I'm going to blame this one on Ed Welburn, General Motors design chief. The two of us were kicking tires at the RM Amelia Island auction last March, and came across a 1966 Sting Ray coupe. Welburn mentioned that it was nearly exactly what he wanted, a car in driving condition with a small-block.
"But it really needs to be a '63," he added. "A split-window. And maybe Sebring Silver, the color of the original show car."
Generally soft-spoken, Welburn becomes intense when he talks about GM styling, its past successes and the challenges that confront him and his team now. He recognizes that, in the end, the success or failure of a car is generally, "all about styling. If someone falls in love with the way a car looks, like the split-window or the '67 Camaro, they'll forgive a lot of other things. But if they are turned off by its appearance, there is almost nothing you can do to win them over."
I didn't think much about Welburn and his Corvette until I got a call from an excited Dave Stewart. He's a longtime friend of SCM, and provided the Series 1 Jaguar E-type that we briefly had in our stable.
"I've found the next car for SCM," he proclaimed. "It's a split-window Corvette, Sebring Silver over black, four-speed, 300-horse 327, with am/fm radio, power steering and knock-off spinners." Sounded like Welburn's dream car to me.
Frankly, I've never thought too much about personally owning a Sting Ray; as a European sporty-car kind of guy they just seemed a little too Route 66 for me, as if I'd have to learn how to roll up a pack of cigarettes in my T-shirt sleeve to drive one.
SOLD! SOLD! SOLD!
But the car was sitting in a showroom at The Chevy Store (503.256.0098), just three blocks from the SCM world headquarters in Portland, OR. I've known owner Kibby Riedman for many years, as well as his sales manager, Mike Thelin. They are both enthusiasts, and the store has a reputation for offering decent merchandise at fair retail prices.
Stewart had spoken with salesman Joe Silver, so within minutes, we were down the street looking at the car. Once he began pointing out the bits unique to the '63, like the chrome trim on the A-pillars, the red mist began flowing over us like fog rolling into San Francisco Bay. I don't have to tell you what happened next, except that it didn't include Welburn.
WORKING OUT THE BUGS
A few weeks later, I was driving the split-window through the forests of Washington. It felt powerful in an old-fashioned way, as if the torque were a living, breathing thing under the hood. The interior layout revealed more clever touches each time I'd get in, as I noticed little things like the way the heat vents are cleverly attached to the console, or that one of the reflectors on the door doubles as the locking mechanism.
But going down the road, this Corvette was a nightmare. On the freeway, the car lurched from lane to lane nearly uncontrollably, as if the rear end were steering the car. When I described the situation, the response I most often got was, "Oh, that early power steering was just terrible." Terrible was one thing, but a car that tried to switch ends whenever you moved the steering wheel was another. I pulled over three times just to make sure the rear tires weren't going flat.
I was planning on taking the 'Vette to local expert Mark Chace (503.655.2540) for his evaluation, but before I could even make an appointment, the car decided it wanted to head there immediately-on the back of a flatbed.
I was driving in rush-hour traffic when the clutch pedal just went limp. So in addition to replacing the defective power steering control valve, Chace lubed and reattached the clutch linkage. He also installed a new thermostat, adjusted the points and timing, and rejetted the carburetor to cure a slight miss when running at a constant 3,000 rpm. The very American cost of all this work: $430.
Chace said chances were that the problem with the handling was in the alignment of the rear suspension. "And you've got to find the right guys who really know how to set one up."
I knew the right guys, the technicians at the Line-Up Shop in southeast Portland. The diagnosis came quickly. The front end was badly out of alignment, an easy fix. But at the rear, the two strut arms that run parallel to the axles were bent and their bushings deteriorated, and one of the cam bolts used to adjust the camber of the rear suspension was welded in place. Fixing everything cost $548, barely enough to buy a set of brake pads for my old V12 Ferrari.
THEY ALL FEEL THAT WAY
With each old car that comes into my hands, the question of "How is it supposed to drive?" becomes more important. With many 30- and 40-year-old cars, their handling has become gradually worse, year-by-year. When the cars are rarely driven (the Corvette had covered just a few thousand miles in a decade) this incremental deterioration is hard to notice and what may be downright horrible handling compared to when they were new is simply dismissed as, "Well, it's an old car and they all feel that way."
With the repairs, the difference in handling in our Corvette is like day and night. What was formerly a diabolical driving experience is now just a vague, floaty one, quite possibly just like it was when it left the showroom floor.
Stewart's investment in this car is now about $37,000, a little on the high side of retail. The things we are discovering and fixing are the kinds of things any collector expects to encounter whenever they buy a 40-year-old collector car, and we're more than satisfied with the way The Chevy Store represented the car and treated us.
So now that this 'Vette is becoming a strong, reliable runner, I couldn't help but wonder if Stewart should offer it to Welburn, as he's the one that got me started down this path. But that thought didn't last long. I'm driving this one now, and enjoying it, so he'll have to find his own. We'll keep you posted as we develop a relationship with our newest long-term collectible.
We owe an apology to Ed and Barbara Grayson, owners of Consolidated Autoworks. Contrary to what I said in my November column, they had done very little if any work on the two Jaguar E-types that suffered mechanical failures on the rally I wrote about.
Further, I implied that the Graysons had installed an aftermarket Asian rotor in the SCM E-type rather than the authentic Lucas bit, a cardinal sin as Barbara is currently the vice-president of the Jaguar Clubs of North America, and actively involved in the concours scene. Of course, the authentic Lucas rotor they installed did fail ("The Prince of Darkness strikes again," Barbara sighed), and we finally limped home after we installed an Asian-made rotor sourced from a local NAPA store.
Ed and Barb do first-rate work and use only authentic parts. If you've got a Jaguar or other classic English car that needs some attention, give them a call at 503.246.8477. And you might consider keeping some non-authentic electrical bits in your boot just in case.