Wednesday, August 24, 2011

1964 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible

The Numbers Matter
Text and Photography by David W. Temple

There is a disclaimer that frequently appears in most literature related to stocks and bonds as well as associated funds which says that “Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” That disclaimer could have appeared in Corvette sales literature in the early days of the sports car. In this case, the poor performance in terms of sales should have guaranteed the termination of the model. The fiberglass Vette was not much in terms of sportiness – not with a somewhat modified “Stovebolt Six” under the hood and other shortcomings. Chevrolet limited production to just 300 units for 1953, but had expected to boost production to about 1,000 per month for ’54. Actual production amounted to only 3,640 with some of those left unsold when the 1955 model year arrived. With results like that what could possibly guarantee the model would even exist for 1956? An engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov is what guaranteed future existence as well as future performance.
Duntov joined GM just in time. He knew what had to be done to save the Vette which was to make it the car that enthusiasts expected it to be. At first, even the new V8 for ’55, was not enough (only 700 Vettes built that year), but with constant upgrades and racing successes along the way, production surpassed the 10,000 mark for 1960. With the all-new Sting Ray for ’63, output would be more than double that figure.
The Corvette was really different for 1963. This marked the first time a closed version had been offered which was officially dubbed the Sting Ray Sport Coupe. The fastback roofline and sloping front end with hidden headlights (a first on the Corvette) provided a sleek profile. The body design which was based on the 1959 XP-720 concept car had been tested and refined via Cal Tech’s wind tunnel. The aerodynamic fastback body had one controversial feature – the divided backlight. This had been the idea of styling chief, Bill Mitchell, who believed it was an important part of the car’s appearance. Others disagreed, but the feature was left in place for the ’63 model year. (Some owners did not care what Bill Mitchell thought; they preferred not having a blind spot and when the ‘64s arrived with a one piece backlight, many who disliked the feature had the offending divider removed from their ’63, and had the new arrangement installed. Today, collectors pay a premium for the one year only “split window coupe.”) The convertible body style remained and as had been the practice since 1956, both a bolt-on hardtop and a soft top could be had. Production was nearly evenly divided between the two body styles with the convertible edging out its companion fastback by 325 units; a total of 21,513 Corvettes were assembled for ’63.
Besides having a one-piece backlight for the coupe, the ‘64s offered other refinements. These included variable rate springs for a softer ride and a horsepower boost for the top two engine options. More rubber insulators were used to further minimize road noise. Less noticeable were altered rocker moldings with fewer and wider stripes and steel headlight housings instead of the fiberglass examples of ’63. More obvious was the lack of the pair of chrome-plated, simulated grilles on the hood, though the recesses were retained. Wheel covers were updated as well. Exterior paint color choices remained almost unchanged with the exception of a new shade of silver as a regular option. Silver was an extra-cost color in ’63. The extra-cost paint option was changed to either a non-standard color or for delivery in primer; only 24 customers opted for special paint. Subtle changes marked the ’64 interior, too; among other things, the seat bolsters were widened slightly, the instrument faces received a revised finish, and a simulated-walnut steering wheel was installed.
Production of the 1964 models increased to 22,229 copies, however, preference for the convertible shifted greatly. Nearly 63 percent of the total production was accounted for with the drop-top body style. The Daytona Blue 1964 Sting Ray convertible shown here obviously represents the majority choice of body style, but this particular car was very rare when new and is much more so today. What the reader sees here is just 1 of 138 convertibles ordered with the 365hp engine (option code L76) and air conditioning. Other interesting total production numbers include 7,171 with the L76 engine; M20 close-ration four-speed production of 8,496; just 919 ordered with air conditioning; 486 with the 3.55:1 posi-traction rear end; 3,454 painted Daytona Blue, and 4,843 with the optional white (convertible) top (with black being the standard color). Interestingly, nearly 86 percent of the total 1964 Vette output were equipped with the four-speed transmission and less than 15 percent were powered with the base 250hp 327. Clearly, most buyers of the Corvette Sting Ray desired performance from their car and just as clear is that the Vette had matured into a true sports car.
Feature car owner, Danny Reed of Austin, Texas, is a Corvette enthusiast to say the least. He has owned a ’63 “Split Window” coupe and also a ’65 coupe in the past. Danny currently owns another Corvette – a 1969 model formerly driven by Apollo 12 moonwalker Alan Bean – which is featured elsewhere in this blog and was the cover car for the August 2001 issue of Car Collector. Both cars have garnered prestigious awards thanks to the efforts of Danny and his choice of Corvette restoration specialist, Ray Repczynski.
While the refurbishment of the ’69 was ongoing at Ray’s shop near Houston, Danny discovered the ’64 which was also at the shop. The restoration of the ’64 had already been underway by that time and was partially completed. However, the owner of the car had lost interest in the project and was ready to sell. Many potentially interested collectors passed on the project. Danny carefully evaluated the dismantled Vette and saw the value of the car. He said the car “looked like a basket case”, but noted the frame had been dipped and repainted, the body was stripped, the driveline was numbers matching and bolted in place, the interior was ready to install, the gauges had been rebuilt, and most of the parts appeared to be present. Missing parts included window glass, relays, wiring, rubber seals, seat belts, and various nuts and bolts. The air conditioning, brakes, water pump, and radio needed rebuilding. “Since I don’t like surprises, we rebuilt the engine, carburetor, transmission, rear end, drive shafts, and suspension.” said Danny. He also noted that, “Ray did an outstanding job preparing the fiberglass body. He primed and painted the body in lacquer to the original specs and color.” In this case “original” really means original – not base coat/clear coat with a shine so deep it appears one could walk into the reflected scene. This car has been awarded “Top Flight” status from the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS); original to that group means factory specifications in all areas. To get the “Top Flight” award, the car must be judged with a minimum net score of 94 points. This car received 99.6 points at the NCRS Flight Judging in Dallas in May of 2003. Since then, the car received another “Top Flight” award at the NCRS Regionals in Waco, Texas. Furthermore, first place and “Most Outstanding Restored Antique” awards were added to the trophy case at the 30th Annual Custom Car and Hot Rod Show in Austin.
Those achievements were the result of a meticulous, thoughtful restoration. Danny had a plan he followed regarding the restoration of his Corvette. He explained, “First we compiled a list of what we had, what needed to be repaired, and what we needed to order or find. This takes days and the experience of a master – in this case, Ray.” He advised anyone who is considering the restoration of a Corvette “to go to a professional in the business of restoration – someone that knows what to look for and where to look for it. Pay whatever it cost to get a professional to thoroughly check your potential project – put it on a lift, check the frame and suspension, look for hidden damage. Decide what you want to have before you start – a totally restored car or a nice driver. Get a specifications guide and check and recheck the numbers.” Building a numbers matching car will be more expensive if certain components are missing. Certain options add significantly to the value of the car. One must understand the data plate and the casting numbers. As Danny said, “The numbers matter.”

Base price:  $4,037
Engine:  327cid V8 (L76)
Horsepower:  365@6,200rpm
Torque:  350@4,000rpm
Compression:  11.0:1
Cam:  High-lift with solid lifters
Bore and Stroke:  4.00 x 3.25 inches
Carburetion:  Holley 4150C aluminum four barrel
Exhaust:  dual
Transmission:  four-speed manual
Rear End:  3.55:1 posi-traction
Production:  138*
Wheelbase:  98 inches
0-100mph:  14.7 seconds (375hp engine)
* Total convertible production was 13,925.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Historic 1969 Corvette

A Vette with the Right Stuff
Text and Photos by David W. Temple except as noted
Cor·vette (kôr-vµt“) n. 1. A fast, lightly armed warship, smaller than a destroyer, often armed for antisubmarine operations. Perhaps a second definition should be, “The car with the ‘Right Stuff.” The official definition seems very appropriate, though, because the car shown on these pages was one of three virtually identical 1969 Corvettes loaned by General Motors to the all-Navy crew of Apollo 12 who flew the second lunar landing mission in November of 1969. The crew – Charles Conrad, Jr., Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean – drove their Stingrays while training for the mission.
Apollo 12 crew - Conrad, Gordon, Bean (NASA photo)
Their training routine meant much time was spent traveling between the Manned Spacecraft Center, or MSC (later renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), in Houston and to the Kennedy Space Center (or KSC) at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  They flew T-38s for those trips, but their cars were often driven for them to the respective sites by NASA personnel. During a telephone interview with the author, Alan Bean said, “After long hours of training, it was nice to jump in and drive the car.” Most of the driving, though, took place between the Cape and the Cocoa Beach hotel where they stayed while training in Florida, or from home near Houston to the MSC. One would expect a few drag races between the crew members especially considering Conrad participated in SCCA racing, but Capt. Bean stated, “There was not much opportunity for that since we were too busy training for the mission.” He noted he, “... had to be careful when driving in the rain ... with those wide tires the car would easily hydroplane and I had to anticipate when the car might be ready to slide.”
The Stingray model débuted in 1963 (but was then spelled Sting Ray) with good reviews. The Corvette got a redesign (but no Stingray name) for 1968, however, it was not well received by the motoring press; almost all press reports complained of the car’s styling. Perhaps the worst criticism came from Car and Driver which declared it “... unfit to road test.” On the contrary, Car Life found its appearance to be “exciting in the extreme” and had mostly good things to say about the coupe and convertible they tested. The general public apparently agreed with the latter viewpoint because sales soared about 25 percent to a record level for the time. In a move that could be interpreted as meaning, “To heck with the press,” Chevrolet’s ‘69 Corvette was only slightly changed from its predecessor; however, the Stingray name was back. Sales set another record with production reaching a total of 38,762 which exceeded the 1968 totals by more than one-third.
This success was in stark contrast to Corvette’s beginning. The Vette program was almost canceled after a few short years due to low sales. Not many liked the car, but there was one driving enthusiast who loved Vettes and would also fly into the history books. The late Alan Shepard, one of the original seven astronauts and fifth man to walk on the moon, bought a 1953 model during 1954, partly because he felt it “gave me the right image as a Navy test pilot.” He owned a 1957 model when selected to be an astronaut by NASA in 1959. His fame and love of Corvettes soon led to Shepard meeting Zora Arkus-Duntov, GM’s chief engineer for the Corvette. Eventually, the relationship led to GM giving Shepard a new Corvette. The idea met with some resistance at first because General Motors had no program to give free cars to any VIPs; this reluctance disappeared after Shepard’s sub-orbital space flight in May of ‘61. However, the astronauts were forbidden to do product endorsements, so the car was sent to America’s newest hero without any publicity.
At about this time, Jim Rathmann, a successful race car driver who had won the 1960 Indianapolis 500 and owner of a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, Florida, decided to offer the other six astronauts Corvettes through an executive lease program. Rathmann asked Ed Cole, the general manager for Chevrolet at that time, if a “brass hat package” could be arranged for the astronauts; this was approved. The price of leasing a Chevy was $1.00 per year. At the end of the year the car was returned to the dealer and a new one chosen.
Of the seven original astronauts, only John Glenn and Scott Carpenter did not participate in the program. Glenn was more conservative preferring to drive a Prinz which he referred to as a “clunker” (but he did get a speeding ticket to the amusement of Shepard and Donald “Deke” Slayton who witnessed the event while driving by in their Vettes). Carpenter drove a Shelby Cobra. Schirra had a preference for Austin Healeys and Masserrattis though he did have at least a couple of Corvettes.
Alan Bean (NASA photo)
The astronaut corps grew larger with the group of nine selected in 1962; fourteen more were added the following year and others followed in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1969. The program of loaning cars to the astronauts not only included the option of driving a Corvette, but any Chevrolet. As many as two cars could be selected at any one time. Some opted for a station wagon for a second car while others did not select a Corvette at all. Jack Lousma – who flew aboard Skylab with Alan Bean – chose a family car because as he explained during an interview for this article, “I had a big family.” He elaborated, “It was nice to get a new Chevy since we received military pay and not the big dollars most people think we got as astronauts.” He said he did take advantage of Bean’s offer to let him drive his ‘69 Vette on one occasion, though.
General Motors’ loan program continued into 1971, until the government began receiving complaints about GM getting free advertising from the space program. The Apollo 15 crew was among the last to receive Vettes through the GM program.
The featured car is currently owned by Danny Reed of Austin, Texas, and is the Stingray which was driven by Alan Bean for about one year while training as the lunar module pilot (LMP) for Apollo 12. He and crewmates Charles “Pete” Conrad the Apollo 12 commander (now deceased) and command module pilot Richard Gordon decided as a group to get matching Corvettes when their opportunity to obtain new vehicles came around again. They each specified riverside gold cars equipped with the 390 horsepower 427, four-speed manual transmission, positraction, AM/FM, and air conditioning.
Rare crew-signed photo of the "Astro Vettes" (Danny Reed collection)
Furthermore, the crew decided a distinctive paint scheme was needed; since Alan was the artist among the three he was put in charge of that project. Bean explained during an interview that, “Pete probably came up with the idea. Due to the heavy training schedule there was little time to give much thought to it, but I did present three or four ideas to Jim Rathmann.” Rathmann took it from there. As Bean recalled, “Jim painted one of the cars. The first paint job may have had more black – the hood may have been black. We did not really like it, but Jim was patient and repainted the car perhaps two more times.” The last presentation resulted in thin white pinstripes being added to divide the black from the gold. Some of the finer details of the project have been forgotten, though, over the last three decades; Capt. Bean could not recall why black was chosen since blue and gold are Navy colors.
A distinguishing characteristic of the three cars was the red, white, and blue decal mounted above the Stingray script on each fender. The colors were more than just patriotic; they served as color codes for the respective crew members. Red was the commander’s color, white represented the command module pilot, and blue was used to designate the lunar module pilot. These colors were used to mark the personal belongings (i.e., utensils) of each crew member during a mission. The decals for the Vettes had the official abbreviation of the crew position written over the appropriate color code. In the case of the subject car, LMP for lunar module pilot was written over the blue portion of the emblem. Other than the addition of black paint and the identifying decal, the cars received no modifications.
Sometime in early 1970, Conrad, Bean, and Gordon returned the cars to a Houston Chevy dealer and were subsequently sold. The dealer was probably not shy about mentioning the history of the cars to prospective buyers. The story of where the “CDR” and “CMP” cars went is not known, but the “LMP” Vette went to G. A. Smith, a friend of Danny’s, who kept the car about one year before being called to duty by “Uncle Sam.” Mr. Smith returned the car as a “voluntary repossession” and it was in turn sent to the GMAC office in Austin. Prior to that Smith had shown the car to Danny shortly after buying it; Reed immediately recognized it from a photo he had seen in the December 1969 issue of Life. Later, and by chance, Danny was driving by GMAC when he noticed the Corvette sitting on the lot. He was very surprised to find it there because he had been unaware of his friend being drafted. A quick call to GMAC revealed the car was going to be sold by sealed bid. Danny’s bid was the second highest, however, after two weeks the high bidder had failed to produce the funds. Danny then received a call from GMAC asking if he was still interested in obtaining the car at his original offer. That was in 1971, and he has owned the Vette ever since; evidently he was still very interested!
Alan Bean has seen the car since Danny restored it and was quite impressed, saying that, “It looked better than when I had it.” The restoration included a repaint plus the help, guidance, and knowledge of Ray Repczynski of “Corvettes by Ray” located in Houston at the time. Any part that needed replacing was removed and saved. In the final restoration the original parts were rebuilt and reinstalled on the car at Ray's Shop. Reed is a member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) and their standards are high. His awards include “Top Flight” honors – a status which did not come easily. For instance, the “Astro Vette” was delivered new without a jack which is how Ray and Danny displayed it at an NCRS event. The judge was ready to deduct points for the omission when Ray explained the situation – "We are showing the car as it was delivered” and pointed out that Alan Bean had documented the details on the back of the original owner's manual; he had written the car was “delivered without jack & tools.” Danny further explained he did have a jack for the car which the judge promptly inspected, but found it had a later date code than the Vette’s production date. Danny explained naturally that was the case since it was the one Bean got from the dealer shortly after getting the car. To avoid a similar debate in the future, Danny purchased a properly date-coded jack. Danny said of the incident, “The judges are good and, yes, they go by the book. But every once in a while, it's fun to ‘jack’ with the judges."
 He also notes his Stingray will likely never receive a 100-point score because the judges will insist the black paint be removed to make the car match with the trim code on the data plate to prevent point deductions. In his opinion, "They came off the line gold, were specially trimmed out in black for the astronauts, and delivered." He further stated that removing the black paint “... is not worth it.” Most agree the car is a piece of history; therefore it should be preserved as it is and Danny has done a 100-point job at doing that! 
NCRS Awards - 1969 "Apollo 12" Corvette

February 2001
Baton Rouge, LA
Top Flight
July 2002
Houston, TX
Top Flight
November 2002
Waco, TX 
Performance Verification
July 2003
Hershey, PA
Top Flight
July 2003
Hershey, PA
Duntov Award of Excellence
October 2005
Waco, TX 
Duntov Display
October 2007
Waco, TX 
Duntov Display
July 2008
St. Charles, MO
American Heritage

The “Right Stuff?”
Shepard (center) receiving a Corvette with Bill Mitchell (left) and Ed Cole (Author's files)
   The “Original 7” astronauts enjoyed playing pranks on each other they called “gotchas.” Naturally gotchas sometimes included some gags involving Corvettes. They often drag raced on long stretches of road that went past the numerous rocket gantries along “missile row” at the Cape. Shepard often did well in these races, so something had to be done about it and the solution involved one of their best “gotchas.” Gordon Cooper beat Alan by a wide margin in one of their races – something which Shepard could not understand. He asked Virgil “Gus” Grissom, “What’s going on,” and Gus really rubbed it in with his reply – “You lost, Al.” The already fuming Shepard fumed more. Gus rubbed it in even more by suggesting to Shepard, “Maybe you forgot to eat your Wheaties today.” That was enough for Alan; he sent his car to Rathmann’s shop explaining that something was wrong with the car and to fix it. Rathmann said he would check it out. Unfortunately for Shepard, Jim Rathmann was in on the gag and he made the problem worse. Shepard was losing all the races by greater margins. Finally, the group let their victim in on the joke. They had arranged for the differential gearing in Shepard’s car to get switched to a lower numerical ratio so that acceleration would be relatively poor. They did point out to Al that at least he got a higher top speed with the setup. They all got a good laugh out of that. The conservative John Glenn had fun with Shepard’s preference for fast cars, too; he placed a cartoon on Alan’s office door that was captioned, “Definition of a sports car – A hedge against male menopause.” 
Gordon Cooper with his '63 Corvette (Author's files)
Not all the gags were on Shepard. Jim Rathmann became a “gotcha” victim as well. One day Rathmann was driving Grissom’s car with Gus as his passenger. Grissom “innocently” pointed out that Wally (Walter Schirra) could take the curve ahead of them at 80mph in his Italian car. Most drivers could manage 65mph on that particular curve. Rathmann did just what Gus expected – the Indy 500 champion tried to prove he was as good a driver in any car as Wally Schirra. They entered the turn at about 80; by the time the Vette stopped sliding, they were 200 feet off the road and needed a tow truck to get out of the mud.
 On a related note, see my earlier posting to this blog, "The Red Stuff: Late NASA Engineer's 1962 Corvette."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

1955 Corvette

More Colorful and More Powerful
Text and Photography by David W. Temple
After much fanfare but less than anticipated sales, the Corvette slipped into the 1955 model year with serious doubt about its survival. Chevrolet had rushed the sports car into limited production in mid-53 in response to the highly favorable comments about its prototype; only 300 were built, though managers expected to boost production to about 1,000 per month for the next model year. Actual production amounted to only 3,640 with some of those left unsold when the ‘55 season arrived.
Road test reports regarding the 1953 Corvette were generally favorable, but the first 300 cars which were built at Flint went to VIPs or were retained by GM for further testing. When interested members of the general public discovered that they could not just go to the local dealership to purchase one, they began to lose interest in the car. Moreover, the lack of roll up windows and other such conveniences made the car somewhat of a disappointment to many potential buyers. Quality control was another problem with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. The price tag of $3,490 made some rethink the idea of buying this sports car. The lack of sales of the ‘54s would seriously impact planning for the Corvette for a while.
The 1955 model Corvettes received little styling updates though some were proposed. The money for alterations was extremely limited so these proposals were rejected for production. However, Chevrolet had a V8 ready to drop into the sports car. The new Chevy V8 went from drawing board to tooling within four months with Chevrolet division’s engineering team of about 2,900 personnel all under the then chief engineer, Ed Cole, and an assistant brought in from Cadillac, Harry Barr who had lead the development of that division’s 331 V8 first offered for model year 1949. The modern V8 weighed 40 pounds less than Chevy’s in-line six-cylinder and had a total weight of 488 pounds. The Turbo-Fire featured hollow pushrods, independent stamped-metal rocker arms, fully water-jacketed ports, aluminum pistons, pressed forged steel crankshaft, and splash lubrication system. The hollow pushrods allowed for oil flow to the fulcrum ball surface and valve stem; as a result, oil passages in the head were no longer needed. The design of the rocker arm assembly permitted lower reciprocating mass, which in turn brought a higher maximum attainable rpm. The fully water-jacketed and aluminum pistons provided improved heat dissipation and new forging techniques resulted in a relatively short crankshaft, and thus less vibration. The splash lubrication system eliminated the need for expensive oil feeder lines. Furthermore, the new block casting technique delivered much higher precision cylinder bores. The fresh design accomplished its goal of bringing a high performance image in an economical to produce way to Chevrolet. The powerful Turbo-Fire was an option offered for the Corvette, though extremely few of the ‘55s had the standard six-cylinder which incidentally was given a five horsepower boost in output. The V8 installed in Vettes was rated at 195hp.
The July 1955 issue of Road & Track reported the upgraded Corvette handled “very well” but noted the brakes “show up poorly.” Performance of the V8 powered version showed great improvement over the six; the time required for zero-to-sixty was trimmed from 11 seconds to 8.7. The quarter-mile result was 16.5 seconds rather than 18. Steering, like the brakes, was judged to be not “fast enough for a sports car.” High-speed stability, though, was reported to be “near perfect.”
Originally, all Corvettes were Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior. Color choices were expanded for ’54 and new colors were offered for ’55. One of the new color choices was Harvest Gold – the same color as the 1955 Corvette shown here. Our feature car which is number 499 of 700 built was owned by Steve and Francie Newsom of Seabrook, Texas at the time it was photographed by the author. The car has since been sold. Before purchasing it, the previous owner asked Steve who is a technical adviser on the first generation Corvettes and member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) to take a look at the car which was then located in Wichita, Kansas. The car was judged to be a good restoration candidate. Steve was given the task of performing some of the restoration and locating the needed parts. The prior owner specified that only NOS parts be used to restore his latest acquisition; even the upholstery had to be NOS. The last known supply of NOS yellow vinyl for ’55 Corvettes was used to renew the interior of “499.” John Kennedy of House of Customs who is well known to Corvette enthusiasts supplied the material and performed the interior and convertible top work. Coulter Automotive (also well known to Vette fans) handled the paint and body labor. Steve’s ’55 Corvette (number 96) was used as a guide to bring the subject car to award winning condition. About seven years ago, the owner decided the time to sell the car had arrived and Steve and his wife Francie became the next title-holders.
This Harvest Gold Vette won “Top Flight” honors as well as the coveted Duntov and Performance Verification at NCRS competition. It was also judged as “Best Corvette” at the 2005 Keels and Wheel Concours d’Elegance in Seabrook.
The total production of Harvest Gold 1955 Corvettes is uncertain, but has been estimated to be around just sixty. All ’55 Vettes painted this color came with the dark green top as shown here. As workers at Chevrolet became more experienced with fiberglass, the body work on Corvettes became better. As a result, colors other than Polo White were offered. (White hides relatively poor body work which is why all of the ‘53s were offered only in that color.) Polo White continued to be offered along with Corvette Copper and Gypsy Red, as well as Harvest Gold. New selections of paint and the V8 made the Corvette more colorful and more powerful; the trend would continue in later years leaving enthusiasts with over a half century of great sports cars from Chevrolet.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tom Felten’s 1957 Corvette

From Used Car to Race Car to Show Car
Text by David W. Temple
Photographs by author except as credited
Not many people keep a car for a half-century. Of those who do, few can say the car they kept is a Corvette. One who can is Tom Felten of Scottsdale, Arizona. Tom bought his 1957 Corvette about one year after his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1962 and has owned it since with the brief exception of a three-year span in the 1990s, but more on that in a moment. After driving the car home from the used car lot where he bought it, Tom immediately swapped the original Powerglide for a three-speed manual transmission and installed 4.56:1 gears along with dual four-barrel carbs. Shortly thereafter, the three-speed was replaced with a four-speed and still later he upgraded to a Rochester fuel-injection setup. Tom did with the Vette what its originator, Harley Earl, envisioned Vette owners doing – he raced it!
Used car, 1963 (Tom Felton)
Of course Corvette enthusiasts are aware the early Vettes suffered from a number of shortcomings in comfort, quality, and performance; sales suffered accordingly, too. After failing to reach the production goal of 10,000 units for the 1954 and 1955 model years (by a margin of 9,300 cars for the latter), Chevrolet was ready to put an end to offering their fiberglass sports car. However, with the support and skills of key people within GM such as Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole, the Corvette matured into a true sports car that was competitive on the track. The 283 small block V-8 combined with the availability of a four-speed transmission and fuel-injection really made a difference in making the Corvette a hit with enthusiasts; well over 6,000 were built for 1957. Chevy’s fiberglass wonder has maintained a strong following for a half a century, but almost no one can honestly claim to have maintained a Corvette for nearly the entire span of the last five decades which brings us back to Tom Felten’s car.
1st Place, Islip Speedway (Tom Felton)
With the performance equipment upgrades in place, Tom was ready to take his Vette to the track. He joined the Long Island Corvette Association in 1963 then began competing in the slalom rally and high-speed events at Bridgehampton and Lime Rock Park. Drag racing was quickly added to his racing schedule. At West Hampton, Tom drove his ’57 through the quarter-mile in 13 seconds flat at 101mph. At the one-eighth mile track at Islip Speedway, he was clocked at 82mph.
A lot of victories... (Tom Felton)
Between 1963 and 1965, Tom spent a lot of time racing with Joel Rosen who went on to establish Motion Performance Incorporated in 1966 and offered a specialty car program through Baldwin Chevrolet in Long Island. During this time, Tom fine-tuned his racing skills by going to driving school in Lime Rock Park, Connecticut. Upon completing his training there, he started road racing. In one road race, his clutch shattered but he was able to continue driving – in second gear! He finished in second place by the thin margin of two-tenths of a second. However, after seriously damaging his ’57 Vette in a crash (in which the car stood on its nose at one point) at Bridgehampton Tom virtually retired the car from competition and replaced it with a ’63 split window coupe. He did race again at Bridgehampton with his ’57, but this time with a modified ’68 350 under the hood. However, this car was driven mostly on the street until January 1972 when it was placed in storage.
Crash at Bridgehampton (Tom Felton)
In 1980, Tom had the power train and suspension of his old racer fully rebuilt, but then a move to Arizona the following year interrupted any further work on the car. It sat until 1990 when Tom sold the car, but fate would not allow Tom and his old ride stay apart permanently. In 1993, the buyer called Tom to tell him the car was for sale; Tom got it back in boxes. Another year passed before Tom decided to have the Vette fully restored. At that point, he placed the car in the back of a Ryder truck and delivered it to his old friend, Bob Lorenz, in the East Texas town of Longview. Lorenz and his son Bob, Jr. operate R&R Restoration. Bob and Tom went to school together in New York and become good friends. The occasion to restore Tom’s Vette was not the first time Bob had worked on the car, though. Bob had repaired damage to its left quarter panel in the ‘60s.
An extensive 5 ½-year restoration resulted in the show piece seen on these pages. However, Tom’s car would not pass all the tests of the National Corvette Restorers Society’s judging. Tom elected to keep the car in its racing form with the four-speed and fuel-injection setup (though since these photos were taken by the author, the 1962 F.I. unit has been replaced with a 1957 setup). He also preferred to have the side coves repainted in Adobe Beige rather than in the original Onyx Black.
This car has won “Best in Class” awards for four consecutive years at World of Wheels as well as numerous trophies at local car shows. However, “It’s not a trailer queen. I drive it when my daughter, Alisa, lets me,” said Tom with a smile. We’re all smiling, too, Tom and Alisa, but with envy!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Red Stuff

Late NASA Engineer's 1962 Corvette
Text by David W. Temple
Photography by author except as noted

A half-century ago the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a new kind of combat dubbed the Cold War. The Communists or the “Reds” were aiming at global domination and one approach to demonstrating their Socialist system was better than Democracy and free enterprise was aiming at space. When our featured 1962 Corvette was new, the Soviet Union was stunning the world by launching men into orbit around the Earth. Their early dominance of space began with the launching of an experimental 84-pound sphere carrying only a radio transmitter called Sputnik 1. Though all it did was transmit “beep, beep, beep…” as it circled the globe high above at over 17,000mph, it suggested that one day in the not to distant future Communist A-bombs might be up there in orbit awaiting the electronic commands needed to send them raining down on the U.S.A. That day, October 4, 1957, ignited the Space Race. Two months later, an American Vanguard rocket exploded on its launch pad and newspapers across the nation reported it scathingly with headlines like “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik!” Meanwhile Soviet rockets were boosting heavier satellites into orbit and in 1959 their scientists even sent two spacecraft to the moon. Sometimes U.S. satellites went into orbit and even made important discoveries while others failed somewhere between the launch pad and the edge of space. One aimed at lunar orbit failed to attain the required speed to reach its target and instead zoomed to an altitude of over 70,000 miles; its instruments transmitted data about earth’s radiation belts until it fell back to earth. It was a least better than exploding in a fireball during launch. The best scientists and engineers were needed in this country to catch and surpass the Red Menace in space – the newest battleground of the Cold War. The battleground soon moved from orbit all the way to the moon when on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy called on the U.S. Congress and the American people to support the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the end of the sixties.
The late Frank Norton went to work for NASA beginning his 30-year career with Project Gemini and retired during the Space Shuttle era. He bought our featured 1962 Corvette new and kept it the rest of his life. (Norton family archives)
This 1962 Corvette was purchased new in December 1961. Three years later almost to the day, the owner went to work for NASA and was involved with Project Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. It is now owned by Texas resident, Danny Reed.
One man who answered the challenge of the Space Race was the late Frank Norton when he was hired by NASA in December 1964. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts got all the headlines, the autograph requests, and even got a book and movie about them (Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff”) but many thousands of people working behind the scenes such as Frank helped put them into orbit and on the moon. He went on to work on the Space Shuttle program before retiring from NASA in early 1995.
The early histories of the Corvette and NASA share something in common – failure followed by gradually increasing levels of success. After failing to reach the production goal of 10,000 units for the 1954 model year by as wide a margin as NASA was missing the moon in the early days of the space program and then filling orders for a paltry 700 cars the following year, Chevrolet was ready to put an end to offering their fiberglass sports car. However, with the support and skills of key people within GM such as Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole, the Corvette matured into a true sports car that was competitive in racing events. The 283 small block V-8 combined with the availability of a four-speed transmission and fuel-injection really made a difference in making the Corvette a hit with enthusiasts; well over 6,000 were built for 1957. Finally, in 1960, production of the Corvette surpassed the 10,000 mark. For 1962, the final version of the first generation Corvette brought to Chevrolet a total of 14,531 orders for the sports car. That same year, NASA put a total of three men into Earth orbit in Project Mercury spacecraft launched by the Atlas rocket which for a time, blew up more often than not. It was more powerful than the little Redstone used by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom for their sub-orbital missions the preceding year. Also during ’62, NASA successfully tested a couple of prototype Saturn rockets that would ultimately lead to the type used for the Project Apollo lunar missions. More power was a key element for achieving success for the Corvette as well as for NASA.
Side coves were first utilized on the heavily restyled 1956 Corvette and were features originally seen on three GM Motorama show cars in 1955.
The 300hp version of the Turbo-Fire 327 V-8 was an extra-cost option on the Corvette. In this case it is paired with the optional two-speed Powerglide automatic with an aluminum case. The switch to an aluminum case Powerglide was an update for the ’62 model year.
Of course there were other factors involved in building a desirable sports car as GM would learn during the ‘50s. Once sports cars began to gain in popularity in this country, some automakers here started offering their own version. Nash had a Healey in 1951 with an aluminum body built by Pininfarina. Briggs Cunningham built some two-seater sports car, as well, starting in 1951; his C-4R finished fourth at Le Mans in ’52. Other sports car choices included the Kurtis and Crosley’s Hotshot. Even so, there were still few alternatives of American sports cars offered to driving enthusiasts in this country and none of them approached the popularity of the M.G. TD or the XK120 of Jaguar. However, as popular as these cars were to American enthusiasts, only little more than a quarter of one percent of new car registrations in this country were for sports cars. These cars had a number of undesirable characteristics to many Americans. Zora Arkus-Duntov told a group at an SAE meeting in 1953, that statistics showed that the American public did not want a sports car, but went on to question if the statistics gave a true picture. He noted the market for such a car was an unknown quantity and that perhaps a sports car designed to American tastes and roads might have a significant following. History proved him correct, but the original Corvette which went into production in mid-1953 suffered from a lack of qualities most American drivers expected such as roll up windows and other such conveniences. Quality control was another issue with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. A price tag of $3,490 was certainly a deterrent to ownership as well. Hand finishing the cars like the fiberglass show cars of the GM Motorama where the first Corvette prototype debuted would have clearly improved the early panel fit problems, but would have pushed the price much, much higher. Eventually these problems and others were overcome and the Corvette has maintained a strong following for half a century during which much has happened. The fiberglass sports car, the U.S.A., and NASA are still here, but the Soviet Union exists now only in the pages of history books. The dust of the Cold War has settled and buried the Soviet’s hammer and sickle emblazoned red flag. Their system never produced a single man on the moon nor anything like a Corvette.
The upholstery pattern changed a bit for the 1962 model year. Colors for the interior were limited to black, fawn, and red.
Three years before joining NASA, Frank Norton purchased the Roman Red 1962 Chevrolet Corvette pictured on these pages. On December 30, 1961, he drove away from Ernest Allen Chevrolet in Ft. Worth, Texas in this Vette equipped with the 300hp engine, Powerglide automatic transmission, posi-traction rear axle, white sidewall tires, and radio. The price tag including tax, title, inspection, and license totaled to the sum of $4,653.84, which was about the same amount needed to buy a new Oldsmobile. Of course the latter did not offer the thrills of a sports car!
Frank moved to Florida when he went to work for NASA at Cape Canaveral (then renamed Cape Kennedy for a time). He kept the Corvette for the rest of his life. After his retirement in early 1995, he intended to restore it but only got as far as dismantling it during his remaining nine years of life. Once the estate issues were settled, his family sold the Corvette to its current owner, Danny Reed, who is a member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS). Danny, an Austin, Texas resident, has one other Corvette closely tied to the Space Race, a 1969 model used about one year by Apollo 12 moonwalker, Alan Bean, while he trained for his lunar mission.
Danny Reed's '62 Corvette is an outstanding award winner. (Photo by Danny Reed)
Since restoring the feature car to NCRS standards, it has won the club’s coveted Top Flight award in national competition with a score of 4,468 out of a possible 4,500 points (without bonus driving points) as well as the prestigious Duntov Award. Recently, it took Best of Class (Corvette) at the 2011 Houston Corvette/Chevy Expo.

Author’s Note: The author appreciates the cooperation of the public affairs office at Johnson Space Center in Houston in allowing access to “Rocket Park” where the author's photos were taken.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

E53F 001300 - The Last of the First Corvettes

The featured Corvette is the 300th and last of the ‘53s built. It is currently owned by a collector in the Houston area and has won numerous awards and honors including a two-time selection to the Bloomington Gold Special Collection and a Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame Induction.
 Photography and text by David W. Temple

Chevrolet’s Corvette has been with us for over 60 years. Clearly this sports car has been popular for quite a while, hence its longevity. As practically all Corvette enthusiasts know, this fiberglass car almost did not survive beyond its first three years of production. Now all of those models are in demand by collectors. However, some of them are more special than others. When a ’53 Corvette is offered for sale or displayed at a car show, the question probably most asked by knowledgeable types is, “What number is it?” The oldest known surviving Corvette, number three or E53F 001003, sold for $1 million at Barrett-Jackson in 2006. Number one is evidently no longer in existence though rumors to the contrary do persist about it. Incidentally, number two was tested and rebuilt by GM – so much so it was “phased out” of existence over time piece by piece so little if any of the original car remains. Even the body of #2 was replaced. Then there is the case of the “Last Stingray.” That ’67 model sold for $600,000 at Barrett-Jackson in 2007. First, last and oldest obviously have much meaning to Corvette fans.
VIN plate
The creation of the phenomenal Corvette was the brainchild of GM Styling VP Harley Earl who desired to produce an American sports car. Sports cars were becoming increasingly popular, but nearly all of them were of European design such as the M.G. TD and the Jaguar XK 120. However, as popular as these cars were to American enthusiasts, only little more than a quarter of one percent of new car registrations in this country were for sports cars. To most Americans, these cars had several undesirable characteristics. Zora Arkus-Duntov told a group at an SAE meeting in 1953 statistics showed that the American public did not want a sports car, but went on to question if the statistics gave a true picture. He noted the market for such a car was an unknown quantity and that perhaps a sports car designed to American tastes and roads might have a significant following.
In September of 1951, Harley Earl drove his experimental LeSabre to the sports car races at Watkins Glen and watched the M.G.s, Allards, Ferraris, and Cunninghams speed around the track. Earl said the idea for the Corvette was born while driving the LeSabre as the pace car for this race; it was a significant turning point in automotive history.
A 150hp “Blue Flame Special” powered all 1953 Corvettes. It was a modified version of the engine used in other Chevy passenger cars.
Thus was born the Opel Passenger Car Development Project. Opel, incidentally, was a name borrowed from GM’s German division, so it served to conceal the true nature of the project. Amazingly, the time to bring the car from a paper proposal to the mockup stages and then finally a functional prototype was accomplished in about eight months. One of the requirements for the proposed sports car was that it be economical to build in order to for it to meet a selling price target of around $1,850. Unfortunately, the price for the production car would be twice that of the original goal. This necessity meant that as many already existing components as possible had to be incorporated into the design. One of those was the Chevrolet chassis. Other items already in use by Chevrolet were the straight-six and Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission. A Chevrolet V8 was two model years away and a manual transmission befitting a sports car was even further into the future, so the Vette would have to settle for Chevy’s 235 inline six coupled to an automatic. Basically, the Corvette became a “crash program” thus there was a certain amount of “make do” involved with the project.
All of the 300 1953 Corvettes had a Sportsman Red interior with white accents.
Engineers were shown a plaster mockup of the proposed Corvette in early June of 1952. Barely more than one year later, the first three production cars departed the makeshift assembly line in Flint. During that time, two prototype show cars were assembled as well as a “mule” for testing. One of the show cars debuted at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, the starting point of the 1953 General Motors Motorama multi-city tour. Many of those who waited in line to see the Corvette as well as the other show and productions cars on display there indicated a serious interest in buying Chevy’s little sports car. Because of this great interest, the go ahead was given for 250 cars (later increased to 300) to be built prior to the start of the 1954 model year.
Essentially, the first 300 cars were pilot line cars with various changes made during the run. Even the way the fiberglass body parts were made changed a couple of times. Early cars did not receive the intended wheel covers because the tooling was not quite ready and therefore they had to be equipped with the Bel Air type. Because of all the improvements made during 1953, Corvette number 1 and Corvette number 300 were not exactly alike even though at a glance they seemed very nearly so. As time went by, forming and assembly techniques improved so the last of the 300 ‘53s were no doubt better than the first ones. By ’54, the bodies were of sufficient quality that colors other than Polo White were offered.
Road test reports regarding the 1953 Corvette were generally favorable, but the first 300 cars which were all built at Flint were offered to VIPs or retained by GM for further testing. When interested members of the general public discovered that they could not simply go to the local dealership to purchase one, they began to lose interest in the car. Several of the early prospects had to be called before Chevy found a buyer for a Corvette. Moreover, the lack of roll up windows and other conveniences made the car somewhat of a disappointment to many of the VIP owners. Quality control was another problem with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. The price tag of $3,490 was certainly on the high side as well and though that was the official base price, in reality the so-called optional AM-radio and heater was mandatory equipment! In reality the base price was $3,734. At the end of the ’53 model year over 180 of the 300 Vettes assembled remained unsold. At the time this did not alarm GM because so many of the cars were being used for special dealer displays to draw people into showrooms.
Those who obtained a ’53 Corvette at least got a car with great styling and decent performance. All were Polo White with a Sportsman Red interior. The six-cylinder engine received a number of upgrades to improve its performance including a trio of Carter YF sidedraft carburetors, aluminum intake, higher lift camshaft with aluminum timing gear, increased compression ratio, and dual exhausts. Modifications pushed the output from 115hp to 150. The suspension was composed of as many standard parts as possible, but included a larger diameter stabilizer bar, special front coil springs, 16:1 steering ratio, and four-leaf springs in back. Weight distribution with driver, passenger, full fuel tank, and luggage worked out to about 50/50; empty it was 53/47. The center of gravity was low – just 18 inches above the ground. Motor Trend judged the Corvette to be “an exciting car to drive” but noted it would “barely nose out an average [Buick] Century on an unobstructed freeway.” The Vette’s top speed was found to be approximately 108 mph.
Chevrolet expected to increase production to 10,000 units per year, but for 1954 sales were slow forcing a drastic cut in production which in the end amounted to only 3,640. Of those, more than 1,100 remained unsold at the end of the model year. Intervention by engineers Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov helped save the car. Many improvements were eventually made including a V8 engine, four-speed transmission, improved suspension, and roll-up windows.
Today, the 1953 Corvette is judged on its rarity as well as its great styling as it has been for many years. The long-time popularity of the 1953 Corvette has resulted in approximately 200 of the 300 built still remaining in existence including number 300 which is shown here. It is currently owned by a collector in the Houston area.
This Corvette was originally sold to a prominent physician who reportedly loved the car, but disliked the color and immediately painted it black. After keeping it for several years he sold it to a policeman. By 1971 the car had been purchased by another owner who advertised it for sale in the 1953-55 Vintage Corvette Club of America newsletter. The car appears in the newsletter looking tidy and back in its original exterior color.
In 1984 the car was purchased by a doctor in Florida who had a body-off-frame restoration performed on it by Corvette Specialists Sara Blake and Joe Meyer. Upon completion of the restoration, the car was shown around the country and it won virtually every award that could be attained. In 1998 the 300th production Corvette was sold to its current owner and soon thereafter it was freshened by Corvette Specialist Naber’s Motors of Houston. Finally, due to some crazing of the exterior paint the car was completely redone in 2006 by 1953-55 Master Judge and Restorer, Steve Newsome. The car has had an incredibly fortunate history with not one panel on the body ever being damaged. It was a two-time “Bloomington Gold Special Collection” car as well as a Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame Inductee – both uncommon honors. Furthermore, it was part of the General Motors “World of Motion” exhibit at Disney World. 
Perhaps the last ’53 Corvette was and still is the best of its kind.