You might expect to travel some distance to find a mid-'70s Corvette more original than the '75 Bahama Blue convertible belonging to Joe and Diane Ziomek. With 22,000 miles on the odometer, the car still has it's factory soft top, paint, silver leather interior, 350 four-barrel, and pretty much everything else it had when it left the St. Louis assembly plant-right down to the 30-year-old clutch.
But the well-preserved Vette isn't the most original in the Ziomek's South Florida neighborhood, or on their block, or even in the driveway. They also have a yellow '76 coupe with just 14,000 miles showing on the clock. It's so original it's almost scary. The battery and oil filter have been replaced-that's it. "If you were going to get the car judged in National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) survivor class, you'd probably want to go back and get a restored battery and an old oil filter-which they still make-to make it original," Joe says. "I didn't bother with that."
Even the Firestone 500 tires have been on the car since day one, despite a 1976 recall. "Know what they did with them when they got 'em back?" asks Joe. "They put them on hay wagons and farmer wagons." He ignored the recall notice and has heard of collectors paying $300-400 apiece for examples that didn't spend the rest of their days down on the farm.
Joe showed us a copy of the '76 recall notice. Curator of his own Corvette museum, Joe has volumes of paperwork for both cars, including owners' and parts manuals, promotional pieces, catalogs, window stickers, and virtually every other piece of documentation, including original build sheets.
Matching numbers? Match as many as you like.
The blue convertible is Joe's and the yellow coupe belongs to Diane-yellow is her favorite color. Its paint, along with the rest of it, has been used as a benchmark for training NCRS judges, who contacted the Ziomeks when they heard about the car.
"You teach judging by having an example car," explains Joe. "The master judge took all the other judges-four or five of them-around the car, pointing out what they should look for in an original car versus a restored car.
"When you start judging some of these NCRS restorations, they're just perfect. And the original car was never that way. We talked about the paint which has bubbles and runs; under the hood is a number 4 by the area where the brake booster is-nobody knows why, but it's there; the mask lines for the paint under the hood versus the paint of the finished body-the yellow versus the black underhood. All this was not perfect because the car was a production car."
Joe chuckles when he relates how a judge removed the broadcast sheet from the car. The broadcast sheet travels with the car through the assembly process, detailing exactly what goes into the car, step-by-step. "At the end of the line, they stick it on top of the gas tank," Joe says. "An original car, some of them have it and some of them don't because some have fallen off. When you buy a Corvette, you want to peek and see if it's still in there.
"So they're judging the car-the NCRS judges are bright guys, a little persnickety-and he's under the car, and he's looking up there, and he says, 'Now, if this is really an original car, it should have a broadcast sheet,' and I say, 'Well you have a problem, sir.' He asked what, and I said, 'It is an original car. If you take it out, it's not original anymore.' He looked at me like I was a smartass-and he was right, I was being a little smartass-but I say, 'I'll make you a deal. Let me photograph you removing the broadcast sheet. You're an NCRS judge, so if anybody asks why it isn't there, it's because you took it out.' So he said okay."
"I took it out, because it really should be preserved," Joe adds. "It'd been under there for 20 years."
Joe and Diane didn't start out intending to own two well-preserved cars. "I was looking for a '75 convertible, and I looked for over a year. I couldn't find one. Finally, in the local paper in Detroit-the suburban paper-there was an ad for a '76 Corvette hardtop, a GM executive car. And of course, I knew those guys made money on their cars." He explains that in the seventies, there were often waiting lists for new Corvettes, and it was not unusual for GM employees to purchase cars with an employee discount, keep them for a mandated six-month minimum, and then resell at a profit.
"So I called the number, and the car was 6 months old and had 1,100 miles on it. It was never driven in the rain, absolutely never wet, absolutely perfect. We made a deal on the price and I drove the car home. I've owned it ever since-since the fall of '76."
Then, of course, Joe found the convertible of his dreams in North Carolina. "I contacted a Corvette club member down there and I asked him to please take a look at the car and see what he thought." The fellow enthusiast checked it out and said the car was fine, no problems. It showed 14,000 miles and was original except for a set of side pipes from a '69, which were not available in '75. "We negotiated a price and I bought the car sight unseen."
They had it shipped home. "The car was perfect and even had the factory hardtop, as well as the extra parts he took off, including the original exhaust system-which is a treasure. You don't often run into nice cars, usually after you've bought something else, and I just had to buy it."
It's impossible to know how many Corvettes of the same vintage remain as original as the Ziomek's, and with such low mileage, but a handful is a good guess. Two in the same garage makes for a really small handful. Open the door of either and you peer into a time capsule: not an immaculate, sterile showpiece, but a real car, showing the patina of age and being driven. Joe and Dianne drive the cars, although admittedly not much. "We go to the shows and we go get ice cream."
For better or worse, the level of workmanship, fit, and finish that were the standard in the mid-'70s is preserved as well. Quality control issues for virtually all new cars were common back then, and the Corvette was no exception. An engineer by trade, Joe takes us around the coupe with an engineer's objectivity, pointing out examples of sloppy panel fit, and flaws in the paint-bubbles, runs, and overspray. He explains that many Vettes at the time were either touched up or repainted completely before leaving the factory.
"Most of the cars were painted at least twice to get them right, but lacquer was easy to do: just respray and rub. They would paint the car and if it wasn't right, they'd put it back through the paint booth."
The engineer sums it up: "It's a brand new, old car," he says. "That's not a negative: It's just a brand new old car. When they were designed, they were wonderful automobiles. The level of technology that we had was good, but not up to today's standards. When you drive the car, you get the noises, the tire noise. The handling, in its day, was absolutely remarkable, but that was a long time ago. They're milestone cars. Now you buy 500 hp at a dealership and you don't even think about it. These were what-165? Interesting. And the best is yet to come."
Indeed it is. We part company and the Ziomeks are off in the convertible to a local cruise-in tonight. It's shaping up to be a beautiful Florida evening. Maybe they'll even get some ice cream.