When archeologists dig down through the sedimentary layers of the 1970s, some dubious items may emerge. Shag carpets and mirrored ceiling tiles. Polyester disco suits and Farrah Fawcett wigs. And sooner or later, they will unearth the most telling cultural artifact of them all: a third-generation Chevrolet Corvette.
Few machines are as polarizing as the C3, also known as "The Coke Bottle Corvette." The C3 hit the market in 1968, and lasted until 1982. With its narrowed midsection and flared nose and tail, the car did resemble a Coke bottle, but other comparisons may be more apt. Viewed from the front quarter, the carapace is a steroidal vision: Like it or not, an engorged, V8-powered phallus comes to mind. From the rear, the C3's swollen thorax and nipped waist conjures a fiberglass Kim Kardashian that has been decked out with cooling scoops.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and for a certain stylistic constituency, the C3 was the perfect car. As I recall, Corvette ownership circa 1975 ran heavily toward the Fu Manchu-moustache-and-leather-jacket end of the scale – it was powered by testosterone as much as gasoline. When fictional porn star Dirk Diggler of Boogie Nights chose his dream car, what else could it have been but a Corvette C3 with a Hurst shifter, a high-lift camshaft and hand-rubbed Competition Orange paint? But the C3's story isn't quite as simple as that. The vehicle was also the chosen ride of the Gemini astronauts (they did get a discount from a Florida Chevrolet dealer, but the car definitely suited them, with its air of raw American performance). Other wellknown C3 drivers included Sammy Davis Jr. and David Partridge (he of the ultra-lame Partridge Family musical group). Most confounding of all, the C3 was the car of my literary hero Joan Didion, author of some of the finest non-fiction ever written. (If you haven't read Slouching Toward Bethlehem, you owe it to yourself to do so.)
Didion is a style icon, famous for her laconically cool presence and letter-perfect sense of fashion. In 1972, she became indelibly associated with the Corvette when she was photographed for Time magazine by Julian Wasser in what would prove to be a timeless series of pictures. Among the collection were images of Didion with her 1969 Corvette C3. (The pictures are black and white, but Didion's car was Daytona Yellow.)
I never really liked the C3 Corvette, but seeing Didion with hers challenged my aesthetic assumptions. With her leaning on its fender, a cigarette dangling from the thin fingers that had typed The White Album, the car suddenly seemed perfect. The horndog macho mobile was redeemed, at least for a moment. Chalk it up to style by association.
The history of the Corvette is not unlike that of America itself, veering from high to low, with the occasional excursion into farce. It all began in 1953, when Chevrolet introduced the first-generation Corvette at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel as part of the Motorama exhibition. The C1 was a sensation, but under its stylish skin (masterfully crafted by Don Draper-esque GM stylist Harley Earl) it was a mediocre machine, with an underwhelming engine and sub-par suspension.
In 1963, the second-generation Corvette was introduced. This was the Sting Ray, a car that inspired Beach Boys music and captured the spirit of America as it began its historic odyssey toward the moon landing. The sophomore Corvette was spot on, with an inspired combination of aggression and restraint, and a tail-end that conjured days on a California drag strip.
And then came the C3. In a 1968 road test, Car and Driver magazine called the new Corvette "the Barbarella of the carmaker's art," and waxed poetic about the car's magnetic allure to the male species: "Corvette owners begin with very young men who can barely afford the front money, care nothing about sports cars, and invariably lose their driving licenses for overindulging," they wrote. "But Corvette owners also include middle-aged doctors and lawyers who view their cars as surrogate mistresses."
The 1968 model was available with a 427-cubic-inch V8 that produced 400 horsepower. But as the years passed, tough new emissions standards gradually choked the life out of the 'Vette – by the mid– 1970s, the C3 was a wheezing, emasculated parody of its former self. (If you watched Boogie Nights, you will realize that the decline of the car paralleled that of Dirk Diggler himself as cocaine and partying took their toll on his priapic powers.)
The Corvettes that followed the C3 were toned down, as if GM had finally lost its nerve. Generations four and five look like rental cars compared to the C3. Now we're up to the C7, which is a far better car than any of the previous models, with a just-right combination of bulges and curves. But will it go down in history like the C3, hormone-laced mako shark that it was?
Like it or not, the C3 is an American icon. It came out as Jimi Hendrix headed toward Woodstock, and it peaked as John Travolta commanded the dance floor in Saturday Night Fever. By the time GM killed it off in 1982, it was the Fat Elvis of the car business, a legend well past its prime.
I've driven dozens of C3s and, to tell you the truth, I always felt ridiculous in them. The fenders were too swollen. The front end was too much like a sexual appliance. And yet in its own, unique way, the C3 is perfect. It was made for a time when too much was just enough.
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