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1981 Chevrolet Corvette - Tenth Turbo

Drop-Top Duntov Turbo Is A Rare Performer

Scott Ross Apr 1, 2008
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When you look back at 1981, it wasn't really that bad a time in Corvette history. The Corvette Team was designing and engineering the upcoming, all-new C4; production had shifted from the venerable St. Louis Assembly Plant to a more modern facility near Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Bloomington Gold was still being held at the old McLean County (Illinois) Fairgrounds on the east side of Bloomington.

And if you had the extra cash over what a factory Vette cost, you could get a specially styled and tuned one that benefited from the touch of none other than Zora Arkus Duntov. One of Zora's consulting deals following his retirement from GM was with American Custom Industries (ACI) in Sylvania, Ohio. ACI was-and still is-a manufacturer of Corvette parts, including fiberglass body parts, and they had an idea: Why not make the ultimate Corvette, based on the then-current-production C3 platform, with technical help from Zora?

So was born the Duntov Turbo Corvette, planned both as a coupe and a convertible. Starting with a new C3, the production body was replaced by one fitted with wider front fenders, rear quarter-panels, and doors-widening the car by 6 inches. That width was needed to house a set of modular aluminum Weld wheels wearing Goodyear's top performance tire of the time: the Wingfoot.

Duntov Turbo convertibles weren't done as a quick-and-dirty, chop-off-the-stock-roof, then-drop-in-a-used-drop-top conversion. ACI used new convertible top assemblies and took the time to fit them right onto the body, which-like the coupe-also sported the wider fenders, doors, and quarters.

Under the louvered hood came the real story: a turbocharged V-8. In an age where performance was measured by how cars of the past could beat the current year's offerings, ACI and Zora came up with a Martin turbocharger system that provided plenty of reliable additional power-as much as 70 more horsepower out of the small-block (an L48 350, or a 305 for California-only use). For reliability's sake, a water-injection system was added to prevent detonation caused by that era's low-octane gasolines. Downstream, transmissions included the choice of a Turbo 350 or a four-speed, with Posi-traction nestled inside the upgraded independent rear suspension.

The car you see here is one the earliest Duntov Turbos-the tenth one built. It's a car that you definitely don't see every day. "That's for sure," current co-owner Jeffrey Griggs says from his Emerson, New Jersey, home. "I came across that car, believe it or not, on eBay, and when I saw it, I fell in love with it. The looks, the style of it, and being an '81 convertible was just so unique."

Jeffrey has owned plenty of other Vettes over the years, and he's kept his eye out for the "distinctive" ones. "I've owned one of those Eckler Corvette station wagons over the years and one of those Corvette pickup trucks. I just go for odd Corvettes, and when I saw the Duntov, I remembered the ads for it back in 1981," he says.

When he and co-owner, Bob Bremmer, found it, this car had already covered great distances around the world, thanks to its three previous owners. "It's gone through a couple of Corvette specialty shops. ProTeam had it, and I believe Corvette Country had it," Jeffrey says. "Somewhere along the line, one of those places had it at a Barrett-Jackson auction back in the '90s, and it sold then for about $46-47,000, and it went overseas, where it got into a German car publication." One more ownership change and cross-Atlantic trip back to the United States followed. "That [owner], who was some kind of model, came back to California. That's where I got it; the guy who was sponsoring her said she needed money. The guy got the car from her, and me and my partner, a good friend of mine, got the car."

What they got was a head-turner that was in very good original condition. Despite its globe-hopping, the odometer showed only about 41,000 miles. The first time Jeffrey showed it, he found success. "In fact, the first car show that I took it to, I brought home a First Place trophy, which was pretty nice." He says this shark sees plenty of show duty, as well as time spent where Zora intended-on the road. "I usually take it to shows and cruise nights. It's a pleasure to drive. You get in, and you drive it. It's a pleasure, and the looks you get are unbelievable."

Looks are one thing, but performance is another-and another area in which this car excels. "I tell you, you hit the gas on that, and there's a little hesitation with the turbo," says Jeffrey. "As soon as the turbo kicks in, it's like it doesn't want to stop. It's almost like you have nitrous; you just hit that button, and it just takes off." When the road turns twisty, Jeffrey, who's owned a number of stock '78-'82 sharks in the past, says the drop-top Duntov handles better and is quicker. "It's unbelievable. I think what they did was tightened up the suspension a lot on this car, and with the turbo, of course, it's phenomenal."

The only visible difference between this car as it was delivered new in 1981 and its current condition is inside the fenderwells, where a set of Goodyear GT Radials replaced the long-out-of-production Wingfoots decades ago.

How much did all that cost in 1981? At a time when base Corvette sticker prices started around $16,250, this Duntov Turbo's retail price was closer to $45,000 out the door. Phase I Duntov Turbos started at around $27,000, and 65-large got you the top-line Phase III. As a result, only about 86 Duntov Turbos were built instead of a planned 200-car production run. "It was kind of a tough era then, during the early '80s," says Jeffrey. "Money was a little tight back then. I can understand why they never built the full production of the 200."

Jeffrey adds that he's talked with ACI's current owner, who says that Duntov Turbo convertible production may be anywhere from 28 to 37 cars, as their production records are incomplete (following a move many years ago), and that seven Greenwood turbo convertibles and one maroon Duntov Turbo coupe were built around the same time.

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The Great Wide Shark ::: ACI's fenders and quarters added 6 inches to the shark's width, making room for the ultra-wide (by 1981 standards) modular Weld wheels.>

Data File ::: '81 Duntov Turbo Convertible
Co-owned by Jeffery Griggs, Emerson, New Jersey
Duntov Turbo conversion: American Custom Industries (ACI), Sylvania, Ohio
Planned Duntov Turbo Corvette production: 200
Actual Duntov Turbo Corvette production: 86 (49 coupes, 37 convertibles)
Per documentation with/on car: Tenth Duntov Turbo built
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP), 1981: Approximately $45,000
MSRP (base price) of production '81 Corvette: $16,258
VIN: 1Z87HAS439104
Current mileage: Approximately 41,000



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