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1981 Chevy Camaro Z28 - Self Medication

Mike Coughlin's 1,400-Mile '81 Z28

Ro McGonegal Feb 1, 2011
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This is for all you hot shoes that don't covet a first-gen Camaro like it was the last one on this earth. Yes, yes, they've certainly been done to death, but they will always remain inevitably and inarguably compelling. The generation of Camaros that followed was far better in terms of handling and balance, but power, not so much. And towards the end, the rubber bumper rats that nobody wanted for hop-up material were all that was left. But their day would come.

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Refinement to this second iteration (beginning as '70 1/2 models) came to halt with the '81 model year. But what a run it had. During Detroit's dark days, it appeared as the darling of the hotly contested IROC series. It also appeared in limited numbers in the mid-'70s as a special child of ex-Oldsmobile project engineer Bill Mitchell. It had a draw-through turbocharger, a thoroughly revised suspension system, and Minilite wheels with high-grip rubber. Mitchell didn't see it as a hot rod but as a "complete luxury car for sophisticated tastes." Did Mitchell's progeny mark the beginning of the Pro Touring discipline?

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The 1981 sales year was a bad one for GM. A maximum production of just 126,139 units (43,272 of which were Z28 models) was summarily traced to a lengthy labor dispute. This was the lowest production volume since 1973, the year the Camaro was nearly wiped off the books altogether due to another labor strike. Decline on all levels was attributed to a crappy domestic economy following the Iranian revolution in 1979 (and the resultant rationing of Arab-sourced fuel at American gas pumps). The country was in the worst economic recession (1980-82) since the end of WWII. Unemployment was in double digits. Money tended to collect a lot of pocket lint.

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Chevrolet tightened up a little bit, too, excising the Rally Sport model from the '81 lineup and narrowing Camaro choices to the Sport Coupe (economy), Berlinetta (high-end), and Z28 (pretending to be the evil one), but the indomitable wish list permitted each model to assume parts and features from other models as well.

None of this was lost on Mike Coughlin. Naturally running under the Jeg's banner, he began his professional career pulling gears in a Pro Stock Truck, circa 2001. Later he gave the Super Comp people a lot of sleepless nights. He graduated to a Jerry Bickel-built Top Sportsman Cobalt that screams 6.60s, but unlike its street counterpart, it has big slicks on its rear axle and a 790ci Sonny Leonard crusher laid in north-to-south. He takes that one out maybe a half-dozen times a year. Mike is a genuine family man, horsing around with his two young boys; the older one runs a Jr. Dragster. Mike's of the mind that family is the basis for just about everything, and he's not going to miss his kids growing up because he's out on the race trail.

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Then there is his passion: "I am a huge F-Body fan, and have several Chevy and Pontiac examples, but I always had my eye out for a 1981 Chevy Camaro Z28 with the charcoal grey paint and the silver 'moon suit' interior. I liked this combo because I always thought it was the sharpest looking, and it's also rare because they only offered the interior in 1981. I looked off and on for about 15 years [trying to find] the 'right' car.

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"About two years ago I was on eBay looking around when I came across this car, so I started studying the pictures and the car was exactly what I was after! The right color, the 'moon suit' interior, loaded, and only 1,200 miles!

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"After looking at the pictures closer, I noticed the car had an Ohio license plate on it. Looking closer at the plate, it had a 21 on the corner, which [denotes] Delaware County, the same county I am from. So I emailed the fellow for more info, he gave me his phone number, and I called him. I was standing outside on my driveway, on my cell phone, and after a while I asked about the location of the car. He said, 'Do you know where Bean-Oller road is?' I said 'Do I know where it is, I can see it from here!' I thought to myself, 'This is too good to be true!'"

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That last phrase suggests foreshadowing and that maybe the package wasn't all Mike thought it was. It was too good to be true, but it was what it was: genuine and complete.

"I went to look at it and sure enough it was exactly what I was looking for. It turns out that this fellow had bought the car from the original owner about seven years prior. It would have been for his son to drive, so he'd updated the belts, hoses, tires, and battery to get it 'road ready' but decided to go another direction because he felt that the car was just too nice to drive. We talked back and forth a bit and agreed on a price, and I bought the car, got dropped off at his place, and drove it home-about a three-mile drive. The car is absolutely spotless and all stock. It was just one of those deals that seemed too good to be true," exclaims Mike.

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As for the car's incredible preservation: "The original owner bought it and put it away in a controlled atmosphere, perhaps not in a strict climate-controlled environment, but one good enough to produce results you see here," says Mike. "Though it appears absolute, the car has some very small issues, in that it's not perfect but I'm not worrying about it. The interior is perfect. The car is absolutely bone stock except for the tires, battery, hoses, and belts. I was just flat lucky to find it, and so close to my house."

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The example now in Coughlin's stable could have easily been a zooted-up press vehicle of the day. It was loaded with all the opportunistic stuff imaginable-from air conditioning, to lift-off roof, to that schizoid silver-colored leather, and every imaginable option. This writer was working at Motor Trend in 1978 when Pontiac released the Tenth Anniversary Trans Am (Mike has one of those, too). It was slathered in metallic silver leather upholstery that was later re-effected for the '81 Z28 you see here, and was not available in any other model year.

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As a Z28, Mike's car was equipped with the F41 suspension package (special shock valving, higher rate springs, and matching antisway bars) and 15x7 styled steel wheels shod with P225x70R15 tires. It has the RPO LM1 350ci, 175hp (165hp California) V-8; either a 200C or Turbo 350 transmission (automatic only with the 350), and computer-controlled torque converter clutches for Second and High gear. If you wanted to stab a clutch, you could only do so behind the much-maligned RPO LG4 305.

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A functional cold air intake hood had been carried over from the '80 Z28 and included cowl induction. In terms of air exchange, it was teamed with functional fender ports (or louvers) that extracted hot under-hood air to the outside. The cowl hood was first available on the '80 Z28. The rear-facing hood scoop fed cool ambient air to the carburetor via a solenoid triggered by a switch connected to the accelerator pedal. At full-throttle, it opens wide, but stays shut during part-throttle.

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"The one thing that is very obvious is the way these cars feel compared to a modern car," said Mike. "You drive them [the old ones] 20 miles and begin to wonder how people could go 70,000 miles in one. Compared to today's cars, man, they just aren't comfortable. I drive most of 'em once a year to exercise them and to keep stuff lubricated. To me, driving them is therapy. When the weather's nice, the boys and I will get the cars out and drive 'em up and down the driveway a few times. I just can't help it. I love these cars."



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