1981 Chevrolet Corvette - Beauty And Beast

This Big-Block '81 Wasn't Built To Be A Trailer Queen

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There's a lot to be said about ultra-high-dollar rides-cars whose owners have invested so much time and money into them that they're afraid to drive these otherwise roadworthy masterpieces.

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Except this story isn't about one of those. It's about a shark that was built by someone who was looking to do something else with his next project.

Several years back, Frank Cagle had a show-stopper in steel-a '67 Chevy II Nova Super Sport that he'd put a lot of time and effort into; it even bore Chip Foose's autograph. "It just went to shows, and finally I got tired of not being able to drive something," Cagle says from his Birmingham, Alabama home. "I said to myself, 'What do you want to drive that looks sporty and is not what everybody else has?' The C3s just stood out all by themselves."

That would be the oft-maligned '68-'82 Corvettes, rushed into production when the General was blown away by the Mako Shark II concept car back in 1965. This was the Corvette generation that suffered the most over the years because of uneven early build quality, tightening Federal emission and safety standards, and a perceived lack of what "a real Corvette" should have. (Of course, that didn't stop Vette buyers from snapping them up in increasing numbers during the mid-to-late '70s.)

Cagle set out to find a red-on-red shark for a project car, and the first one he found turned out to be a good one. Too good, in fact. "I found one in Cincinnati, flew up, bought it, and drove it back to Birmingham," Cagle says. "On the way back, I got to looking at the car, and everything on it worked-the seat-belt buzzer, light dimmer, even the clock was working. I said, 'I can't destroy this car-it's in too-good shape!'" When he got home, Cagle put that car up for sale and started his search over.

On eBay, he found an interesting C3 at a shop in St. Petersburg, Florida. It had the red exterior/interior he was looking for plus a new interior, lots of new chassis and trim parts, but no engine or transmission. A call to the shop revealed that this particular '81 had been brought in for a high-end paintjob, with all the glass, interior, and trim removed, but the owner never came back to pick it up. It sat there for three years before the shop owner got a mechanic's lien on it, and the State of Florida granted him a clear title to the car. It wasn't all together, but it was altogether what Cagle was looking for, so the deal was done. "I loaded up my trailer and made the trip down to St. Pete, loaded it up, brought it back to my shop, and started working on it," says Cagle.

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For an engine, Cagle not only had a big-block in mind, he had one in his shop. Actually, when he brought the '81 home, he had two Chevy big-blocks-a 468-inch one and a 540-incher built by Jon Barrett Hot Rod Engines in McLoud, Oklahoma. "I originally bought the Jon Barrett big-block to go into a '67 Nova Pro Street that I was making," says Cagle. "Another guy bought the Pro Street project from me, and I'd had the 468 built up for the Corvette, so now I wound up with two engines. I said, 'What the heck-I'm going to put the Jon Barrett big-block into the Corvette, and I'll give the 468 to my son, who'd just finished up a '72 Camaro split-bumper."

But the Barrett engine had some clearance problems, thanks to its tall valve covers topping a set of equally tall roller rockers, along with changes Chevrolet made to the C3's engine bay after the last factory 454 was installed in '74. "I had to take a 4-inch notch out of the firewall just to get the valve covers to clear," Cagle says. "When you start dry-fitting all that stuff, you find [these things] out." He also found out that there was a clearance problem with the Zoops pulleys up front. "The only three-pulley crankshaft pulley they make for a big-block has this large overdrive unit on the front, which means you have to cut a 2-inch notch out of the crossmember to get it to fit."

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Next came a transmission-a 700R4 overdrive automatic, built for high power by Monster Transmissions & Performance in Spring Hill, Florida. Farther aft is another powertrain item that's up to the 540's 635 lb-ft of torque: a 12-bolt rearend inside a four-link suspension setup. Cagle says the OEM rearend housing wasn't up to the job, not with this engine replacing the original 190-horse L81 350. After some more online research, he found RaceFab's website, which led him to the shop that made a custom four-link suspension system that replaced the IRS (and its tendency to squat under hard acceleration). Inside the 12-bolt's housing are Moser axles and a 3.73-geared Auburn posi differential.




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