In the world of Corvettes, some are known as "first and last" cars. That's because they combine features that made their initial and final appearances during the same model year. Examples of that include the '62 Corvette, which was the first year for the 327-cube small-block V-8 but the last year of the first-generation Corvette platform; and the '65 Vette, whose standard-features list included four-wheel disc brakes for the first time (and a new big-block option come spring), and whose option sheet carried the last of the Rochester mechanically fuel-injected V-8s.
Another "first and last" year for the Corvette was 1981. The aging C3 platform got new features that included the first-ever onboard computer (Delco's "Computer Command Control" unit) and the first composite rear leaf spring, while the "lasts" included carburetors, manual transmissions (and the Turbo 350), as well as the St. Louis Assembly Plant itself.
That onboard computer, which controlled the air/fuel ratio and ignition timing, as well as tubular stainless-steel exhaust manifolds, had been California-only items in 1980. For '81, they were adapted to the Corvette's only available engine, the L81 195hp small-block V-8. Also, lightweight magnesium valve covers replaced the previous steel ones in the name of weight savings.
In back, the multi-leaf steel leaf-spring bundle that had been a Corvette mainstay since '63 was now gone. Replacing it was a new composite single-leaf spring that not only shaved some 33 pounds off the C3's tail end, but also did away with the leaf-on-leaf metal binding that resulted in ride harshness.
"Lasts" for the '81 Corvette included carburetors as well as the four-speed manual and Turbo 350 automatic transmissions. For '82, "Cross-Fire Injection" would replace the Rochester Quadrajet, and the 700R4 overdrive automatic would succeed the Turbo 350 as Corvette's automatic gearbox. Manual transmissions wouldn't reappear as factory Corvette features until after the '84 model run was underway.
Some might have thought that the lack of power options combined with a high base sticker price ($16,258) and steep-for the time-gas prices would mean a big drop-off from the 40,614 Vettes built in 1980. There was a drop, but only down to 40,606. That meant that there were still plenty of buyers for the "grand touring" car that Corvette had become during the '70s.
One of those, a customer living in North Carolina, bought a St. Louis-built, Charcoal Metallic-painted Vette, but drove it sparingly. It had just 24,000 miles on it when Mark Bremer found out about it in the late '90s. "I was looking for an '80-'82 Corvette, and I'd put an ad out on the Internet," says Bremer from his Benton, Arkansas, home. "A guy in Arizona contacted me, and he said, 'I know this lady in North Carolina who has this car.' So I called her and found out the car had been listed on eBay, but didn't sell."
Though an online ad put him in touch with the '81's owner, an old-fashioned film camera supplied the pictures that convinced Bremer to go see this one and find the mechanic who took care of it. "He told me that she had a great car, that she only drove it at about 45 miles an hour, and she only took one T-top off," he says. The C3 still wore its original tires, but those had become flat-spotted over time-a problem Mark corrected with a new set of 60-series radials after he bought the Vette, but before driving it home.
Like many vintage-Vette owners, Bremer looked at how to upgrade his newly bought treasure. He took a big step when he replaced the '81's original-equipment coil-spring front suspension with a composite transverse leaf-spring setup from Vette Brakes and Products (VBP). "That really made a lot of difference in the handling of the car," Bremer says. "It also took some weight off of it, and it allows me to set the ride height and stiffness on it, too."
Bremer also removed the stock '81 exhaust system and installed a high-output one that includes an X-crossover pipe and 40 Series Flowmaster mufflers. "Those give a really nice tone while uncorking some power," he adds.
When we spoke with Bremer, he was all set to make another upgrade. "I'm going to put some 23-degree Trick Flow Twisted Wedge heads on it," he says. "They'll probably add another 40-45 hp to it and take some more weight off the front end."
Lest you think all of these changes were of the cut-and-hack, impossible-to-return-to-stock variety, Bremer says they aren't. "Everything I do is bolt-on, bolt-off. I keep everything that's been taken off stored properly."
There's one more change that Bremer made to his '81-one done about six years ago that you've likely noticed by now. To hear Mark say it, it wasn't that easy a choice. "The hardest decision I made was to change it from Charcoal to Torch Red, but I'm glad that I did it," he says.
Now that he has his C3 the way he wants it, how's this car to drive? Let Bremer explain. "It's awesome! I love it." He adds, "It's not a high-horsepower car, but what's neat about it is that it's an older car that has a lot of modern conveniences, like cruise control, electric windows, and all that kind of stuff."
And it's a car that, not surprisingly, attracts plenty of attention. "Everywhere I stop, people come up to me and say, 'That's a Corvette! That's what I think about when I think of Corvettes,'" he says.
Bremer says the "VETJET" name on his license plate also gets plenty of attention. "I picked it because I wanted the Vette and because I'm in aviation-the company I'm with manufactures business jets. I've had people say, 'You're a veterinarian!' and I say, 'No, I'm not a veterinarian-it's a Corvette!'"
Should you want to make a late-third-generation Corvette your first (or next) Vette, Bremer has this advice: "Find a good car to start with. Don't go out and buy the cheapest car that you find, because it's going to cost you a lot more in the long run." Bremer says that thanks to this approach, he was able to put money into things like a re-leathered steering wheel, new seat covers, and the engine upgrades, because he started with a car that didn't need major crash or rust repairs.
Bremer's shark is a St. Louis-built car, which brings up another "first and last" fact about the '81 Corvette. On June 1, 1981, Corvette production began at the all-new Bowling Green Assembly Plant in Kentucky, with both it and the existing St. Louis Assembly Plant producing Corvettes until August 1. That's when St. Louis Assembly built its last Corvette, and shifted to all-C/K truck production until its closing in 1987.
Spec Sheet: '81 Coupe
Owner: Mark Bremer; Benton, Arkansas
Block: L81 iron
Displacement: 350 ci
Compression Ratio: 8.2:1:
Heads: Trick Flow "Super 23" 23-degree aluminum
Camshaft: Production L81 hydraulic (0.390/0.410-in lift, 310/320-deg duration, 110-deg LSA)
Rocker Arms: Stock
Intake Manifold: Stock aluminum
Carburetor: Stock GM/Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel
Fuel Pump: Stock mechanical
Ignition: Stock GM/Delco HEI
Engine Management: GM/Delco Computer Command Control
Exhaust System: Stock manifolds, modified dual exhaust system with X crossover and Flowmaster 40 Series mufflers
Transmission: GM 700R4 automatic
Torque Converter: Stock lock-up type
Driveshaft: Shortened stock
Front Suspension: Vette Brakes & Products composite mono-leaf spring with tubular A-arms
Rear Suspension: Stock with composite monoleaf spring
Rearend: Stock with 3.73 gears
Brakes: Stock four-wheel power discs with Mid America Motorworks O-ring calipers
Wheels: Stock N90 aluminum, 15 x 8 (front and back)
Tires: Cooper Cobra Radial GT, P255/60R15 (front and back)
Weight: 3,282 pounds without driver
Best ET/MPH: NA
Best 60-ft. Time: NA
Current Mileage: 60,000