In the world of Corvettes, some are known as "first and last" cars. That's because they combine features that made their initial and final appearances during the same model year. Examples of that include the '62 Corvette, which was the first year for the 327-cube small-block V-8 but the last year of the first-generation Corvette platform; and the '65 Vette, whose standard-features list included four-wheel disc brakes for the first time (and a new big-block option come spring), and whose option sheet carried the last of the Rochester mechanically fuel-injected V-8s.
Another "first and last" year for the Corvette was 1981. The aging C3 platform got new features that included the first-ever onboard computer (Delco's "Computer Command Control" unit) and the first composite rear leaf spring, while the "lasts" included carburetors, manual transmissions (and the Turbo 350), as well as the St. Louis Assembly Plant itself.
That onboard computer, which controlled the air/fuel ratio and ignition timing, as well as tubular stainless-steel exhaust manifolds, had been California-only items in 1980. For '81, they were adapted to the Corvette's only available engine, the L81 195hp small-block V-8. Also, lightweight magnesium valve covers replaced the previous steel ones in the name of weight savings.
This version of the Corvette...
This version of the Corvette logo debuted in '81.
In back, the multi-leaf steel leaf-spring bundle that had been a Corvette mainstay since '63 was now gone. Replacing it was a new composite single-leaf spring that not only shaved some 33 pounds off the C3's tail end, but also did away with the leaf-on-leaf metal binding that resulted in ride harshness.
"Lasts" for the '81 Corvette included carburetors as well as the four-speed manual and Turbo 350 automatic transmissions. For '82, "Cross-Fire Injection" would replace the Rochester Quadrajet, and the 700R4 overdrive automatic would succeed the Turbo 350 as Corvette's automatic gearbox. Manual transmissions wouldn't reappear as factory Corvette features until after the '84 model run was underway.
Some might have thought that the lack of power options combined with a high base sticker price ($16,258) and steep-for the time-gas prices would mean a big drop-off from the 40,614 Vettes built in 1980. There was a drop, but only down to 40,606. That meant that there were still plenty of buyers for the "grand touring" car that Corvette had become during the '70s.
"Bubble" taillights from Eckler's...
"Bubble" taillights from Eckler's replace the originals.
One of those, a customer living in North Carolina, bought a St. Louis-built, Charcoal Metallic-painted Vette, but drove it sparingly. It had just 24,000 miles on it when Mark Bremer found out about it in the late '90s. "I was looking for an '80-'82 Corvette, and I'd put an ad out on the Internet," says Bremer from his Benton, Arkansas, home. "A guy in Arizona contacted me, and he said, 'I know this lady in North Carolina who has this car.' So I called her and found out the car had been listed on eBay, but didn't sell."
Though an online ad put him in touch with the '81's owner, an old-fashioned film camera supplied the pictures that convinced Bremer to go see this one and find the mechanic who took care of it. "He told me that she had a great car, that she only drove it at about 45 miles an hour, and she only took one T-top off," he says. The C3 still wore its original tires, but those had become flat-spotted over time-a problem Mark corrected with a new set of 60-series radials after he bought the Vette, but before driving it home.
Like many vintage-Vette owners, Bremer looked at how to upgrade his newly bought treasure. He took a big step when he replaced the '81's original-equipment coil-spring front suspension with a composite transverse leaf-spring setup from Vette Brakes and Products (VBP). "That really made a lot of difference in the handling of the car," Bremer says. "It also took some weight off of it, and it allows me to set the ride height and stiffness on it, too."