Don’t look at this C3 as a slow performer. Instead, look at it as a harbinger of Corvette’s future, and an important clue to its past.
By the time the 1981 Chevy Corvette was in pre-production planning, General Motors knew things couldn’t stay the same if America’s Only True Sports Car was to continue. The ancient facility that was the St. Louis Assembly Plant was, by the dawn of the 1980s, cramped, with very little room to expand. Plus, GM was under the gun from state and federal air-quality authorities to cut the volatile-organic-compound (VOC) emissions from the plant’s paint shop, which had sprayed fast-drying—but extremely polluting—acrylic lacquer paints onto all Corvettes since 1957 (and had painted Chevrolet cars and trucks with nitrocellulose lacquer since the plant’s opening in 1920).
New facilities would be the answer to those challenges facing GM and Corvette. A new plant in nearby Wentzville, Missouri, would house the steel-bodied car- and truck-assembly operations relocated from St. Louis, while a building in Kentucky originally constructed for Chrysler’s Airtemp air-conditioning division became the Bowling Green Assembly Plant, the new home of the Corvette.
GM plant engineers filled it with the latest in production technology, including a state-of-the-art paint shop, one that not only colored Corvettes in more environmentally friendly acrylic enamel finishes, but also used the then-new, two-stage, base-color-coat/clear-top-coat process to give Vettes a deeper, more vibrant finish.
Corvette production started at Bowling Green on June 1, 1981, and the shark you see here was built there in the two-month period when both Corvette plants turned out C3s. It’s also one of just 613 finished in Charcoal Metallic two-stage enamel, a Bowling Green–only color that replaced the Charcoal Metallic lacquer used at St. Louis.
In 1983, Jon Schapiro was looking for a Corvette, but not having much luck. “I had looked at about 65 Corvettes, and all [of them] were in very poor condition for relatively new cars,” he remembers. He got a break when his wife at the time found a classified ad for an ’81 that was located in their hometown of Glen Cove, New York. “I was looking for an ’81 because it had a carburetor, and I know how to rebuild carburetors.”
Schapiro knew that 1981 was the last year a carburetor—a Rochester Quadrajet equipped with the new Computer Command Control system, to be exact—could be found atop a new Corvette’s engine. (It was also the last year for any Corvette transmission with fewer than four forward speeds, as the Turbo-350 automatic—which Schapiro’s car also has—made its final appearance.)
When he went to see it, Schapiro discovered that this C3 was sold new in California, then moved to New York with its owner. He also discovered a Charcoal Metallic gem on four wheels. “The car was spotless,” he recalls. “It was like brand new…and we bought it. It was kind of my ‘midlife-crisis car’ at the time, and I’ve had it ever since.”
It was kind of my ‘midlife-crisis car’ at the time, and I’ve had it ever since —Jon Schapiro.
That rare factory paint draws attention. “When I take it for a ride, everybody looks at it when it goes by,” he says of the deep-gray Vette. “It’s a striking color, [and it] turns out it’s the most desirable ’81 shade. When I bought it, I didn’t know that.” He also points to the Medium Red velour interior, another no-cost option that tends to stand out.
Other than routine maintenance and a pair of chrome exhaust tips (added soon after he bought it), Schapiro’s ’81 is just as it was when he bought it three decades ago. “I still have the original Goodyear Eagle GT tires on the car,” he says. “They have no cracks and no dry rot. Is the rubber a little hard? Yes, but they still look like brand new.”
The L81 small-block under the hood is also all-original, making this shark a lively performer, thanks in part to the diet the Corvette Team put the C3 on starting in 1980. Those changes, which included installing a composite monoleaf rear spring (in place of the old steel unit) for ’81, shaved off about 200 pounds and helped compensate for the car’s modest 190hp output rating. “It’s a pleasure to drive,” says Schapiro of the roughly 3,300-pound Vette. “You feel the road much more than you do in a new one, but it runs beautifully.”
If you’re looking for an early-’80s Corvette, Schapiro says that while finding an original one like his can be very difficult, it can have its rewards. “I met [photojournalist] Richard Price one night, and he asked me if I knew anyone with an original 1981 Corvette. I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’
“So, my car is featured in his Corvette Restoration Guide 1968-1982. He’s got about 15 pictures of it in there.
“It’s being used as the standard to judge by, which is great,” Schapiro adds. “For people who are restoring their car, they’ll look at a picture of mine and say, ‘Oh, that sticker belongs here,’ or, ‘That’s the kind of nut that goes on here.’”
Schapiro’s C3 was one of 8,995 ’81s built at Bowling Green during the last two months of the model run. It was also among the first cars to use computer technology to control engine functions, as well as one of the first to wear factory two-stage paint. That puts it in the vanguard of all the Corvettes that followed, from the final C3s of 1982 to the first C7s now rolling down the assembly line. vette
Velour interior trim was a no-cost option for ’81, while the 85-mph speedometer was a no-c
Roomy luggage area resides under a fixed rear window.
These Goodyear GT Radials aren’t repros—they’re the same ones that went on at Bowling Gree
||Jon Schapiro; Westbury, NY
||Stock cast iron
||Stock cast iron with magnesium valve covers
||Stock hydraulic flat-tappet
||Stock cast aluminum
||Stock cast steel
||Stock cast steel
||Stock with mechanical pump
||Stock Rochester Quadrajet with Computer Command Control
||Stock AC/Delco HEI electronic
||Stock tubular stainless-steel manifolds, single two-way catalytic converter, dual tailpipes and mufflers
||Stock RPO MX1 Turbo-350 three-speed automatic with lock-up torque converter
||Stock with 2.87 gears
||Stock coil springs, unequal-length control arms, sway bar, and tubular Delco shocks (front); stock composite monoleaf spring, trailing link, and tubular Delco shocks (rear)
||Stock power-assisted four-wheel discs with 11¾-in rotors (front and rear)
||Stock RPO N90 cast aluminum, 15x8-in (front and rear)
||Stock RPO QXH Goodyear Eagle GT 255/60R15 (front and rear)