On June 30th, 1953 the first production Corvette rolled off the assembly line.

And after being re-christened as the Sting Ray in 1963, the C2 Corvette brought ever-increasing performance to “America’s Sports Car.” Yet as the 1960s stretched on, gearheads were eager to see what the anticipated C3 redesign would bring. So let’s take a look at the Corvette’s C3 Generation—an era that saw significant changes, not just to the car but to the entire auto industry.

This article is part of an expanding series on the history of the Corvette. You can see all the stories we have so far here:

front driver side view of a red 1980 chevy corvette at summit racing store
With an evolution that endured into the 1980s, the C3 had the longest production run of any Corvette generation—so far. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

A Mako Spawns a Sting Ray (Again)

The third generation Corvette story starts with a familiar name: Bill Mitchell, the styling chief responsible for the stunning C2 Corvette Sting Ray. Mitchell asked Larry Shinoda, another talented designer who had also worked on the C2 Sting Ray, to begin a styling exercise for the nascent C3 Corvette.

Shinoda borrowed some themes from the earlier XP-755 Mako Shark concept of 1961 that influenced the C2 to deliver the XP-830 Mako Shark II in 1964. A pair of Mako Shark IIs were built and they were displayed at all the major auto shows.

The 1965 Mako Shark II takes center stage, while the original 1961 Mako Shark concept Corvette lurks in the background. (Image/Chevrolet)

The Mako Shark II was an instant hit on the show car circuit. And with its exaggerated fenders and narrow waist, it’s easy to see how the concept car predicted where C3 Corvette styling was headed.

Yet, the public’s overwhelmingly positive response to the Mako Shark II presented Chevy designers and engineers with a big dilemma: how to transform the wild concept car into a practical production vehicle.

…Oh, and get it done in 18 months so the C3 is ready for the 1967 model year.

GM designers didn’t stop with the Mako Shark II either. In 1969 one of the two Mako Shark II concepts was reworked into the new Corvette Manta Ray. In addition to some other modifications, the Manta Ray got re-styled front and back ends, and a slick set of side pipes. In another innovative safety move, two flaps mounted on the rear deck actually popped up during hard braking to act as supplemental reflective brake indicators! (Image/OnAllCylinders – Patrick Miller)

Meet the All-New 1967…err…1968 Corvette

OK, so Chevy’s Corvette development team couldn’t get the C3 ready in time for 1967. (The silver lining here is that the delay meant another year of the C2 Sting Ray—along with a fantastic new Stinger Hood on big block cars.)

But when GM pulled the wraps off the C3 in September of 1967, the automotive press noted how faithful the production car was to the Mako Shark II concept. The C3 Corvette offered plenty of modern features too, including fiber optic light indicators in the console, GM’s new “Astro-Ventilation” system, and full pop-up headlights.

front view of a red 1968 chevy corvette convertible with a black ragtop at a car show
When it debuted in 1968, the new C3 Corvette carried over the basic silhouette of the Mako Shark II, yet was massaged into a more practical, mass-production car. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Underneath that futuristic fiberglass body though, was essentially the same frame that underpinned the earlier C2. Not that that’s a bad thing mind you, as the independent rear suspension chassis was forward-thinking when it was introduced and had been refined on the highways and race tracks across America for several years already.

close up of fender gills on a 1968 chevy corvette stingray
Note that there’s no “Stingray” badge on the fender above the gills, indicating this is a 1968 model. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Buyers got pretty much the same powertrain options as 1967 too—including the fabled L-88 427 engine. Chevy also offered the new C3 with the TurboHydramatic automatic transmission, replacing the venerable Powerglide. Big block Vettes got a TH400 while the small block cars received the TH350.

side view of stingray emblem on a 1969 chevy corvette
It’s easy to tell 1969 Vettes from the 1968 editions, just look for the script “Stingray” badge above the gill vents on each front fender. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

What’s often overlooked is that the 1968 Corvette also marked the first mainstream domestic use of T-tops. Positioned as a practical compromise between a hardtop and convertible, many folks point to T-tops as one of the factors that led to the demise of the ragtop Corvette a few years later.

C3 Corvette convertibles also had a removable hardtop option as well. The top’s flush backglass in lieu of the T-top’s flying buttress C-pillars makes for a unique silhouette. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Patrick Miller)

It would be another few months before the C3 Corvette would be in the wild, but once it got into the hands of the public, the C3 set a sales record in 1968, moving almost 20,000 coupes and convertibles combined.

C3 Corvette Style & Design Evolution

1969 blue corvette stingray convertible
There were three distinct hoods offered on early C3 Corvettes. This was the base hood available on all small block-equipped cars, except the LT-1. Also note the narrow louvered wiper door at the base of the windshield. This separate, vacuum-automated door was a feature on all 1968-72 Corvettes, but was eliminated in the 1973 facelift. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

The Corvette carried on without any major changes for 1969, with perhaps the most notable addition being the script “Stingray” emblem (one word) now appearing on the front fender. Truth is, the moniker was largely absent in the first year of the C3, with only a few bits of sales literature referring to it as a “Sting Ray” using two words, as it had been for the C2 generation.

With its prominent center bulge, this hood is the rarest of them all—mandatory with the fire-breathing L-88 427 big block. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Yet some negatives bubbled to the surface in these early C3 ‘Vettes—often attributed to the Mako Shark II’s hasty ramp-up from concept to production car. Things like rattling interiors and hot-running engines could vex owners.

Many of those early issues were addressed in a 1970 refresh, which also included a reworked body with integrated splash guards to contain water and muck thrown from the tires.

This Corvette is wearing the special hood used on the rest of the big block cars and the small block-equipped LT-1 package—a necessary addition to clear the taller manifolds on those engines. Note the eggcrate grille treatment and larger indicator lights below the front bumper, indicative of a 1970-72 edition. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

There were some purely cosmetic updates in 1970 too.

Large shark-like fender gills gave way to eggcrate side louvers, and the eggcrate theme carried over below the chrome bumper, replacing the horizontal bars that were there in 1968 and ’69. Out back, the round exhaust cutouts changed to accommodate new rectangular exhaust tips.

close up of fiber optic indicator lamps on console of a c3 1968 corvette
One of the few ways to tell a 1972 Corvette from the 1970-71 models is the absence of the three indicator lamps on the console below the shifter that showed you the status of your taillights. The feature was eliminated in ’72. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

The strike shortened production year meant that 1970 and 1971 were pretty similar, and one of the few noticeable changes in 1972 was the removal of the innovative fiber optic indicators on the console, which let you know if you had any burned-out bulbs out back.

side view of an orange 1973 chevy corvette with custom wheels
You can see the chrome rear bumper along with the new urethane front bumper on this 1973 ‘Vette. The hood now stretches all the way to the windshield as well, eliminating the standalone wiper door. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

But in 1973, things started to really change—both for the Corvette and the entire automotive industry.

To meet new government-mandated crash standards, the 1973 Corvette traded its chrome front bumper bar for a slick-looking urethane nose. Along with new fender vents, 1973s also got a revised cowl hood that ran all the way to the windshield, eliminating the separate, vacuum operated wiper door on 1968-72 models.

In 1974, the rear chrome bumper was gone too, also due to evolving crash standards—hence why many refer to the 1968-73 Corvettes as the C3’s “chrome bumper” era.

1974 marked the final year of any big block option as well.

1974 Corvettes are pretty easy to spot from the back, due to to telltale seam that bisects the new rear bumper. The split was eliminated for 1975. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

In 1975, the big block was gone and it was also the final year of the C3 convertible—a ragtop wouldn’t return until 1986. The small blocks were now designed to run on unleaded gas, and other upgrades, like an electronic ignition, further improved efficiency.

The Corvette team also said goodbye to Zora Arkus-Duntov, as he retired from GM in 1975. Duntov had been with the Corvette almost since its inception and, as Chief Engineer, had played a pivotal role in building the car’s performance pedigree. (Yet Duntov’s replacement, Dave McLellan, would soon prove that the ‘Vette was in good hands.)

back rear shot of the luggage rack on a 1975 c3 corvette stingray
The entire rear end was redesigned in 1975. And while it was the last year for the convertible, T-tops remained an attractive alternative. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

The Corvette soldiered on for 1976 and 1977 with relatively minor updates, in part due to the scramble for GM to ensure all its vehicles could meet evolving safety and emissions requirements—not that it mattered much, as C3 Corvette sales had increased every year through the 1970s at that point.

Though it’s noteworthy that, in 1977, the “Stingray” fender emblems were replaced by updated Corvette Crossed Flags badges.

side view of a brown 1976 chevy corvette parked at a car show
1976 was the last time we’d see a “Stingray” on the flanks of a Corvette—until the C7 debuted. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

For its 25th birthday in 1978, the Corvette began the final stretch of its C3 evolution. The biggest change was out back, where the flying buttress C-pillars were replaced by a bubble glass canopy. Not only did this improve the C3’s aerodynamic profile, it significantly increased interior storage space.

The 1978 Corvette was also picked to pace the famous Indianapolis 500 race for the very first time—a job its done well over a dozen times since. As such, the 1978 Corvette had two special editions: a silver/black 25th Anniversary model and a Pace Car replica, complete with authentic Indy 500 livery.

rear quarter shot of 1978 corvette indy 500 pace car in official chevy press photo
1978 marked the beginning of the Corvette’s Pace Car legacy, and it also ushered in a dramatic new rear profile. (Image/Chevrolet)

Sales were down slightly in 1978, but next year the C3 hit its high water mark as Chevy sold over 53,000 Corvettes in 1979. The rear ducktail spoiler that was an exclusive feature on the Pace Car in 1978 became available on every Corvette in 1979, but the model carried over pretty much unchanged.

1978 25th year anniversary edition chevy corvette silver and black
In addition to the Pace Car, in 1978 you could get a 25th Anniversary edition Corvette with an apropos silver paint scheme. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Patrick Miller)

In 1980, the Corvette got its final style update of the C3 generation, incorporating a new shovel nose and a revised rear end with integrated spoiler.

An easy way to tell 1978-79 Corvettes from the 1980-82 models is to look at the lower case block “corvette” emblem. 1978-79 models got an italicized font treatment. And we can tell this is a 1979 model thanks to the aforementioned font, and the gas tank lid bears the Crossed Flags, instead of the special 25th anniversary badge of the 1978 Corvettes. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

The 1981-82 Corvettes are mostly unchanged on the outside, so if you want to tell them apart, the best method might be to check for Cross-Fire injection—we’ll talk about that when we get into the C3’s noteworthy engines a little later.

Here’s a look at the simplified “corvette” emblem applied to 1980-82 Corvettes. Additionally, the chrome rockers on this car tell us that it’s a 1980 model; 1981-82 editions got their rockers painted black. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Another interesting footnote in 1982 Corvette history is the opening rear hatch backglass. Available only in the 1982 Collectors Edition, the feature allowed much easier access to the rear cargo compartment and ultimately became standard on the upcoming C4 Corvette.

Note the struts and hinges on the backglass here, which indicate an opening rear hatch—available exclusively on the 1982 Collector’s Edition Corvette. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Speaking of the C4, let’s talk about 1983 for a sec. The next-generation Corvette was initially planned for the 1983 model year, which was serendipitous as it was also the nameplate’s 30th anniversary. But the C4 was an ambitious undertaking and, as such, was met with some development and production delays.

late c3 corvette at car show with its hood up
The updated nose appeared in 1980 and was the final significant cosmetic update to the C3 Corvette. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Perhaps recalling the lessons it learned from the C3’s accelerated development timeline in 1967, Chevy’s brass decided to postpone the release until the C4 had all its bugs ironed out. That meant the C4 debuted for the 1984 model year and that there was no true production 1983 Corvette.

cross fire injection fender badge on a 1982 chevy corvette
The best way to tell 1981-82 Corvettes apart is to look for Cross-Fire Injection, either via the fender badge or under the hood—it showed up in 1982. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Noteworthy Engines & Trim Levels of the C3 Corvette Generation

While they would go on to perhaps more notoriety later in Chevy history, did you know that the legendary ZL-1, LT-1, and ZR-1 options began with the C3 Corvette?

The Corvette with the O.G. LT-1 option was available from 1970-72. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Jeff Lee)

In fact, the 1969 ZL-1 is often regarded as the rarest (and most expensive) Corvette in the world. Only two are known to exist with proper documentation, a coupe and a convertible, and the ragtop recently sold for over $3 million at auction.

Next up is the LT-1 which bowed for 1970. It was a version of Chevy’s new 350ci V8 that cranked out 370 horsepower, making it the top-dog small block at the time. The LT-1 was available in both the Corvette and Camaro through 1972.

1970 Camaro RS, Z28 350 turbo fire engine
A version of the LT-1 engine was also offered in the Camaro Z28 package, where in 1970, it was rated at 360 hp, compared to the Corvette’s 370. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

If the LT-1 wasn’t enough, you could step up to the ZR-1 performance package. Geared towards grassroots racers, the ZR-1 trim also gave you the Muncie M22 four-speed, along with upgraded brakes, cooling, and suspension bits.

Cutaway view of the Corvette L88 at the National Corvette Museum
Though originally released in the C2 Sting Ray era, the fearsome L-88 427 big block gained even more fame tucked under the hood of a C3. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

And let’s not forget about the big blocks, particularly the L-88. It stuck around through 1969, propelling C3 Corvettes to the tune of a laughably underrated 430 horsepower. All of the available 427 engines gave way to the new 454 cubic inch big block in 1970, the most potent was the LS6 offered in 1971, which cranked out an impressive 425 horsepower.

a small block 350 chevy v8 engine under the hood of a stingray corvette
Introduced in 1969, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Chevy 350 became the C3’s most popular powerplant. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Then there’s the venerable 350.

Debuting in 1969, various flavors of the 350 cubic inch small block were available in every subsequent C3 Corvette. The high point was the 370 horsepower LT-1 we alluded to earlier, but the 350 carried America’s Sports Car through the emissions era as best it could, dipping to 165 horsepower in 1975 before steadily bouncing back in the following years.

And no talk about C3 Corvette engine design is complete without a quick reference to Cross-Fire injection. Cross-Fire arrived for the final year of the C3, 1982, and it was the first time you’d see fuel injection in a Corvette since the old Rochester mechanical injection faded away in the 1960s. Meant to help both emissions and efficiency, the Cross-Fire system proved troublesome and was ditched after just a few years for a more modern EFI setup.

Since it arrived in 1982, the presence of Cross-Fire Injection is a key distinguishing feature between the 1981 and 1982 model year Corvettes. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

One other interesting engine footnote to mention is the California-only 305ci V8. For 1980 exclusively, it was the mandatory engine for all Cali-bound Vettes, in response to the state’s unique emissions requirements. The 305 made 180 horsepower (about 10 ponies down from the 49-state 350) and it became the lowest displacement V8 engine available in a Corvette since the 283ci V8 found in the C1.

Though its independent rear suspension and requisite axle half-shafts can be a liability on the quarter mile, it’s still not uncommon to see a C3 at the dragstrip. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Lori Sams)

C3 Corvette Stingray Legacy

As the 1970s endured, the C3 helped the Corvette transition from a rip-snortin’ sports car to a more refined grand tourer. It was perhaps a necessary adjustment, as every automaker worked to adapt to new safety and emissions regulations—which (if we’re being honest) meant that cars got a tad heavier and less focus was placed on performance.

customized 1968 chevy corvette stingray
The exaggerated Chevy Rally Wheels are a nice touch here. (Image/OnAllCylinders – Lori Sams)

And though it’s easy to be perplexed at the idea of a 160 horsepower Corvette, let’s not forget that the C3 continued to set sales records until the end of the decade—even as other performance cars disappeared entirely.

While pounding rain prohibited us from getting a better picture at a recent Concours event, under the tarp here is the legendary 1972 Greenwood “Stars & Stripes” #48 Corvette race car that campaigned in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Let’s not overlook the C3 Corvette’s place in motorsports history, either—specifically the iconic Corvettes prepped by racing legend John Greenwood that campaigned in endurance races during the 1970s. Starting with early ZL-1 L88-powered Stingrays, Greenwood made them lighter and more aerodynamic and was able to achieve speeds in excess of 210 mph on the famous Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans.

wild customized c3 corvette sting ray at Cleveland piston power show 2016
C3 Corvettes are a popular attraction on the show car circuit—and have been for decades. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

And perhaps more importantly, as the C3 endured, it became further engrained in pop culture (just ask Mark Hamill) and embraced by the worldwide gearhead community.

front shot of a red custom 1971 chevy corvette stingray equipped with a modified sting ray stinger hood
Though it was never offered on the C3, a C2 Stinger Hood is a popular (and gorgeous) retrofit. And we have a feeling you’ll like what’s under this particular Stinger Hood too—see more of it here. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Indeed, thanks to a long production run, C3 Corvettes are still widely available and popular canvases for customization—turbine wheels, candy paint, and modified hoods are just a few of our favorite mods.

Oh, and an LS swap can make the C3 an autocross monster.

Danny Popp, autocross champion
Autocross champ Danny Popp and his destroked LS7-powered 1972 Corvette. (Image/Brandy Phillips)

Despite its ups and downs, the C3 Corvette carried the performance mantle for Chevrolet through a tumultuous decade. But as tastes began to change, the Cross-Flag faithful began to wonder what a more restrained, updated Corvette would look like. With an eye towards Europe, Chief Engineer Dave McLellan and Chief Designer Jerry Palmer headed to the drawing board to take the Corvette in an all-new direction.

But the C4 journey is a story for a different day…

Corvette C3 production culminated in a special Collector’s Edition (commonly referred to as a “CE”) that, in addition to the aforementioned opening rear glass, featured standard glass roof panels, upscale interior, and a special graphics package—a fitting sendoff for the third-generation Corvette. (Image/OnAllCylinders)
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Author: Paul Sakalas

Paul is the editor of OnAllCylinders. When he's not writing, you'll probably find him fixing oil leaks in a Jeep CJ-5 or roof leaks in an old Corvette ragtop. Thanks to a penchant for vintage Honda motorcycles, he spends the rest of his time fiddling with carburetors and cleaning chain lube off his left pant leg.