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!

1 comment:

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