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Car of the Week: 1969 Chevrolet Corvettes

Inside the '69s with a look at the hairy Corvettes from the muscle era.
Car of the Week 2020
A LeMans Blue ’69 Corvette L88 coupe at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nats.

A LeMans Blue ’69 Corvette L88 coupe at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nats.

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After a year’s absence in 1968, the Corvette’s Sting Ray model name returned in 1969. The icon for the model was still that of a delta-shaped sea creature, but it was now spelled as one word. That explains why “Stingray” badges re-appeared on the front fenders, above the Corvette’s four slanting air vents. Also, the backup lamps were now integrated into the center taillamps, a steering-column-mounted ignition switch was used and the exterior door buttons used on ’68 models disappeared in favor of key locks.

There were other small changes, such as the wheel width growing from 7 to 8 inches wide, and the steering wheel diameter shrinking from 16 inches to 15 inches. Inside, the interior door panels were mildly redesigned with a thicker upper section and a horizontally mounted handle. Features listed as the base Corvette’s standard equipment were a 350-cid 300-hp V-8; front and rear disc brakes; headlamp washers; contoured bucket seats; a center console; wheel trim rings; carpeting; recessed windshield wipers; retractable headlamp covers; a high-output Delcotron generator; a heavy-duty battery; F70 x 15 black sidewall tires; head restraints; and all-vinyl upholstery in the two-passenger interior. In case there was any question, Chevrolet even listed the Corvette’s fiberglass body as a standard feature (as if there was any choice!).

The Corvette Model 19437 Sports Coupe had a cost of $3,461.75 and Federal Excise Tax of $244.95, bringing the Chevy dealer’s total cost to $3,706.70 for a car with a suggested retail price of $4,780.95. That included a $40 dealer preparation charge, which was a lot of “bread” back in 1969. (For comparison, the median home price at that time was $25,600.) Freight charges were additional. The Model 19467 Convertible Coupe had a lower cost of $3,210.73 and Federal Excise Tax of $227.95, bringing the Chevy dealer’s total cost to $3,438.68 for a car with a suggested retail of $4,437.95.

A Can Am White ’69 Corvette with one of the six available 427-cid big-block V-8s.

A Can Am White ’69 Corvette with one of the six available 427-cid big-block V-8s.

Sidemount exhausts were $147.45 extra in 1969.

Sidemount exhausts were $147.45 extra in 1969.

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As the base engine, the 350-cid V-8 small-block offered 300 hp with its hydraulic lifters and four-barrel carburetor. RPO L46 was the hotter small-block with 11.0:1 compression and one horsepower per cubic inch. Since this was getting into the heavy-duty muscle era, there were no less than six 427 engines available in the ’Vette, either as a regular or special option.

Hot Rod magazine tested the L88 427 with 430 advertised horsepower and described it as a “street machine with soul.” This year, the basic L88 package required heavy-duty brakes and suspension, transistor ignition and Positraction. An L88 convertible with a beefy Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission and 3.36:1 rear axle did the quarter mile in 13.56 seconds at 111.10 mph.

It’s hard to believe that there was a step above the L88 Corvette in the muscle-car era, but the ZL1 was such a machine. Today, it still ranks as one of the wildest RPO engine options ever offered to the public, although things are getting pretty crazy again today.

The ZL1 was technically an optional version of the L88 engine, but it was some option! It had thicker cylinder walls and main webbing and dry-sump lubrication provisions. The bottom end had four-bolt main bearings, a forged-steel crank, rods with 7/16-inch bolts, Spiralock washers and full floating pins. The pistons had a higher dome than the L88 type and boosted compression to 12.5:1. The cylinder heads were also aluminum and featured open combustion chambers, round exhaust ports and 2.19-inch/1.88-inch valves. The aluminum dual-plane intake was topped by an 850-cfm Holley “double-pumper” four-barrel carburetor featuring mechanical secondaries. The ZL1’s radical solid-lifter camshaft allowed the engine to stay together in the upper revs range.

Riverside Gold paint sets off this ’69 'Vette with 427 badges on its hood bump.

Riverside Gold paint sets off this ’69 'Vette with 427 badges on its hood bump.

The ZL1 was probably the wildest performance muscle engine ever offered to the public, at least until modern times. This all-aluminum 427 was installed in 69 Camaros and two production Corvettes. About 10-12 Corvette engineering test “mules” were also built with ZL1s. They were used in magazines, engineering tests and track evaluations, and driven by the likes of Zora Arkus-Duntov. All of the mules were destroyed. However, two ’Vettes went out the door as ZL1s: a Canary Yellow car with side pipes, and a Can-Am White T-top coupe with black ZL1 side stripes.

Buyers of 1969 Corvettes had a choice of 10 colors: Tuxedo Black, Can-Am White, Monza Red, LeMans Blue, Monaco Orange, Fathom Green, Daytona Yellow, Cortez Silver, Burgundy and Riverside Gold. Convertibles came with a choice of Black, White or Beige soft tops. Interiors were Black, Bright Blue, Green, Red, Gunmetal or Saddle.

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