Car & Driver readers voted the 1968 C3 Corvette the "Best All-Around Car in the World," beating out the exotic mid-engined $21,900 V-12 Lamborghini P400 Miura as the car they wanted most.
Even before the St. Louis production plant started its pre-assembly runs of the C2 1963 Sting rays, Bill Mitchell told his designers to start thinking about the next Corvette.
Larry Shinoda had worked on the XP-755 Mako Shark I back in 1961 and worked his magic to design the Mako Shark II in 1965.
These combined two prototypes cost GM $3 million to make. In 1965, both of them toured North America and Europe to a frenzy of publicity and wild speculation. Magazines were already touting the Mako II as the next generation Corvette.
Chevrolet worked hard to make the radical Mako II into something they could actually produce. They took the current production Sting Ray chassis in its entirety and built up running prototypes for testing. The aerodynamics of the Mako II were slippier than the C2, but Pete Estes, Chevrolet's new general manager, hated the overly eccentric bulges over the wheel wells and sent the car back to the drawing board. This incident reminds me of this Simpsons clip, replace 'sideburns' with 'wheel bulges':
The C3 Corvette was due for a 1967 debut, but everyone in Chevy made the call to hold off until 1968 so that they can finish up and introduce the Camaro in the muscle car fight.
Engineers were working out kinks in the development. The retractable headlights disrupted the air stream used for engine cooling. They could switch over to fixed ones? No. The retractable headlights had become a part of the iconography for Corvette and they would stay.
Zora Duntov took some time off in the spring of 1967 to recover from a serious illness. He returned 3 weeks before the press introduction for the new 1968 Vettes; to his horror, engineering dropped the ball and for whatever reason, completely forgot to fix that cooling problem. If your Zora, what do you do? You lengthen the front chin spoiler and slice two meaty scoops into the bottom bodywork ahead of the spoiler to cram more air in. Crisis averted and the journalist were none the wiser.
After introducing the 1968 model to the press, the Corvette engineering team was disbanded. Duntov was put on special assignments as a 'jack-of-all-trades' and some Corvette engineers were put on passenger car duty. Magazine reviews of the production 1968 Vette was scathing. Editor Steve Smith of Car & Driver flat out said that "The car was unfit for a road test. No amount of envious gawking by spectators could make up for the disappointment we felt at the cars shocking lack of quality control. With less than 2,000 miles on it, the Corvette was falling apart." This is all it took to reassemble the disbanded Corvette engineering team.
To address the quality control issues, The division general manager John Delorean, ordered that every Corvette get sent to a water bath with an inspector riding inside looking for six dozen possible leaks. After that, the C3s are ran over a 2 mile "Belgian road" course, followed by a stint on a vibration table that flexed and torqued the car repeatedly. Delorean allowed no failures to leave the plant.
The C3 was a hot seller. So much that in 1973, production could not keep up with demand. Dealers had to turn away 8,200 orders that year. The St. Louis plant was already in overdrive and even then, were ordered to increase output from 8 to 9 Corvettes per hour.
After the 1974 model year, that was the last of the beastly high performance C3s. Government regulations, OPEC, and society changed....and with that, so does the Corvette. The coupes were still runaway sellers, but the convertibles, not so much. The open-topped C3's were eventually axed.
The C3 was like a runaway freight train. 1976 and 1977 was two additional record sales years for the Corvette, despite the fact that the base coupe had only 180 HP. It's runaway freight train success can be summed up by this clip:
Sex sells, and guess what? 1979 was a new record selling year with 53,807 cars!
1980 saw a C3 front end refresh with improved aerodynamics, built-in chin spoiler, and a diet of 250 pounds. The speedometer only read up to 85 mph because big brother has to have his say.
The C3 eventually passed on the baton to the C4. The C3 paid its dues and can now rest gracefully as an integral part of Corvette history.
Credit to Corvette Fifty Years by Randy Leffingwell