From the March 1982 issue of Car and Driver.
New Blue trails respectfully as the short chute spirals up and over, feeding into Willow Spring’s twisty-turny roller coaster. Old Red has amassed a commanding lead by tiptoeing around a couple of sweepers and rocketing down the straightaways in bursts of close-rationed, ram-inducted, fuel-injected frenzy. Its keening climb to the redline is an orchestra of solid-lifter clatter, half-civilized exhaust bark, and the vigorous snorting of air through one hungry venturi. New Blue's battle cry is a less threatening induction moan, the edge knocked off its exhaust note by the catalytic converter crammed between its dual pipes.
Even though the new Chevy Corvette speaks more softly, it soon proves that it’s hauling the bigger stick. New Blue bites ten yards out of its disadvantage on hard braking, then closes in several feet more as the pairs arcs into the left-hand entry to the uphill ess-section. Old Red stumbles momentarily over the brow, where an elevation change unloads its chassis, while New Blue oversteers adroitly into contention. The pair of Corvettes rushes down to a right-left combination, where New Blue capitalizes on its superior stability to nip by on the inside, as Old red takes a pause to collect itself. Blue seizes the perfect late-apex line through the left-hander and its turbo Hydra-matic snaps a two-three upshift to keep engine rpm in an effective range down the long back straightaway. The new Corvette reaches a stride that will eventually run up a five-second-a-lap advantage over Old Red.
It’s the eve of the Corvette’s 30th birthday and the car world needs to know: Can the Corvette be trusted any longer? Is it still a sports car, or has Chevrolet's power-assist program massaged this machine into some sort of two-seat Monte Carlo? Is it roadworthy, or just a personal preenmobile?
In less than a year, the Corvette will turn 30, shedding its 20-year old chassis and 15-year old body like a lobster in molting season. What better time for a blast to the past to measure progress to date in hopes of seeing where the 1983 Corvette could and should be going?
We’ve picked two plastic Chevys to run through our full road-course, race-course, test-track wringer before we draw any conclusions: a stunning 1962 fuel-injected roadster from yesteryear and a hot-off-the-assembly-line 1982 T-top coupe to stand up for today’s state of the Corvette art.
A 1962 model is apropos to this exercise because it’s similar to the ’82 in a surprising number of ways. Each is a last-of-its-kind Corvette, from the final year of production before a major redesign. Each is powered by a fuel-injected, small-block V-8. And in each case you’re talking $20,000 to own one of these gems, whether it’s a pristine ’62 or a fully decked ’82.
A paltry total of 14,531 Corvettes were manufactured during the whole 1962 model year, so it’s not hard to understand why major redesigns were (and still are) few and far between. The ’62 chassis was essentially the same X-reinforced ladder frame that Chevrolet’s directory of research and development, Maurice Olley, had sketched in the spring of 1952. The original Blue Flame six-cylinder engine was long gone, and a manual transmission had been added, but the 1962 Corvette still suffered through life with crudities shared with the ’52 Chevys: slow, heavy steering and an archaic kingpin-type (no ball joints) front suspension.
There were few complainers back then because the ’62 Corvette had so much to offer in compensations. The stylists had their act together with the bodywork, having given up on most of the chromium furbelows tacked here and there on earlier Corvettes. A lovely aluminum-cased four-speed transmission was in place with a choice of closely or widely spaced ratios. And every 1962 Corvette was a roadster, pure and simple, with a soft top that could be locked from sight to reveal the sun and stars in all their glory. The whole Western world waned to sell the farm and ramble down Route 66 in one of these machines.
Early Corvettes were most revered for their engines. Big-blocks, of course, came later, and in retrospect they seem superfluous. The 327-cubic-inch displacement was new for the small-block in 1962, and a few bucks in the right place paid off handsomely in optional horsepower. There were two hydraulic-lifter four-barrel engines producing 250 and 300 horsepower (SAE gross). Or, if you were up for the fuss of solid lifters, you could specify a hotter 340-hp mighty-mite crowned with Rochester fuel injection. Delicious stuff, then and now.
The ’62 in this test is owned by Jim Mederer (a founding father of Racing Beat, the rotary-engine tuning firm) of Anaheim, California. As luck would have it, his car was a fuelie from the factory. Even though the chassis has racked up well over 100,000 miles in its time, Mederer has been through every bushing and ball bearing in a top-to-bottom restoration. You purists will of course spot the liberties taken. The original generator is now an alternator, Mederer has added an oil cooler, modern Sears radial tires have replaced original 6.70-by-15.0-inch bias-ply rubber, and ignition-wire shielding is missing in action. The intention was not to build a 100-point concoursmobile, but rather to rejuvenate a strong performer so that it could be enjoyed on a daily basis. Once our powers of persuasion were brought to bear on Mary Lou Mederer (Jim’s mother, who uses Old Red on her work commute), we were off to the races with this fine early-sports-car specimen.
To shore up the modern half of the bargain, we borrowed one of the first-built 1982 Corvettes from Chevrolet engineering. Freedom of choice is not part of the plan this year, so you either take the 5.7-liter (350 cubic inches) small-block, fed by dual throttle-body fuel injection (TBI) and fitted to GM’s 700-4R turbo Hydra-matic, or wait for something better to come along next year.
TBI is the last attempt to inject life into America’s oldest car line. Now that we’ve seen new and old ways to build fuel injection in the same comparison test, we’re convinced that Chevrolet (and the other GM divisions) should take a break from “progress” and examine its own 25-year-old system. The ’62 Corvette has a torque curve as flat as the horizon in no small part because of the combination of low restriction and long ram tubes offered by the “Ramjet” injection. Across the 2000-to-6000-rpm effective power band, torque never drops more than 20 pound-feet.
This Rochester plumbing is in many ways similar to Bosch’s K-Jetronic continuous-flow system. It was doubtless expensive to build, but the advantages in cylinder-to-cylinder distribution and ram tuning for enhanced torque are simply too great to pass up. TBI is a great alternative to a carburetor, particularly on GM’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder, where it even affords a cost saving, but it’s clearly not what you’d call high-performance hardware.
TBI does pump up both horsepower and torque for ’82, but speediness is off a bit with the new four-speed turbo Hydra-matic. Even so, once the sorrow of having no clutch pedal to play with has passed, the new Corvette can actually be entertaining. You may manually lock the transmission in second or third if you like, and the fact that the torque converter will lock up in second, third, or fourth makes it feel as though you’re managing a seven-speed at times. There is plenty of torque multiplication off the mark (much more than with the close-ratio-manual-transmissioned ’62), and fourth is so tall that you roll down the road at the legal limit with the tachometer reading an unbelievable 1400 rpm. This has nudged EPA highway fuel economy up by 5 mpg this year, at least enough to give the Corvette one more reprieve from the insidious gas-guzzler tax. (In case you were wondering, it was that tariff from our now moribund Department of Energy that scotched stick-shift Corvettes for 1982. Thankfully, they’ll be back next year. The DOE we’re not sure about.)
In some ways, the four-speed automatic is an aid to handling. On the tight and twisty sections of the Ortega Highway and Willow Springs, we locked the lever in second. Third works fine for the straightaways and high-speed sweepers. Since there’s so little shifting to be done, you can brace your left foot solidly against the floorpan and keep both hands on the wheel to make best use of the Corvette’s 0.82-g adhesion and excellent overall balance. The steering still feels disconnected at times—during an initial dive-in toward the apex, or running straight over low-frequency-sine-wave pavement at high speeds—but this is the last impractical-to-remove foible in a 19-year-old chassis. The natural tendency is to steer, then correct when the car points ten feet off the mark you were aiming for. A far smoother approach is to ride through that queasy off-center instant and let the tires take a bite into the pavement before you dial in a course correction.
This occasional lapse of linearity is a trivial fault compared with the nasty kinks baked into the 1962 Corvette. It will go straight if the road is flat and true. With a little muscle on the big steering wheel, it will corner on a smooth skidpad to an impressive 0.77 g. And it’s better in braking than plenty of new cars on the road today. Combinations of the above, however, invariably tripped up the ’62 Corvette in this test, making it a nasty beast to drive anywhere near its limit. Old Red was so cantankerous over the high-speed wavies that co-driver Csaba Csere blanched every time he saw one of the Ortega Highway’s steep precipices lurching into sharp focus. Changing throttle position and steering lock at the same time was a definite no-no at Willow Springs. And if any attempt was made to mix late braking with the turn-in maneuver, it was strictly all-hands-on-deck time. Either you’re ready and waiting to windlass in handfuls of opposite lock, or the woolly rear axle is likely to wiggle you toward a whole new perspective on life.
Old Red’s steering was slow, heavy, and insensitive, while its chassis featured several Bermuda Triangle zones that had to be avoided at all costs. This is what separated the men from the boys back when cars weren’t so refined. If you could tune in on the Corvette’s idiosyncrasies and use them to advantage, you were a racer, or at least a very fast driver. If you couldn’t, you ordered 4.56 gears and made your point peeling out from the Dairi-Freeze.
These days, anybody can drive a Corvette flat out. Even through the TBI V-8 and turbo Hydra-matic powertrain will pull you to a higher terminal speed than we registered at Old Red’s redline, it takes so long to get there, you’ll need Nebraska. The handling and braking offer more security than the good hands of Allstate. You can drive out of almost any misfortune you’re likely to stumble into just by keeping paws at nine and three and steering away from the more massive fixed objects. If you’re talented enough to keep pavement under the flat Goodyear tires, the whole U.S. is Road America and you’re qualified just a few rows back from the pole.
The answer to the riddle that set this adventure rolling is, yes. The 1982 Corvette is still a sports car. The Flash Gordon fenders are a bore, the curb weight needs a 10-percent chop, and a five-speed transmission would be a joy, but we’ve got to hand it to the old girl: New Blue could inhale pavement when its pedal was pushed.
And we found Old Red more fun than a high-school class reunion. It’s not every day we get to work with a 6300-rpm redline and launch ourselves to 60 in six seconds. Car-nut heaven had better be stocked with machinery like this, or we’ve all been wasting our time being good. What more could you ask for than a chestful of that big “competition-type” steering wheel, a handful of close-ratio shifter, and the solid-lifter serenade rattling in your eardrums?
David E. Davis, Jr., summed up the experience twenty years ago when he wrote, “Some guys have it tough.” Little did he know how well those words would also fit the engineers at Chevy today, as they toil away on 1983’s edition of the legend.
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