'Vettes of the 1960s

A retrospective of three design eras that spanned the 1960s
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The 1960 Corvette had few changes from the 1959 model.

The 1960 Corvette had few changes from the 1959 model.

If you told someone in the ’50s that the Corvette would become a luxurious personal sports car, they probably would have laughed at you. The original ’53 Corvette was designed as an American sports car. When sports car purists scorned the car’s Powerglide automatic transmission and other amenities, Chevrolet took action. Zora Arkus-Duntov was hired as chief engineer and saved the “’Vette” by giving it a harder edge and a gutsier flavor. It became a true world-class enthusiast’s machine. It was a sports car — possibly one of the most glittery ones — but a sports car nevertheless.

This part of the Corvette’s character changed in the ’60s. It started the decade as a bugs-in-your-teeth roadster and ended it as a Grand Touring car with cushy upholstery, air conditioning, power this and stereophonic sound. Big-block V-8s were available to provide all sorts of go power, but go-fast versions of the Corvette were designed more for the drag strip than roads with scary S-curves. That’s not to say that late-’60s Corvettes weren’t great; they just came out of the decade differently than it went into it.

A sculpted ducktail rear end was new for 1961.

A sculpted ducktail rear end was new for 1961.

The ‘50s spill over

The ’60 Corvette was in the old mold. It looked much the same as the ’59 model and, actualy, many of those before it. The addition of a rear sway bar improved the car’s handling. Aluminum cylinder heads and an aluminum radiator were introduced, but later withdrawn. The only model listed was a convertible with a $3,563 price tag. “Wimpy” owners could add a snap-on hardtop.

’60 Vettes came with a tach, a small-block V-8, dual exhaust, carpeting, seat belts, an outside mirror and an electric clock. A ’60 Corvette with the 283-cid, 230-hp V-8 could go from 0-to-60 mph in 8.4 seconds and do the quarter in 16.1 seconds at 89 mph. There were six optional 283 V-8s up to 315 hp, one with dual four-barrel carburetors and four with fuel-injection.

1962 carried over quite a bit from the 1961 model.

1962 carried over quite a bit from the 1961 model.

The “Route 66” TV series, featuring Martin Milner and George Maharis driving their 1960 Corvette across the country on the “Mother Road,” made its debut this season. The popular show was essentially an ongoing advertisement for Chevy’s only two-passenger job. The “M” boys became famous and so did the car they drove. If they didn’t already, every red-blooded male in America under the age of 30 dreamed of owning a ’Vette and driving it coast to coast.

On front of the ’61 Corvette was a badge with crossed racing flags over a “V.” It symbolized V-8 performance. There were five engines, again featuring either a single four-barrel, dual four-barrel or fuel injection. A refined thin, vertical-and-horizontal-bar grille and new duck-tail rear end with four round taillamps quickly set apart the new ’Vette from its predecessors. This design predicted the rear end styling of the upcoming Sting Ray and also added trunk space. The exhaust pipes now exited under the car, rather than through bumper ports (a set up that looked good but ruined many bumpers). This was the last year wide whitewall tires were available and also the last year a contrasting color could be ordered from the factory for the concave side coves.

The most noticeable changes for ‘62 were cleaning up the side coves (no more tinsel), a flat-black grille and ribbed chrome rocker panel moldings. No more two-tones this year. Engine offerings dropped to four — all with 327 cubic inches in place of the 283. Three engines used a single four-barrel carburetor and one was a fuelie. Standard output was up to 250 hp and the fuel-injected 360-hp option was tops. A ‘62 Corvette with the latter motor and a 3.70:1 rear axle could go from 0-to-60 mph in 5.9 seconds and do the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds at 104 mph. It had an estimated maximum speed of 150 mph!

In swims the Sting Ray

The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray was “majorly new,” said Chevrolet ads. It evolved from a racing car called the Bill Mitchell Sting Ray concept car. Mitchell took over General Motors styling in 1958 and he thought it was important to race the ’Vette and persuaded Chevy’s general manager, Ed Cole, to sell him the chassis of the ‘57 Corvette SS “mule” for $1. Mitchell then had designer Larry Shinoda create a body for the Sting Ray race car inspired by the sea creature of the same name.

The ’63 Sting Ray “split-window” coupe was a one-year-only design.

The ’63 Sting Ray “split-window” coupe was a one-year-only design.

“Oohs” and “aahs” went to a “split-window” 1963 Sting Ray fastback coupe, the first Corvette with a fixed roof. Shinoda created that split-window, which Mitchell loved. Zora Arkus-Duntov was always against its vision-blocking look, but was overruled. The style was offered only one year and is now very collectible. The Corvette styling introduced for 1963 went on through 1967 and ’Vettes of this second generation of the sports car came to be known as “mid year” models.

The ’63 front fenders had two long, non-functional louvers resembling brake cooling ducts. The rear deck resembled the ’62, but the rest of the car was all-new. Hide-away headlamps were in an electrically operated panel and enhanced aerodynamics.

The recessed fake hood louvers were decorative. The interior had circular gauges with black faces. Under the seats of early ’63s was a storage space. Firsts included optional knock-off wheels, air conditioning and leather seats. All four engines were 327s offering 250, 300, 340 and 360 hp. The 360-hp job carried Rochester fuel injection.

Styling was cleaner in ‘64. The split window was replaced by a one-piece rear window.

Styling was cleaner in ‘64. The split window was replaced by a one-piece rear window.

Styling was cleaned up in ’64. The coupe’s split window was replaced by a solid piece of glass. The fake hood vents were eliminated and the roof vents were restyled. A three-speed fan was available in the coupe to aid in ventilation. A quartet of 327-cid V-8s was offered again with 250, 300, 365 and 375 hp. The top engine option was fuel injected.

Three side louvers, a black-out grille and new rocker moldings were ’65 changes.

Three side louvers, a black-out grille and new rocker moldings were ’65 changes.

Three slanting louvers on the sides of the front fenders, a blacked-out grille with horizontal bars and different rocker panel moldings were ’65 styling changes. A new hood without indentations was standard, but ’Vettes with a new optional-at-midyear 396-cid “big-block” V-8 used a special hood with a funnel-shaped “power blister.” The instruments were changed to a flat-dial, straight-needle design with an aircraft look. The seats had improved support and new one-piece molded inside door panels. A four-wheel disc-brake system was standard, although drum brakes could be substituted for a $64.50 credit. Fuel injection was phased out at the end of the year. New options included side exhausts and a telescoping steering wheel. The 327 came in 250-, 300-, 350-, 365- and 375-hp versions (all with a four-barrel except the 375-hp fuelie) and the 396 produced 425 hp.

66’s got a chrome eggcrate grille, ribbed rocker moldings and spoke wheel covers.

66’s got a chrome eggcrate grille, ribbed rocker moldings and spoke wheel covers.

A plated, cast-metal grille with an “egg crate” insert, ribbed rocker panel moldings, chrome exhaust bezels, spoke wheel covers, vinyl-covered headliner and the elimination of roof vents characterized the ’66 ’Vette. The front fender sides again had thee slanting vertical air louvers. The seats had extra pleats. ’Vettes with the new 427-cid V-8 came with a power-bulge hood. The base 327 was up to 300 hp. A higher-compression version hit 350 hp. The big-block 427 came in 390- and 425-hp editions.

This particular ’67 Corvette was the first L88 built.

This particular ’67 Corvette was the first L88 built.

Some vote the ’67 Sting Ray as the most handsome since its styling was cleaner. 427s had a large front-opening air scoop over the center bulge instead of a funnel. Five functional vertical fender louvers leaned forward. Interior changes moved the parking brake from the dash to console. A new foam-and-fiber headliner was used. Four-way flashers, “lane-change” signal lamps, larger interior vent ports and folding seat-back latches were new.

Two round taillamps were on each side and back-up lamps were moved to the center rear. The optional finned aluminum wheels were restyled with a one-year-only, non-knock-off center. Eight V-8s were offered: two 327s and six 427s. Two rare big-blocks were the 16-built 435-hp Tri-Power L89 and the 20-built 560-hp four-barrel L88.

Make way for the Mako Corvette

The 1968 Corvette marked the model’s first major redo since ’63. “Corvette ‘68 . . . all different all over,” said Chevy. The design was inspired by the 1965 Mako Shark II concept car. There was a new tunnel-roof coupe with a removable back window and a two-piece detachable “T-top.” The convertible’s optional hardtop had a glass window. Front aerodynamics were enhanced. The hidden headlamps were now vacuum-operated and the wipers also “disappeared.”

Astronaut Alan Shepard owned this ‘68 Corvette.

Astronaut Alan Shepard owned this ‘68 Corvette.

Except for rocker panel moldings, the sides of ’68 Vettes were chrome-free. Push-button door handles were new. The blunt rear deck contained four round taillamps with the word Corvette printed in chrome letters in the space between them. The wraparound, wing-like rear bumper and license plate holder treatment resembled that used on the ’67 models. Engine selections were about the same, except the 425-hp 427 was gone.

Some early ’68s were problematic. At the time we had a baby food sales route. The supervisor purchased the first new ’Vette sold in New Jersey. It was a white car, but not because it had a clean service record. The 427 ragtop was in the dealer’s service department almost every week. It had its fair share of electrical problems. The boss got real frustrated when summer rolled around and he frequently had to drive his company-issued four-door while his expensive ($4,320) sports roadster was in for repairs.

The L88 engine is under the hood of this blue ’69 Vette T-top coupe.

The L88 engine is under the hood of this blue ’69 Vette T-top coupe.

After a year’s absence, “Stingray” (now one word) re-appeared on the front fenders of ’69 ’Vettes. Backup lamps were integrated into the center taillamps. The ignition was moved to the steering column and the door depression button used in 1968 was eliminated. (A key lock replaced it.) Front and rear disc brakes, headlamp washers, a center console, wheel trim rings, carpeting and all-vinyl upholstery were standard.

Eight engines were supplied again. Small-block cars received a new 350-cid V-8 that came in 300-, 350- and 370-hp versions. The big-blocks were all 427s with 390, 400, 435 and 430 advertised horsepower. That doesn’t add up because there were two 435-hp jobs and you can be sure the version with aluminum heads was rated conservatively. In addition, the “430-hp” L88 option was up around 560 hp again, but the feds were looking so Chevy played down the real number and officially used the 430-hp rating.

Industry-wide for 1969, total production of domestic sports-personal cars dropped for the third year in a row, but the ’Vette did not entirely follow the trend. After a slightly rough start in 1968, the new shark-style ’Vette had the marque’s best two years of the decade. In fact, the ’68 Vette outsold the Olds Toronado, Avanti II, AMC Marlin and Cadillac Eldorado, while the ’69 Stingray outsold three of the same models and the fourth — the AMC Marlin — was not in the mix and no longer being sold. The table below shows how well the ’Vette did, vis-a-vis its sporty competitors, between 1960 and 1969.

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