'68 Corvette went from Sting Ray to Stingray

May 21, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

When the third-generation Corvette made its debut in the fall of 1967, the world was speechless.

The tricked-out fiberglass-bodied two-seater with its bulging fenders, removable roof panels and elongated snout garnered a collected gasp of disbelief from just about anyone with a pulse.

However, the new Stingray was received with mixed emotions by true 'Vette fanatics.

After all, the previous-generation five-year-old Sting Ray (two words until 1968) had been far and away the most popular Corvette. Penned by GM styling guru Bill Mitchell, the earlier coupe and roadster had offered more power, panache and high style than anything else in Chevy's stable. The purists, however, regarded the forthcoming 1968 version as nothing more than the outcome of GM's misguided allegiance to planned obsolescence (a concept the company virtually invented back in the 1930s).

Not that there weren't some early clues that a revamp was on the way. In 1965, Chevrolet was flaunting its Mako Shark concept vehicle at various key auto shows. As it turned out, it was only a mildly-exaggerated version of what would become the real-deal third-generation Corvette.


Chevrolet managed to allay the fears of most Corvette purists by maintaining a potent engine lineup.

Available in 400, 430 and 435-horsepower dosages, the top-of-the-line 427 had a reputation for being unruly, uncivilized and unbelievably quick. Charming, indeed. The L71 tri-carb setup, in particular, could reach 60 mph from rest in around five-and-a-half seconds and produce quarter-mile burns that would be considered brutally quick by today's standards.

For those with a bit less high-test in their veins, the newest Corvette offered more benign choices, such as the tried-and-true 327 motor. The following year, the 327 was replaced by the new-for-1969 350 cubic-inch V-8. Within a year of its introduction, the 350 became the powerplant of choice for the vast majority of buyers.

In a continuing evolution of the marque, the 427 was replaced by the big-bore 454-cubic-inch engine in 1970. This larger and more tractable mill punched out between 390 and 460 horsepower (depending on the version you ordered) and could reel off lightning-quick acceleration times equal to the more race-bred 427.

All engines could be matched to either a four-speed manual, or three-speed automatic transmission.

As part of the Corvette's continuing evolution, the list of standard and optional features continued to expand. By that time, air conditioning, power windows, tilt/telescoping steering and AM/FM radios were becoming commonplace on sports cars, not just on more traditional modes of transportation.

Although the new 'Vette's interior was as space-age as its swoopy exterior, there were still a few bugs to be worked out. For one, the cockpit tended to trap an uncomfortable amount of engine heat, especially if a 454 resided under the reverse-tilt hood. Also, the Coke-bottle shape of the Corvette's Ferrari-inspired design meant less hip and shoulder room compared to the previous car.

There were also complaints that the new Stingray was rougher riding and that it had pronounced understeer (tendency for the front wheels to plow in a turn). True, the new model was a tad harsher over the rough stuff, but made up for it by being more agile in the corners. As for the understeer, Chevrolet actually revised the suspension for better control in hard cornering.

One of the more interesting observations regarding the new Corvette was rapid turnaround in the model's convertible sales. Before 1968, ragtop versions outsold hardtops by a large margin. By 1969, this trend had been reversed. Clearly, the hardtop's removable T-roof panels and rear window were a more acceptable alternative to top-down cruising. The hardtop was also far less shake and rattle-prone, providing better handling and ride when compared the convertible models. By 1976, Corvette roadsters were no longer offered.

Despite the new Corvette's questionable practicality (there wasn't even a glovebox), the 1968 through '72 versions with raw power undiluted by emission controls, represented the pinnacle of sports-car performance combined with show-stopping looks.

Post-'72 'Vettes would retain the 454 option for another couple of years before finally surrendering to the bureaucrats who controlled insurance premiums and smog regulations.

The cars would also be saddled with mandated plastic-covered 5-mph bumpers that the Corvette faithful claimed forever ruined the car's good looks.

But for four glorious and unbridled years, the Stingray completely ruled the road and induced mass automotive hysteria the world over.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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