Home » Substance Or Style? 2003 Chevy Corvette vs 1978 Chevy Corvette

Substance Or Style? 2003 Chevy Corvette vs 1978 Chevy Corvette

Sbsd 4 28 2023
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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:

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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:

Vette Models

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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

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter overhead valve V8, four-speed automatic, RWD

Location: San Diego, CA

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Odometer reading: 94,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Ricki
Ricki
1 year ago

“The interior looks like it came out of a Camaro” and then points to the C3 as the more stylish car? Weird. Just… just weird, man.

notoriousDUG
notoriousDUG
1 year ago

Who is their right mind isn’t picking the bass-boat flake option?

Ok_Im_here
Ok_Im_here
1 year ago

C5 is the better of the two cars. But I do like the C3 better in looks, however, if I were to get a C3, it would be either at the beginning or the end, as I would want either a decent engine or the last couple of years where they added ground effects which IMO completed the look. I suspect the C3s with decent engines are all out of my price range at this point.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ok_Im_here
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 year ago

The first time I ever saw a C3 was when one crashed sideways into a pole at the end of our quiet street. Normally you would say, wrapped around the pole, this was more like just shattered. I didn’t know much about fibreglass until then.

I came upon the scene right after it happened, but a witness said he was driving very, very slowly and was very, very drunk. I don’t even think there were DUI laws back then, so it was all very funny. He was stumbling around bow legged, tangeled in his neck chains, reeking of cheap cologne.

Fair or unfair, that pretty much ruined the Corvette brand for me.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago

They’re both the wrong transmission, both have good paint colors, but the C5 gets my vote. In part because I own one (with the correct transmission) and because while I think the C3 is the best looking generation, the C5 is still attractive and it’s fun to drive, which the C3 will not be. Also, I’d have to sit on the roll bar and steer with my knees to fit “in” the C3.

The C3 is garage art, the C5 is a fun car.

Myk El
Myk El
1 year ago

I could afford a good corvette right now, but at my current age it’d be a stereotype. My dad had a good C3 for awhile, but the ownership experience wasn’t what he wanted. Too many kids trying to race him. Strangely getting asked for life advice when getting fuel because it projected success. There was also a bad repaint during his ownership which is a whole different story I won’t attempt to write out.

Anyway, since they’re both automatic, voting for the newer one. C5 it is.

05LGT
05LGT
1 year ago

C5 got my vote on the assumption that I was going to drive my choice. No doubt the C3 looks better in the driveway. Around here some sixtyish librarian lady would torture you chirping the tire in her Fit and running away at each stoplight ….

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago

C5 is the obvious choice. It has modern-ish Corvette performance and reliability, but at a bargain price. I need to buy one while they are still affordable.

Stacks
Stacks
1 year ago

When someone says “Corvette” the C3 is still the car that flashes into my mind. Oh my god, that paint, that T-top, somebody buy my kidney. The C5 is boring.

BOSdriver
BOSdriver
1 year ago

While the C3 looks way better, the C5 is the way to go for a car you can actually drive. Not only that, unlike earlier generations, tall guys actually fit, well at least my experience in a C5 convertible tells me I just barely fit, something I have been told by my C4 driving friend who says no way that I would fit in a C4.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 year ago
Reply to  BOSdriver

How tall are you? I have a C4, fit fine but any taller and there might be some issues.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago
Reply to  BOSdriver

The C5 was peak tall-guy Corvette. I barely fit in one, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t fit in any before or after.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

The C2 has always been my least favorite as well. To me, the modern Corvette started with the third generation, and each generation is the logical successor to the previous generation. The C1 and C2 generations seem to be different vehicles. However, the C1 has an appeal as the original Corvette, and I have always loved the styling of the C1 (particularly the ’53 and ’54 model years). C2 is the odd one out. It is a nice car, but I appreciate it as a generic nice classic car and not a Corvette.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
1 year ago
Reply to  Stig's Cousin

The C2 was the first Corvette with independent rear suspension, the first with disk brakes, and the first with a big block engine. It was the first ‘vette that Duntov really engineered.

It also had beautiful styling (particularly the ’63 split window). It wasn’t the first with fuel injection, but only one year of the C1 came with that option.

Having driven a C1 and a C2, the C2 is a much better car and the first real sportscar, IMO.

The C3 was pretty much a mechanical carryover of the C2 with a new body.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

News Flash, that’s the same experience with EVERY version of the Corvette. Went to a car show last month. Every 15th car was a corvette. All no miles, not special (but still a 1 of 300 based on their EXACT configuration), and waxed more times than they’ve seen highway speeds. Some still had factory plastic covering the gauges and stuff like that.

May favorite was the rat rod that left with a smokey burnout leaving all those old geezers shaking their fists.

DDayJ
DDayJ
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Fair. Drive the damn car. I have a few of these bad association cars myself.

Angular Banjoes
Angular Banjoes
1 year ago

I hate Corvettes. All of them. But I hate the C3 most of all, so I guess I’m gonna cast my vote for the C5.

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
1 year ago

you sound like quite the enthusiast.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
1 year ago

To me, the late C3 is the ultimate “style over substance” Corvette, and always will be. They’re tacky in a way that I just can’t explain. Worse than a screaming chicken Trans Am. Disco glitter paint just emphasizes that this car is all show and no go.

The 2003 is so much nicer in every way. First, it doesn’t look like a cheap cartoon drawing of a “sports car”. It looks real, and built to a purpose. The C3 has always looked like a balding 55 year old man’s attempt to pick up college girls.

The relatively poor performance on the track of the C3 is well known. Add in that they often suffer frame rot pretty badly and they’re out of the running for me in this comparison. Yeah, they can be made into strong track cars, but it takes a lot, and it’s hard to get it as nice as even a stock base model C5.

The C5 is when Chevy legitimately built the Corvette to challenge actual supercars. Sure, the hi-po C5 versions are better, but this is still great and easy to build up even better. I would be eager to take it out to track and run few (dozen) hot laps, and wouldn’t feel a trace of embarrassment. This is an incredibly easy win for the C5 in my world.

Fueledbymetal
Fueledbymetal
1 year ago

I’m honestly shocked the C3 isn’t winning by a large margin!

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
1 year ago

As far as C3’s go, I’d rather have the four speed: https://www.facebook.com/marketplace/item/175016562101395/?mibextid=dXMIcH

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
1 year ago

I worked at a cable TV company installing new services as a summer job one year. One of the full time guys bought a beat to hell C3 and was very proud of it. He even got a tacky custom plate (“2Cool” or something like that). One of the other guys I worked with had a girlfriend who was a graphic designer and she made a fake custom plate that said “IMAKNOB”. We attached it to the car and it took him about two weeks to discover the change. Since then, anyone who drives a C3 is a knob in my books.

And I’m sorry, but the car guy rules say anyone who hates the C2 shall be banned from automotive journalism for life…

TheCrank
TheCrank
1 year ago

Give me the Disco Vette for the win!

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
1 year ago

2003 Vette for me. It’s a much better car in every way… and has an actual trunk.

For that 78 Corvette to be worth the asking price, it needs to be manual and that passenger seat that needs to be reupholstered.

Cyko9
Cyko9
1 year ago

As a C3 fan, I voted for the looker with the amazing paint! Not sure about that steering wheel, though.

Matt Sexton
Matt Sexton
1 year ago

Since both are automatic and therefore disappointing, I’ll take the C3. Only because I’m pretty sure I already saw a couple yellow C5’s on the way to work this morning. The ’78 looks like it’s ready to party.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
1 year ago

I’ll take the C3. It’s a toy either way, used occasionally for a leisurely drive, and the C3 just seems to be more special and more of an event to drive.

DDayJ
DDayJ
1 year ago

C5 for me. I’m just not a fan of later C3s. But, my neighbor has a 71 with a four speed and that one I DO like. There’s something about cleaner styling of the early ones. Also I love C2s Mark!

Dug Deep
Dug Deep
1 year ago

After 25 years of marriage I still remember the first joke my wife ever told me. It was a penis joke about Corvette drivers. Personally I like both of these cars, but I can’t even pretend to choose one to buy.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
1 year ago
Reply to  Dug Deep

You can’t just leave without telling the joke!

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

Tucker, I share your love for the C3s, since (as another commenter said) it was The ‘Vette when I was a kid. My aunt bought a brand-new Silver Anniversary C3 with oyster interior when I was eleven and I’ve loved the bubble-back ever since. It’s probably too expensive and I would avoid eye contact with Camry owners at stoplights … but for something to drop into “D” and wheel down to the DQ, I’ll take it.

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 year ago

C3 for me, neither is a serious sports car and that wasp-waisted design just stands out.

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