The 1981 Corvette might have been the middle verse of the 1968-1982 C3 platform’s three-year swan song, but from a technical standpoint it was uniquely consequential. MY81 was the first year all Corvettes had digital electronic engine controls. It was the year GM launched computer-controlled torque-converter clutches in its automatic transmissions. And it was the first year for a composite leaf spring.
At the other end of the life-cycle spectrum, the ’81 model was the last Corvette with carburetors. It was the final year for four-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmissions, and it began a nine-year span with no high-performance engine option. Finally, it was the only year Corvettes were manufactured in two different geographic locations.
By today’s standards, the electronic controls used on many of General Motors’ 1981 cars were simple and slow. But back then they were leading-edge stuff—and the only way car companies could address ever-tightening exhaust-emissions regulations.
GM had been working on digital engine controls since the mid-1970s. It was a huge undertaking occupying scores of engineers for several years and costing $2.2 billion in today’s money. In 1979 these controls debuted on certain Cadillacs sold in California. The following year an improved version, called Computer Controlled Catalytic Converter, or C-4, went nationwide on some Caddies.
Over at Chevrolet emissions regs were going to prohibit the company from selling ’80 Corvettes in California. So, to preserve what was the biggest Corvette market in the country, Chevy developed a smaller, California-specific, 5.0-liter LG4 V-8 equipped with the C-4 system.
For 1981 the system was upgraded with a faster processor, “non-volatile” memory (that is, memory that is preserved even after the power is turned off), and the ability to send data to a handheld service tool called a scan tester. In addition to being more efficient, this system allowed for stored trouble codes, and it enabled service technicians to monitor engine controls in real time so they could more easily troubleshoot them. GM called this Computer Command Control, or C-3, and it was installed on all ’81 Corvettes.
For 1979 Cadillac had also introduced Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel, E4M-series carburetors on some models. The “electronic Quadrajet” had fuel delivered through its primaries, while idle speed was controlled by an engine-control module (ECM) in tandem with a throttle-position sensor. While the Rochester E4ME was only used for two years on Corvette—’80 California cars and all ’81s—it was employed on millions of GM cars until 1990.
Underneath the car, a glass-reinforced composite rear spring was used on all ’81s equipped with the base suspension and automatic transmission. Simply switching from the previous nine-leaf steel spring to a mono-leaf plastic unit cut the car’s weight by 36 pounds. Even today, that’s the greatest weight reduction from a single part on a Vette. Simple but effective, plastic leaf springs would go on to be a brand staple for the next 38 years.
A four-speed manual transmission made its last appearance in 1981. According to the Corvette Black Book, Mike Antonick’s benchmark reference guide, only 5,757 out of 40,606 cars had stick-shifts that year, reflecting changing buyer preferences. It was also the end for the Turbo-Hydramatic 350 three-speed automatic, but the long-serving “Turbo-350” went out on a technological high note. For ’81, it became the first GM automatic to use a torque-converter clutch (TCC), which improved fuel economy by locking the converter in high gear. Since then, TCCs have been used in tens of millions of GM products.
In a temporary step backwards, a high-performance engine was absent from the Corvette’s order sheet for the first time since 1954. Such an option would not return until 1990, in the form of the ZR-1 model’s 375-horsepower LT5.
Even the manufacturing process was in a state of upheaval. In March of 1979, GM acquired a vacant Chrysler AirTemp facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with plans to convert it into a new Corvette assembly plant. Corvette production started there in June of 1981, but Chevy continued building cars at the St. Louis factory, Corvette’s home since 1954, for two months before making a full transition to the new site.
Considering all these firsts and lasts for the Corvette’s 1981 model year, we thought it would be instructive to profile one of these unique C3s. Recently, at a car show in Southern California, we learned of a local car that appeared to fit the bill. We set up a meeting with its owner, Bob Solloway, along with a photo shoot of the car and a brief drive of this nearly 40-year-old classic.
At Solloway’s home in Woodland Hills, northwest of LA, we found an exceptionally nice “survivor” Corvette showing 194,000 original miles—55K by the original owner and the rest by Solloway. The car was purchased in August of 1981 from Baher Chevrolet in Northridge, California, a big Corvette dealer back then. Solloway proudly showed us the original window sticker listing significant options: power locks, a power driver’s seat, a rear-window defogger, and the Gymkhana Suspension. The original owner also paid Baher to add factory aluminum wheels.
Solloway is intrigued by Chevrolets and Pontiacs of the late-’70s and early-’80s. Besides the Corvette, he has a ’78 Camaro Z28 and a pair of ’79 Firebirds—a Trans Am and a Formula. “Those were the hot cars when I was in elementary school, [and] I have fond memories,” he says. “They had so much character—they all had soul, and I love the way old cars smell.”
The first owner had the Corvette for seven years before Solloway, a 20-year-old college student at the time, bought it in May of 1988. That he’s put almost 140,000 miles on the car since is a testament to both his meticulous maintenance and the fundamental solidity of the late C3. “For a number of years it was my daily driver,” he says. “The longest trip I’ve taken in it? To a business meeting I had in Salinas, about six hours north.”
Eventually, Solloway acquired other cars for daily transportation, and the Corvette became a weekend pleasure and show car. Except for aftermarket mufflers put on by the first owner, the powertrain and chassis are as they were when the car rolled off the line nearly four decades ago.
Solloway prefers not to perform his own heavy-duty repairs on the car. “One time, I replaced the driver-side window switch successfully after watching a YouTube video on that,” he says. “I’ll do under-hood or tire-pressure checks, but that’s about it. I have professional service techs do the [difficult] work.
“What I enjoy is car care. At a young age I developed a passion for detailing—I love seeing things shine.”
Certainly this one does. Only 1,031 Yellow Corvettes, or 2.5 percent of total ’81 production, were built, all in St. Louis. The exterior of Solloway’s is almost certainly better than factory issue, having been repainted the stock color by The Exclusive Body Shop in Van Nuys.
Stylistically, many Corvette aficionados, Solloway included, feel the ’80-’82 exterior is the best of C3 generation. The restyled front fascia provided a hint of what was coming with C4, and the restyle of the rear, with a vertical fascia topped by a molded deck spoiler, gave these later cars a longer, sleeker appearance.
After admiring the car for a time, we popped the hood and pulled off the air cleaner to get a look at the notorious E4ME Quadrajet. While this unit was despised by many service techs of the day (typically because they didn’t understand it), it was actually a clever solution for integrating a four-barrel carburetor to work with computer engine controls.
Primary metering rods were stepped, with a larger-diameter “lean” section and a smaller-diameter “rich” section. During part-throttle operation, a mixture-control solenoid (see photo) pulsed the rods up and down in the main jets. It did this based on an ECM-commanded “pulse width” driven by data from an oxygen sensor screwed into the driver-side exhaust manifold. If the oxygen content in the exhaust was high, the engine was rich and the ECM leaned the mixture by increasing pulse width. If the oxygen content was low, the engine was lean and the ECM enriched the mixture by decreasing pulse width. This kept combustion such that a minimum of pollutants were emitted by the exhaust.
Solloway next replaced the air cleaner and started the engine, allowing the idle speed to normalize gradually as the coolant temperature rose. I connected my Bosch Mastertech scan tester, using an adapter to hook the 12-pin diagnostic link connector (DLC), typical of ’82-’95 GM vehicles, to the ’81 unit’s five-pin input.
The Mastertech’s display provided a window into what it was like to service the engine controls of the early-’80s. Only a small amount of data was available, and it changed…so…slowly. That’s one reason these older systems were so difficult to diagnose: Intermittent problems—often the most difficult ones to solve—sometimes did not manifest long enough for the ECM to “decide” to set a fault code. A GM engineer once joked to me, “We benchmarked those processors with a sundial.”
Driving a Time Capsule
The best part came when Solloway and I hopped into the car and I took it for a short test drive. The car is very nice inside, thanks to a complete interior restoration by Miranda’s Upholstery in North Hills, California. The only non-stock item is a Custom Autosound stereo, which replaced the original radio that failed. It has an OEM-appearing faceplate but modern internals, including Bluetooth. While NCRS diehards might develop the vapors over such modern technology, it’s a tasteful interior upgrade in a regularly driven survivor.
I had not driven a C3 manual in several years, but the mechanical clutch linkage, along with the peculiar, chassis-mounted shifter, were an immediate reminder of Corvette days past. Power delivery was smooth and responsive; there just wasn’t much of it. Driving this car makes one appreciate how much electronic engine controls have improved performance cars in the intervening years. The 5.7-liter L81 engine of 1981 produced 190 hp at 4,200 rpm, while the 6.2-liter LT2 of today produces 495 hp at 6,450 rpm—with superior fuel efficiency, refinement, and emissions performance.
As we drove Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a major thoroughfare near Solloway’s house, the fiery-yellow ’81, with its polished-aluminum wheels, turned heads. That so many people remain enamored with this more-than-a-half-century-old shape explains why the Shark’s exterior design inspired Tom Peters and the team of GM designers who styled the C6 and C7.
The ride was stiff because of the high-rate springs and aggressive shocks that came with the Gymkhana Suspension, but not too harsh, by virtue of high-aspect-ratio tires, along with rubber suspension bushings and stabilizer bar links. The brakes were properly maintained and stopped reasonably well; however, pedal feel and travel, nostalgia-inducing at best, were typical of 1960s disc-brake design. Newer versions of America’s Sports Car’s brakes are another modern contrast that has spoiled me.
All of the creature comforts on Solloway’s C3 worked fine. The power windows went up and down smoothly, the air conditioning kept us cool in the California sun, and the power steering worked quietly and effortlessly. (It’s a good thing, too, because C3s without it are miserable to drive at low speed.) I even paired my iPhone with the Bluetooth audio and played Taylor Swift’s version of “Bette Davis Eyes”—a modern contrast to Kim Carnes’ original 1981 version, which was released eight years before Swift was born.
Yet another modern contrast? Driving my own C7 back home. While Bob Solloway’s “firsts and lasts” C3 can’t compete with newer Corvette models in terms of pure performance, it perfectly embodies a pivotal era in the evolution of America’s Sports Car.