The Corvette’s godfather, Zora Arkus-Duntov, engineered Corvettes to be driven and enjoyed. That’s what Tim and Crystal Lee do with their Vette, the last one built with the RPO L82 high-output small-block V-8.
Their C3 has a family connection that goes back to August 1980. Tim’s dad, Don Lee, bought the Dark Claret L82/automatic Corvette brand new from a Chevrolet dealer while on vacation in upstate New York. For the next three years, Don drove and enjoyed his Vette. But when he heard that Chevy was introducing the C4, he sold the ’80 to a neighbor and waited for the ’85 model with its new, fuel-injected L98 engine. Time rolled on and the ’80 Corvette faded into Don’s “I used to own a …” list of cars.
Fast forward to 2013. One day, Tim Lee, now an auto mechanic, got a call from the grandson of the man that bought his dad’s ’80 Corvette. The car had been garaged for 20 year and the grandson had some questions about the car. After a long conversation and some haggling, Tim was able to talk him into selling it to him. Imagine the chance to buy your dad’s old Vette! The Corvette was back in the family, only this time Tim’s wife, Crystal, had her eye on the car.
The 33-year-old C3 was tired, but intact. Tim set about making the car right for his wife. The car had been semi-regularly driven, never hit, not abused, and everything was original. Aside from needing a new paintjob only regular maintenance-type items needed to be replaced. The car was treated to a new radiator, water pump, fuel pump, gas tank, master cylinder, and brakes. The carburetor was rebuilt and all of the ignition wiring replaced. The 15x8 RPO N90 aluminum wheels were polished and shod with new 255/60R15 BFGoodrich Radial TA tires. The interior had minor wear and only needed a good cleaning. Since the car is registered in California for daily use, it had to be 100-percent smog legal.
Tim discovered that the car was built close to the end of the ’80 production run, and is the last L82 Corvette to roll off the line.
To understand the now not-so-desirable late-C3 cars, you have to look within the context of their day, so let’s go back to 1979 and 1980. The only surviving muscle cars then were the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and Chevrolet’s Camaro Z28 and Corvette. The ’79 Trans Am sold 117,109 units, while Chevrolet sold 84,877 Z28s and 53,807 Corvettes.
Corvette’s chief engineer Dave McLellan (who succeeded Zora in 1975) and his team were very busy back then. With a slim budget, they had to design, engineer, and develop the all-new, fourth-generation Vette, as well as help bring an all-new Corvette assembly plant on line. Plus, for the last years of the C3 there were the ever-tighter emissions controls and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules that had to be factored in. While Corvette sold in low numbers compared to its steel-bodied Chevy counterparts, it had to pull its weight and improve. Although the ’79 Corvette hit an all-time high sales mark, its styling was getting stale, and the 18-year-old chassis that was once revolutionary was now archaic. Plus, the Corvette Team had to keep America’s Only True Sports Car exciting and fresh. A real fun job, huh?
McLellan’s team refreshed the 1980 Corvette on a shoestring. The most obvious visual differences were the new front and rear bumper covers, with an integrated air dam in the front and a rear spoiler with an aerodynamic Kamm-back design. The hood profile was lower and the hood, doors, and lift-out roof panels were made of thinner and lighter material.
The refreshed body didn’t just look swoopy—it was swoopy. The previous body design wasn’t as slippery as we imagined, with a drag coefficient of 0.503. The new bumper covers got the Cd down to 0.443. While that doesn’t seem like much, road tests reported there was noticeably less air resistance.
Also, the ’80 Vette got a 250-pound weight reduction from the ’79 model thanks to the lighter-weight body panels, along with a new aluminum rear differential, aluminum front frame crossmember, and the L82’s aluminum intake manifold replacing the standard L48 cast-iron one.
For the first time since 1974 there were two different engine sizes used: a 350 and a 305. For Vettes sold outside of California there was the base L48 350, rated at 190 hp, and the optional L82 350 (230 hp). California Corvette buyers had only one engine choice: the LG4 305-inch small-block also found in steel-bodied Caprices, Malibus, Camaros, and pickups. Though in Corvette form it used stainless steel tube headers to bump its power output to 180 hp—still 10 less than the L48. The three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic now had a lock-up torque converter, and the optional-except-in-California T10 four-speed had wider gearing.
Inside, the ’80 Corvette’s interior got revised cloth covering, a relocated power door lock button, and a new single storage bin behind the seats. Creature comforts that were previously optional were now standard, including air conditioning, tilt/telescope steering wheel, remote mirrors, power windows, and time-delay lighting. Also, the new speedometer only went up to 85 mph, though the car could go much faster than that. Thank you, Big Brother.
Even though the 1980 Corvette was a much-improved car, sales dropped 13,193 units to 40,614 compared to the ’79 model. While not a stump-puller, it was a noticeable, healthy improvement over the heavier ’78 and ’79 Corvettes. But those upgrades and improvements came at a cost—seen on the window sticker. Base price of the 1980 Corvette was up nearly $3,000, to $13,140. Loaded to the gills, a new Vette that year stickered at around $16,000.
1980 had several interesting Corvette “lasts.” One was its assembly location, as 1980 was the last full year of production at the aging St. Louis Assembly Plant. Corvettes had been built there since December 1953, but the 1920-vintage plant’s age, combined with tighter emission rules on the horizon—especially those covering volatile organic compounds from the paint shop—meant a new plant was needed. In 1980, the all-new Corvette Assembly Plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was in the works, rolling out its first Vette the following year, two months before Corvette production ended at St. Louis.
The other “last” for Corvette in 1980 was the optional L82 engine, the hydraulic-lifter replacement for the ’70-72 LT-1. Rated at 250 hp (5 hp less than the ’72 LT-1) in 1973, its first year, the L82’s factory horsepower ratings started dropping, thanks to ever-tightening emission-control regulations. In 1975, when Corvette lost its “true dual” exhaust system and added a single, two-way catalytic converter, the L82’s output dropped to 205 hp. Engineering tweaks raised that figure to 210 for ’76 and ’77, 220 for Corvette’s Silver Anniversary year in ’78, 225 for ’79, and 230 for 1980. The L82 was $299 extra in ’73, and its price jumped to $595 in ’80.
From a “performance car” perspective, 1980 couldn’t compare to the Corvettes of 10 years before. However, after 13 years of production and refinement, for a day-to-day car that’s fun to drive, this was a much-improved Shark. An ’80 Corvette can be well-bought for as little as $10,000. With a staggering amount of aftermarket parts—including EFI, plus modern three-way cats that enable a true dual exhaust system—and crate engines from Chevrolet and other vendors, an ’80 Corvette can easily be brought up to “glory day” performance levels, resulting in a sleeper late-C3.
According to Tim, his wife, Crystal, loves her Corvette. It has plenty of low-end torque, handles and rides nice, and stops on a dime. Even though it’s not a rip snort’n monster like the Vettes of old, it still turns heads and she gets lots of thumbs up from youngsters that shout out, “Cool car!”
Even though late-’70s and early-to-mid-’80s Corvettes are way down on the desirability list, this Corvette is still in the family, and being driven and enjoyed by its owners.
Just like Zora wanted.