Good morning, Autopians! It’s Friday, so it’s time to blow the budget a little bit. And what better way to do that than with America’s sports-car darling, the Corvette? To keep things interesting, we’re looking at two very different eras of Vette, in similar condition, for a similar price. But before we get all baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie on you, let’s see who’s bigger in Japan:
Huh, I expected that to be a lot closer. I was spoiled for choice when it came to Celicas; I picked that one for the flip-forward lights. Maybe a different one would have put up more of a fight. Oh well, that Honda is pretty cool, even with the checkered past.
Now, I need to confess something, and it’s a bit of a dirty little secret to admit this to most gearheads, but I love, love, Corvettes. And the older they are, the better I like them. (Except the C2; I’ve never really warmed to that one.) [Editor’s Note: I’ve never met anyone who picks C2 as their least favorite ‘Vette? Huh. – JT] I’ve never owned a Corvette of any era, but they’re well-represented in my humble model car collection:
Yeah. And this isn’t even all my Corvettes. Hey, what can I say? It’s cheaper than golf and healthier than drugs.
So today, we’re looking at two Vettes, one from twenty years ago when they started to really become good driver’s cars, and one from the disco era, which looks fantastic but isn’t much of a performer. Will you choose substance, or style? Let’s find out.
2003 Chevrolet Corvette – $15,900
Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD
Location: San Diego, CA
Odometer reading: 94,000 miles
The C5 Corvette, introduced in 1997, has gained a perhaps unfair reputation as the official car of retired Baby Boomers. It makes sense: as the guys (and they were nearly all guys) who always wanted a Corvette but couldn’t afford one became empty-nesters and reached retirement age, this car was the “new Corvette.” It didn’t hurt that the C5 was more comfortable and refined than earlier versions. It also turned up the wick on performance, being the first GM car to use the now-legendary LS small-block V8.
This C5, like so many, is equipped with an automatic transmission. A six-speed manual was available, but many of the older owners opted for the two-pedal solution. This is sacrilege to many car folks, but Corvettes have had automatics since the beginning, and more than once in the car’s history it has been the only transmission available.
My biggest beef with the C5 is that it never felt very special; the styling is sort of bland, and the interior bits might as well have come from a Camaro. It’s a much better car than earlier Corvettes, but it feels too tame to me, and too plasticky.
This one is in great shape, and it’s yellow, which is arguably the best color for a C5, and it’s the 50th anniversary edition with the badges to prove it, if that matters to you. (In fact, I think the badges are the only difference.) It comes with a complete set of service records, and it has had a lot of recent work done. It feels like a safe bet, and maybe that’s the problem; Corvettes aren’t supposed to feel like a safe bet.
1978 Chevrolet Corvette – $13,900
Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD
Location: La Center, WA
Odometer reading: 140,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does
Now this is more like it, to me anyway. The “Coke-bottle” C3 body style has always been my favorite Corvette. Yes, I know this style included the worst performance years, but I’ve never cared much about speed anyway. The C3 looks cool, makes V8 noises, and feels special to drive, and that’s good enough for me.
1978 was the first year for the big glass back window; previous C3s had a small vertical rear window flanked by buttresses. The big window should have added some luggage space to the Corvette, but unfortunately it didn’t open; the only way to get luggage in and out of the space is by flipping the seats forward. This C3 has speaker boxes back there, which is probably a better use of the space.
You might have noticed that this car has an amazing paint job. It’s deep indigo, with huge metal flakes in it, and the seller says it flashes different colors in the sunlight. It’s an absolutely fitting finish for a ’70s Corvette, and personally I love it. But this car isn’t all just flashy paint; it has had a bunch of mechanical work to make sure it runs and drives like it should. It has new tires, and while I’m not too crazy about the aftermarket wheels, they could be a lot worse.
Yes, this is the nadir of Corvette performance. I’ve actually driven a ’78 with an automatic, and it’s… not fast. Horsepower was actually up by 20 from a couple years earlier, to 185, but it’s still nothing to brag about, even in the malaise era. But who cares? Grab some aviator sunglasses, trim up your mustache, and cruise.
Okay, maybe I’m romaticizing these cars too much. I mean, they’re just Chevys after all. But that was always sort of the point: they’re working-class heroes, something to aspire to that’s actually attainable, unlike a Ferrari or something. You’ve got two flavors to choose from: screaming banana yellow, or sparkly grape soda. Which will it be?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers, except the model cars – that one’s me)
I’m just gonna drop this here:
The C3 gets shit on so, so much, and I’ve never understood why. For my money, it is absolutely the sexiest body design ever released by an American automaker, ever. I mean ever. I suppose it’s because people like to complain about its malaise performance, but as a 1972 model myself, why don’t you people understand that everyone in the mid to late 1970s took their new cars home, ripped off a bunch of performance-robbing nanny devices, swapped a few parts and did a bit of tuning, and by day two they were partying like it’s 1969? For example, the catalytic converter from my uncle’s new 1979 Trans Am came off the very night he brought it home, and sat under the azalea bush next to my grandma’s garage for decades. The neighbors were not very happy when he fired it up at 7am the next morning with nothing but exhaust manifolds on it, to go straight to the muffler shop for true dual exhaust.
I wish I could vote for this particular C3 over this particular C5, but it’s overpriced. I’d rather buy a ratty one for five grand that I could take through the process I just described above. Plus, the C5 is glorious yellow, with all the modern conveniences of a modern automobile, so in this isolated case, it gets my vote.
I get what you’re saying, and I remember those days, too, but it’s not like we were suddenly getting 400 hp out of those 1970s 8:1 compression engines just by deleting the cats…
Maybe not, but it still wasn’t that difficult to release a few ponies trapped under the hood. Not to mention, a C3 will happily accept basically any GM go-fast parts made since 1955, and at 21st century market prices, it is perhaps the cheapest and blankest blank canvas around for performance shenanigans.
The paint almost swayed me to go C3, but I’ve always hated the late years of them. Give me a vertical rear window and it’s not even a competition, but the non opening hatch and the angled taillight panel are both super ugly to me.
I have a 1971 convertible that I bought in 1996. It’s a 4 speed with a 425 horsepower 355 that I built. My wife and I have driven it from Seattle to Napa, 850 miles each way, 5 times. Then we drive it around Napa and Sonoma for two weeks going to wineries and restaurants. The C3 has a lot more sense of occasion than the C5.
I stop and look at C3 ‘Vettes, but I’m too practical to drive one. I think yellow C5 might be the best C5!
Personally, I’m drawn to the proportions and size of the C6. Those are my first choice for looks! Not an option here…
C2 is actually my favorite body style and C3 my least favorite (I’m also a Corvette nut!). I was expecting to choose the C5 but… Something about that C3 seems right, and it being what it is feels more appropriate as an auto weekend cruiser.
I wouldnt want a vette after 1968.
I am curious what you feel us such an important difference between two almost identical years of Corvette.
Agreed. 68-72 are basically identical. If it’s got chrome bumpers it’s OK with me.