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Driving a ’81 ‘Vette for the first time and smashing head-on into reality.


It seemed like a damn good idea at the time. I was drawn to the Stingray like the proverbial moth to a flame; the scarcity of these cars in the UK combined with extrovert looks and all-American hero image aligns it with pure exotica, even in the minds of those who should really know better.

I had never, ever driven a Chevrolet Corvette of any description, so when I found this cocaine white ’81 example just sitting there, keys in the ignition, I saw no reason to not tick another life box.

I gasped when I espied the the interior for the first time. Squeezing the unconventional horizontal door handle to gain entry, it opened on the third attempt to reveal a an interior redder than even the most burlesque of bordello underwear baskets.

I gasped again before aborting my first go at getting behind the wheel when I quickly realised that I didn’t fit. I could have my arse on the seat and my body and one leg in or I could drive side-saddle with the door open, but I couldn’t work out how I could actually get all of my extremities into some kind of vaguely workable driving posture.

After producing a few sketches and running through the necessary processes in my head a couple of times, the winning technique was found in standing in a splits position, rotating my right leg through 90 degrees under and past the steering wheel before following it with the rest of my body, a feat requiring the same kind of gymnastic effort we saw in Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones. Ideally I needed an extra knee per leg, but somehow made do with my current skeletal configuration.

Eventually, and after no small amount of pointing and laughing from onlookers, I had landed and sat to face what is a really stupid looking dashboard. Moulded from plastic the same shade of oxblood that dominates the rest of the interior, it slopes away from you as if the bottom half was retreating in shame.

The two main dials, the speedo and tachometer I would soon find to be completely pointless, and the ancillary gauges clustered in the centre console (and above the eight-track player) would likely go ignored, too. If the drive I have in mind goes to plan, I’ll be concentrating on the road too determinedly to spare any attention for fuel gauge or water temperature.

I located the handbrake, which is routinely located and immediately familiar, and noted that the automatic shifter was marked PRN 321, omitting the expected D and presumably offering two levels of high gear lockout. With one foot uncomfortably pressing on the brake pedal and another poised to take up any slack in the accelerator, I twisted the typical GM chrome ignition twister and unleashed the dogs of war, or something.


This bit I immediately appreciated. The V8 vomited into life and settled to a throbbing, thirsty idle with energy pulsing through the entire car, though this was possibly more a characteristic of the engine mountings than any latent brutality in the engineroom. A blip on the surprisingly crisp accelerator and all eight cylinders responded one after the next; it all seemed quite well set up with none of the fluffiness I was expecting from a thirty three year old, non injected American engine. I found the little chrome rocker switches on the centre console so I could drop the windows and enjoy the noise, one press and the glass fell, as if by sheer gravity, into the door interior. Out of curiosity and because I assumed something was broken, I lifted the switch in the hope that the glass would reappear. It did, which surprised me.

In fact, every interior switch felt like its next operation would be its last. The direction indicator stalk clicked in such a brittle way that I genuinely thought I’d broken it on every operation, but no, it continued to function perfectly right through my half hour drive. Millbrook rules state that low-beams must be lit whenever on track, which meant pressing another button, of the organ-stop variety, to lift the pop-up headlamps. After breaking the switch the lights raised, the left slightly quicker than the right, and a green light on the dash reassured me that the electrics involved were working. Nothing else for it now but to drive.

The next bit is difficult to explain. Of course, this was my first intimate acquaintance with a Corvette of any kind, yet somehow, despite my total discomfort behind the wheel, I felt completely connected with the plastic and metal that stretched out so far before me. I felt that I knew exactly how much pressure to apply on the brakes (A lot, but not an insane amount), how quick the steering is (surprisingly direct, I thought) and how much grip there was at my disposal. It helped, too, that there was such a cacophony of noise in the cabin.

Many creaky old aircraft, the Avro Shackleton as a prominent example, get described as “several thousand rivets flying in close formation” and the Corvette somehow reminded me of that. The closest I can imagine to a direct metaphor would be Motorhead playing through an overextended PA system in a metal shed with loose corrugated roof panels during a hurricane. There’s engine noise (good) exhaust noise (wonderful) but also millions upon millions of squeaks, rattles and tinkles as if the constituent parts of the car were held together by friendship rather than mechanical fastenings.

The needle lurched it’s way around the 85mph federal speedometer in jagged bursts, rather than the liquid surge which my body and the increasingly blurry scenery was suggesting. It didn’t feel fast, Far from it. Indeed, by the time 1981 rolled around the venerable 350ci small block (by now called L81) was down to something like thirty five horsepower, all of which, as far as I can tell, are used to produce noise or make bits of the bodywork vibrate. But it did feel substantial, as if we would keep gathering momentum with a certain unstoppableness. Once past 85 of course I had absolutely no idea of speed anyway, so I’ll guess that I saw something around the ton on the high-speed ring, that being my maximum permitted velocity imposed by the good folk at Millbrook who I really don’t want to upset.

North of 85mph is not, I concluded, a pleasant cruising speed in an ’81 Stingray if this particular example is anything to go by, because the combined work of wind noise, road noise, exhaust drone and thrash-metal percussion levels of rattling promised permanent tinnitus if I was exposed for much longer. It was time, I thought, to try the ‘Vette on roads that would provide more of a challenge.

For us both.

The Hill Route at Millbrook is an arduous series of alpine switchbacks, sweeping bends, blind crests, adverse and positive cambers, basically a big motoring playground designed to test chassis to the limit, albeit limits which were set when the place was built in the ’70s and which have been quietly defeated since then. And to my gratification the Corvette genuinely didn’t feel out of its depth.

The absolutely rigid, like, rigid suspension saw that my spine knew about every single bump and pothole (all, incidentally, deliberately engineered into the tarmac) but did pay dividends in eliminating roll in the corners. The only skill I rapidly had to develop was to remember that the nose of the car arrives at the corner rather a long time before the driver does. You consequently have to plan fractionally in advance for every apex you plan to clip. And, astonishingly, the Stingray let me clip apexes.

It also let me, nee encouraged me to go sideways. Initially it was without warning, the tail snapping out as I pulled out from the photography area, but it caught its own drift without any fuss or fear of immediate danger. Soon I found myself deliberately provoking it because a) I knew the steering was quick enough to recover it quickly and b) there isn’t really enough power for serious disaster to befall us. The grip from those slightly ridiculous looking General tyres was enough to corner as spiritedly as my instincts would allow, but not so much as to discourage mischief and naughtiness.

Now, do not under any circumstances be under the misapprehension that I just told you that the ’81 Corvette Stingray is in any way a fine handling car, there are too many compromises for it to deserve that accolade. There is no chassis finesse whatsoever, no subtlety, just grip and firmness. Understeer will ultimately set in – and did, twice, both times requiring last ditch oversteer provocation to avoid a fibreglass / crash barrier interface scenario. Actual cornering speeds achieved were far less than, for example, the Skoda Rapid 1.2 SE that I would later drive on the same day. But the spirit of fun is strong. ’81 Stingray is a fun place to be be.

Before long, and with the needle on the fuel gauge swinging around wildly and giving me no clue as to my available range, it was time to return the ‘Vette to allow some other gullible child of the ’80s to have a go. My overriding impression, and now memory, is of course that the underlying vehicle is fundamentally terrible, but still managed to put an enormous cartoon smile on my face.

If I were to grade the Corvette in the manner that auto writers are obsessed with ranking things and turning everything into comparable statistics, as a transportational solution, in terms of effectiveness as a car, I’d give the 1981 Corvette Stingray about 3/10. Indeed, in a 1981 review Car and Driver ranked the ‘Vette 5th in a , including the DeLorean and the Datzsun 280Z. But as an experience, as something to remember (for better or for worse) it has to weigh in as a solid 8.

When next I see one in the flesh I will view it with a new wisdom. I have been there, experienced the good, the bad and the ugly realities of ’81 Stingray. But I will look upon its owner with respect for making such a choice when so many easier to own alternatives are out there. Like cigarettes, alcohol, chips and other wonderful, terrible things, I can easily see how the C3 Corvette becomes addictive.

(Full disclosure: Thanks to Newspress.com for the use of the car and the massive quantity of fuel it devoured during my custody)

  • MrDPR

    Now go drive a brand new one.

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  • mark

    There's a similar 'Vette at 3:07 in this video :

    [ pT5fo4VhIBY ]

  • GTXcellent

    Look at that sidewall. **Sniff** Back when a tire was a tire was a tire.

    <img src="http://redusernab.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/20140522_133432-700×476.jpg&quot; width="400">

    • Scandinavian Flick ★

      Are there even any non-truck tires in that size anymore?

      • jeepjeff

        I think BFG still makes Radial T/As in those sizes. Also: Hoosier.

    • I like big sidewalls, I can not lie
      You other drivers can't deny
      That when car goes by
      Wearing fifteen-inch steelies
      And a set of Seventies
      It instantly gets your attention
      When it's got fender extensions
      They're unsprung, when you hit an apex
      You can sense those sidewalls flex
      Deep in the turn they're squealing
      I'm hooked on that floaty feeling

      I like 'em round and big
      Like a diesel big-rig
      I'm drivin' like Jim Rockford
      Squealin' at full lock floored
      I want 'em real thick and flexy
      I find tall sidewalls sexy
      Tanshanomi must respect
      Skins with that high aspect

      • nanoop

        "I like big sidewalls, I can not lie " — sometimes, the message is more important than the rhythm.

        • "big butts and"
          "big side walls"

          See? Three syllables each.

          • jeepjeff

            Yes… But… Em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. 'Butts' is on a big downbeat, with a short rest to underscore it. The 'and' is clearly part of the next phrase. It probably works better just to put the 'and' back in and compress sidewalls into the time allotted for butts.

            The message is still more important than the rhythm.

            • Well, yeah, but it sound great when *I* do it.

              'Cause I got da skillz on the mic.

    • Van_Sarockin

      You've got to wrinkle the sidewall, before you can wrinkle the pavement!

  • I see the DVLA lists it as a rare "Chevrolet GMC" instead of simply as a Chevrolet.

    • Yep, took me a couple of tries under Chevrolet, then Corvette, before I eventually struck gold.

      • The rationale (if any) underlying that list and its actual use with respect to individual vehicles continues to elude me.

        My working assumption is that someone compiled a centralized list of the more common terms employed by the regional offices, added a few oddball cases and personal favorites so as to give the impression of having been thorough, then included the "Other" option to take care of the rest.

        Come to think of it, that's precisely what I would have done.

        • That pretty well sums it up. For further hopelessness visit the well-meaning but sadly flawed howmanyleft.co.uk, whose underlying data comes from the the DVLA. Many cars come up as officially extinct, but all too often it's because all the Vauxhall Cavalier Antibes Special Editions have been lumped together with the Cavalier L's. For example. Most frustrating.

          • Van_Sarockin

            So, something to be found down every rabbit hole. On it.

  • I've always wanted to drive a C3, an early C3 though. No later than '73. So far I've only gotten to drive a C4 which was allegedly supercharged, back when I was 17. It was loaned to me for an afternoon by one of my mother's friends who was borrowing it from his business partner to not look poor when he was managing the bar they both partially owned. I have no idea how I talked him into it or how I managed to not get pulled over in it. Similar to this C3 it was probably dynamically awful but man, what a good time I had sliding through every sharp turn I could find.

    • chrystlubitshi

      I got to drive a '76 around a few blocks a couple of times.. it only had 15k miles on it in 2001 when I drove it and had been fully rebuilt without all of the smog/emissions crap in the power line.. (NE doesnt smog check cars). It was white exterior/black interior/ glass (brown tint) and steel t-tops (color matched), 4 speed m/t … nearly original, except the engine power ratings.. it handled a lot better than I expected and the 350 put out a lot of power in a straight line when asked…

      However, having driven other sports cars from the era, it was really only impressive in the accelleration and top speed categories… the c5 and 6 are better in both of those…. and handling too (I've not driven a c4) it was amazing, the difference…

      Still.though, the stingray sryling will always be my favourite

      • I definitely agree. The C3 was the first car that I really obsessed over. Love the lines and the curves of them.

  • My kingdom for a red interior in a non-terrible car. I love the interior and hate the rest. Excellent write-up, sir!

    • datsunofmine

      i really dig the maroon striped interior in my mkII supra, the p type bucket seats are among my favorite. For some reason i have 0 interior pics, but these are similar… …

  • X_X

    Definitely drive a newer Corvette – leaps and bounds above your experience with the C3.

  • That was a hilarious review. Unfortunately accurate too as Malaise era© 'Murican cars are hilariously bad. It's a pity that the interior is so bad while the exterior is so nice.

    That poor Corvette's performance can be rescued with a little infusion of technology. Properly valved shocks might even make the ride less uncomfortable. That might reduce the car's charm though, making it worse by highlighting the deficiencies. For this reason, I can never make my Healey too nice; having the ride quality of a coffee can filled with nickels just makes the car's physical beauty that much nicer to appreciate (and when you're admiring the car's curves, you get to be outside of the car, not inside boiling in the smoke of smoldering shoe soles).

    How giant are you to not be able to easily enter a Corvette? Have you seen the typical Corvette driver? These are some Alaska sized gentlemen.

    • It's height that's my issue, rather than girth. I'm 6'5 and it's mostly in my legs, which i'm thinking of getting rid of. I know I can't fit in a Renault A610, and that's a serious concern.

      • Did you know that NASA actually did research on sending double amputees into space? It turns out that legs are utterly without purpose in orbit.

        Unfortunately, when you lose your legs, you also end up with problems with elevated blood pressure, which put the axe to their proposal.

  • CopterBob

    I was a lot boy at a big FL Chevy dealership in 1975-76. I got to drive about every model of what seemed like everything made, including Corvettes, from model years '65 to 76. Even as a kid I thought Vettes drove like trucks, and the quality of the later 70s models became more awful than I thought possible. They seemed to get by purely on their looks.

    Interestingly enough, I bought a traded-in '72 Jensen-Healy (the Chevy mechanics didn't even know what it was) there right before I quit, so you can see where my interests were, car-wise.

  • Van_Sarockin

    You poor deluded fool. It's nice to see that grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The Corvette got by for decades on the basis of a swoopier, smaller (than other cars) size, and honking big engines with lots of torque. Now, let me tell you why the TR7 is the most fantastic sports car ever to turn a wheel.

  • MattC

    It may be my age, but the C3 (later versions) are kind of growing on me. Seriously look at the flanks of that thing, it is almost cartoonish in its styling. It also me be that in my state, anything over 20 years old can be tagged historic, which means the idea of either freeing up some ponies on the L81(bye bye smog equipment) or adding a a later LS series is an rather easy option. Plus adding more modern suspension bits to update the handling are well within reach.

  • nasalgoat

    I drove a '75 back from Texas last year and it was certainly an experience. I grew to both love and hate the car. They are a unique experience for sure.

  • "The closest I can imagine to a direct metaphor would be Motorhead playing through an overextended PA system in a metal shed with loose corrugated roof panels during a hurricane."


    • jeepjeff

      Seriously. I'm about to toss the broken factory radio from my Jeep and replace it with just an amp with a line in. If I can get it to the point where this is an accurate description of my new sound system, I'll be happy.

      • Back about '92 or so, my stripper Toyota's sound system was a Realistic under-dash cassette deck and two surface-mount rear window speakers velcroed to the carpet under the front of the seat.

        <img src="; width="400">

  • As the owner of a white with red interior '77 Vette I can agree with most of this review. You forgot to mention the fact that the transmission is located right next to your right leg and can almost produce first degree burns. I got my '77 in 1991 as a 17 year old kid. I wanted it to handle better, so I installed the biggest front sway bar I could find (AKA solid axle conversion) and when it came time to replace the rear spring I got the stiffest one I could find so the ride was even rougher. The car has been off the road since 1996, I really need to get it back on the road.

  • OA5599

    Why are the T-tops still in place on all the pictures?

    Pro tip. When opening the door using the outside handle on 100-degree days, use the bottom of your shirt as an insulation device. Otherwise you leave bits of your fingertips on the gleaming chrome.

  • Van_Sarockin

    BTW – You park like an asshat. And drive on the right side of the road, also.

  • faberferrum

    Now tell us about the Skoda you drove!

    • It's on the to-do list.

      • faberferrum

        Great, I just spent the evening awakening my Skoda (the one for sale here) from it's winter slumber. It fired right up, and I had a blast ripping around the back 40 of our little town.

      • monkey_tennis

        I was both confused and impressed that you had managed a faster lap in a Skoda Rapid
        <img src="; width="600">
        …then I remembered the new model.

  • craigsu

    If you had first consulted with The Ministry of Silly Walks you would have had no trouble getting into the car.

  • Metric Wrench

    Me best friend's girlfriend in high school drove a '81 Corvette, triple brown with T-Tops. She was a car person, he was not. Oh, the fun I had in that car. Yeah, and so sorry 'bout that, Tommy…

  • mallthus

    My dad's 80 corvette was this one's doppelgänger. Of course, being a California car, it had even less power, being fitted with a 305 strangled by that worst of both worlds devices…the computer controlled carburetor.

    That said, I managed to snag my first speeding ticket in that thing (55 in a 45 zone) and have lots of happy memories of that car.

    As for the power windows, they were and continue to be, the fastest window mechanisms I've ever seen on any vehicle. I've seen guillotine that are slower.

  • Pete.z

    I owned a exact same looking 1982, with the Crossfire engine, and used it as my daily driver for over two years, without any problem besides needing a new battery. Great car, rude, but great fun to drive, and surprisingly fast in corners when you learn to know it.
    Still regret selling it, but I needed a bigger (more cargo space) car and could not afford two at the time (2002)

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