Mike Walsh keeps himself pretty busy these days. As proprietor of The Early Vette Shop in Shohola, Pennsylvania, he oversees a variety of restorations of some of the rarest and rattiest Corvettes in the country. Aided by his brother, Joe Erven, the two-man crew is a well-oiled force to be reckoned with; versed not only on the history and mechanicals of Chevy's fiberglass hot rod, but also on how to keep them up and running and out on the road where they belong.
Along with restoration comes some exploration. Mike's been doing these "search-and-rescue" missions since he was a teen. He pulled his very first Corvette out of a muddy swamp nearly 40 years ago. And yes, he still has that particular 1962 and it's never looked or sounded better. But even with four decades of Corvette round-ups under his belt, there are some experiences that can boggle his mind
Laurel Black read how Mike saved a particular 1960 from prolonged sleepy slumber in the pages of Vette Magazine and was intrigued. She contacted Mike with a disclosure of sorts; something that would blow Mike's Corvette-infested cranium. Laurel had her late mom Marilyn's old Corvette, a car that hadn't moved since it was parked 48 years ago. She wanted the Corvette to go to someone who could care for it, get it back on the road and just do the right thing. She needed advice, direction, and of course an estimate of its value.
Mike receives calls constantly about long dormant rides, but Laurel's call was one of those rare times Mike had a feeling this was not going to be your typical, run-of-the-mill restoration inquiry. After some time on the phone, she felt comfortable enough with Mike to ask him if he would come down to Collegeville, Pennsylvania where the car was stored, to take a look for himself.
Mike agreed, but first asked Laurel for a few pictures to make sure he wasn't wasting time. So she sent him a series of shots from the mid-sixties, and a few of the Corvette in its present slumber. When the "fuel injection" logo came across Mike's computer screen, that was enough to get his attention.
So in December 2015 Mike and his wife, Pattie made the two-hour trip to Laurel's house to check out the car. Having a female presence really gave Laurel some comfort, and helped smooth over the whole process. After the threesome talked about the car, her late mother, and the process of saving a long dormant ride, Laurel knew she had found the right people to move forward.
So Laurel led the twosome into the garage where the cover was finally removed by Laurel, and Mike's eyes opened wider than the Grand Canyon. "When I finally saw the car in person, for a Corvette guy like me it was like discovering King Tut's tombto say I was floored would be an understatement; it was that mesmerizing," says Mike.
The Vette was a virtual time capsule. Even for a guy with his years of experience, Mike had a hard time ingesting what he was seeing before him. "Unreal" is all Mike could sputter out.
The Corvette had south of 36k showing on the odometer. The Tuxedo Black paint, under its faint dust cover, looked like it had plenty of life left in it. The interior was near spotless, with a small vertical rip in the driver's seat insert. The dash was immaculate, with the dash pad being the best Mike's ever seen in an original car. Aesthetically the car was a 9 out of 10.
Under the hood was a 315 horse, 283 ci powerplant in all its glory. The engine bay looked nearly untouched. Two heater hoses had been replaced over the years, which was glaringly obvious because they were red. Amazingly, even the paper tags on the generator were intact, and most of the expendables there. Fan belt, voltage regulator, starter, horns, distributor cap, radiator hoses and all decals were OEM and present. Mike did notice the Packard 440 wires; a typical add-on for racers back in the day.
The interior was bone stock and in incredible condition. Strange to any rural area, there was no mice damage, a testament to some hungry guardian cats in the house. Even the carpet looked fresh, and the convertible top showed no sign of wear, and was still pliable, with the plastic window still clear.
Taking a quick look around Mike noticed the OEM T-3 headlights. There was some corrosion on the front bumper, possibly due to proximity to the garage door, but the rear bumpers were mint. The wipers were original and had their OEM inserts, the rear had its 4:11 posi tag, and the taillights, prone to pitting, were as clean as the day they were manufactured.
There were some interesting changes made to the Corvette. First off there were new radials on the car, installed on a set of very original 1963 American Racing mags, which were also in amazing shape. The original Fuelie mufflers were still there, but someone had put a set of straight pipes on, probably to do a little racing. A set of Traction Masters were installed as well. Also, someone had cut a few small holes in the flat metal behind the grill. This looked like the touch of a guy who wanted to get a little more air to the brakes for cooling. More on that later.
Laurel told Mike that her parents were the second owners of the car, as they bought it used in the fall of 1962. It was a weekend toy and cruiser for them, and used sparingly. When their marriage fizzled, Marilyn won the car in the divorce, and locked it away. Laurel remembers vaguely spending time with the car as a small child, as she was still a young girl when the car went into its slumber.
Over the next month Mike and his friend Tommy Murante negotiated a deal for the black 'Vette, not really knowing what lay ahead. In February of 2016 Mike, Joe and Tom headed to Collegeville with trailer in tow. There for the first time since it was locked away, the Corvette was lit up by the sun, and led into the outside world. A closer inspection showed that all wheels rolled freely, so the skates were ditched and the car proudly rolled out on its own tires.
Before he left, Mike and Tommy looked around in the garage for any other pertinent parts of this Vette's history. In the back corner were the original steel wheels, taken off right after Marilyn and her husband bought the car. They were loaded up as well, as every original piece to this puzzle would be important in the resurrection of this 1961.
Once back in Shohola Mike, Joe and Tommy dug into the car. The more they looked, the more shock and awe followed. Pulling the wheels, Mike found the original wheel cylinders and brake shoes. Out in the trunk, the original mat was intact, a rare sight on these cars. In the trunk, the car was nearly untouched. All the goods were there, including a set of original American Racing wheel weights.
Inside the glovebox was the original paperwork for the Wonderbar radio, and the clock. But also there was a valve adjustment repair order for a certain Harry Menges. Mike had no info on the first owner, and never thought the original owner would still be alive. Mike and Joe then did an online search. Only a few miles from Collegeville was a hit on the name. Mike got the man's number and gave a call, and left a message.
An hour later the phone rang. Mike picked it up to find 76 year old Harry on the other line. Mike asked him if he had ever owned a Corvette. Harry seemed confused, then lit up and said, "Yes I did". Mike told him he believed the 1961 Fuelie was his. Harry replied, "Oh no, can't be. The lady that bought my Corvette barrel rolled it a few years later and died". Mike was taken aback, but assured Harry that this was his car. Harry just couldn't come to terms with that, as he was sure the car had been totaled out in a major accident.
Mike told him of the modifications, the holes behind the bumper, the Traction Master's and the modified straight exhaust. Harry was stunned. He knew then it was definitely his car as he had done those modifications himself! The energy given off by Harry went right through the airwaves to Mike. It was just one of those moments when it all just comes together. Harry made plans to come to Shohola and see the car for the first time in almost 55 years.
Back in Black
Twenty-year-old Harry Menges was discharged from the Marines in November, 1959. After a few months he knew that college was not for him and left school for a construction job. After making some money he knew he needed a hot car. His buddy Dennis Gerhart had a sweet 1958 270hp 'Vette, and Harry decided he needed one too.
He first ordered a 270hp like his buddy, but then changed his mind an ordered a 315hp car with 4:11 rear, in black, like the Corvette on the TV show Route 66. It arrived that December, delivered to Messick Chevrolet in Ephrata, PA. It was the dealerships first Fuelie and they asked if they could leave it in the showroom for a week to hopefully attract other buyers. Harry obliged.
After driving it for a while Harry put on a very sticky set of Atlas Bucrons. He soon snapped the weld on the factory strut bar and so he put on a set of Traction Masters to give the back suspension a little more grip and strength. Three weeks later he went to 4.56 gears.
Harry was a young guy with a hot car. Yes he got into some trouble. First run in with the law was in right there in Ephrata. There was a traffic jam in town and Harry didn't want to wait it out. He threw it in reverse and peeled down the road backwards. He was soon pulled over and received his first ticket; for speeding in reverse!
Another time Harry had just got the car tuned. He brought it out on nearby Route 322 to give it a little shakedown through the gears. A State Poilceman was sitting in a driveway with a front seat to Harry's shenanigans. He was pulled over and given a warning.
Harry only had the car two short years. For personal reasons he put the car up for sale. He remembers Marilyn and her husband Russell coming to look at the car. Marilyn wanted to road test the car. Harry wasn't too sure about that idea but finally relented. Marylin headed out and almost put it in a ditch. But a deal was struck and the car was passed on.
And what about the exhaust and holes in the bumper? Harry tells of a trip to California in 1961, seeing all the kids running straight pipes. So when he got back to Pennsylvania he used the original glass-pak styled Fuelie mufflers and had the pipes cut and the straight pipes added. And those holes behind the bumper; "that was shown in an early 1962 article in Corvette News on "How to Prep your Corvette for Racing," says Harry.
When Harry Met
Mike and Joe steadily worked on the car over the next two weeks. With a fresh battery, all the gauges sprung to life. However the motor was lightly stuck. The twosome worked slowly on the Fuelie engine, and over time, got the 283 loose and lubed up. Next, the fuel injection was gone through with slow and steady precision. With a little persistence the motor sprang to life with a throaty gusto. In a week's time the paint buffed to a luster, all the internals were checked, and the 'Vette drove under its own power. The car was ready for its next visitor.
Harry came to the Early Vette Shop three weeks later with family and friends to see the car. It was an amazing reintroduction of man and machine; with the car looking basically the same as the last day he had eyes on it. The only difference was the mag wheels. Once he gave it the once over, he showed Mike and Joe some of the other subtle changes he made to the car, which even Mike had not picked up on.
Harry also brought with him some of the things he saved over the years from his short stint with the Corvette. Its original license plate sat on his desk at work since the day it left his possession. Also he had the original owner folder, complete with patch and owners card. The pin was missing, but Harry knew he had it stashed at home somewhere.
The highlight of the day was letting Harry start the car. It was the first time he had turned the key since 1962. It was the culmination of two old friends getting reacquainted with each other; one looked quite spry and fit in his older age, and the other looking like the day he let her go. He never forgot about her, and carried mementos to remind him of great times a half century ago. Harry left that day finally knowing the truth about his old ride, and now happy and assured it was in good hands.
The car was then detailed out, and the original steel rims placed back on with a set of correct white walls and original hubcaps. After the car was ready, Mike and Joe brought the Corvette out to its first big get-together at the National Corvette Restorers Society shindig in Auburn, Indiana. There the quadruple-black Corvette received Top Flight honors, scoring 100 points in the operations check. It also received a four star Bowtie Award and will be judged at the Nationals in Rhode Island in the survivor car class.
For now, the car will be kept under the watchful eye of Mike and Tommy, and taken out to the big shows whenever possible. And for Harry and Laurel, they get to see an old friend looking her best, and finally out in the world, getting the accolades she deserves.