Driving a '81 'Vette for the first time and smashing head-on into reality.

DSC_5588b It seemed like a damn good idea at the time. I was drawn to the Stingray like the proverbial moth to a flame; the scarcity of these cars in the UK combined with extrovert looks and all-American hero image aligns it with pure exotica, even in the minds of those who should really know better. I had never, ever driven a Chevrolet Corvette of any description, so when I found this cocaine white ’81 example just sitting there, keys in the ignition, I saw no reason to not tick another life box. DSC_5594 I gasped when I espied the the interior for the first time. Squeezing the unconventional horizontal door handle to gain entry, it opened on the third attempt to reveal a an interior redder than even the most burlesque of bordello underwear baskets. I gasped again before aborting my first go at getting behind the wheel when I quickly realised that I didn’t fit. I could have my arse on the seat and my body and one leg in or I could drive side-saddle with the door open, but I couldn’t work out how I could actually get all of my extremities into some kind of vaguely workable driving posture. After producing a few sketches and running through the necessary processes in my head a couple of times, the winning technique was found in standing in a splits position, rotating my right leg through 90 degrees under and past the steering wheel before following it with the rest of my body, a feat requiring the same kind of gymnastic effort we saw in Entrapment with Catherine Zeta Jones. Ideally I needed an extra knee per leg, but somehow made do with my current skeletal configuration. DSC_5595 Eventually, and after no small amount of pointing and laughing from onlookers, I had landed and sat to face what is a really stupid looking dashboard. Moulded from plastic the same shade of oxblood that dominates the rest of the interior, it slopes away from you as if the bottom half was retreating in shame. The two main dials, the speedo and tachometer I would soon find to be completely pointless, and the ancillary gauges clustered in the centre console (and above the eight-track player) would likely go ignored, too. If the drive I have in mind goes to plan, I’ll be concentrating on the road too determinedly to spare any attention for fuel gauge or water temperature. I located the handbrake, which is routinely located and immediately familiar, and noted that the automatic shifter was marked PRN 321, omitting the expected D and presumably offering two levels of high gear lockout. With one foot uncomfortably pressing on the brake pedal and another poised to take up any slack in the accelerator, I twisted the typical GM chrome ignition twister and unleashed the dogs of war, or something. 20140522_133432 This bit I immediately appreciated. The V8 vomited into life and settled to a throbbing, thirsty idle with energy pulsing through the entire car, though this was possibly more a characteristic of the engine mountings than any latent brutality in the engineroom. A blip on the surprisingly crisp accelerator and all eight cylinders responded one after the next; it all seemed quite well set up with none of the fluffiness I was expecting from a thirty three year old, non injected American engine. I found the little chrome rocker switches on the centre console so I could drop the windows and enjoy the noise, one press and the glass fell, as if by sheer gravity, into the door interior. Out of curiosity and because I assumed something was broken, I lifted the switch in the hope that the glass would reappear. It did, which surprised me. In fact, every interior switch felt like its next operation would be its last. The direction indicator stalk clicked in such a brittle way that I genuinely thought I’d broken it on every operation, but no, it continued to function perfectly right through my half hour drive. Millbrook rules state that low-beams must be lit whenever on track, which meant pressing another button, of the organ-stop variety, to lift the pop-up headlamps. After breaking the switch the lights raised, the left slightly quicker than the right, and a green light on the dash reassured me that the electrics involved were working. Nothing else for it now but to drive. DSC_5590 The next bit is difficult to explain. Of course, this was my first intimate acquaintance with a Corvette of any kind, yet somehow, despite my total discomfort behind the wheel, I felt completely connected with the plastic and metal that stretched out so far before me. I felt that I knew exactly how much pressure to apply on the brakes (A lot, but not an insane amount), how quick the steering is (surprisingly direct, I thought) and how much grip there was at my disposal. It helped, too, that there was such a cacophony of noise in the cabin. Many creaky old aircraft, the Avro Shackleton as a prominent example, get described as “several thousand rivets flying in close formation” and the Corvette somehow reminded me of that. The closest I can imagine to a direct metaphor would be Motorhead playing through an overextended PA system in a metal shed with loose corrugated roof panels during a hurricane. There’s engine noise (good) exhaust noise (wonderful) but also millions upon millions of squeaks, rattles and tinkles as if the constituent parts of the car were held together by friendship rather than mechanical fastenings. DSC_5593 The needle lurched it’s way around the 85mph federal speedometer in jagged bursts, rather than the liquid surge which my body and the increasingly blurry scenery was suggesting. It didn’t feel fast, Far from it. Indeed, by the time 1981 rolled around the venerable 350ci small block (by now called L81) was down to something like thirty five horsepower, all of which, as far as I can tell, are used to produce noise or make bits of the bodywork vibrate. But it did feel substantial, as if we would keep gathering momentum with a certain unstoppableness. Once past 85 of course I had absolutely no idea of speed anyway, so I’ll guess that I saw something around the ton on the high-speed ring, that being my maximum permitted velocity imposed by the good folk at Millbrook who I really don’t want to upset. North of 85mph is not, I concluded, a pleasant cruising speed in an ’81 Stingray if this particular example is anything to go by, because the combined work of wind noise, road noise, exhaust drone and thrash-metal percussion levels of rattling promised permanent tinnitus if I was exposed for much longer. It was time, I thought, to try the ‘Vette on roads that would provide more of a challenge. For us both. The Hill Route at Millbrook is an arduous series of alpine switchbacks, sweeping bends, blind crests, adverse and positive cambers, basically a big motoring playground designed to test chassis to the limit, albeit limits which were set when the place was built in the ’70s and which have been quietly defeated since then. And to my gratification the Corvette genuinely didn’t feel out of its depth. The absolutely rigid, like, rigid suspension saw that my spine knew about every single bump and pothole (all, incidentally, deliberately engineered into the tarmac) but did pay dividends in eliminating roll in the corners. The only skill I rapidly had to develop was to remember that the nose of the car arrives at the corner rather a long time before the driver does. You consequently have to plan fractionally in advance for every apex you plan to clip. And, astonishingly, the Stingray let me clip apexes. It also let me, nee encouraged me to go sideways. Initially it was without warning, the tail snapping out as I pulled out from the photography area, but it caught its own drift without any fuss or fear of immediate danger. Soon I found myself deliberately provoking it because a) I knew the steering was quick enough to recover it quickly and b) there isn’t really enough power for serious disaster to befall us. The grip from those slightly ridiculous looking General tyres was enough to corner as spiritedly as my instincts would allow, but not so much as to discourage mischief and naughtiness. DSC_5592 Now, do not under any circumstances be under the misapprehension that I just told you that the ’81 Corvette Stingray is in any way a fine handling car, there are too many compromises for it to deserve that accolade. There is no chassis finesse whatsoever, no subtlety, just grip and firmness. Understeer will ultimately set in – and did, twice, both times requiring last ditch oversteer provocation to avoid a fibreglass / crash barrier interface scenario. Actual cornering speeds achieved were far less than, for example, the Skoda Rapid 1.2 SE that I would later drive on the same day. But the spirit of fun is strong. ’81 Stingray is a fun place to be be. Before long, and with the needle on the fuel gauge swinging around wildly and giving me no clue as to my available range, it was time to return the ‘Vette to allow some other gullible child of the ’80s to have a go. My overriding impression, and now memory, is of course that the underlying vehicle is fundamentally terrible, but still managed to put an enormous cartoon smile on my face. 20140522_134748 If I were to grade the Corvette in the manner that auto writers are obsessed with ranking things and turning everything into comparable statistics, as a transportational solution, in terms of effectiveness as a car, I’d give the 1981 Corvette Stingray about 3/10. Indeed, in a 1981 review Car and Driver ranked the ‘Vette 5th in a comparo of five cars, including the DeLorean and the Datzsun 280Z. But as an experience, as something to remember (for better or for worse) it has to weigh in as a solid 8. When next I see one in the flesh I will view it with a new wisdom. I have been there, experienced the good, the bad and the ugly realities of ’81 Stingray. But I will look upon its owner with respect for making such a choice when so many easier to own alternatives are out there. Like cigarettes, alcohol, chips and other wonderful, terrible things, I can easily see how the C3 Corvette becomes addictive. [youtube]http://youtu.be/G8j7oLyxp34[/youtube] (Full disclosure: Thanks to Newspress.com for the use of the car and the massive quantity of fuel it devoured during my custody)

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