By on March 11, 2008

c31.jpgBy 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 .

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29 Comments on “400 Miles in a 1981 Corvette, Part 1...”

  • avatar

    You and Paul clearly have been spending quality time together.

  • avatar

    Love the slotted mags and white letter radials on a C3. Someone in Prague better grab some Journey 8-Tracks and grow a mullet before that bad boy lands. :)

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    “Bob” already runs around Prague in a ’68 Charger

  • avatar

    If I could afford to ship a car to Europe, I would have picked a 1973 or older Vette. Then again, 1981 was an oddball year for Corvettes so maybe the new owner liked that aspect.

    You sure this car wasn’t stolen or anything, right?

  • avatar

    i guess this car was constructed long before bob seger or john mellencamp began singin’ chevy’s praises to hardworking middleclass americans throughout the land.

    still – it sounds like an adventure worth taking. looking forward to reading your next post.

  • avatar

    Wonderfully written story.


  • avatar

    Awesome story, wonderfully written. Mention of The Madonna Inn paints a great picture…

    How do you get a job like that, to deliver a car for someone else? I thought they stopped doing that after incidence like in the movie The Hitcher.

  • avatar

    I have just finished reading the Corolla piece in which everyone talked about how the body of their 70s Corolla fell apart around the drivetrain.

    Now we have a story about a 81 Vette that looks wonderful on the outside but everything else appears to have went to shit. I guess there is something good to be said about those fiberglass bodies.

    I am one of the few folks that actually like these Corvettes. I find them rather beautiful with their coke bottle bodies and glass fastback. The interior while full of GM 1970s fair is not all that bad in overall design. One of these babies with a restomod and a new engine would be nice.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    “How do you get a job like that, to deliver a car for someone else?”

    The internet is an amazing thing

  • avatar

    Stories like these are the reason why I come to TTAC, beyond the wonderful essays, self-deprecating podcasts, and snarky news commentary.

  • avatar

    This has all the right ingredients for a colossal failure or a ridiculously epic success.

    I wish I was along for the ride, with an HD camcorder and a fat life insurance policy. It could have made for film much better than anything Top Gear USA will create (if they ever do anything other than extended commercials).

  • avatar

    At least it wasn’t an ’83 Vette

  • avatar

    I thought they skipped that year?

    Did the 81 even make 200hp?

  • avatar

    Being nearly thirty years old coming from a family that has only ever owned high mileage used domestics; this story seems totally typical and business as usual. It’s just the way it is with “these cars”. Why do I put up with it and tolerate it? Perhaps a level of comfort. It’s what I’m familiar with. I know these cars inside and out and I can fix, repair, or replace anything on them. Sure; I could do the same with an import. But I choose not too. Something about that traverse mounted engine and front wheel drive. Dealing with the accessory end of the motor when it has a 1/2″ of clearance between it and the strut tower. CV joints and clutch changes. Not to mention the mediocreness of most of the import econoboxes. Just too plain and boring. My current daily driver is a 20mpg totally stock `88 5.0 Mustang convertible. 190,000 miles on it. New paint, top, interior, and transmission. All the “incidentals”(timing chain, water pump, alternator, master cylinder, brake pads, rotors, drums, everything) are lifetime warranty items thanks to the local auto part stores. I’m going to drive the wheels off this thing. $4/gal? I just don’t care. I know this car inside and out and I can fix anything. Easily doing 85mph on the on ramp every morning? I ain’t driving no Honda. I’d drive that `81 Vette everyday if that’s what I had.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Loving it, Jonny.

    whatdoiknow: The ’81 was up to 190hp, from the low-point year 1975, when the standard engine had 165hp.

  • avatar

    So did Murliee Martin make all of this known to the purchaser? Bad paint, cracked dash, no lights, no AC, questionable tranny, this was a ragged out Vette. No doubt a bit of money for cosmetics and such with the fairly reliable drivetrain and it will be an alright car. Much cheaper to look around and get a better example up front though trust me.

    Hey, not gonna stand up for GM build quality during those years, but hardly like this is a real big indictment of it. No way to know how this example was treated over the years. A nice example of one of these isn’t so bad.

    Also, if I were agreeing to drive a car like that, first thing I would do is check lights, brakes etc. for function. Might not make for as entertaining a story, but really come on have some kind of common sense here.

  • avatar
    Matthew Sullivan

    For the love of God, Jonny, please don’t respond to any e-mails you get from Nigeria! And the guy in Iraq who found Saddam’s gold is fake, too….

  • avatar

    Jonny – there’s another buyer out there. Instead of having this amazing “American Classic” sit and rot in a storage crate for at least a month, someone named “Dirk” wants it. He even sent directions from the Bay Area:

    Take 101 South to Laurel Canyon Blvd south. Go right on Lookout Mountain Ave. When Lookout splits into Lookout and Laurel Pass, turn onto Laurel Pass. Make a left on Wonderland Park and then continue straight onto Wonderland Avenue.

    This is where things get “wierd.” He was speaking a million miles per hour so I didn’t get a street number but I swear I heard that he said that you’ll know the house since someone named “Wadd” is passed out on the driveway.

    Dirk thought the stuff in the gas tank might be his. He’ll pay triple.

  • avatar

    Sounds like a trip to the A & P in my 1965 L76. Yes, I went to the store. My wife could not hold the clutch in.

  • avatar

    You haven’t lived until you’ve imported a 25 year-old Audi from Canada… in the winter… and drive it back to Oklahoma….

    Hopefully I will see “Bob” when I go over there soon….

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    A really enjoyable story, Mr. Diggler.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    I’m only just realizing now, that $5,500 could have gotten me a 7 diamond girl from the Emperor VIP Club.


  • avatar

    So…what are the odds that Jonny actually delivers the vehicle and get paid?

    I’m guessing not strong.

    There are worse vehicles to be stuck with than an 81 Vette, I suppose.

  • avatar

    I’m thinking “Vanishing Point”

  • avatar

    Jonny – instead of a 7 diamond girl, imagine what this ‘vette will get you instead! I’m guessing White Rain, torn denim, twirled gum on a finger, sparkle nail polish, leopard print at least two places on her body, an ex-boyfriend with a record, and a parole officer.
    (An 81 Corvette is just too much fun to rip on – anyone have a mid-80’s Camaro and a similar story?)

  • avatar

    Sounds like you and Eliot may be in the same cell. Perhaps you can share experiences on what sort of illicit action $5500 buys.

  • avatar

    Great story. Sounds like something I would do. Just don’t run into any bulldozers, okay?

  • avatar

    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.

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