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1981 Corvette - Born To Run

This 1981 Corvette Packs Sound And Fury In One Classy Package.

Paul Zazarine Dec 14, 2006
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When Scott Kempkens was a mere lad, he lived in Detroit, home of America's automotive industry and playground for high-performance cars. The Kempkens' neighbor was an executive at GM's Design Studio and always drove new cars home from the Tech Center. One day he wheeled into his driveway in a Monaco Orange '69 427 Corvette and gave 7-year-old Scott a ride. Scott's been hooked on Corvettes ever since.

In 1997 he moved to Sarasota, Florida, and purchased a neglected '81 Corvette that would temporarily serve as his daily driver. He gave it a solid overhauling that had to last until he was able to purchase other transportation. Scott already knew what he wanted to do with the Corvette, and the project began to take form.

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First up was an interior redo, which included replacing the carpet and re-covering the seats with '80 Corvette cloth and vinyl upholstery (original '81 cloth seats are quite rare). The mechanicals were next, starting with the transmission and working back. With the tranny, rear, and IRS removed, Scott was able to thoroughly clean and refinish the underside.

Van Steel, of Clearwater, Florida, replaced the factory 2.87:1 rear cogs with a 3.54:1 Posi gearset. Scott had the halfshafts and driveshaft powdercoated, and installed custom heavy-duty U-joint caps. The rear suspension was modified with a seven-leaf rear spring and Guldstrand T6 aluminum strut rods. Stainless brake lines with SSBC sleeved calipers ensure adequate stopping power.

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Next, Scott turned his attention to the drivetrain. The tired Turbo 350 was removed, and Barbic's Transmissions installed a beefed 700-R4 four-speed overdrive automatic and a 10-inch 2,500-stall torque converter. While the modifications made the 13-hour drive to the National Corvette Museum's L81 Registry Gathering pleasant enough, it was obvious the 107,000-mile 350 engine just didn't have the cojones it needed and would have to be replaced. The 190hp small-block was yanked and stored, just in case Scott ever decides to restore the '81.

Scott chose a 383 stroker built by Tommy of Corvettes West in Sarasota. He started with a four-bolt-main block bored .030 over, with a 400 crank, Eagle 5.7 SIR rods, ARP bolts, and Speed-Pro coated pistons with a 10.5:1 compression ratio. Then the engine was balanced and blueprinted. Down below, a heavy-duty oil pump and a Milodon 7-quart oil pan keeps the 383 well lubed. For the valvetrain, Tommy chose a Comp Cams XE-284 camshaft with Crane roller rockers and a roller timing set. A pair of Dart Sportsman II heads were ported, and Chevrolet powdercoated aluminum racing valve covers were installed. On top is an Edelbrock Performer RPM intake with an AED-built Holley 750-cfm carburetor.

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To feed the big double-pumper, a Holley Blue electric fuel pump was used. For spark, Tommy turned to the ACCEL Blueprint Series HEI distributor with a Crossfire HEI distributor cap, an ACCEL Super Coil, and MSD 8.5mm plug wires. Before Tommy sent the 383 home to Scott, he dyno'd the engine at a cool 420 hp on pump gas.

After cleaning and repainting the engine bay, Scott painted the engine red, added plenty of shiny billet brackets and pulleys, and dropped it in. Tommy removed the fac-tory exhaust and installed a set of Hooker Super Competition headers and side pipes with Jet-Hot coating and STS baffles. Then came the moment of truth. Scott recalled, "I called Tommy, who came over for some late-night adjustments to the ignition and carb, and around 9 p.m. the monster breathed fire out of the open side pipes for the first time. It was music to my ears."

Scott kept the exterior relatively stock, but installed a set of bubble taillight covers, mirrored glass tops, and an L88 hood before having the stock '81 Corvette Red paint resprayed. Inside, he added an Alpine AM/FM/CD player with Alpine and Boston Acoustics speakers. Finally, he welded in a Shark Bar harness system with G-Force five-point harnesses, a Halotron fire extinguisher, and three video-camera mounts. Stock options included electric mirrors, a power driver seat, power locks, and power windows. In the future, Scott plans to install a five-speed transmission and a custom aluminum console with Auto Meter gauges.

Scott cruises the Sarasota streets and is amazed at the reaction to the Corvette. "It's good to see that a vintage Corvette in a town full of expensive European sports cars can still turn heads," he says. "You just can't beat the sound of a lumpy cam along with side pipes with spiral baffles."

We couldn't agree more.



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