“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. What Charles said about France in the 1700s also describes Corvette in 1978. It was the best of times – Corvette was celebrating its twenty-fifth birthday; it had been selected as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time, and Chevrolet decided to make Corvette Pace Car replicas the first-ever limited production Corvette. This latter decision created a feeding frenzy among potential pace car buyers putting Chevrolet and their dealers through the worst of times.
Corvette Celebrates Selection as Indianapolis 500 Pace Car
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway chose Corvette as the pace car for the 1978 Indy 500 marking the first time Corvette had been selected. Since 1978 was also Corvette’s twenty-fifth birthday, Chevrolet decided to celebrate by making a limited number of Corvette Pace Car replicas for sale to the public. In addition to all of the Corvette improvements for 1978, such as more powerful engines, refreshed dash and interior, and an all-new fastback rear window, the pace car replica would have the same paint scheme as the real pace car – black above the belt line with a silver lower portion separated by red pinstriping.
A special silver interior, including seats that were originally designed for the ’79 Corvette, unique polished slotted wheels with red pinstriping, and silver-tinted glass T-tops completed the black and silver theme. Pace car replicas could be ordered with a host of regular Corvette options, even an AM-FM-CB radio (remember, this was 1978). In another Corvette first, the replica pace cars had their own vehicle identification number sequence. Special Indianapolis 500 decals, as used on the real pace car, came with each replica and could be installed by the dealer at the owner’s option.
Limited Production Pace Car Replicas Create Dealer Uproar
Chevrolet Initially planned to produce only 300 Corvette Pace Car replicas, a total equal to the number of Corvettes made in their first year, 1953. When it became apparent to the over 6,000 Chevrolet dealers that not every dealer was going to get a limited-production replica pace car to sell, the dealers created such an uproar that Chevrolet quickly changed its plans. The dealers were well aware of the sales potential of the first-ever limited-edition Corvette and none wanted to be left out of what they perceived to be an upcoming sales bonanza. Chevrolet headed off an incipient dealer revolt by agreeing to produce one pace car for each dealer. All told, 6,502 Corvette Pace Car replicas were made.
News of the special Corvette Pace Car replicas leaked out into the car world in 1977 and consumer interest was sparked by the first display of the pace car at the New York Auto Show. Production began in early March of 1978 and Corvette fans anxiously awaited their opportunity to purchase a part of Corvette history.
The Wall Street Journal Creates A Pace Car Feeding Frenzy
The approximate delivery price of a new Corvette Pace Car replica equipped with the L-48 engine was $13,800 and one with the L-82 high-performance engine went for $14,300. At least, that’s what the prices were until March 27, 1978 when The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about the new limited-edition Corvette Pace Car replica and what a great collectible car it would be. As soon as the news hit the streets, every Corvette lover, every car guy, and every investor looking to make a quick buck wanted a pace car replica. Corvette dealers quickly realized that the product demand greatly exceeded the supply and immediately jacked-up their prices. Within days, asking prices for Corvette Pace Car replicas rose to between $20,000 and $25,000 for cars with automatic transmissions. The rarer L-82 with the four-speed manual transmission commanded up to $40,000.
Dealers in larger metropolitan areas and enterprising entrepreneurs scoured the countryside for dealers in more remote areas who were willing to sell their allotted pace cars for a quick profit. These cars were then re-sold in more populated areas for even more money. As the buying frenzy continued, it became a news story in and of itself, and newspapers across the country chimed in with their own opinions of the madness. This, of course, only increased the demand for pace car replicas.
The feeding frenzy seemed to peak on Memorial Day, May 28, 1978, the day of the Indianapolis 500 race and then gradually ran out of steam. Many new pace car replica owners placed their cars in storage or used them only sparingly to keep the mileages low, and then sat back and waited for the day they could easily sell their cars for huge profits.
For many reasons, the big-profit market for used ’78 Corvette Pace Car replicas never really developed. First, there were simply too many pace car replicas produced. Although production was limited in the sense that a finite number of cars were made, it wasn’t limited enough to make the replicas a rare commodity. Second, the large number of cars that were stashed away or driven sparingly meant that used pace car replicas with low mileage were not hard to find. Third, the differences between the pace car replica and the standard 1978 Corvette were only skin deep. Mechanically the cars were the same and they had the same performance. Anyone looking to buy a ’78 Corvette for the features and/or performance could avoid the premium price of the pace car and buy a standard Corvette.
While the 1978 Corvette Pace Car replicas never achieved the astronomical appreciation many original buyers expected, they are still fun cars to drive. They don’t have the neck-snapping performance of today’s Corvettes, but they are comfortable, handle well, and have all the creature comforts that one expects (power steering, power disc brakes, air conditioning, etc.). If you buy one, be aware that you will be noticed – a pace car replica still attracts more than its fair share of attention, especially if the Indy 500 decals have been applied.
The Corvette Story – 1978 Corvette: https://corvettestory.com/1978-Corvette-C3-Silver-Anniversary-New-Hatchback-Design-25th-Anniversary-Updated-Interior.php
The Corvette Story – Indy 500 Pace Car: https://corvettestory.com/1978-Corvette-C3-Indianapolis-500-Pace-Car-Special-Edition-2.php
How Stuff Works: https://auto.howstuffworks.com/1978-corvette.htm
Car and Driver: https://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/a15143501/1978-chevrolet-corvette-road-test/
National Corvette Museum: https://www.corvettemuseum.org/learn/about-corvette/corvette-specs/1978-corvette-specs/
National Corvette Owners Association: http://www.nationalcorvetteowners.com/history/Default.aspx?year=&model=13