One and Only

Why did Chevrolet skip what would have been the 30th-anniversary model year, and how did a single car survive?

Photo: One and Only 1
November 9, 2023

As we know, the C4 Corvette was a complete redesign. After nearly two decades of fast and sexy but structurally crude C1, C2, and C3 Corvettes built on essentially the same old frame, Chief Engineer Dave McLellan’s team designed and developed an all-new Vette to be substantially more refined, and fully competitive with its pricier rivals from Europe.

Initially intended as a 1982 model, it was 8.5 inches shorter, two inches wider, and about 150 pounds lighter than the body-on-frame C3 it would replace. The new body/frame-integral structure and chassis rode a two-inch-shorter wheelbase and used transverse leaf springs front and rear. But the all-new car’s extensive development process caused its production launch to slip to fall 1982 as a 1983 model, the Corvette’s 30th-birthday year. Then, to generate sales of the continuing C3, Chevrolet created a Collector Edition ’82 Corvette featuring a throttle-body-injected 5.7-liter V-8, a new four-speed automatic transmission, and a one-piece glass hatchback similar to the one planned for the C4.

The C4 was also initially designed with a two-piece T-top, but then-Chevrolet Chief Engineer Lloyd Reuss decided that it needed a one-piece removable “targa” roof panel (like the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 308 GTS) instead. And that seemingly simple mandate resulted in a major structural redesign that required almost another year of development. Minus the center T-top post, the car’s lower structure needed to be much stiffer, with taller side rails that raised its door sills and impaired ingress and egress.

Photo: One and Only 2

This clay model shows the C4 body design in a highly evolved state. Note that the nose treatment is similar to the one later applied as part of the car’s 1991 makeover.

Not Quite All-New

“The forged aluminum [suspension] was a big step forward,” McLellan told this writer in a 2013 interview for CM. “We had started doing forged aluminum suspension parts on the C3 to gain experience on their corrosion and durability, and we worked very hard on the C4 to deal with corrosion. The frame structure was two-sided galvanized steel, the body fasteners were stainless steel, and all the chassis fasteners were coated, so you could take the car apart 10 years later with everything not corroded in place.

“We had optional Bilstein shocks, and the brakes—which came from Australia through a Girling/Lockheed joint venture—were a very significant improvement. We also got the drag coefficient down to 0.33-.34, depending on how you pitched the car, compared to the C3, which was up around 0.5. [Corvette lead designer] Jerry Palmer and his team did most of that work in Lockheed’s wind tunnel in Marietta, Georgia.” The team also worked hard to keep the new car as light as possible.

Unfortunately, the soon-to-be 1984 model’s engine was carried over from ’82 with the two throttle-body injectors that Chevrolet marketing dubbed “Cross-Fire Injection.” Although there was a more advanced option in the GM inventory, legal issues conspired to keep it out of the company’s new flagship sports car.

Photo: One and Only 3

“GM had done a port-injection system with Bosch for the Cadillac Seville,” McLellan explained, “but there were contractual problems with that, so [then-Chevrolet General Manager Bob] Stempel told us to stay away from it.”

Working toward the planned fall launch of 1983 30th Anniversary Corvettes, the new Bowling Green plant started building “validation cars” with production-intent parts in mid-1982. But some key pieces were delayed, emissions certification and structural development were still ongoing, and those early examples were clearly too rough and crude to go to market. So that build was stopped at 44 cars, all of which would eventually be ordered to be destroyed.

Stay of Execution

Ralph Montileone, who was plant quality manager at the time, was responsible for getting that done. Which he dutifully did—except for one that somehow survived. More than three decades later, he told Olaf Wolff in a 2015 interview for Corvette Online that he remembers “like it was yesterday” the day in June, 1982 when he got the word to destroy the cars. As bad as they were, they could have been legally sold (through auctions or to employees) as used vehicles with test miles on them. But, Montileone said, “they had so many issues that they just could not have been released…There were government emissions issues to body-fit problems to instrumentation.”

Photo: One and Only 4

Some were driven to Detroit for testing and disposal. “Engineers would fly down to the plant…and drive a group of vehicles back,” he said, “[but] we kept the majority. The truth is, we did not want people to see the poor quality. The instructions given to me were to make them all go away, and there is a formal General Motors procedure to make that happen.”

All the automotive magazines were already printing breathless stories predicting great things for the all-new 1983 Corvette, so GM knew that this next-gen launch had to be perfect. “After sitting through many meetings filled with very high daily doses of stress from reading product reviews,” Montileone continued, “and realizing how many issues that the vehicle[s] had, this unpopular decision was made. If that major model change had failed, it could have been the death of the Corvette.”

“It is really a big issue in GM that each and every [preproduction] vehicle is…disposed of and documented. I had all intentions to follow up and make certain that all vehicles were gone. I had already made sure that the paperwork was complete on all the others…that we had on site. We brought [them] in, used a die grinder to cut the windshield and remove the VIN plates, then turned them in to the finance department.” Then the cars went to a portable crusher that was there at the time.

Photo: One and Only 5

A late-1981 fiberglass model shows the two wheel designs being considered at the time.

“But the darn rain hit so hard,” Montileone recalled. “That last, white ’83 Vette was sitting out in about three inches of water. I figured as soon as it stopped and the water went down, I could go out.” But when he went out to get the car the next morning, word had spread that all the ’83s had been crushed, so the crusher was gone. “I did get it moved to another location, which made some think they were all destroyed…and Finance, I guess, did not count the VIN plates.”

The car then sat behind the plant for quite a while. “There were a lot more things going on than people worrying about that vehicle,” Montileone said. “We missed a model year, and we had to figure out how to keep selling ’82 Corvettes…But I knew the ’83 was there and was glad the heat died down about it. There were…closed-door office discussions about me not getting my job done, and I would never let that happen again.”

Over the next several years, Montileone related, GM and Chevrolet upper management changed, a new Corvette plant manager came in, and he transferred to Cadillac in Detroit. “The new plant manager didn’t know why this old engineering vehicle was sitting out back. He [decided] to keep it and parked it inside at the plant-tour entrance [refinished in a red, white, and blue color scheme]. Then the National Corvette Museum came along, and GM donated [it] to be displayed at the museum.”

Photo: One and Only 6

GM execs admire a preproduction ’83 in Bowling Green. All but one of these cars were later crushed to prevent them from being sold to the public.

Display Model

National Corvette Museum Curator of Collections and Exhibits Manager Bob Bubnis corroborates Montileone’s story and adds more to it. “Ralph was in charge of destroying those cars. He had to get the rivets out of the VIN plates, send those plates to Detroit, and certify that the mobile car crusher had destroyed them all,” Bubnis said. “But this one had been sent to Detroit for an executive review in place of another one that wouldn’t start, and when it came back, it was not on the list. They assumed it was still in Detroit. That’s why it was the last one.

“I was hearing different stories and wanted to get to the bottom of it. So, I got everyone who was associated with that car…and had a roundtable to discuss it. It was a great moment but didn’t get to the bottom of why it was saved. So, I wrote an article for our member magazine. And about three weeks after it was printed, Ralph contacted me and said he had seen the story, and that’s how I was able to validate all of that.”

How did the Museum acquire the car? “When Paul Schnoes, the plant manager at the time—a Corvette guy and a big proponent of the museum—saw it, he realized it was the only ’83 in existence,” Bubnis says. “So, he brought it into the shop, had his people repaint it [in its original white] and put it on display there. Then he worked his magic on his end to get everyone to agree to let us have it here. It is still owned by GM but displayed here on a permanent loan that is renewed every year. They realize that it is one of our crown jewels, and this is the usually only place where people can see it, though it does get out now and then.”

Years later, in 2014, this lucky-to-exist ’83 Corvette was dangerously close to the chasm that swallowed eight rare and historic Corvettes. “It was not far from the sinkhole,” Bubnis relates, “about 20 feet away from falling in. As far as we knew when we were there at 7:00 that morning, we were in danger, and so were the cars. We could hear debris continuing to fall, there were other noises in that area, and had the sinkhole gone any further, the whole thing would have collapsed. We had to go in and save this very important piece of history, so that was the first car we rescued that day.”

Wowing ‘Em at Woodward

In a rare appearance outside of the Corvette Museum, the one-and-only 1983 Corvette—along with 69 others, one for each model year—was a key element of a “70 Years of Corvette” display at the Woodward Dream Show, held in August at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. Many auto shows throughout the country honored Corvette in its 70th-anniversary year, but this is the only one we know of featuring cars spanning the marque’s entire production run.

There are many accounts of why Chevrolet elected to skip 1983 entirely, when what would have been the Corvette’s 30th-anniversary model was deemed not ready for prime time. But we’ll let Dave McLellan have the last, definitive word.

“It was a big changeover at Bowling Green,” he explained, “and some major components were not going to be available until after the first of the year. The EPA rule is that the model year can only have one January first in it, so if you start on January second, the first January first is the following year. We could have built ’83-model cars for seven months, then changed all the paperwork to ’84, and that was considered, but Chevrolet elected not to do that.”

Sidebar: Rendezvous at Riverside

When Chevrolet hosted a preview drive of the all-new C4 Corvette for magazine writers in late 1982, we were treated to multiple hot laps on California’s famous (and sadly now defunct) Riverside Raceway. I knew that track well and was pleasantly surprised when Corvette lead designer Jerry Palmer asked for some demo laps in his proud creation.
We grabbed a Z51 four-speed manual, belted ourselves in, and headed out onto the road course. I had already enjoyed several laps in that same car and had come away impressed. Even in street trim, the new C4 took to the track like a hungry bear to honey. It was fast and amazingly athletic for its size and weight. Chief engineer Dave McLellan, development engineer Fred Schaafsma and their teams had done their work well.
Once clear of the pit wall, we rocketed up the straight toward Riverside’s Turn Two. Approaching at well over 100 mph in Fourth (the digital speedo went to just 85), I came off the gas and squeezed on the brakes to settle the suspension, then sailed through at full-throttle with ease. We picked up more through to the faster, trickier Turn Four with hardly a protest from the Goodyear “Gatorback” unidirectional tires. Most impressive was the way the Corvette’s new fiberglass-sprung aluminum suspension handled the rough surface through parts of this fast section nearly unfazed, even under a heavy cornering load.
Hard braking and a downshift to Third set us up for the slower Turn Five. The Corvette settled on its suspension and shot through under power, then up the hill toward the infamous, Second-gear Turn Six with its outside wall. We clipped an early apex, then arced back to mid-track toward the next inside apex in a gentle, part-throttle drift. A quick upshift to Third brought us to the outside exit at the track’s left edge, pointing slightly right for a short burst of downhill acceleration before braking hard again for a tight, left-hand hairpin. It was here where the Corvette’s brakes took their toughest beating, but lap after lap, they never faded.
We tracked straight through the double-apex, right-hand Turn Seven A at part throttle over washboard bumps at the corner’s tightest point, then hit full power well before the second apex. This meant upshifting to Third while still cornering hard approaching the far-left exit, and the car performed this potentially unsettling maneuver without the slightest instability.
Following that was Riverside’s long back straight, where the Corvette probably reaching its claimed top speed of 140 mph-plus. Thanks to extensive wind-tunnel work by Palmer and his group, it remained rock-steady, with no unsettling lift and very little increase in wind noise. Only the big V-8 under the hood, the 255mm Goodyears singing softly, and the guardrail posts flashing by on both sides gave any indication of our speed. The dogleg left near the end of the straight was an easy, no-lift bend for the Corvette as well.
Riverside’s famous Turn Nine, a 180-degree sweeper that resembles one end of a half-mile oval, had eaten more than its share of cars through the years. The trick was to enter high on the left, ease down toward mid-track, then start bringing it down further toward the inside. Skirting the inside edge, we held a long, tight apex until the track began to straighten, then eased on throttle and let the car out in an increasing arc to the exit point just off the far-left wall.
This required some braking at the entrance, then a feather-throttle cruise through the turn at the limit of traction before it would take full power again from apex to exit. This would have been no problem but for the “4+3” transmission’s overdrive, which was programmed to engage as soon as you lift your foot in Fourth gear. That did give us a little trouble in Turn Nine, but most drivers are not going to be cornering that hard and fast on public roads.
Charging full-bore out of Nine put us on the short start-finish straight in front of the pits, moving slightly right to set up for the left-hand dogleg Turn One. The track is bumpy at this point, but the C4 sailed through flat-out with little drama. A half-dozen laps later, we brought it back into the pits with both of us grinning ear-to-ear.
By early 1980s standards, that new Corvette’s overall performance was terrific. Chevrolet claimed 6.8-second 0-60 performance with the automatic, 6.3 with the manual. We didn’t get a chance to verify those times but wouldn’t dispute them. The optional Z51 suspension was very effective, and despite its reputation today, it felt less harsh than previous heavy-duty underpinnings. Low unsprung weight helped keep the rubber on the road where it belonged on uneven surfaces, and the new geometry and fantastic Gatorback rubber combined for smooth-road cornering power in the unbelievable (at the time) 0.95g range.
It was a great day of track testing the impressive new C4 Corvette that would later become a 1984 model. And I still have the rare “1983 Corvette” ashtray they gave us as a souvenir. It was no racecar, but a passenger car you could buy—and in my view, the closest thing to a racecar mass-produced in America at the time.

Also from Issue 166

  • C8 Z06 Track Thrash
  • Theft-Recovery ’63
  • Zora's LS4 Coupe
  • Top Flight ’58 Fuelie
  • Market Report: $15K
  • Tech: Carbon Fiber
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