FEATURED:// The Corvette C3 Singray

Although I'm a big classic car fan, American cars never seemed to do it for me. Sure, I love the sound of those big V8's, but since I'm not that extravagant; those big, finned, draped in chrome, pink or mint painted extrovert American classics don't fit me. Surely I'm being silly now, because the main reason is they are not very handy driving rally trials in the Dutch countryside with plenty of tight little twisty country roads, which I love to do. So no American classic for me then? Well that's what I thought until I got acquainted with Theo's immaculate Corvette C3 Stingray.

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3/IMG_0938 [small]

I met Theo on a party. And you know how it goes with guys having a beer or two; they somehow manage to shift the conversation to cars, especially when they are classic car enthusiasts. Surely this car talk is very entertaining, but not quite like taking the wheels out for a spin. We agreed to meet up a few weeks later.

A deep dark v8 roar overruled the ambient sounds of the highway nearby as Theo pulled on to the parking where we met. The weather was perfect so we took out the targa, treating our ears even more to the aural delight of the big fat V8. For the first leg of the tour it was Theo at the wheel. He is obviously at home in the corvette, throwing it through corners, accelerating out of them and braking at the right moment for the next corner. So this C3 corvette isn’t a softly sprung lazy American box - its quit a nice sportscar that doesn’t handle half bad. In fact it doesn’t handle bad at all. 

 

The first American sports car – the Corvette C3’s pedigree

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3/Corvette C1 red left front [small]

In the beginning of the fifties of the last century GM was the largest of the American automobile manufacturers; in fact it the probably the biggest company in the world at the time. Nevertheless GM, or any of the other American car manufacturers, produced a sportscar to compete with the British built Jaguars, MG´s and Triumphs. Inspired by the European sports cars Harley J. Earl - GM´s chief designer - decided the time was ripe for Chevrolet to build their own affordable sportscar. Under the codename ´Project Opel´ he started the development which eventually led to the Chevy Corvette C1, presented to the world on the 1953 NY motor show. To keep costs down the C1 was built up of components already used in Chevrolet sedans, including the chassis, engine and . . .  ouch! – a two speed Powerglide automatic gearbox. The body was sculptured out of fibreglass which gave it a beautiful and sports car look. But performance wise the car was more something like a 'sheep in wolve's clothes’ than vice versa. 
Despite efforts to mount bigger carburettors and updated sports steering, the disappointing performance was why buyers lifted their nose for it in the early days. The turnaround came when Chevrolet lifted their newly developed small-block V8 in the C1's belly, equipping it with a three speed manual box and took them out racing in 1956. It is said that Chevy didn’t make a profit out of the Corvettes up until 1958 when sales started exceeding 9,000 cars a year.

 

The Corvette C2 Sting Ray

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3/Corvettes C2 roadster and coupe [small]

After a decade of C1 Corvette’s the second generation saw the light of day. The new C2 – brainchild of chief design Bill Mitchel and Lary Shinoda – was baptised ‘Sting Ray’ and it was a huge leap forward compared to the C1 in almost every aspect. It is believed that Shinoda found Inspiration for the design in his own Jaguar E-type (XKE) and a Mako shark he caught ocean fishing one day - hence the gills like air vents just behind front wheels. 
Handling was dramatically improved due to the newly designed ladder chassis, shortened wheelbase and independent rear suspension. V8 engines, ranging from 327 in3 small-block units in 1963 up to 427 in3 big-block’s in 1966, equipped the car with solid all American power. Design wise, the sharp nose with hidden rotating headlights and boat tail like rear end, and the availability of the even more gorgeous coupe, turned the Corvette C2 into an instant classic and sales hit topping the 20,000 cars produced in the year of its introduction.

Improving the crowds favourite

Improving The Corvette C2 Sting Ray was a though nut to crack for Shinoda, but encouraged by the new Chevrolet boss he came up with the imposing – maybe even scary looking – Mako Shark II concept as early as 1965. The Mako Shark II concept led to the introduction of the Corvette C3 Shark as it was initially called. 
Still the design process of the C3 followed a familiar recipe; develop a new body and interior around existing components improving where possible. And there were some improvements indeed; disk brakes were fitted whereas the C2’s still used drums all round, the standard Powerglide 2 speed auto gearbox was ditched in favour of the new three speed Turbo Hydramatic unit; or if one favoured a manual transmission, this was now a four speed unit. The standard power unit was still a 327 in3 small-block V8. 
The introduction of the Vette Shark was a bit unorthodox. Where car magazines nowadays present us with loads of spy photo’s of psycadelically decaled cars well in advance of the model’s introduction; with the C3 it was the 1/64-scale Mattel Hot-Wheels toy car that showed the Shark’s imposing lines to the public weeks before Chevrolet did.

 

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3/c3-corvettes-postcard [large]
Clockwise: The 1965 Mako Shark II Concept - 1969 Corvette Coupé - 1971 C3 Coupé - 1974 urethane front bumper - 1982 Corvette Collecor edition

 

Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3/IMG_0924 [small]At its birth in 1968 the C3 was called the Corvette Shark. But in 1969 the name Stingray, now spelled as one word - reappeared on the front wing, marking an important step in the Corvette’s reliability record, as the earlier Sharks were quite sensitive to overheating. 
The standard power unit was a 300 hp 350 in3 unit as of 1969, with a big block 390 hp 427 in3 as an option. And with horsepower being such a strong marketing instrument the quest for horsepower was on, hitting its pinnacle with the 1969 ZL-01 option. The ZL-01 was an all aluminium 427 in3 (7l) big-block race engine, producing somewhere in the range of 430 up to 585 SAE gross horses when the restricting factory exhaust manifolds were replaced with upgraded units. But the horsepower quest was short lived due to the GM Corporate edict to the drop compression ratios enabling the use of unleaded low octane fuel in 1971.  The switch from SAE gross – where engines hp is measured while it is directly attached to the dynometer - to SAE net measurements – where engine hp is measured in the car with accessories and breath restricting emission control gear is attached - didn’t help the horse figures either. Still the Corvette C3 survived the American emission regulation, the oil crisis and loads of modifications, the most significant being the use of plastic front bumpers in '74 and the rear ones in '75. It had the longest production lifetime of all Corvettes to this date, and a staggering amount of 542,741 were built from 1968 to 1982. 

Look at the Corvette Stingray in glorious aubergine metallic

In the drivers seat

To be honest: performance and built figures were not really on my mind when Theo and I switched seats. Theo's 1975 Corvette in L48 spec. looks inviting and intimidating at the same time. Immediately after I turned the key the cabins atmosphere is filled with the deep dark rumble of the 5.7 litre V8. Since I don’t drive cars with automatic transmission regularly, I tucked my left foot snugly away under the seat and off we went. Drive mode selects easily on the Hydramatic auto gearbox and even the most gentle touch to the throttle makes this Shark roar, while the ride is quite smooth and comfy. Power steering is very light but there is enough response to guide the car through the rural roads. While the car gently ate away the miles of our trip, my confidence with the car was steadily building we started to go faster and louder, using the kick down while passing under viaducts and wildlife Passovers. I started hitting corners more aggressively breaking the speed limit just every now and then; but the fat rubber on the Corvette’s wheels held on to the road like glue, never leaving me behind the steering wheel with white knuckles thinking: “Oh dear, I might have overdone this one a bit”. Instead it left me thinking. . . “I genuinely want one”!

The big twin exhausts compliment the the sound of the Stinray quite nicely

Text and photography: MG-Robin