This is not an article about C3 Corvettes, although it could’ve been. Rather, it’s about how a particular car’s small, unique characteristics can draw you inexplicably toward it. Sort of like that person you meet who you know is all wrong for you that you can’t get out of your mind and hope you’ll run into again so she’ll wreck your life.
First, a very short digression into BMW Z4s. From the get-go, I thought that the successor to BMW’s little Z3 looked just plain awful. Chris Bangle was BMW’s chief of design at the time, and he did strange things. “Flame surfacing”—the sculpting of body panels to include sections that reflect light differently—was one. The sides of the Z4 are the poster child for flame surfacing gone horribly wrong. They look like a childish design exercise that never should’ve gone into production. Even worse is how the line of the A-pillar from the front windshield continues down into a crease in the front fender. The turd on the sundae is the incorporation of a BMW badge in the middle of this crease. It’s overly fussy and horrible, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.
The coupe version of the Z4 is a bit better, because it has both a roof and a GT-like fastback hatch to draw your eye away from the front windshield and the A-pillar line, but still, I’ve felt that I never could own one because of that stupid flame and crease.
Then, when I was in Monterey for a BMW event in 2013, I saw a Z4 M Coupe that made my jaw drop. It was white, with BMW Motorsport-colored stripes painted nose to tail. I just kept walking around it, starting at it, wondering what magic was afoot to cast such a spell. It wasn’t until I looked at the photographs that I realized that there wasn’t just one stripe but three—the big one down the center, and two smaller ones on the tops of the front fenders—plus the same colors subtly decorating the door handles. Collectively, they all conspired to draw the eye away from the stupid flame surfacing and the unforgivable front fender crease.
OK, back to C3s.
I’ve long said that the twin peaks of early 1960s automotive design were the C2 Corvette and the Jaguar E-Type. Both cars, particularly in their fresh-out-of-the-box incarnations—the ’63 Sting Ray with its one-year-only split rear window and the Series 1 XKE with its glass-covered headlights—were instantly iconic and remain so nearly 60 years after their births. If I was a moneyed collector instead of a bargain-hunting, bottom-feeding hobbyist, they would be the first two cars I’d buy to grace a spacious glass-windowed trophy garage. Sadly, I have Chateau Lafite tastes on a Sam Adams budget, so all I can do is watch from afar as prices continue to spiral to unobtainable levels.
But I can always entertain inappropriate thoughts about one of their sisters.
And that brings us to the C3 Corvette. While I can’t say that this is a lust car for me on par with the C2 and the E-Type, the early upturned-tail C3s have an unmistakable American swagger to them, so much so that the swagger itself and the vibe transmitted to their owners is an easy target for caricature—you know, Ray Bans, hairy chests, cheerleaders, and all that. I talked about this in my first book, Ran When Parked: “Are my cars an extension of myself? Sure, absolutely, but not quite in the car-as-avatar sense you probably think. All those stereotypes of Corvette guys with chest rugs and gold chains and hey, baby? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the guy just always wanted a Corvette and could care less what you think. If so, good for him.”
With online search tools, it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole and find out value and availability of cars in a consequence-free “just looking” fashion. And one evening, spurred by my recent piece about roadsters in general and possibly buying back my Z3 in particular—in which I mention the low price of Corvettes—I honed in on C3s.
There are dozens of places to go online or in print to learn the taxonomy of the C3, but basically, it’s the Coke-bottle shape, where the bulging fender flares make the car look like it has a pinched waist in the middle, that not so subtly evokes the curves of a woman’s body. And it’s the ’68 to ’72 cars that have the fetching combination of that cute upturned tail, the flat vertical rear window flanked by thin buttresses sometimes collectively referred to as a “sugar scoop” window, and chrome bumpers both front and rear. The front bumper vanished in ’73, replaced by an integrated urethane unit. In 1974, the big-bumper DOT standards that hit all cars were applied, and the pert upturned tail was restyled with a downward-angled integrated rear bumper. Ever-tightening emission controls were strangling power output, and by 1975, the catalytic converter-equipped base 350 engine was down to a laughable 165 hp. In 1978, the slanted rear window and finned buttresses were replaced with wrap-around glass, dramatically altering the lines of the car.
None of this really mattered to me, because the early C3s are pricey enough not to make them “whim-able,” and even if one was nearby and well-priced, it was inconceivable that I’d kick one of the BMWs out of my storage spaces to house one.
And then, on Facebook Marketplace, I saw Candy, a striking ’73 C3 with an asking price of $7500. OK, I made that name up. The ad didn’t say “Candy.” But she sure looked like a Candy to me.
Like that BMW Z4 Coupe, I stared and stared, trying to analyze what was so compelling about this vixen, this sparkplug from the other side of the tracks. The ad said that the car was an automatic, had a GM ZZ3 performance crate motor, solid frame, new shocks and exhaust, and needed some interior work, but I couldn’t stop looking at the photos. I mean, was I that shallow that I could be so easily seduced by car with great curves, a great rear end, and that looked fabulous driving away?
And then I realized—like with the Z4—it was the stripes. The car’s bronze color did little for me, but the brown stripes above the fenders accentuated the hip lines in a way I didn’t think was possible and drew my eye away from the fact that it was a ’73, so it was missing the chrome front bumper. And the projection of the stripes wrapping around the car’s tail, and additional color along the rear window buttresses, was a strange kind of genius. And, combined with the wheels and fat rubber, I just stared. For a long time.
Now, the whole cars-as-women trope is an awfully well-worn one, and yet, with this one, it’s just irresistible to lay it on with a shovel. My 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special is a little 1600-pound British waif of a thing. I think it’s sexy, but this… THIS is a car with meat on its bones, wearing great jeans and a little too much mascara. I was already entranced from afar, but if I went to see it, this is a car that I’d chat up, get seduced by, and try to take it home. It would ruin my life, and I wouldn’t care. At least not for the first week.
I shared the ad on my Facebook page, and the responses from my online friends were about 1/3 “I see what you’re seeing,” 1/3 “Yeah, but you’ll hate it when you drive it,” and 1/3 “If you buy this, you’re dead to me.”
The seller appeared to be a pro of some sort. His Facebook profile referenced an automotive business. One photograph showed the car had a dealer plate on it. Another showed it in a shop next to a later C3 that was undergoing an outer body restoration.
So, first I did some homework. Like my Lotus, the C3 is a fiberglass-bodied car, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rust. C3s have a lot of steel in them and are prone to rust on both the frame and “the birdcage,” which is the portion of the car that runs up the pillars, along the windshield cowl, door sills, and roof assembly. I read up on removing trim panels to check for rust.
I then sent the seller a message on Facebook Marketplace. I was completely candid, explaining that I was in happy long-term relationships with seven vintage BMWs and a Lotus, but that I was quite attracted to this lovely. OK, seriously, I said that I was an automotive writer and mainly a vintage BMW guy, but that there was something compelling enough about his car to make me think about writing a piece on stepping outside your comfort zone. I explained that I wrote weekly for Hagerty’s website, and that, even though it was unlikely I’d buy the car, I’d like to pick his brain about C3s, give him gas money for an hour of his time, crawl under the car, photograph it, and drive it. I said that the piece would go up online in about 10 days, and that could only help him sell the car.
“No thanks,” was his concise, swift, and surprising reply.
But I had a hard time letting it go. You know you’re smitten by a car when you keep checking the ad to see if it’s still up. When this happens, the thing to do is just go see it in the flesh. The car will either speak to you or it won’t. It’ll either be solid and worth considering, or it won’t be. You can pull the trigger on it or stop obsessing about it.
This was an odd situation, however. I pride myself on being straightforward and not wasting people’s time. Having told him flat-out that I was unlikely to buy the car but wanted to write an article about it, and having him flatly decline, I’d need to walk that so far back that it felt like lying, and I don’t lie. Maybe if it was a stick instead of an automatic, I could’ve stretched the envelope of what felt possible and talked both of us—well, all three of us—into a visit.
Instead, I had to watch from afar. I kept checking the ad. After a few weeks, it was taken down.
It was probably for the best. I’m a writer with a penchant for well-mannered ’70s German road cars, and Candy was the hottest thing in the honkytonk. It never would’ve worked.
But I’m so glad I saved that photo of you.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of six automotive books. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his other books), or you can order personally-inscribed copies here. His new book, The Lotus Chronicles, will be this fall.