The first publicly available 1978 Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car Replica, VIN 1Z8748S900003. Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.
In 1978, for the first time since its 1953 debut, a Chevrolet Corvette was selected to pace the Indianapolis 500, prompting the automaker to release a Limited Edition Indy Pace Car Replica. On Thursday, May 18, the claimed-first and last publicly available 1978 Chevrolet Corvette Pace Car Replicas will cross the auction stage at no reserve, part of the Bob McDorman Collection offered by Mecum in Indianapolis.
To mark the Corvette’s 25th anniversary, the 1978 model received the most significant restyling since the third-generation model was introduced for the 1968 model year. Instead of the traditional flying buttress roof used on all prior third-generation Corvette coupes, the 1978 model received fastback styling that incorporated a large rear window. The change made the Corvette more aerodynamic, and increased both outward visibility and cargo capacity. Though it looked like a hatchback, the rear glass was fixed, but removable roof panels did give easier access to stowage behind the driver and passenger seats.
Inside, the 1978 Corvette received an all-new padded dash, and for the first time in the third-generation, a glove box instead of just a map pocket. Under the car’s fiberglass skin, a 24-gallon fuel cell replaced the previous 17-gallon variant, giving the car extended range even with the optional L82 V-8. This engine returned in slightly more potent form for 1978, upping output to 220 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, a gain of 10-horsepower and five pound-feet of torque from 1977, courtesy of a revised intake and exhaust. As tested by Car and Driver, a 1978 Corvette with the L82 V-8 and the close-ratio four-speed manual transmission proved capable of running from 0–60 MPH in 6.5 seconds, on the way to a 15.2-second quarter-mile at 95 MPH, shaving 0.3 seconds off the times achieved by a 1977 Corvette with the L82.
The base L48 V-8 carried over from 1977, and was also good for another five horsepower, growing from 180hp to 185hp outside of California and high-altitude states, where it was limited to 175hp. Depending upon location, this could be ordered with either a four-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic, though California buyers could opt only for the automatic. The L82 wasn’t available in California, either, but consumers in other states could order this engine with a four-speed manual, a close-ratio four-speed manual, or the three-speed automatic. Those wanting the highest level of performance from their ’78 Corvettes ordered the L82 engine, the close-ratio four-speed and the Gymkhana suspension, though this was hardly the most common configuration built.
Chevrolet announced that the Corvette would pace the 1978 Indianapolis 500 in October of 1977, but initially it couldn’t agree on how many Pace Car replicas it would build to commemorate the occasion. The first number suggested was 300, the number of Corvettes built in 1953, the model’s first year on the market, but it soon became apparent that more would be needed to meet demand. The next proposal called for a production run of 2,500, or 100 examples for each year the Corvette had been assembled, but it was GM’s legal department that set the final production quantity. To appease dealers, Chevrolet would build 6,502 examples of the Pace Car Replica, one for each dealership in the United States and Canada. These would carry a unique serial number, separating them from other Corvette models produced in 1978.
The last 1978 Corvette Pace Car Replica reportedly built, VIN 1Z8748S906502.
All 1978 Pace Car Replica Corvettes began with package RPO Z78, which included special two-tone black over silver metallic paint with red accent stripes; a limited-edition decal set (delivered in, and not on, the car); a rear spoiler and front air deflector; tinted glass roof panels; contoured bucket seats; polished aluminum wheels with a red accent stripe; P255/60 R-15 raised-white-letter tires; dual remote sport outside mirrors; air conditioning; power windows; power door locks; an AM/FM stereo with tape player; a power antenna; dual rear speakers; a tilt-telescopic steering wheel; the convenience group; rear window defogger; heavy-duty battery; and a commemorative dash plaque. As with other Corvette models, buyers were free to order additional options, though it isn’t likely too many Pace Car Replicas were special-ordered through dealerships.
As Karl Ludvigsen explains in Corvette: America’s Star-Spangled Sports Car, production began in St. Louis in early March 1978, but on March 27 the Wall Street Journal ran a page-one story touting the Pace Car’s collectibility. Overnight, demand shot up along with pricing, and cars that carried a factory sticker price below $14,000 were suddenly selling for $20,000 and above. The most desirable examples, equipped with the L82 and the close-ratio four-speed, were trading hands at $40,000 or more, and big-city dealerships soon began shopping small-town stores looking for more inventory. Like the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible before it, the ’78 Corvette Pace Car was seen as a sure thing, guaranteed to pay big dividends for the initial owners as the years went by.
Perhaps because so many examples were preserved by buyers, values never increased to the stratospheric levels initially projected. Exceptional examples still represent a reasonably sound investment, and the pair of Corvette Pace Car Replicas crossing the block in Indianapolis certainly fall into this category. The first, Lot R114, carries VIN 1Z8748S900003, which the consignor identifies as the first publicly available example (Serial number 001 was reportedly retained by Chevrolet, while serial number 002 was awarded to Al Unser, Sr. for his 1978 Indy 500 win). Built with the L82 V-8, a four-speed manual transmission, and the Gymkhana suspension, this example shows just 42 miles on the odometer.
Lot R115 wears VIN 1Z8748S906502, which reportedly identifies it as the final 1978 Corvette Pace Car Replica built. Like its former Bob McDorman Collection stablemate, it comes equipped with the L82, mated to a four-speed manual transmission and the Gymkhana suspension. With comparable mileage (52 instead of 42), this lot will likely achieve a similar selling price.
What will that price be? It’s impossible to say, since both lots are crossing the block without reserve. As a general guideline, the NADA “High Retail” book value for a comparably equipped car is $45,190, but this fails to factor in the cars’ near-zero mileage and overall state of preservation. As auctions have demonstrated for centuries, any lot is worth exactly what a bidder, or bidders, is willing to pay for it.
Mecum’s Spring Classic auction takes place from May 16-20 at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, Indiana. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.