Bill's 59 Corvette Page
For years, Iíd always admired the Corvettes made between 1956 and 1962, with the teardrop-shaped cove in the side. Iíd owned newer Corvettes, a 1981 and a 1990. I really had a hankering for one of the older ones, but didnít want a car to sit in the garage or be a ďtrailer queenĒ. I wanted one of these cars to drive, and drive frequently. The best way, I thought, was to buy a car in poor condition and do a complete rebuild from the ground up. Restored cars are frequently offered for sale, of course, but they are expensive and it is difficult for a buyer to be sure what has been rebuilt or replaced and what has just been dusted off or painted and put back in place. Buying a restored car didn't appeal to me.
This thought rattled around my head for years, until one day I was absently scanning the ads in the Sunday paper, where many monumental projects ( and monumental screwups) start. There, offered for sale was a 1959 Corvette body (damaged) and frame (bent). No engine, no interior, no transmission, and many other missing parts.
Still, it was a genuine Corvette with a good title, cheap. Now, mind you, Iíd never restored a Corvette or any other car at that point in my life. I was a sometimes shade tree mechanic but had never even done much routine work on my other Corvettes, thinking I needed to trust such special cars to professionals. Now I was contemplating rebuilding an incomplete car when I didnít even know what many of the missing parts looked like.
The owner, Bill Ford, was an experienced body man and Corvette restorer but was passing on rebuilding this particular car. This should have told me something, but common sense doesnít necessarily play a large part in projects like this. In this instance, it didnít play any part at all. I gave Bill a deposit, then left for Alaska for two weeks. For that entire period I pondered whether to really go through with this or to forfeit my deposit and return to more sensible pursuits. The desire to build this car didnít go away, so a few weeks later Bill delivered the bare fiberglass body (considerably damage in the front) to my garage. The rolling frame was delivered to a frame shop, where a few weeks later I collected a straightened frame and a bill for almost $1000. This was my real welcome to the wonderful world of Corvette restoration.
Bill also introduced me to many of his friends, including Ken Breier. Ken was an experienced restorer in the middle of building a Ď58, had a big parts collection he was disposing of, and is by nature inclined to help ignorant people with their Corvette projects, much as Mother Teresa helped the poor and homeless. Without a couple of years worth of Kenís advice and encouragement, I doubt this project would have ever gotten anywhere.
Once straightened, the frame was actually above average for a Corvette of this vintage. Little rust, functioning differential, complete front end. The first steps were fairly obvious ones- remove all parts from the frame and send all the ones that werenít being replaced to a sandblasting shop, where I had them blasted and also primed and painted. Soon I had a pile of clean black parts to reassemble into a newly rebuilt rolling frame. I bought a front end rebuilding kit from Corvette Central-a little over $400 for all the perishable parts in the front end. I found a mechanic who assembled it for me reasonably. I also had the third member professionally rebuilt, and a few weeks later had a rolling frame complete with new brakes, brake lines, springs, battery box, engine mounts, front and rear wheel bearings, shocks, springs, kingpins, tie rods, etc.
Meanwhile, I was learning about the interesting subculture of Corvette restoration. Iíve had other automotive interests, but the Corvette world is a unique one. I discovered early on that I was going to be frequently breaking one of the cardinal rules of Corvette restoration- originality. Corvettes are prized and priced, beyond all else, for the presence of as many original parts as possible. GM stamps a date code on almost every part. A truly original Ďvette has every part dated during the three months prior to its assembly date. Clearly, my vette couldnít be restored this way- Iíd have to locate hundreds, even thousands, of parts with the right date code and spend a fortune. Actually, I was spending a fortune anyway- to have restored this particular car by these standards would have multiplied that cost many times.
A person intially encountering this group of enthusiasts might first assume that the hobby was dominated by anal-retentives who have lost sight of the possibility that creative input by the restorer is one of the joys of automotive restoration. After spending some time restoring, however, I developed an appreciation for the high standards of the two major Corvette restoration organizations, the NCRS and Bloomington Gold.
These standards have resulted in a large number of restored cars that are absolutely identical to the ones that rolled off the assembly line in north St. Louis during the 50ís and 60ís, despite having been driven hundreds of thousands of miles in the interim. No other automotive marque has this distinction. I would encourage anyone beginning a Corvette restoration to immediately get involved with the NCRS. Even though restoring my car to these standards was not reasonable, this high target has resulted in a wide selection of restoration parts. Since many cars (mine being a prime example) are just unsuitable for NCRS-type restoration, I was not alone in doing a less "correct" restoration. I was always able to choose from parts with varying degrees of orginality, depending on my budget and needs. Early on, I decided to use parts as close in form and function as possible to the originals, but without regard to date coding.
I made an exception with the engine- Iím not even sure why, but I decided to at least tip my hat to the prevailing standards. I located a block and heads with a 1959 date from Dan Patch in Kansas City, hauled them home, and sent them to a professional rebuilder. This led to one of the more "interesting" episodes of the project. I was able to haul the block, heads, and related parts to the rebuilder in my car, but had to borrow my bossís Mazda pickup to retrieve the fully assembled product. The rebuilder had constructed a wooden frame to rest the engine in for transportation purposes. When I saw it, I thought the engine sat a little high, but assumed the guy knew what he was doing. A mile down the road, I descended a steep hill and put on the brakes for a stop sign. At that point, the engine flipped off the frame and crashed forward through the rear window of my bossís truck, just missing hitting the back of my head and putting me out of my misery. Lots of amusement was provided, however, for the residents of that stretch of road, who had a good laugh (Iíve provided so many laughs to so many people with this project!) and helped me get the engine tied down. Bill Ford came to my rescue, staying up till midnight to get the back of the truck cab straightened so I could go to a glass shop the next morning and get a new rear window. Iím glad to this day my boss never saw the truck just after the incident. Iím still employed, somewhat to my surprise.
Over the next few months, the engine, exhaust, and rest of the driveline came to shape on the frame. I ducked another major aspect of originality by using a Muncie 4-speed transmission (not introduced till 1962) instead of the Borg-Warner (much more expensive and considered by many to be less reliable) that GM originally used on the 59 Corvette. Dannyís Transmission in North Carolina sold me a completely rebuilt and guaranteed Muncie for $600, about 1/4 the price of a comparable Borg-Warner and hopefully better for a daily driver.
With the rolling chassis complete, I turned my attention to the sad-looking fiberglass body. Bill Ford showed me how to do minor fiberglass repairs and I spent considerable time on them. The big problem with this car, though, was a lot of front end damage that called for a new front end. The ďcorrectĒ way was to rebuild with press-molded fiberglass, parts cost alone $2700. The alternative was a one-piece handl-laid fiberglass front end, parts cost about $1000- but not meeting the all-important originality criterion. Guess which one I picked. Bill Ford did the installation of the front end for me, and cleaned up many of the fiberglass repairs that werenít up to his standards (most of them).
A lot more years and a lot more dollars than I expected, which is probably par for the course for a restoration project. But the body was fixed, the frame was fixed, and the drive train was now complete.
Paint followed, a big job starting from bare fiberglass. First, the body was sanded smooth and defect after defect repaired. Then, 2 coats of primer. At this point the primer was wet-sanded smooth. Then, a coat of sealer, three coats of finish paint, and three clear-coats. (Another deviation from originality here- laquer was used on original vettes, but I preferred the look of clear-coated urethane.) At this point Bill turned it over to me and I took it home.
The next step was wet sanding. This really took courage- to sand the shiny clear-coat flat. Then a rubbing step, and I had my shiny car back again. That's where we are today. A thousand more details and interior still lay ahead.
The final assembly was both very satisfying and very frustrating. If I had this to do over again, I'd follow the steps in the assembly manual in order. Many, many times I had to disassemble something because I realized I had assembled it prematurely and couldn't do something else without removing it. Countless times I started a project, then had to stop because some absolutely essential $5 part had to be ordered. Then when the parts order came in, I'd discover yet another part I'd forgotten. And on and on and on.
I made a lot of mistakes. Parts went on backwards. Brand new parts turned out to be defective and had to come off again. At long last, it started and ran. After that monumental day, another couple of years passed before it was road worthy. Even now, 12 years after I brought that wrecked body and frame home, it still is not quite complete, but it is running and looks good.
Fortunately, one of the aspects of the project that Iíve enjoyed the most is the parts search. Huge Corvette swap meets are held throughout the country. The most notable are Bloomington Gold (sadly no longer in Bloomington, but currently in St. Charles, IL) Corvettes at Carlisle in Pennsylvania, and twice-yearly meets in Knoxville, TN. I took a completely naive approach, usually throwing myself on the mercy of vendors, and begging them to help me find the parts I needed. Itís a credit to the integrity of people in the hobby that hardly anyone has taken advantage of me. With a very few exceptions, almost everyone Iíve encountered has been helpful and honest. I donít have space to list even a fraction of the people who have bent over backwards to provide parts and advice.
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