The C3 Corvette Taking Shape
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.