and the Corvette, General Motors stopped the development of the Banshee before it ever really got off the ground. However, there is little question that the Banshee’s design helped inspire the final look of the C3 Corvette. Interestingly, John DeLorean, who had been president of Pontiac at the time of the Banshee’s development, emerged later as the president of Chevrolet
As a result, the Chevrolet Engineering Center decided that they would commence development of the C3 Corvette with a little friendly competition between several of its own engineering groups. Only one design criteria was specified at the start – anticipated introduction of the third-generation Corvette was slated for the 1967 model year.
From the onset, the departments really divided themselves amongst two teams – Frank Winchell, director of the Chevrolet Engineering Center, rallied the first group, and Zora Arkus-Duntov championed the other.
While Winchell and Duntov had different opinions about many of the specific features of the new Corvette, both assumed that the next-generation would feature a mid/rear-engine format.
Frank Winchell’s team drew much of their inspiration from the Chevy Corvair, which in turn had taken many of its styling cues from the Porsche 356 and early 911 designs.
Winchell’s group conjured up an advanced, very compact design that showcased a Lotus-type backbone frame, all-independent suspension, and a 327-cubic-inch V-8 in the rear of the car driving a modified version of the Pontiac Tempest’s rear transaxle.
However, with all the added weight over the rear axle, the car’s aft-weight bias was nearly 70 percent, making the car completely unmanageable on the road. The concept Corvette, which was designated the XP-819, was ill-conceived, and was accidentally destroyed during a high-speed lane change test.
Duntov’s group, on the other hand, had taken a somewhat different approach in their design. Instead of a rear engine approach, they focused instead on developing a true mid-engine automobile that showcased a big-block Mark IV engine that was positioned just ahead of the rear wheels. The radiator was placed in the extreme rear behind the engine, and a pair of fans provided low-speed cooling via a “forced draft” effect.
Beyond its mechanical design, Duntov’s group also developed a shape for their car’s fiberglass body. To showcase the design, they prepared a couple of small-scale models in 1965.
The design lifted elements from Bill Mitchell’s Mako Shark IIconcept vehicle, especially from the Shark’s front end. These elements were mated to a curvy mid-section that ended in a long, robust “tail.” The car’s beltlines swept sharply upward to a “flying buttress” rear roofline similar to the one found on Porsche’s mid-engine 904 sports-racer automobile. The roofline featured a shallow, vertically set backlight that was flanked by long, gracefully tapered C-pillars.
Bill Mitchell assembled his own design crew and set out to produce a full-size Corvette mock-up. As with Duntov’s team, Mitchell’s body design was also largely inspired by the earlier Mako Shark concept vehicle, although the aggressive looking concept featured some refinements that enhanced the car’s overall appearance.
The full-size mock-up was dominated by a very pointy front end (like that found on the Shark), a severe “ducktail”, a tapered “boattail” roofline (similar to those ultimately fabricated for the Sting Ray fastback), and bulging, fully skirted rear fenders with vertical air slots in their leading edges.
Mitchell’s design, like those of Winchell’s and Duntov’s teams, contained a mid-mounted V-8 engine that was so massive that it made installing a rear window impossible. To compensate for the absent rear window, Mitchell devised a stylized rear-facing periscope which was molded into the forward portion of the car’s roof.
In the end, practicality and parts availability won out over all of the designs, and the rear- and mid-engine concepts were scrapped. The reality was that GM simply didn’t have the required components to make those types of engine mountings possible. General Motors had yet to produce a transaxle capable of withstanding the torque of a high-power V-8 engine. While some argued that GM could make the investment to develop such a transaxle, the cost to do so would drive Corvette prices beyond what anyone would willingly pay for the car.
As all of the mid- and rear-engine designs were discarded, Bill Mitchell wasted no time in redirecting the focus behind the development of a Corvette concept that could conceivably go to market in just a few years’ time. He knew that if General Motors was going to continue enticing consumers with a new Corvette, the car would have to lure them in with exotic styling, especially given that the C2 Corvette had already accomplished so much from a performance standpoint. He also knew that the C3 would be mechanically very similar to its predecessor since there was no way that Chevrolet would disperse the kind of money needed to develop another completely new Corvette only a couple of years after the Sting Ray had been unveiled.
To solve this dilemma (and in an effort to begin enticing prospective consumers into the idea of purchasing a third-generation Corvette), Mitchell turned to a young designer by the name of Larry Shinoda. Executed under Mitchell’s direction, Shinoda set about developing a new conceptual design for a Corvette that drew on oceanic design cues in much the same way that the Mako I had in 1960.
Beginning his efforts in 1964, Shinoda worked diligently on the design for a little under a year. The result of his effort was the Mako II Concept Vehicle, which started its life as a static, full-size mockup of an actual car.
Although adaptable to support either a front- or rear-engine, the Mako II’s basic overall design became the take-off point for a new front-engine “theme car” that served both as a second design alternative to the original, mid- and rear-engine designs proposed by Duntov and the Advanced Design studios team as well as a starting place for the future development of the third-generation Corvette.
In the end, the mid-engine alternative for the car was abandoned because of financial constraints. With a front-engine concept again dictating the direction the design was to evolve, Larry Shinoda and Bill Mitchell turned their concept over to the Chevrolet Styling department.
Under the direction of David Holls, the new Corvette chassis was adapted to mate with the chassis of the existing C2 Stingray. It was this new hybrid of the Mako II Shark with the second-generation chassis from which the foundation from which the C3 Corvette would ultimately evolve.
As Chevrolet engineers and designers, now under the direction of Holls, set to work on streamlining the design of the C3, the Mako II Corvette began an aggressive campaign on the auto-show circuit.
Most enthusiasts quickly recognized the Mako II for what it really was – not just another show car, but rather a test case to judge public reaction to the next-generation Corvette.
As if to support this sentiment, GM decided it should replace the full-scale mock-up of the Mako II with a fully operation version. In April, 1965 they did just that. The original static Mako II was retired and for several months no variant of the “Shark” could be seen. Then, in October of that same year, Chevrolet introduced the second Mako II, a car that was somewhat less radical in design than the original concept, but was also closer to the car that would ultimately be produced.
Interestingly, the new Shark, and the production Corvette that would follow, would actually remain quite similar to the C2 Sting Ray, save for its outward appearance. Chevrolet utilized much of the existing hardware of the C2, and decided that a “sexy new shell” and an even higher-performance engine would be enough to keep Corvette enthusiasts engaged and allow sales of the third-generation Corvette to continue their upward momentum.
The body-styling of the third-generation Corvette was a blend of the Mako II, along with styling cues from the mid-engine concepts that had been developed early on in the creation of the C3.
From the beltline down, the new Corvette was very similar to the Mako II prototype, although it featured softer, less extreme contours. The roof treatment however was based on the car that Duntov‘s group had proposed. Nicknamed the “sugar scoop”, the roof included a vertical backlight/window that stood perpendicular to the area that would be considered the rear-decklid (though this term was actually a misnomer as no there was no actual decklid to speak of).
Framing the rear window, the roofline extended outward, on either side of the car, diminishing to a point just ahead of the rear of the vehicle. In effect, this design took on the illusion of a large “shovel” or “scoop”, which explained its particular nickname.
The “sugar scoop” design was a clear departure from the Mako II fastback design. Perhaps Chevrolet simply wanted to move forward with a different design, or perhaps it was believed that the fastback rear-window did not offer enough visibility. Regardless of the reason, it was intended from the beginning that the vertical backlight – as well as the portion of the roof that covered the interior of the car – be removable. While this new design cue was not intended to replace the Corvette convertible, Chevy felt that this new configuration would appeal just as strongly to the open-air enthusiasts while at the same time offering far better weather protection and the structural rigidity associated with closed body types.
Of course, even as the conceptual design of the production C3 began to take shape, there were problems that arose along the way that inhibited its development. First, the new design turned out to have excessive front end lift issues at high speeds, which seriously compromised the cars stability and, in turn, safety. What’s worse, a rear spoiler had been added to the car to help keep the rear wheels on the ground, but this rear spoiler only added to the issue of front end lift, causing the nose to lift even more.
Second, the removable Targa-style roof had its own set of issues. The original concept for the removable top called for a single fiberglass component. However, as the body design of the car had begun to take shape, it had been quickly discovered that a single-piece, removable fiberglass roof compromised the strength of the body to a point that could result in damage to the structural integrity of the entire car.
In the conceptual designs, the cars that were built with the single-piece removable top produced excessive amounts of creaks and groans in the automotive coachwork. To remedy this issue, Corvette engineers added a longitudinal support bar between the windshield and the fixed section of the roof, thereby creating the first ever T-top roof.
Perhaps the most significant design flaw of the Mako inspired automotive styling was poor engine cooling. Given that Corvette engineers had planned on utilizing the same big-block engines that had been utilized in the second-generation Corvettes, the emerging design presented seriously constricted airflow within the engine compartment. The new design featured a narrow engine bay and a shallow front grille, both of which seriously impaired airflow through the car’s radiator, the result of which meant that that functional cooling would be marginal in hot weather, especially when running the air conditioning system. Although this issue was identified early in the development of the final design, constricted air flow through the cooling system would remain an issue throughout the C3’s entire production run.
Although the design team behind the new Corvette worked to resolve these (and other) issues, the development of the C3 Corvette would ultimately be postponed a year because of it. Ultimately, many of the design elements that had been inspired by the Mako Shark concept were revised or completely re-imagined as the final design was completed. One design cue that did survive from the Mako II was a vacuum-operated flip-up panel that concealed the windshield wipers. Similarly, the concealed headlamps that had been introduced on the second-generation Corvette carried forward, though the new design featured simple flip-up assemblies which operated by using engine vacuum, instead of the Sting Ray’s electric actuator assemblies
As the design deadline approached, it was decided that the introduction of the C3 Corvette would be delayed until the 1968 model year (instead of 1967 as originally planned.) It was probably just as well. Although the Federal government had mandated the first safety and emissions standards nationwide at the onset of the 1968 model year, Chevrolet would have made certain that a new production model vehicle had been engineered to meet those same standards.
Despite the extra year that the C3 designer and engineers received to improve upon the design, the third-generation Corvette was still seriously under-developed when introduced to the public. As the final design elements of the third-generation Corvette came together, the car was introduced to the automotive media and was welcomed with a mix of opinions that ranged from apathy to outright hostility. It received a large amount of criticism. For many, the new body styling was “wretchedly excessive and bloated.” Road & Track Magazine pointed out that “the styling, which seemed so radical in Mako Shark II form, now seemed derivative, resembling the Ferraris of some years earlier.” It was also criticized for “abandoning its sports-car purity.”
Beyond just the aesthetics of the design, the car was given low marks by the press for its scarce luggage space, its awkward ingress/egress, and its poor instrument placement. Although the car was physically larger than its predecessor, it had less room in it. In fact, to make it possible for consumers to sit in the new Corvette, it had been necessary to increase the angle of both the driver’s and passengers seats from 25 degrees to 33 degrees to accommodate for the lower roof line. The result of this change caused both drivers and passengers to be uncomfortable in their seats. Even the new T-top design was greeted with limited support and enthusiasm.
Reviewers also found that the car had a harsh ride, an excessively noisy cockpit, an utter lack of cargo space and a new interior ventilation system that was incapable of providing any level of comfort to its passengers. The Corvette’s fit and finish and overall build quality were judged to be abysmal, even though the outward appearance of the car was generally considered striking to the casual observer. Closer attention revealed that the body panels were fitted very badly and the paint finish was considered “amateurish.”
The motoring press did acknowledge that the latest Corvette had impressive straight-line performance. Some critics noted that Chevrolet‘s use of the 435 horsepower, 427 cubic-inch engine was excessive, but that use of the 300- and 350bhp small block engines was more than adequate and resulted in the production of some truly exhilarating trial times on the track. Still, even with the powerful powertrain capturing the attention of some of the automotive press, it was also generally noted that the engines were hard to start and had a tendency to overheat. In fact, the issues with the first batch of C3 Corvettes were so bad that Car & Driver returned their test model, stating that “it was unfit to roadtest.”
Although this comment was indicative of many critics opinion of the car as a whole, there was still a great clamor by enthusiasts for the new Corvette. Time alone would demonstrate that the Chevrolet was capable of putting the Corvette back on course with the expectations set before it by both enthusiasts and critics alike. Despite its humble beginnings, the longest reign of any generation of Corvette was about to begin, and it was a reign that would experience many highs and lows along the way.
Source Material: 1.) The Pocket Book of the Corvette: The Definitive Guide to the All American Sports Car – Copyright 2003, Barnes & Noble. 2.) CORVETTE: Sports Car Superstar – Copyright 2005, PIL – Publications International, Ltd. 3.) Corvette Black Book – Copyright 2009, Michael Bruce Associates, Inc. 4.) The Complete Book of Corvette, Every Model Since 1953 – Copyright 2005, Mike Mueller – MBI Publishing