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1959 Chevrolet Corvette - Overhauling a Friend's '59 Vette Part 1

An All-In-The-Family Approach To Vette Rodding

Dick Moritz Jun 1, 2008

Step By Step

Who is this man, and why is he running? He's Rob Sutter, and he's just seen his "new" `59 Vette while making his last putt on the 18th green.

The beginnings of Rob's '59 Vette many years ago.

It started like so many other Corvette stories begin. A young guy graduates, gets his first real job, saves up a little money, and looks to fulfill the nearly universal desire of young guys in the '60s and '70s-to buy a Corvette. And, as is also so common, his hopes were large but his budget small.

So Rob Sutter scoured the classifieds until he found a Corvette within his limited budget. His find? A '59 basket case the previous owner had disassembled, begun restoration on, and then ran out of money and enthusiasm. If you've been in this hobby for very long, you'll recognize this story has played out repeatedly ever since the earliest Corvettes were built.

Fortunately for Rob, an aspiring welding engineer, he had a circle of motorhead friends, who each had certain talents that could put this ambitious project car back on the road again. Joe Drum had acquired body and paint skills that made him the point man for the fiberglass repair and the application of a new black-and-silver "wardrobe" for the car. Another friend, Bruce Jones, just happened to have a spare small-block race motor for his "slingshot" dragster, and this way-too-radical engine found its way into the engine compartment of the '59. Bob Morgan and other friends chipped in mechanical skills, materials, and more than a few beers, and a year later, the car made its maiden voyage(s), with Rob taking his friends for a ride around the block, one at a time. They all sat on the passenger's side floor since he hadn't quite located a passenger's seat.

And so Karen Ann, as the '59 came to be known (for reasons that will not be revealed in this family-oriented magazine), was reborn.

Each of the others in Rob's original circle of friends came to own Corvettes and musclecars of their own. Bruce bought a '65 big-block roadster that he still owns (originally a 396, now fitted with a 427); Joe bought a '68 427/435 roadster; and a few years ago, Bob, a top wrench at a FoMoCo dealership, bought an '87 coupe. Yet another friend bought a '73 roadster, and still another bought a '58 original dual-quad car. For several years, the group logged miles, burned Sunoco 260, and shared talents, beers, and camaraderie in keeping the fleet running.

Rob married his sweetheart Bonnie and began building his career in engineering. At the same time, they bought a very nice and very drivable, full-optioned '72 coupe. The simple fact was, the dragster race engine in Karen Ann was just too radical to drive on the street, and no amount of detuning could change that. And so the Corvette got tucked under a car cover and was rarely driven.

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Rob is astonished to see a new GM crate engine where his radical former ex-dragster engine used to live.

Fast forward 25 years. Rob and Bonnie dedicated themselves to raising two daughters and dealing with the day-to-day matters of life, while Karen Ann slept quietly. In the meantime, Rob found the time to help his good friend Bob Yeoman build a magnificent resto-mod '55 Chevy two-door hardtop. Rob, a welding and metallurgical engineer, built a rotisserie and welded in new floors, rockers, a trunk floor, and a variety of patch panels, spending hundreds of hours in the process. The result was a breathtaking street/show '55.

When Rob and Bob became business partners and started their own consulting company, the '55 was sold to generate start-up capital, and Karen Ann found a new home in the warehouse at the back of the new company's building. As the business began to blossom, Bob realized he had never properly thanked Rob for all the work he had done on his resto-mod '55. And he also knew that Rob was so committed to his family responsibilities that he never took much time for himself.

So, in the spirit of a popular television series, Bob decided to surprise Rob by having a new and totally drivable GM crate engine installed in place of Karen Ann's inherited dragster engine. It just so happened that Gary Gardner, who owns Gardner's Automotive in the Easton, Pennsylvania, area, had done a great deal of work on C1 Corvettes over the years, and he quickly accepted the assignment to do an engine transplant. A flatbed transported Karen Ann to Gardner's, right out from under Rob's nose, and the secret project began to take shape.

As anyone who has ever undertaken an engine swap or other major automotive project knows all so well, a job is never as simple as expected. It always escalates, and this project was no exception. Naturally, the new crate engine wanted a decent intake manifold and carburetor in place of the vintage WCFB and cast-iron manifold, plus a starter, plus a water pump, and then the nearly 50-year-old radiator was questionable, and . . . well, you get the idea. What started out as a simple crate engine transplant became much more.

Actually, the quicksand quickly deepened. As Bob was discussing his surprise with Bonnie, she asked, innocently enough, "Gee, are those old brakes going to be safe with all that added horsepower?" Bob told her he thought the brakes would be marginal. recognizing that Bob had already invested far more into this project than he originally intended, Bonnie offered to dig into her piggy bank to ensure the car was safe.

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Editor Colvin presented Rob with a Corvette Fever shirt as a memento of the party and restoration.

With that fateful gesture, the die was cast. Your author was already serving as a "consultant" on this job (consultant meaning giving lots of advice and not getting paid for it) and decided to ask Corvette Fever editor Alan Colvin if, perhaps, a few selected CF advertisers/supporters would like to get involved with this project. Quick agreement and support from these fine suppliers led to discounted parts and technical support for the project.

>>Full IFS setup from Jim Meyer Racing >>Rack-and-pinion steering setup and tilt column from Flaming River >>Four-wheel disc brake setup from Stainless Steel Brakes >>Front coilovers and adjustable rear shocks from Carrera/QA1 >>Full interior/upholstery kit from Corvette Central >>Gauge restoration by Corvette Specialties of Maryland and a host of other improvements, upgrades, and replacements. What started out as a quick engine swap ended up being a six-month-plus restomodding effort, far more ambitious than Bob ever planned and more extensive than Bonnie's piggy bank ever expected. But what a car! And while the idea was to recruit Rob's long-time motorhead friends to do most of the mechanical work in the interest of economy and camaraderie, it didn't work out that way due to logistics and work responsibilities. So the assignment list for Gardner's Automotive quickly grew.

With the work finally completed, all that was left was to find a proper time and place to surprise Rob with his newly rejuvenated and eminently drivable '59. Since Bob and Rob play a fair amount of golf (for business purposes only, of course), it was agreed that a party would be scheduled for a Sunday afternoon in June, with the car parked within view of the 18th green. The guest list included the group that had originally rescued the '59 and had remained friends throughout the 30-plus years Rob owned the car, plus shop owner Gary Gardner, his sons and grandson, who did most of the recent work on the car, plus other family members and friends.

And so June 3 it was. Luckily, the rain showers held off until after Rob spied his prized Karen Ann just beyond the 18th green. the scene was reminiscent of the one we've all seen of a beautiful blonde running across a meadow in a flowing white dress, and Rob's grin was wider than the entire 18th fairway. It was a montage of tears and hugs as Bob and Bonnie pointed out all the new features and upgrades. despite the showers that moved in, test rides were in order for all the key players, and Rob and Bonnie's two daughters as well.

The buffet dinner that followed allowed plenty of time for reminiscing, as well as a detailed discussion of the upgrades to Karen Ann. Corvette Fever Editor Alan Colvin made a special trip to Pennsylvania for the day to participate in the festivities and acknowledge the support provided by many of CF's leading advertisers.

In the weeks that have followed, Karen Ann has traveled nearly a thousand miles already, with just a few minor tweaks needed to keep her running smoothly and safely.

In the next few months, we will run a series of articles that will detail many of the upgrades that resulted in this gorgeous, safe, and reliable restomod C1.

And, for all you purists out there, all the modifications were done with an eye toward reversal just in case some future restorer wants to return Karen Ann to her original '59 configuration. But, frankly, since she's such a pleasure to drive just the way she is, we can't imagine why anyone would want to.

9 SOURCESSpecial thanks to the following CF advertisers that helped with product and technical support.

Corvette CentralSawyer, MI800/345-4122www.corvettecentral.comCarpets, seat covers, door panels, hardware

Corvette Specialties of MarylandEldersburg, MD410/795-3180www.corvettespecialtiesofmd.comGauge restoration

Flaming River ProductsBerea, OH410/795-3180www.flamingriver.comR&P steering system, steering column, supports and harnessGardner's AutomotiveEaston, PA610/258-2418 Installation and fabrication services

Jim Meyer RacingLincoln City, OR800/824-1752www.jimmeyerracing.comComplete IFS system, plus brake master cylinder and lines

M&H Electric FabricatorsSanta Fe Springs, CA562/926-9552www.wiringharness.comFull wiring harness set - main, engine, headlight, generator, and rear harnesses

Stainless Steel Brakes CorporationClarence, NY 800/448-7722www.stainlesssteelbrakes.comFour-wheel disc-brake conversion kit

QA1Lakeville, MN 800/721-7761www.QA1.netFront coilovers and custom rear shocks9999



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