As a midwest Corvette and Chevy drag racer (108 wins in 123 final rounds) and a hardcore enthusiast from the wild '60s, the '80s might have seemed tame on many fronts. But it was actually pretty awesome, at least from my vantage point. It didn't start that way, though, at least not for new Corvette owners in California.
The '80 model year Corvettes had three different engines: a standard LG4 305 for California (which ran remarkably well) and two 350s for the other states (a base 350 plus RPO L82, a high performance option at $595). Due to strict emissions regulations, the California LG4 could only be ordered with the MX1 automatic transmission. Total '80 Corvette sales in California were 3,221. In all other states, you could not order a four-speed manual transmission with the RPO L82 engine, although lore has it that some were produced early on. The '80 body color of choice was Code 10 white with 7,780 units painted in that color. The least-ordered body color was Code 58 Dark Green with 844. The base Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) was just over $13,140.
For the '81 model year, Corvettes were produced in both the St. Louis and Bowling Green plants. All engines were now equipped with Computer Command Control, which automatically adjusted ignition spark timing and fuel mixture. In the rear suspension a new 8-pound composite plastic rear leaf spring replaced the previous 44-pound steel multi-leaf assembly. Composites were a big deal back then. Few thought it was possible. The St. Louis Corvettes were painted with lacquer, while the Bowling Green Corvettes were painted with a new, basecoat/clearcoat process. The MSRP was just over $16,200. Total '81 Corvette sales were 40,606. For the record, Code 10 White was the most popular body color in with 6,387. The rarest was Code 24 Bright Blue Metallic at one. Yes, one.
During these years imported, sporty-type cars were on the scene and selling well, and Ford's new Mustang and Buick's Turbo V-6 Regal were both putting on the performance gloves. The Corvette continued to evolve year after year. Sadly, by the close of the decade, the base MSRP had almost doubled. So, due to new competition from all fronts as well as huge pricing increases, new Corvette sales dropped to a low of 30,632 in 1987. The first Corvette with a base price exceeding $20,000 was the '82 Special Edition at just over $22,500. (There were 6,759 produced. Neat car.)
You may recall that the new Mustang was getting all the ink in magazines in the early '80s. While Chevy's '82 V-8 ran out of power at 4,400 rpm due to a restrictive pellet catalytic converter and smallish Cross-Fire throttle-body induction, the Mustang 302 had a free-flowing monolith converter and a carburetor. Its engine could reach 5,500 rpm. Chevrolet really didn't have much to brag about. As editor of Super Chevy, neither did I. To do something positive, I quietly entered a friend's new '82 Special Edition Corvette in the 16th Annual Corvette National Charity Drags at Orange County International Raceway. I was hoping to win a few rounds then write up a fun, descriptive tale. Yes, the '82 Corvette had some moxie.
We were one of 66 Corvettes entered in Bracket 5 (15.00-15.99 seconds). Our dial-in started at 15.90 seconds, as the computer-controlled automatic transmission took its time shifting full-throttle into Second gear. Six or so class elimination wins later we beat friend Norm Curtis for Bracket Five class laurels. (Actually, Norm beat himself by running 15.00 on his 15.07 dial-in.)
We thought we were done for the day, but Gary Leonhardt, club president, told us we had to compete for "King Of The Hill." To earn that honor we had to run Gary Cooke, then the NHRA Winternationals Super Gas champion, in his Service Center 9.90 e.t. '59. We dialed in a 15.95 e.t. for this final run. Cooke dialed in a soft 10.15.
We launched on the last yellow bulb and were at the eighth-mile marker when in our rearview mirror we saw the '59 launch. In a blink we could see the finish line, but we also watched Cooke coming up fast in the right lane at over 130 mph! But then, just before the finish line, he let off and we crossed the finish line first. He later said that he thought we broke out (went too quick). Well, super-quick starting line reaction times and e.t.'s close to each run's dial-in won all my Class and Eliminator races that day. The '82 Special Edition won King of the Hill with a 15.97 run on a 15.95 dial-in. Had the transmission shifted quicker, the car felt like it could run mid 15s.
Needless to say, when our event coverage was published in Super Chevy, Chevrolet's Corvette engineering staff were very pleased. Sadly (again), perhaps due to the lack of a four-speed manual transmission and rumors of an all-new Corvette in the works, total '82 Corvette sales dropped to 25,407. To tell you how much had evolved in Corvette optional equipment, '82 was the final year for RPO UN5, an AM/FM stereo with CB radio that retailed for a whopping $755. A total of 1,987 Corvettes were so-equipped.
Due to extended engineering exercises for the all-new Corvette, the decision was made at GM to forego a "1983" Corvette. This decision came after the major media tested same at Riverside Raceway in late 1982. The new Corvette would be a "1984." It was released in March 1983, and shortly thereafter GM held an official west coast press junket with nine new Corvettes.
Corvette mechanics from the GM Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona, serviced all nine cars. In discussions amongst themselves, they felt that if any of the Corvettes might offer some "soft" handling, it would be car number 8. Well, on the twisty, mountain drive back to the coast after lunch, Corvette development engineers Larry Fletcher and Rick Darling were in a factory '82 Corvette right behind me in the number 8 car. As we zig-zagged through the mountain curves, we were at an elevation where the pavement might have black ice. Guess who was the first major media guy to spin out a new '84 Corvette? Oh, and guess which two Corvette development engineers also spun out? There's not much you can do when you're deep into a corner and road ice suddenly takes you out. I spun and ran over a road delineator sign, which deflated the left rear tire. My first spin out, ever. A month later at the GM Proving Grounds, Chevrolet's West Coast P.R. Director, Bill Ott, and five Mesa Corvette engineers and technicians handed me something nicely gift-wrapped. It was the road delineator sign I had run over. They had it inscribed, "Doug Marion Memorial Road Delineator." It was given in lasting friendship, but talk about feeling l-o-w.
Because of its extended sales period, the '84 model sold a whopping 51,547 units. Many print media testers complained about the stiffness of the optional RPO Z51 performance handling package. I was one of the few who liked it. It felt like my '62. Super handling was the talk of the day, but then a new phrase sprang up: "ride quality." The softies wanted to have their cake and eat it too. No problem. Corvette chassis engineers created an even better riding and handling Corvette in '85 and beyond.
The '85 Corvette proved to be a real barn burner. None of us were that thrilled with the Cross-Fire induction from the previous two years. We always thought it was a stop-gap aimed at lower tailpipe emissions. Replacing this induction was the vastly superior Bosch Tuned-Port Injection. It too was computer-controlled but had fuel injection nozzles sunk right into the intake ports like the old '57-'65 Rochester Ram-Jet fuel injection. This new TPI gave a huge 25 horsepower increase along with 40 more lb-ft of torque. By making the engine more efficient at part- and full-throttle, fuel economy was reported to have increased a minimum of 11 percent. Further, major magazines claimed the '85 Corvette to be America's fastest production car, with a top speed of 150 mph. Overall, it was now a great car, front to rear and top to bottom. Sales totaled a respectable 39,729. The MSRP was $24,403. The rest of the '80s Corvettes would also be very good cars, sticker price notwithstanding.