By on March 13, 2008

c33.jpgWhen we last left our hero, I was dodging post-wine tasting Buicks and Caddys in a hair-brained sprint to Los Angeles before the sun went down. My steed was a sparkle-blue 1981 Corvette with non-functioning headlights. Until this point, I’d been lollygagging along in the right lane. I assumed that the ‘Vette’s engine would crap-out on me if I gave it the boot. But the fear of getting caught with no lights– and then watching the DEA strip the car to the frame– forced my foot to the firewall.

Chevy small blocks are amazing. Yes, this C3 left the factory with just 190 horses. But the mini mill stumped-up 280 ft-lbs. of torque at 1600 rpm. Sadly, I can't tell you how much of a toll the intervening 27 years exacted on the Corvette’s performance– or how fast I was going. Not because the Nixonian speedometer tops out at 85 mph. Because it wasn't working. Regardless, y'all would have loved the burble.

Amazingly, the Corvette was behaving flawlessly. The engine was strong. Sure, you can get more handling from a photograph of a Miata. But around the gentle twists of Paso Robles, the car was aces. Braking? Not so much. And when you hit 'em the car shot left and then right. But I didn’t need any stinking brakes. I had no intention of stopping.

Suddenly, just north of Santa Barbara the right headlamp popped up. As fate would have it, I had left the lights on. You could almost hear the opening bars from Flight of the Valkyrie. "Come on, come on you little shit," I started screaming at the left lamp. "Pop!" Fifteen long, gut-twisting seconds later it did. Sure, I could have got more illumination sitting on the hood and holding a Zippo, but the lights were up! I was going to make it.

If you've never been through Santa Barbara, there are two things you need to know. 1) Eat at Taqueria Super Rica 2) Don't speed.

I've received six speeding tickets in my life. Three were in Santa Barbara. Case in point: as soon as I passed the sign welcoming me to Goleta (once again travelling at sane speeds) I saw a CHP officer climbing back on his hog and a blue BMW taking off from the shoulder. Then I saw a Highway Patrol car. Then another. I would have been toast. Or tased.

Now that I was back to cruising, I had some neurons to spare to contemplate the C3. What a brilliant little car. How did it know to pop those lights then and there? And maybe those neurons were cooked a little, but I realized what was going on. The Corvette knew.

This was it: the poor thing's swan song. It's death rattle. The last chance the tri-decade dog would have to be flogged California style. Sure, they have roads in Euroland. But 'Vettes — especially C3s – were built for the Golden State. Somehow, like a race horse about to be put out to stud, the Corvette knew. This was its victory lap.

Respect. I like how the Sting Ray makes you feel dangerous. And sleazy. It's akin to driving a van with a waterbed in back. You're a bad element; daughters' mothers know it. I can't even tell you how many times I looked in my rearview and caught a wife in the passenger seat checking me and my 'Vette out. Seriously, they couldn't take their eyes off the long, sleek, blue-speckled phallus.

I stopped at the beach to snap some photos and got mobbed by surfers. I've never heard "Dude!" so many times in my life.

I didn't dare turn the engine off, for fear of losing the headlights, but looking at the C3 nestled next to the Pacific Ocean, the zeitgeist of this machine became clear. It's the 70s, man. Sex couldn't kill you. Cocaine couldn't kill you. Rock and roll would never die, but you could get more coke and sex at the disco. The world has since moved on, but this Corvette? Still super awesome.

Before I got home, I stopped off for some tacos. The locals loved the 'Vette. "Dude, that is a beautiful car." Indeed, it is. The C3’s lines are timeless, as aesthetically spot on as anything from Italy or Britain from the 70s. And light years ahead of Japan and Germany.

In fact, I'm sorry my time with this C3 was so short. The seats are comfortable, the engine can get out of its own way and the looks– to paraphrase Vince Neil– can kill. With just a little TLC I could see owning this 'Vette big time. The C3’s currently parked in an undisclosed location, awaiting the Czech's further instructions. I bet I could make Mexico in a matter of hours.

[Read Pt. 1 of 440 Miles by clicking here.] 

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34 Comments on “400 Miles in a 1981 Corvette, Part 2...”

  • avatar

    Easily one of the best reads ever. I have the sudden urge to get a C3 Vette.

  • avatar

    Great stuff I’m so glad it made it to your destination.I drive a 8 yr old base model Firebird rag in the summer.It rattles it squeeks it hates uneven roads.The carpet pulls away from the door sills.The headlight doors are a freaking nightmare.The Firebird handles well but its not for the faint of heart.I just love it!
    I,d dump it for an early 80s Vette in a heartbeat.You have really captured what a old Vette is all about.

  • avatar

    These cars make great projects since they are not collectible like the earlier models. Think hopped up small block, suspension work, and new paint.

  • avatar
    Edward Niedermeyer

    Great read Jonny! It’s long been a wild dream of mine to pilot a red C3 down the west coast… although, in my fevered mind the trip wouldn’t end until I reached Panama City (or a wild shootout in the jungles of Guatamala). The fact that I now realize how insanely impractical such a trip would be makes me feel sad… and old. Thanks for hooking up some vicarious fulfillment of at least part of a childhood dream!

  • avatar

    Hey Jonny,
    I nearly died of laughter. Again.

    Fantastic writing. I’m starting to think that it would be nice to give it a ride through Germany, instead of towing it from the port…

    BobAsh, aka “Bob”

    One little detail – I live 60 miles from Prague and own a ’68 Coronet, not Charger. But a friend has one and I get to drive it time from time, so you were basically right :)

  • avatar

    As a former C3 owner, this took me back on so many levels….

    You are right, Johnny, in my book the C3 is the second best looking Corvette, an eyelash behind the ’67 roadster. These things exude sex appeal from the point of the nose to the flick of its tail….

    ain’t nothin better.

  • avatar

    Killer. I love that moment when you fully capture a car’s purpose, it’s true meaning in life.

    Also, congrats on making the drive. I was routing for you, but was kinda waiting to see how big the tow bill would be.

    Also: next time you come down the 101, take 126 east. It’s a great way to skip the the horror that is Malibu and Pacific Palisades.

  • avatar

    mad_science: No, the routing bill is waiting for me, when the thing breaks down somewhere in Germany :)

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    Even better than part one…your conversation w/the left head lamp timeless; usually I reserve the use of “little shit” for stray dogs or surly children who enter my yard. You’ve given me a whole world to unleash it upon.

    BTW: Thanks for the memories. White-guy perms, ‘The Eagles’, Ponch in spandex CHP pants, drinks w/Mr. Furley at the Regal Beagle, Mark Hammill in “Corvette Summer”…all things once lamented but maybe cool again.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    mad_science: Yeah, but then you wind up in Valencia.


  • avatar

    Beautiful writing! Brought back memories of a few years ago. I drove from San Diego to Frisco (the PCH is a gorgeous drive) in 2006 in a rented Pontiac G6 GT and I must say that drive made the car feel decent enough. Says a lot about the road.

  • avatar

    Awesome read! I’ve wanted a C3 since the first time I drove a ’75 in about 1982 or so. I almost changed my mind after reading part 1, now after part 2…

    If anyone knows of a clean 78-82 anywhere in Austin/Dallas/Houston, by all means post a link please!

  • avatar

    Brilliant Jonny. Series like these remind me why I keep coming back to TTAC.

  • avatar

    Hey Jonny, Do you know any good roads in the Delta? I live in Davis, a half hour west of SacTown and I’ve been looking for some good roads to torture my 240 wagon with. Oh, and is there any way I could see the Team Black Metal car? I’m friends with John’s son and I’ll be back home from New York on Tuesday. Oh, and nice read, every time you read a story and immediately want the car described, you’ve stumbled upon greatness.

  • avatar

    Absolutely Brilliant, Jonny!! This should be required reading for any current or future automotive journalist. Skip the stupid metaphors, puns, and alliteration; don’t waste time talking about the obvious. Straight to the gristly, primal essence that connects all of us with these toxic heaps of love. I’m sure the Vette thanks you, too.

  • avatar


    Skip the stupid metaphors, puns, and alliteration; don’t waste time talking about the obvious.

    I resemble that remark!

  • avatar


    The only “fun” road I’ve found is Highway 160 between between south Sacramento and Antioch.,+CA,+USA&daddr=38.417014,-121.526642+to:antioch&mra=dpe&mrcr=0&mrsp=1&sz=10&via=1&sll=38.298559,-121.639252&sspn=0.649876,1.109619&ie=UTF8&ll=38.320111,-121.545868&spn=0.649683,1.109619&z=10

    Few cops, and the scenery is great this time of year along the River. I drive it in a Mark II MR2 though, not a 240 (no disrespect intended to that fine vehicle).

    Great two-parter, Jonny. It makes me want to ditch my current illogical project in waiting and get another illogical project in waiting.

    Thanks for complimenting the styling. Every 80s/90s kid loves a C3 Corvette. But as I grew older I began to wonder if I was alone.

  • avatar

    Sure, you can get more handling from a photograph of a Miata.

    This is why I read this site. Love it!

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    Hat’s off to you, Jonny. Anyone that can get people to pine after ANY 70’s car (era of the AIR pump, PCV valve and seat belt/ignition interlocks) is a brilliant writer!!!

    And you are right that rock and roll will never die. Disco tried to kill it, but only made it stronger.

  • avatar

    Outstanding work Jonny!

  • avatar

    Hat’s off to you, Jonny. Anyone that can get people to pine after ANY 70’s car (era of the AIR pump, PCV valve and seat belt/ignition interlocks) is a brilliant writer!!!

    Johnnys writing skills almost had me pine for a Suzuki SX4………… thats talent!

  • avatar

    Nice write-up… and enjoyable read.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Hmmm….a positive review of a new Mustang and this fun romp in an aging vette, all in one week. American rear wheel drive pushrod V8’s are starting to get some well-deserved respect around here.

    Me thinks this editorially foreshadows the imminent and inevitable anihilation of the European supercar industry when the Vette ZR1 is soon released.

    That gigantic sucking noise that you hear is the Porsche and Ferrari public relations experts helplessly running for cover.

  • avatar

    Maybe it was growing up in the 80’s, being raised on Bruce Springsteen, pledging allegiance to Ronald Reagan or all of the above, but I unabashedly love the C3. Even when my brother calls me an aspiring porn star and asks me when the mullet will appear. Make mine that retina-searing orange that the factory had, please. I don’t care if it is the most ostentatious car in the Fantasy Garage.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Mullett haircuts and Dirk Diggler digs aside, the 80’s were a terrible time for all automakers. The problems that have been described in this hoary C3 were endemic with all cars, some of them when they were brand new. (Don’t get me started on Alfa Romeos again).

    C4’s were a drastic quantum improvement over the C3. 1G on the skidpad (the best handling car in the world in 1984, its introductory year). Easily and commonly tweaked for tire-shredding smoky-burnout 12 and 13 second quarter mile runs and 5 second 0-60’s. And best of all, Toyota Prius/SmartCar-level gas mileage. It’s just hilarious to chauffeur rabid import snobs and watch their jaws drop in astonishment at fuel mileage readouts consistently in the 45-50 mpg range on the freeway, then gently nudge it up to an effortless and serene 130 mph.

    You can buy spare parts and performance upgrades at most any farm implement store, in the isle right between the lawn fertilizer and the plow and bailer section. Monotonously reliable – C4s routinely achieve 200,000 miles without major rebuilds.

    But I do concede that C3’s were prettier.

  • avatar

    Actually the C3 is primarily the 70s edition of the Corvette (1968~1982). By 1981, it was a shadow of it’s former self. That particular model did not have the classic deep dish twin dial dash, and its speedo only registered 85 MPH!

    A C3 from 68~72 would smoke this particular one. The roadster is near the top of my list of dream cars I might have a chance to one one day, although even I have to admit that a C6 roadster will beat all but the very fastest C3s that had the Rat motor.

  • avatar

    Bleedin’, flamin’ HECK!

    I had just — literally, not two days ago — talked myself out of buying a 1974 Stringray.

    “It’s not a driver’s car,” I told myself. “The handling’s non-existent. The seats are wrong. The steering wheel is bigger than a wagon-wheel. It’s a bad investment. You’ll only drive it on the weekends. Gas is expensive.”

    …and so on.

    Let me be clear: I’ve wanted a ‘vette since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. This was a chance at buying one. I talked myself out of it.

    This review — brilliantly written, hilarious, yes — was the last DANG thing I needed.

  • avatar

    I love old cars.

    Will we get there without walking?
    What still works on this old girl?
    Wonder what this car was like when it was new?
    And that wonderful feeling that comes from R12 freon flowing through an a/c that unexpectedly works on a hot day…

    Those fleeting moments when an old car reaches that sweet speed where the motor is happy, you’re making good time, and where all the squeaks and rattles are silent for a few moments.

    I had a ragged to death ’66 Mustang that HOWLED the whole time I owned it. First car. Bearings for the pinion shaft in the rear axle were worn out and I couldn’t afford to fix it. Howled so bad that under the right conditions I think it made the hubcaps hum.

    Anyhow, took it on a 100 mile trip to my grandparents’ house one summer morning and coming into town the howl disappeared for about 4 minutes straight. Maybe it was the right speed, maybe the shaft had shifted in the bearings a thousandth of an inch, or maybe the load on the gears was just so that the bearings were unloaded. Don’t know but for that short time I loved that car and was proud to call it my own.

    And before I reached their house the howl was back as loud as before. For a moment though I got to ride in that car when it was 20 years newer.

    Keep up the great articles guys!

  • avatar

    Wow, coming from my experience in my dad’s ’71 convertible, your story is spot on. Sometimes popping head lights, sudden direction changes with brake input, constant gawking from everyone. Awesome. I tend to swing the ’84 C4 direction but the ’71 red pussy mobile certainly has broader appeal.

  • avatar

    I suspect Jonny just sold a few dozen C3s.

    FWIW, this is actually a 1960s design, introduced in 1968 and based on a concept penned earlier in the decade. The 70s mostly contributed the large glass rear window, in place of flying buttresses.

  • avatar

    Larry P2, a C4 Corvette has as much chance of achieving 45 mpg on level ground as a new Mustang owner has of finding pushrods under his hood…

    Jonny, great article. You still have the open invitation to experience less abused versions of Generations 4-6 down here in Houston.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman


    I know, I know… I know.

  • avatar

    Great write up! I lol’d. That Vette is pimptastic I hope you had the ttops out. That is the best.

  • avatar

    You could do 45mpg in the 96 LT4 Corvette I used to drive. In 6th gear at 800rpm going down hill at 50mph. At least that is what I remember the instant fuel econ would go to.

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