No more Mr. Stingray.
As the Corvette became a more serious proposition after the commercially successful but softer by the year C3 Stingray, its publicity material followed suit…
When introduced for the 1968 model year, the voluptuous Corvette Stingray did not meet with the universal praise from the press that GM had hoped for. Of course, the C3 had big shoes to fill after its much loved predecessor, but embarrassing initial quality glitches as well as a perceived of loss of focus as far as the sportscar aspect was concerned did not help its plight either.
The buying public thought otherwise however, and as the seventies unfolded sales of the C3 actually went up year-on-year culminating in its best sales performance (for this particular model) in 1979. Nevertheless, those responsible for all things Corvette within Chevrolet division decided to change course for the next generation.
Designer Jerry Palmer had worked on facelifts of the C3 and was now tasked with styling the future Corvette. Chief engineer for the C4 project was Dave McLellan, successor of the famous Zora Arkus-Duntov. Palmer was a sports car aficionado and not exactly to the liking of some of his superiors at GM; often commuted to his job in his Ferrari 308GTB, an interesting connection to the Corvettes he worked on professionally being that his 308 was one of the rare early vetroresina fiberglass bodied examples.
Several experiments with mid-engined Corvette prototypes notwithstanding, the brief remained a front-engined V8 two-seater as before but without the superfluous styling gimmicks of C3 and with handling and braking characteristics to rival the best Europe had to offer.
All new from floor to roof, except initially at least the engine, the new Corvette that ultimately emerged still displayed the traditional Corvette styling cues its customers expected but in a sharper, lighter and more compact (9 inches shorter, 2 inches wider and a wheelbase shorn by 2 inches) package. The new so called Doug Nash 4+3 manual transmission, a four-speed manual with an automatic overdrive on the top three gears, was an interesting concept but did not earn a lot of fan mail during its existence due to its baulky gear linkage and some durability issues.
Contrary to previous ‘Vettes, the body panels of the C4 were not made from regular fiberglass but out of sheet moulding composite (SMC) plastics. Underneath the new skin the old body on frame construction was also relegated to the past, replaced by a uniframe. This is different from a true unibody/monocoque in the sense that only the door posts, windshield frame, the frame overhead behind the seats and the rear portion of the floor pan were welded into one assembly.
The front and rear five-link independent suspension featured transversely positioned composite material leaf springs, and the C4 Corvette was fitted with unidirectional tyres especially developed for this car by Goodyear. Vented disc brakes on all four wheels provided the stopping power.
Freerk Schaafsma, a Dutch-born engineer on the C4 development team, was one of the major contributors to the new underpinnings and in a Car and Driver report noted: “I was born and raised in Europe, and I know that a car doesn’t necessarily have to be like a European machine in order to be good“. He and his colleagues openly admitted however that the Porsche 928 was the data point on which a great deal of C4 development centred. “When we compared our car against the Porsche, I can tell you there were a lot of good feelings at Chevrolet” Schaafsma concluded.
By Corvette standards the 205 hp delivered by the carryover L83 engine with throttle body crossfire injection appeared rather tame, although it is important to keep in mind that US-specification versions of the Porsche 911 Carrera and Ferrari 308GTB QV had 207 and 233 hp at their disposal respectively, so the power deficit was not as large as one might think.
As the C4 Corvette neared its planned introduction, several quality issues with parts suppliers and logistical hiccups in the factory were the cause of an unusual occurrence: there would be no 1983 model year Corvettes. Instead, GM started the 1984 model year early. On January 3, 1983 the first 1984 Corvette rolled off the production line – it would not be until march of 1983 before the first cars were delivered to customers. During this unusually long model year well over 50,000 Corvettes would be sold, evidence that the new direction for America’s only sportscar had been accepted by the buying public.
The motoring press had mostly positive things to report about the new Corvette- roadholding was excellent and handling confidence-inspiring which made it easy to drive fast. To quote (translated) the normally not very US car-friendly German car magazine Auto Motor und Sport: “lightning quick yet very benign“.
The styling also drew many positive remarks. Testers were less happy with the harsh ride which, especially with the optional F51 suspension was a bit too much on anything other than a billiard table-smooth surface. The gearbox was deemed baulky and many scribes would have preferred analogue instrumentation over the complex digital instrument panel.
Over the course of its life the C4 Corvette benefited from continuous development; the suspension settings were softened slightly in 1985, and in the same year a new L98 V8 with electronic injection and 230 hp replaced the old L83. A significant event for traditionalists was the return of the Corvette convertible for 1986 after an absence of 11 years, the suspension settings were augmented once again for 1988 and the year after a ZF six-speed manual transmission replaced the 4+3 gearbox.
The big thing for the 1990 model year was of course the introduction of the mighty ZR-1 with its all-aluminium 390 hp 32-valve quad OHC V8 engineered by Lotus, the company having become part of the GM portfolio in 1986. This engine, known as the LT5 and manufactured not at GM but by Mercury Marine propelled the Corvette ZR-1 straight into supercar territory with a maximum velocity of 175 mph and a 0-60 time of just under five seconds. Over six model years 6939 ZR-1s were produced, and only available domestically. Another welcome change for 1990 was a remodelled dashboard, still partly digital but ergonomics and legibility were much improved.
An in hindsight perhaps unwise decision was a 1991 external facelift whereby the regular Corvettes now received the same rear end styling as the ZR-1 with square taillights; this change diluted the exclusivity of the ZR-1 as to most eyes all Corvettes now appeared virtually identical.
A more powerful 300 hp LT1 V8 powered the 1992 Corvette, again moving the standard car closer to the ZR-1. The year was cause for celebration at Chevrolet as the one-millionth Corvette was built.
As the end of the C4’s run neared, modifications were fewer but for its last season, 1996, an optional 330 hp LT4 engine became available.
To commemorate the final year of the C4 two special editions were offered: the Grand Sport and the Collector Edition. The Grand Sport was inspired by the original item of 1963 and available only in dark blue metallic with a white stripe (which made it resemble a Dodge Viper GTS to some), special black wheels and two bright red hash marks on the driver’s side front wing. A limited edition of just 1000 were made.
The Collector Edition had a paint job similar to the 1982 version that concluded the C3’s production run, painted Sebring silver and of course featuring special badging; 5412 were produced at a premium of US $1,250 over a standard Corvette.
The C4 set the Chevrolet Corvette firmly on a course towards becoming an alternative to be reckoned with by the international (read European) establishment and although it was just the first step on that journey, consecutive generations have remained true to this missive.
Early brochures for the Corvette C1 and C2, easily the most valuable now, were nothing exciting from a production values standpoint- often just simple folders and if they were stapled brochures they did not have many pages. The C3 Corvette continued this trend, but from the first brochure for the C4 model on (and just about every Corvette catalogue ever since) this changed radically.
Luxurious items, often in a matching envelope, they offered multiple high-quality paper pages and contained a wealth of detailed information; sometimes even with actual upholstery samples and paint chips.
For the C4 generation, the 1996 brochure is arguably the nicest with its arty cover, but every catalogue has its attractions as the theme changed almost yearly. The 1991 ZR-1 catalogue with its stiff carton slipcase is a very rare owner’s brochure presented to buyers who had placed an order for a ZR-1, so that item was never to be found in any showroom and is thus not easy to locate. The regular C4 brochures however can still be found for reasonable prices if one exercises some patience and shops around.