There’s nothing like a recession to bring prices down, and I can thank the one in 1959–60 for supplying the only brand new car I ever bought.
When I was in college at Berkeley, California, in 1956, one of my fraternity brothers returned from home driving a new Corvette. I never got a ride, but after admiring it (and the girls he attracted), I swore that someday I would own such a neat car.
Four years later, having graduated, gotten a job at the prestigious Bell Telephone Research Laboratories in New Jersey, and earning over $100/week (while also pursuing a master’s degree), I started tracking used Corvettes. Finally, in late 1960, the transmission in my 1949 Olds 98 Holiday hard top gave out when I tried to “rock” it out of a snow drift.
So I called Malcolm Konner Chevrolet, which had an independent Corvette sales center, and talked to Corvette salesman Bob Wasserman about a used ’58 they had advertised. Bob said why not buy a new 1960? And when I said I couldn’t afford a new car, he started talking significant discounts. It had not been a good sales year and he had seven left-over ’60s to move. I called several times and every time I asked for more details, the price dropped another $200 or so—about $2,000 in today’s money.
Finally I was able to borrow a car from a fellow lab employee and get to see the cars in Paramus, NJ. And there, under a foot of snow, sat brand new Corvettes. With a broom we swept enough snow off to see the colors, and I picked out a Honduras Maroon car with the $16.15 optional white coves. Final price was $3,436 for a base-engined 283/230 car with the optional 4-speed transmission, Positraction rear end, whitewalls, thermo cooling fan, deluxe heater, and signal seeking radio. List was $4,520. According to Edmund’s new car pricing guide, it appeared I was getting it for below dealer’s wholesale. So there was a silver lining in that recession.
My wife drove it to her teaching job for a year, and I took the bus to work. Then disaster struck Carol, when a 16-year-old driver whose license was three weeks old ran a stop sign and spread the Corvette front end over a Chatham, NJ, street. The insurance company declared it totaled, and I bought the wreck, since I figured I could fix it for less than the settlement money.
It took me and a friend over a year of hard work to graft on a hand laid-up, one-piece front end from a boat outfit in San Francisco and to replace all the other mangled pieces. There was no parts list for the Corvette and no assembly manual when we started. Somehow we cobbled it back together; it looked decent and ran well.My wife and I drove it twice to San Diego from New Jersey in the mid 1960s, on Route 66, naturally. It was our only car for about six years, and then I used it to get to work in Baltimore and Atlanta for 14 years, until a minor accident relegated it to the basement. In 1981, I started a body-off restoration with my then-14-year-old son, and we managed to take everything apart and reduce it to a body and chassis and a bunch of boxes. There it sat for 26 years, while I concentrated on my Ferrari parts business and dealership.
What to do with the car in the boxes?
With a move to Orlando looming in 2007, I had three choices for my 1960 Corvette:
- Restore it, which everyone knows doesn’t make any economic sense.
- Sell it—lots of guys wanted to buy it because of all the original parts. Offers were around $20k.
- Move the pieces to Orlando and think about it for another 20 years. A friend who was into solid-axle Corvettes recommended David Dew, a local guy. Then a Corvette expert from our informal Atlanta lunch group came up with the same name, and finally my dental hygienist, whose husband was restoring a ’59, raved about a beautiful restoration she had just seen at a Tennessee NCRS meet. It too was done by David Dew. The die was cast; Dew came, inventoried, and then quoted me what I thought was a reasonable price to do a “correct driver” restoration, and he would do it in under a year.
I had restored a number of Ferraris over the years, and Dew’s figures sounded like hallucinations from an inexperienced dreamer, but he’d done 20 complete restorations in the last 15 years, and everyone had high praise about his work and honesty. The “correct driver” restoration was fine with me, because I had no intention of ever selling it. I fantasized about one of my grandkids at a future car show, telling an admirer, “It’s been in the family for 100 years.” With only another 52 to go, I had the only sensible reason to restore it. It is a family member.
The plans change early on
As the disassembly progressed and the parts were cataloged, Dew suggested we go for an NCRS “Top Flight” restoration, because he was enthralled with all the original parts. Of course, everyone knows that if a 95-point car costs $100k, those last five points will cost another $100k.
This can be true for exotic one-offs, but several mitigating factors come into play to make those last five points more reasonable where Corvettes are concerned.
- Top Flight requires “only” 94 points, so you can avoid spending $10,000 each for those last few points.
- The knowledge, support, and proper reproduction parts availability are fantastic.
- Most important is the fact that the proper parts, finishes, and original markings are detailed on hundreds of pages of the NCRS judging manuals and judging sheets.
It’s not a “show” restoration
The work proceeded, and unlike many of my earlier restorations, where I had to get intimately involved with the bits that were needed, I just wrote checks for $40k worth of parts, which were entrusted to experienced sub-contractors. Several of these experts had their own Top Flight early Corvettes to prove their dedication to the gods of originality.
The whole point of Top Flight is that it is not a “show” restoration; it’s supposed to be just like it came from the factory. As one judge said when he opened the cowl vent and saw the overspray on the gasket and the yellow trim cement smeared around: “Perfect, a real mess.” Any good craftsman can spray a completely disassembled car without getting overspray on components. But that is not the goal. You have to know what pieces are supposed to have overspray.
The point is to recreate the car as it was assembled nearly 50 years ago. Seeing it for the first time the morning of judging brought back memories from the day I originally picked it up; it was neat, but also a little disappointing, because it had flaws.
The day of judgment arrives
Last January, a cold, foggy Florida morning welcomed the entrants and the judges for a quick “What to Expect” meeting. The six-hour judging process, with ten to 15 judges, was set for 8 am. The chief judge, in an attempt to diffuse anxiety, detailed the process. Five teams of two judges each spend about an hour on each of five areas—
operation, mechanical, interior, exterior, and chassis. Some teams had extra judges—guys in training—and the chief judge of each area could also join a team.
The chief judge made the point that the Florida NCRS region has an unusually large number of experienced national judges, so if you did well at this Florida regional level, you would do well at national NCRS meets. Also, with the high level of accurate scrutiny, one could also learn a lot about your car’s shortcomings.
After six hours, the verdict was in: We lost only 77 points—out of 4,500—so we scored an impressive 98.3 on a 100-point scale. David Dew did just fine, even better than he was aiming for. And there are at least six relative minor items that can be fixed by spending less than $25 a point. Dew has a very pragmatic view of not spending more than that per point. For example, you lose four points on the reproduction Firestone tires because they have the federally mandated DOT markings, but to avoid losing those four points, you’d have to find an original set costing $10,000 to $15,000—tires you probably couldn’t even drive on.
Despite the voluminous judging manuals, there are still items where different opinions are possible. After having eight Top Flight cars in the past, Dew still lost points for items that he had never lost points on before. But unlike Ferrari club and classic car judges, you can actually discuss each deduction, and then sign off on the judge’s deduction sheet (and turn in an evaluation sheet on each judge when they finish).
I’ve never been through anything like it in 15 years of entering concours. The judges were friendly, and the conversations were civil and diplomatic. My original invoice from 48 years ago, along with my maintenance records showing $8 for a 1979 water pump (now $90), brought much reminiscing.
The restoration included some expenses that were
accident-related. For example, the 1963 crash added the following: a complete new front end, press-molded, for $5,280, plus $2,500 for body shop to install. Total cost was $7,800—money I wouldn’t have spent on an accident-free body.
I’d also count about another $2,000 repairing other accident damage and replacing incorrect parts from the earlier crash (for example, the radiator support piece was from a ’62, which was fine for a driver but not for an NCRS car. I had to buy a new ’60 piece for $260).
A signal-seeking radio cost me $900—when I bought the car I had the radio taken out, saved $80 bucks, and bought a junkyard ’57 Chevy radio that fit. The hard top cost about $1k for restoration, new paint, and new headliner.
The total cost to revive my car was just under $90,000—a real bargain—which worked out at 98 cents a mile. And now it’s ready for the next 51 years, and my family will have a “one-family-owned for a century” Corvette.