400 Miles in a 1981 Corvette, Part 1

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman
400 miles in a 1981 corvette part 1

By most accounts, I’m a good citizen. I work, I pay taxes, I keep my crimes to myself and I call my mother at least once a week. But I have a wild side. Like a vintage race, this part of my personality just begs to be taken out and let loose from time to time. I’m not going to tell you what I spent my first Bush tax rebate on. But I will tell you that when the $600 arrives in June, I will be at a $10/$20 No Limit table. So, when I was contacted by a guy in Prague to transport a 1981 Corvette from Oakland to a container ship in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance. How could I lose?

It gets worse: The purchaser– whom we’ll call “Bob”– was actually a middle man for another Czech guy. The plan: wire transfer me the money for the merchandise, a one-way plane ticket and a small fee. You haven’t lived until you’re emailed your bank account info to a former communist country. I telephoned the seller to ask if he wanted a money order or a cashier’s check for the ‘Vette. “Cash,” was his not entirely unpredictable answer.

As I was unsure of the feasibility of a big cash withdrawal on a Saturday, I boarded a flight in Burbank with fifty-five $100 bills burning a worry-hole in my pocket.

Aside from a horrific speckled blue paint job, the Vette’s exterior looked ship shape. The interior was in remarkably good condition, too, with just the usual litany of malaise era Detroit bugaboos — shot HVAC, busted electric seats and a sun cracked dash. After handing over the bankroll, the seller fired her up.

As I headed out on the 880 towards the 101, a Led Zeppelin rock block started. Talk about apropos. “Hey hey mama said the way you move, going make you sweat, gonna make you groove!” Man, I was loving this. And felt just like a Jersey pot dealer. Hey, for all I knew, the gas tank was half-filled with smack.

By the time the last few chords of California ended, I was miserable. The turn signal lever had come off in my hand. There was no way to stop the hot air coming out of the vents, which meant I had to keep the windows down. On the freeway. The clutch literally has 14 inches of travel, and someone in the Czech Republic will be rebuilding a Chevy tranny sooner than later. Did I mention that the shocks are completely blown, and that the T-Tops sound as if they’re about to crack over every single road imperfection? Anyway…

My plan was to do the deed during daylight hours on a Saturday. I opted to take the slower, longer and more congested 101 because I’d be better off if the Corvette broke down. I also wanted to stop along the way and take some pretty pictures of the car along the coast, in a vineyard and maybe even parked in a mustard field.

Besides, the wind was a lot less annoying at 65 mph than at 80 mph. Also, why push it? The poor thing’s nearly as old as I am. All of that changed when I got to the Madonna Inn.

Figuring the garishness of the Corvette could only be matched by the surreal boorishness of the Inn, I stopped to snap some photos. And since C3s look so cool with their headlights up, I figured I’d pop ‘em. Only they wouldn’t pop. It was 3:00 pm, the day before daylight savings kicks in. I had 200 miles to go, and the last 30 of those were through Saturday night LA Traffic. I was now racing the sun.

Murliee Martin had been nice enough to check the Corvette out a few weeks before I showed up, so I called him. “There’s no headlights!” I shouted. “OK,” he replied. “You need to build up vacuum pressure. Take it up to 95 mph, shift into second, and let the engine haul you down to 40 mph.”

I’ve heard a lot of bad noises come out of cars in my day, but nothing quite like this. Imagine whacking a dozen circular saw blades with a crowbar. You get the idea, kinda.

I called Murilee back. “Nothing!” I screamed. “It’s probably a fuse,” he said. “You don’t have taillights either.”

So let’s recap: At this point I’m flying through wine country traffic without turn signals, headlights or taillights in a nearly 30-year-old example of the UAW’s finest work that’s titled to some guy in central Europe. And the gas tank’s (probably) stuffed with heroin. Yeah, this was big and dumb.

[Read 400 Miles Part 2 by clicking here . ]

Join the conversation
2 of 29 comments
  • BabyM BabyM on Mar 13, 2008

    I've never cared for "malaise-era" Corvettes, but this is a lovely piece of writing. Glad you enjoyed the adventure, and thank you for telling the rest of us the story.

  • on Sep 12, 2008

    [...] P­roj­ect Ca­r Hell, a­n­d J­F­G-m­ei­s­ter L­overm­a­n­ h­imself­ get­s t­h­e bl­a­m­e­ cr­e­dit [...]

  • MaintenanceCosts And this is why I just bought myself a good 2011 manual car that I plan to keep for a good long time.
  • Lou_BC The Camaro always had to contend with the Corvette. Up until the mid-engine Corvette, bother were just muscle cars occupying the same niche. The demise of the Challenger and Camaro will be great news for Ford and the Mustang. Once again they are the last domestic Muscle car standing.
  • MaintenanceCosts I love these. They are really too loud for the street--you'd have to tiptoe around subdivisions and parking lots if you don't want people to get mad--but the noise is SO beautiful.But if I got this one the first thing I'd do would take a heat gun to the white stripes. The car is plenty shouty enough without them.
  • Ajla This was discussed a little in the Camaro thread yesterday but IMO these GT350s along with the 5g Camaro Z28 are going to be the most valuable post 2000 muscle/pony cars around the time I'm going in the ground. The experience those two cars give isn't going to exist in the future while they are also just fussy enough about maintenance/repair to make themselves rare as time goes on.
  • Lou_BC Battery trickle charger. My EV is a 12 ft. aluminum boat with a Minn Kota.