1983 Corvette – The Year That Wasn’t

The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, impresses even casual car buffs. In the middle of all that flash, a plain white model from the car’s fourth generation might not seem exciting.

But this C4 is anything but plain. It’s a 1983 Chevrolet Corvette, which is especially interesting because there were no 1983 Corvettes produced.  For its 30 anniversary, America’s sports car took a year off.

Originally planned as a 1982 model, this Corvette was pushed back to a fall 1982 introduction as a 1983 model. Then later, postponed again as upgrades met with further delays. By then, Chevrolet had decided to call the “1983” Corvette a 1984.

This white car is, however, a true 1983 Corvette, the only one in the world. How did that happen? Built in 1982, it was the fourth of 43 “assembly” cars manufactured to validate production processes and for testing purposes. It is standard in the industry to crush these vehicles when work is completed, because they cannot be sold to the public.

Forty-two of the C4 cars were crushed, but one slipped through. In 1984, it was discovered parked outside and neglected. GM cleaned it up and donated it to the museum.

For Corvette, the 1983 model year turned out to be more than a missing year. With improvements in engineering, design and performance, the C4 forged ahead of the C3 it replaced.

The C3 had been basically a redesigned body and interior on the 1963 C2 Sting Ray chassis. The C3 Corvette drove plenty of sales for General Motors through the 1970s. The primitive exhaust emissions technology of the late 70s, however, dulled performance. Added safety features made the car too heavy. So, even though ‘60s and ’70s Corvettes still had power and speed, they lacked handling precision, comfort, and quality.

GM’s commitment to the fourth generation Corvette included building a new assembly plant in Bowling Green to replace the old St. Louis factory. The new plant was ready in summer 1981, but the new Corvette was not. Many new engineering advances delayed C4 development, meaning that the C3 would survive another year, even though built in the new plant.

The rest of the C4 would be all-new. Engineers continued to use fiberglass for the body and steel for the frame. While the body style was instantly recognized as a Corvette, the frame was far more exotic than the C2/C3 chassis, and it caused the biggest delay in the C4.

The C4 was originally designed to use t-tops, as on the C3. Chevrolet decided the roof should be a one-piece removable panel, as on the Porsche 911 Targa.

Re-engineering the frame to accommodate the one-piece roof took nearly a year. Taller side rails were needed to add body strength, creating higher doorsills that made climbing into and out of the Corvette more difficult.

But it was worth the wait. It was 8.5 inches shorter than the C3 and had fewer curves which improved aerodynamics. The wheelbase was 2 inches shorter, enhancing the car’s agility. The body was 2 inches wider, adding interior room. The C4 also weighed in lighter than the C3, which also helped performance.

Opening the huge, one-piece hood, which included the fender tops, revealed an engine compartment as finely detailed as any from Europe.

The chassis used transverse fiberglass single leaf springs front and rear. This unusual choice proved highly effective and would also be used on the C5, C6 and C7 Corvettes. (* It also collapsed after I filled my first gas tank in my new Corvette.  Took 8 weeks to get the new part from General Motors.)

The Corvette’s 6+ second 0-to-60 m.p.h. acceleration and 140-m.p.h. top speed put it among the world’s  fastest production cars at the time.

There were complaints, though. The new “4+3” transmission, a 4-speed manual that automatically engaged an overdrive on the top three gears to reduce fuel consumption was clunky.

The optional Z51 Special Performance Package gave the Corvette excellent agility but a stiff ride. The digital dashboard was cool but hard to read in sunlight. And as with earlier Corvettes, there were some creaks and rattles.

Still, the 1984 Corvette was a huge success, with 51,000 built over an  18-month period. The C4 had a 13-year lifespan, with Chevy issuing a constant stream of upgrades along the way, including the ZR1 and Grand Sport high-performance versions.

Pretty good for a car that missed its first birthday.