Gyms are full of people who have figured out that the natural course for one's youthful physique is downward. It's the same with our cars. Vinyl dries out and gets brittle. So far, there are no Botox or collagen injections for that. Suspension parts start clunking, seals begin leaking, and the engine loses its performance. Grecian Formula, Hair Club, and Viagra won't fix any of that. The remedy is regular maintenance and some quality time with your toolbox every once in a while. That'll keep your car in good condition.
But if you want better than good, you'll have to do what Charlie Mornout does. Charlie practices continuous improvement on his Corvette. He's owned a long string of Corvettes, ranging from '67 to '89, but this '73 is a long-term keeper. Charlie bought it in 1988 from the second owner. The car came with a pretty good tale. "According to the second owner," Charlie tells, "the first owner was a GM plant manager in Dayton, Ohio. The story was that the first owner and his friend ordered '73 Corvettes-he ordered a coupe and his friend ordered this convertible. When the cars came in, they traded."
It's no secret that Chevrolet was dealing with some pretty serious quality control issues then, and this roadster was no exception. "The paint was so bad that they repainted the car at the dealer's body shop," Charlie recalls. The color was Mille Miglia Red, and somebody at that body shop must have known what they were doing because that respray has lasted to this day. You might say that was the first of the car's continuous improvements.
As delivered, the Corvette had a geeky 190hp 350. That was OK for a while, but it wasn't long before Charlie, with his continuous improvement plan, began searching for more power. In 1990, he pulled the engine and gave it a thorough rebuild to stock specifications. That was good enough for a few more years, but he was after more. In 1997, he added Tuned Port Injection to the engine topside, and a year later, a 700R4 automatic overdrive transmission. That kept him satisfied for a few more years, but soon Charlie was back looking for more power.
"The car never ran like I wanted it to, so in 2005, I bought a '02 LS1 and 4L60E engine/transmission off eBay for $3700," Charlie says. "It had only 27,000 miles on it, and its 325 hp were still fresh." Working nights and weekends, Charlie hit it. "I did most of the work myself in about four months," he remembers. A lot of the needed parts were already on board because of the earlier TPI installation. When Charlie needed help, he called his buddy Chris Petris. At the end of those four months, the Corvette was transformed from a mild cruiser to a serious powerhouse.
The Vette wasn't built to be a race car, so Charlie doesn't have dragstrip timeslips to quote from, but he does know that the '73 now runs like he likes, and it's cured his itch to shop for a C5. He also sold the original lo-po 350. "It's never going back in," Charlie says since the car was not built as a concours show car. He drives to many shows in the Midwest and always has a blast out on the open road. "I've had my share of trophies and thrown my share of trophies away. I'm just into having fun now," Charlie says with a smile.
One of Charlie's favorite shows was FunFest 2006, where his car was honored by judge and CF Performance Techline columnist Dave Emanuel. Driving the updated '73 is a constant pleasure. The 4L60E automatic overdrive transmission is beautifully matched to the engine's output, and the 3.08:1 Posi-traction differential gives the sleek roadster long legs. "The car is fun to drive, gets a lot of attention wherever it goes, and gets 25 mpg on the highway and 18 in the city," Charlie says. It rolls on 17x8 Torque-Thrust wheels and 255/45 17 Kumho tires. Bilstein shocks dampen the ride.
There are so many different ways to go when rebuilding a Corvette. Some people like the wild, chromed-to-the-max show-stoppers with extraordinary paint jobs and radical mods. Some want a funny car tube chassis with gigantic wrinkle-wall slicks, flip-top body, and enough horsepower to bend time and space. But Charlie isn't into either of those extremes. "I like the power of the new ones, but I like the looks of the old ones," he says. It's a recipe that's affordable, D-I-Y achievable, practical, and so much fun to drive that you just can't wait to get back in and drive it again. Isn't that the essence of Corvette's appeal?
Charlie's '73 is built from updated Corvette parts so it retains its essential Corvette DNA. It's what Corvette engineers would have built in 1973 if they would have had the parts.
While we respect meticulous restorations, we also have a great respect for every stone chip in the lacquer paint, every splattered bug on the windshield, and every happy memory Charlie has racked up over the last 18 years and 116,000 miles. Even for a car dedicated to continuous improvement, building a Corvette you just love to drive is hard to improve upon.