Danger Lurks Underneath: 1969 Chevrolet Corvette

By Jeff Bennett

From December 1958 through his retirement in July of 1977, Bill Mitchell was the vice president in charge of the styling section of General Motors.  While he did not personally design each car to come out of the styling section, he ruled the studios like a Colossus.  His direction and direct involvement on a number of personal favorites, resulted in a number of iconic cars that are still coveted today.  He loved Corvettes, and was personally involved in the design of both the C-2 and C-3 models.  Mitchell’s influence was so powerful that he was able to overrule Zora Arkus Duntov, the Corvette’s godfather and chief engineer,  concerning the split window on the 1963 Corvette.  When it came time to redesign the stunning Sting Ray, the replacement was startlingly different, but, again, incredible in every way.  Even though 48 years have passed since it rolled off the assembly line, this 1969 Corvette, found on craigslist in Wamego, Kansas for an asking price of just $12,000, is still beautiful beyond words.  However, there are a few issues with this Fathom Green beauty that we cannot overlook.

It is rumored that General Motors hasn’t made a dime off of Corvette production since 1953.  While the car earns its keep as a “halo” car to attract customers into the showrooms who later end up buying lesser models, the engineering costs for the car have always been quite high.  The platform has often been used by General Motors to develop new designs and processes, and many of the parts on the Corvette are unique to that model.  Duntov used to find ways to get the Corvette’s engineering bills paid for by charging them off on other parts of General Motors.  Mitchell would also help the car along by financing racing endeavors out of his own pocket.  Historians who specialize in the Corvette can point to a number of people involved with the program who took chances, bucked corporate edicts, and made career ending decisions to make the Corvette better.  If it hasn’t made GM any money directly from sales, it has been the car that has given many a GM employee a reason to be proud.  The Corvette has always represented the best of General Motors and its people.

Nobody could doubt that the 1968 Corvette, which would come to be known as the Stingray in 1969 (one word instead of two), was going to be a desirable car.  With styling based upon the Mako Shark II show car of 1965, the car was an instant success.  Unfortunately, Duntov had been distanced from the Corvette program before production began, and quality control on the 1968 cars was abysmal.  This was not helped by the fact that the car had problematic vacuum controlled headlights and a panel that hid the windshield wipers when not in use.  Add to that fit and fitment issues, overheating, and other various teething pains that could be expected in a first model year, and you can see why buyers were dissatisfied.  The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was Car and Driver’s initial road test of the 1968 Corvette in the December 1967 issue.  Or rather, lack of a road test.  They deemed the car so poorly assembled that they refused to do a road test on it.  GM executives, terror stricken from the negative publicity, sent Duntov right back to his old job with orders to fix the problems ASAP.  Problems were worked on and, eventually, solved or smoothed over and the third generation Corvettes sold well for a number of years.

As we all know, these Corvettes are still very popular.  While later C-3 Corvettes ended up being rather domesticated in comparison to earlier ones, the early C-3s usually command higher prices.  The earlier cars were fire breathing monsters compared to the later cars, with the earliest among them still offering options that could turn the Corvette into anything from a long legged cruiser to a full bore race car.  They still had quality control problems, and the ride could shake the fillings out of your teeth if you equipped the cars with a stiff suspension.  You could say that the roughness and lack of charm gave them character, and you would be right.  They lacked the precision of a 911, or the grace of a Jaguar, but Corvette owners had nothing to be ashamed of.  There is something to be said about the brutal efficiency of a meat cleaver in a drawer full of scalpels.

This particular Corvette seems to have lived a brutal life.  When you look at the rear tires in the pictures above, it is obvious that the owner likes to leave stoplights in a memorable way.  The front end looks a bit askew, and it would be a good idea to inspect there carefully for accident damage.  As stated previously, build quality is shoddy on early C-3s, as you can see from the slightly visible bonding strip marks in the fiberglass, but the fitment of the chrome and headlights is a bit rough here.  Inside, once you get past the cheesy aftermarket steering wheel, mats, and T-handle for the shifter, the interior is surprisingly complete and in good condition.  I am not sure if the upholstery on the seats is factory original, as I have never seen two tone green seats on a Corvette before.  The radio is also an aftermarket item, but you can get radios that look like factory models, but have all of the modern amenities such as Bluetooth and smart phone compatibility.  While it is not an air conditioned car, the back window and the T-tops can be removed to give you some high speed ventilation.  You will likely need it, as these cars can get very warm due to the close proximity of the headers and exhaust, and the weak factory insulation.

While the car is not equipped with a rip snorting 427, the GM replacement engine is a 1970 edition 350.  This makes us wonder if the engine was replaced under warranty, and why this happened in the first place.  Evidently this one was a good motor, as it has lasted through decades of obviously heavy use.  Over the years, it has seen some of the tell tale additions that happen to a car when its owner gets a Summit Racing catalog every other month.  The yellow plug wires look to be from Mallory, but I cannot tell if the distributor is a Mallory unit as well.  The coil is also hard to identify, but the valve covers and the t-bar valve cover bolts are pure aftermarket.  Another tell tale sign is the flex fan with an extender.  Chances are this Corvette runs warm enough to be an occasional problem, but most of this vintage have problems with cooling.  If you purchase one of these Corvettes, your best bet is to purchase a Be Cool radiator.  These are much improved from the stock radiators, and will give you some measure of calm when stuck in traffic.  Another trick is to install a fan clutch for a heavy duty GMC truck.  Unlike modern fan clutches that lock up at temperatures from 185-210 degrees, these clutches lock up at 165 degrees.  They make a big difference for a small price.

The big problem with this one is rust in the frame.  The average enthusiast thinks that rust is not a problem for Corvette owners because the car is made of fiberglass.  The issue is that the car sits on a rather conventional frame.  Chevrolet used the same frame, with a few changes here and there, from 1963 through 1982, and patching parts and reinforcements are available from the aftermarket.  While many of the pictures in the original ad show surface rust, the areas around where the jacking points and the kick up of the frame over the rear wheels originates are of special concern.  Not only does this complex area mark the meeting point between the center box section and the supporting frame for the rear of the body, it is also in the vicinity of where the trailing arms bolt in.  Heavy rust here is dangerous, as the swing arms are the pieces where the rear wheels are mounted in the independent suspension, and they are subject to a lot of torqueing and twisting on a car like this.  Further complicating matters is that the area is very hard to inspect properly with the swing arm still attached.  When you look at the amount of rust that is already there, I don’t think you are at a crisis point yet, but it is coming if something is not done to address or repair this area.  Some POR-15 would help right now, and may help put off the repair until you find the time and cash to do it right.

If this were an average, every day car, I would have continued clicking on Craigslist.  Fortunately, it is a fairly desirable Corvette in running, unrestored condition.  Not many of these have made it this far without at least an amateur restoration.  The frame condition scares me, but I don’t think the problem is insurmountable.  It will never be a matching numbers car with the replacement engine, but this frees your conscience if you decide to replace the motor or build it up into a screamer.  The car is a four speed, and it is decked out in a gorgeous shade of green.  With the Corvette rally wheels, the thin chrome bumpers, and even the luggage rack, it just looks plain mean.  With the interior in such good condition, I’d be tempted to leave the exterior finish as-is, with the exception of trying to do something with the front end.  Some cars are born with unfortunate color and option combinations that just look terrible.  This Corvette is visually perfect, and it deserves a caring owner.

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Comments

  1. Sam sharp

    Remember the ‘true story’ about the Mouse and the Corvette…

    1+
  2. 86 Vette Convertible

    Let’s see: replaced engine, headers, some non-std exhaust, some rust on the frame, no info on the birdcage, no listing of mileage, a few questionable items.
    If it could be gotten for a decent price, some work, a replacement frame and C4 suspension could really liven it up.

    Just depends on what you could get it for.

    4+
  3. Tom Hall

    Well done, Jeff!
    Best part: “There is something to be said about the brutal efficiency of a meat cleaver in a drawer full of scalpels.”

    And, while we are on the subject of Corvettes: they had a good thing going with C5, then better with C6, but sorry, C7 just doesn’t work for me – looks like a Camaro on steroids

    8+
    • Barzini

      I agree with the compliments for a well-written and informative post by Jeff. My favorite part: “When you look at the rear tires in the pictures above, it is obvious that the owner likes to leave stoplights in a memorable way.” If I could write like that, I would have a very different career.

      4+
  4. Gearheaddropping

    I have owned a 1970 for 24 years and I have a love/hate relationship with it. Along with the rust and birdcage issues mentioned above, these cars have a vacuum system from hell that powers pretty much everything from the wiper door, headlight doors, as well as the HVAC ventilation system. So, when there is a vacuum problem, not only will one of these components not work, the car will start running like s**t. These vacuum hoses start to get week and run in bundles all over the firewall and underneath the dash. Its really a ton of fun keeping it all working.

    The other things that are a challenge on these cars are the brakes and heat. If you let the car sit too long air gets in the brake lines. I am on my second set of calipers and I have to bleed all four every spring. The heat these cars produce in the cabin can get pretty bad in the summer with the way the exhaust is routed and the minimal insulation a long trip can be pretty brutal (I used to drive to Bloomington Gold in mine in the 1990’s and by the end of the trip, I could push my finger into the sole of my shoe up to the first knuckle do to the heat.)

    Other than that, these chrome bumper C3’s were in my dreams when I was a kid. I still remember seeing a Lemans Blue 1969 427 sidepipe car when I was 7-8 and they have had a soft place with me ever since. Mine was the first major purchase after I graduated from college and I have done 100’s of hours worth of work to keep it on the road. They are great cars, but not for the meek.

    This one is not that great of deal IMHO. These cars just don’t get the respect of the C2’s so the price remains depressed IMHO.

    8+
  5. On and On

    The fastest I ever went in a car was in a 1969 brown 427. My roommates brother was a pilot off to Viet Nam. He got to drive the car from time to time while his bro was away. Yep, one night we headed out of San Diego north on HWY 395. It had a 4-speed and a tall rear end. He had it up to 130mph. After that I don’t remember. It was 1969 and we we’re 18 if you know what I mean……..

    15+
  6. Vincent

    Hi. I’ve written about my affectation for oddball cars I’ve owned (Yugo, Saab, x1/9 among othets), but the C3 vette is my current money pit.

    I’m doing a restoration of a 1969 Monaco orange convertible with an L-46 350/350 4 speed.

    I asked, when i started, if i could get the car back before it snowed. They said yes… but i should have asked what year.

    I agree: the C3 is a brutal car, but that is why I want it. I look forward to owning an all electric fully autonomous vehicle in the near future as my primary vehicle, but I will still own this Vette, no matter the price of oil or insurance in the future.

    It is the relationship with a car that has no power steering, spews hydrocarbons, and sounds like a dragon that I’ll enjoy.

    I fully expect my car to be near museum quality when done, but the I plan to drive the snot out of it, living on the dirt road here in Colorado as I do.

    I am building this as a true frame off restoration, with all parts breing from the timeperiod: rubber bushings, standard disk brakes, and an engine brought back to spec. I want the felling of a new 1969 vette.

    I would not advise this insanity for others, but for me, I’m smiling!

    8+
    • Rocco Member

      @Vincent,
      I like stories like this. The only thing I differ on is brakes(for some cars) if there is an issue. You don’t have to run the s**t out of it every day, but you can grab rubber at every shift if desired.
      I’m smiling with ya.

      2+
  7. lawrence

    GM was smart putting in those vacuum assist parts early on in all styles….and the hoses we love to chase down right….dealer help anyone ?

    0
  8. W9BAG

    I’ve only been in 3 Corvettes: a really nasty ’74 that ran on only 7 cylinders, a most recent ride in a ’16 ZO6 (damn…), and a ’69, when I was 17 years old, owned by my neighbor, Jeff Titsworth. Gotta smile when you say that name. He was a really popular guy, especially with the girls, and the car just fit him to a “T”. White, 4 gear, and what he referred to as the “Rat” 454. I’ve never heard of a “rat” 454. Have any of you ? It was a sick car. Sick, I mean it was just plain nasty. First through 3rd was mayhem. Side pipes (factory) ? Coolest car in the subdivision. 1 car as cool at school: a 1970 Chevelle SS 454 LS-5, 4 gear, cowl induction. I believe it would have been a fantastic show of raw power, and testicular fortitude, but both drivers conceded to the fact that it might either result in incarceration or death to have a speed contest. This was in 1977.

    2+
    • leiniedude

      In Wisconsin the Rat motor was a big block Chevy motor. The small block Chevy motor was nicknamed the Mouse motor.

      4+
      • Rocco Member

        I thought everyone knew that. Wait, not everyone is as old as me. LOL

        3+
  9. Michael Proulx

    I owned a 1969 Monza red 350/350 horse 4 speed , cool car 1969 was the only year the rear window was removable to my knowledge , I promptly installed a 468 BB , with a offenhouser dual tunnel ram , it had x-nascar heads a nice bump stick and high compression , it was a beast , my friend had a 69 with a cross ram intake and 2 850 holley carbs it looked awesome , a meat cleaver I would have to agree.

    5+
    • Mike F.

      Michael,

      I have a ’71, it has the removable rear window. I think ’68-72 had them. A nice feature, I appreciate it more than T-tops.

      Nice hearing all these C3 stories!

      1+
      • leiniedude

        Mike F. I agree on the 68-72 cars with the removable rear window. My 1972 backglass is out right now and is most of the summer. A great feature. I can’t remember who, but a reader here changed there fixed glass backglass to the removable one on his later Stingray. I hope they see this story and post some photos again. It is really cool to see!

        0
  10. charlie

    Friend loaned me his ’73, a 350, detuned for emissions reasons, fast enough for all practical purposes, looks so good, so uncomfortable for trips longer than a half hour each way. HOT, and I mean interior temperature in the summer with no A/C despite T tops removed and windows down. Rattles and shakes. LOUD. No way to hear the radio in the summer with aforesaid T tops off and windows down. Wet, with T tops on and windows up, the rain just came in, had to bail out the floors every time, take out the carpet so it would dry and floor pan would not rust out. GM has done far better – and my ’67 Pontiac had the same GM vacuum arrangement to run the heater/A/C controls. Ineffective when you needed it in the cold. Fun to play with, but I would not want to marry, or own, it.

    0
  11. Jay E.

    Need a thumbs up option for the write ups! Nice job.Not may burnouts left on those tires, they exhibit the classic burnout profile.

    4+
  12. 64 bonneville

    GM V-8 that were swapped by the dealer due to the engine crapping out, under warranty, are stamped CE for Corporate Exchange. Engine could be considered “original” under Corvette standards if so stamped. Personally I would lok for another frame to put under it, and just have a hell of a lot of fun driving it. what good is an old car if you can’t, won’t or are afraid to drive it due to you magnamous wallet (checkbook)? we love ’em because they are fun and/or unusual.

    1+
  13. PRA4SNW

    Kudos to the seller for posting frame pics in all the right places. Too bad more sellers (especially EBayers) won’t do the same. Most of them look like this, okay for now but on the verge of needing repair, replacement.

    I think this car is priced right. There is enough here to work with, and it hasn’t been hotrodded.

    Having owned a ’70 Convertible for close to 30 years, I find that I miss the feeling of owning and driving a car that you can truly work on yourself and leaves you buzzing (and smelling like exhaust) after driving it. After a friend wouldn’t stop talking about how great his C5 is, I asked him to let me drive it. I took a turn and then my wife took a turn. We both felt that it was like driving any old car. Makes me want a C3 again, I’ll have to try a C4.

    1+
    • Gearheaddropping

      I have driven all generations of Corvettes and own a 1970 and 2007. I am not a huge fan of the C4 to be honest with you. The ingress and egress is a pain in them and they have just as many creeks as C3’s IMHO.

      I would go get another bumper C3 if I were you. There are tons of deals that can be had, especially on the ’69, ’71, and ’72 models. As you probably know, the 1970’s are harder to find because of the UAW strike that closed down the plant for so long.

      1+
      • PRA4SNW

        Thanks for the advice. I’ve been leaning back that way, actually.
        Even a last model 80 – 82 with some go fast add-ons might work as a fun car without costing too much.

        1+
      • Vincent

        On the other hand, plenty of really nice cheap C4 convertibles out there that are troublefree and can go cross country without hesitation. We did a Denver to U.P. run taking all backroads in white ’89 vette, red leather interior. You can get one road-ready for 10-12k. Sau what you will, people seem to like the C4 as they have seen MANY of them. Everyone has a story they want to tell… 😁

        0
  14. On and On

    OK-OK. Heard enough. I like C3s. Always did. IMHO all yes all cars have issues. I have a line on a 1968 roadster, 327/300. 40,000 mi., white with black top- black interior. Only options on window sticker are FM radio, tinted windows and posi-traction. Thats it. 2nd owner wants 20k. I’ve driven it. Any thoughts?

    1+
    • Vincent

      No. Overpriced. The 327/300 is the weakest of the C3 engines. Unless that is pristine, just walk away.

      I suggest you start your search with an eBay search for the chrome bumper years, and have that come to you daily to understand the market.

      If that’s a driver quality, you may snag them at 16k.

      As I was once told, the corvette you REALLY want to buy is 10K more than you want to spend, but when you sell, it’s always 10k less than you hoped to get.

      2+

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