By now, you're familiar with the terms Vette-Rod, Pro Touring, Pro Street, and Resto Mod. Here's the car that defines another term: Pro Classic. It's Rich and Barbara Lagasse's '63 Corvette Z06 Coupe, the same car whose construction was featured in the Corvette Fever series "Split Personality."
How do you put the term Pro Classic into words? Let Rich spell it out. "We're trying to take advantage of how far the Corvette has come, from a technological standpoint," he says. "We're trying to upgrade the handling, comfort, ride, and performance with modern technology, while using primarily Corvette components that are currently available, to improve all those areas. When it comes to the exterior and interior styling, we make only subtle changes, within the context of the original styling, which are designed to improve their appearance, performance, and function."
The Lagasse's trip through the Corvette hobby began in 1989 with an all-original '66 big-block coupe that was restored only in those areas absolutely necessary, such as rebuilding the engine, which was in sad shape. After participating in NCRS Chapter and Regional events and receiving Top Flight awards, they found themselves with the dilemma of not feeling comfortable driving an original car as much as they had planned. Their feeling was that "a car is only original once in its life, and we felt a responsibility to preserve the car as it was." As a consequence, it became more "garage furniture" and not driven often.
The Lagasses then began purchasing and restoring other Corvettes which they felt more comfortable using the way they had planned. But then the itch to design a Corvette reflecting their ideas took hold. "While we really enjoyed those cars and the events we participated in, we began to look for a different way to enjoy the Corvette hobby," Rich says. "There are many different avenues to come at it. We decided that our focus would be to find a way to retain the integrity of that original styling, but develop a car that would make use of the current technology available and incorporate our own design ideas." As a result, they built their first Pro Classic in 1998, which was a '67 convertible. Having enjoyed that project so much, a '62 followed in 2001, following the same approach.
When planning began for their next project, the Lagasses decided to build a Vette to compete for the "big trophy" at one of North America's longest running rod and customs shows: the Ridler Award at the Detroit Autorama. That highly-sought-after prize, named for legendary Detroit show promoter Don Ridler, recognizes the finest of the new, never-before-seen-anywhere show vehicles. "We fully knew what we would be up against but believed that a Corvette hadn't competed in the Ridler in over 30 years. We wanted to have the experience once in our lives and represent the Corvette hobby as best we could," Rich says.
The C2 they started with was far from pristine-in fact, it was far from a complete car. "If you look back at the very first article, Installment 1, you'll see a picture of what we started with. It was virtually nothing but a bare shell," he says. "It had a modified rolling chassis, which we sold to a fellow who had a car with a rotten frame, but everything else was missing. As far as what we ended up with, (there was a picture of the body [in Installment 1] after it was media-blasted and the nose was removed). It looked like a horror story and definitely not what we usually advise people to use for a project like this. Our advice to anyone who asks is to start with as complete a non-numbers-matching car as you can find. Sometimes we should listen more closely to our own advice!"
The build, as shown in the "Split Personality" series, was painstaking, but a mutant monster was not to be its final outcome. Instead, the red coupe met the extremely exacting standards of the Ridler class. "First of all, you have to be accepted in order to get in it," Rich says. "Then, when you arrive, they go through an entire evaluation of the car to make sure that it's as you presented it in your application." It also has to comply with a long-standing Ridler class rule: Contestant vehicles must be newly constructed, never shown or seen in public before in their finished state. "They also do a full operational check, because they want to make sure that it isn't just a 'shell' but actually a driveable car. When you get there, you have to start it up, it has to move on its own forward and backward, and it has to turn and stop, before they'll accept you into the Ridler class. We crossed that hurdle, and there were a total of 23 or 24 cars that were accepted into the class."
From that number, eight were selected as "Great 8" Ridler finalists. Though the Z06 didn't make it into the "Great 8," it was fortunate enough to receive several honors at 2008's 56th Detroit Autorama, scoring First Place in its class (Sports Car), as well as awards for Outstanding Paint, Outstanding Sports Car, and winning the prestigious CASI Cup, named for show producer Championship Auto Shows Inc. "We were told that's considered the Best in Show, outside the Ridler Award," Rich says.
They also came away with more than the trophy hardware-appreciation from fellow car-people, as they'd received with their previous Vette projects. "What we will remember most were the people we met and the comments they made. What we value the most is that people will look at what we've done and can appreciate, at least to an extent, what we went through to design and build it, and make it come out the way it did. That's really our greatest satisfaction-when somebody says, 'Wow! Look at that!' or maybe just seeing the expression on their faces."
While pro shops build many of the cars competing in the Ridler, Rich says the bulk of the labor that went into his Pro Classic Z06 came from him, his family, and friends. "The satisfaction that we get out of this type of project is that it's our concept ideas, our build, and our hands-on work, both design and construction, through every phase," he says. "A project of this extent involves many skilled and dedicated people, such as the folks at the Corvette Center who did the body and paintwork, the chroming by Allied Metal Finishing, the chassis from SRIII Motorsports, upholstery work by Interior Motives, as well as the custom machine work and many other components." Rich adds, "When you put 12,000 hours of your own time into something over four years, and you divide that time into days, you see that it was virtually an everyday, full-time project for those four years."
Over those four years, Rich showed how each area of his Pro Classic Z06 came together in the "Split Personality" series. He says it was a way to answer questions that Corvette lovers have asked and give folks some ideas and suggestions that may save them time on their own projects. "The main reason we did the project series was that we receive a dozen emails a week from people with questions such as 'what did you use' and 'how did you do this kind of thing.' We thought we could reach a broader audience by writing the articles. Putting the articles together was more work than you'd think, but we really enjoyed doing them."
When building a car for a major show like the Detroit Autorama, the pace quickens as the clock ticks down to show time. "The last three days were literally around-the-clock," Rich says. "It was finished enough to load at 6 o'clock on the morning of the day that we left for Detroit. We went to bed for three hours, then left-in a snowstorm-at 9 a.m." Though finish detailing hadn't been done, they got help with that once they arrived. "Fortunately, four friends of ours-Jim and Janet Dawes, Matt Devlin, and Dave Laney-flew out to give us a hand, and our two sons, Chris and Mike, were also there to help." [NOTE: A picture of the "Split Personality Team" is in the Dec. '08 issue, page 36. That article also credits family and friends for their help in the project.]
"Without their help at the show, as well as the many friends who helped us towards the end of this project, we never would've been ready for the Detroit show," Rich says. "During the last few months of the project, we had friends of ours coming in and out of our garage, seven days a week, giving a hand when we needed at least two pairs of hands in order to put some things together-including my wife, who was here at all hours. One night I was under the dash, working on wiring and upholstery at 2:30 in the morning, and Barb was there handing me tools and feeding me grapes and cheese to keep me going."
Rich says that over the years that they've been building Corvettes, they've met many fellow Vette enthusiasts at the shows they've participated in, as well as businesses involved in other Corvette projects. "The times that people say, 'We have pictures of your car posted in our garage as inspiration'-that's the kind of comment that gets to you," Rich says. "It says that you've done something that's reached someone to the point where they use that to inspire what they want to do. That's the aspect of these projects that both Barb and I value the most. Building something that gives us the ability to express our own ideas and bring them to life has renewed our enthusiasm for the hobby. That's what's different about doing this kind of project versus the restorations we've done in the past, where you have guidebooks and factory manuals to go by. These projects really leave it open for you to design the kinds of things that you want. Hopefully, when it's all said and done, it comes out as you've pictured it in your mind."
If the reaction to one of their earlier Vettes is any indication, the Pro Classic Z06 will get plenty of attention from the most devoted people in the world of Corvettes. "On one of our previous cars that we brought to Carlisle in 2001, the '62, Dave Hill brought his entire engineering team over to look at it," Rich says. "As a matter of fact, I came back to the car once and saw this guy under the car, with his rear end sticking up in the air. I told him, 'I have pictures that will save you the grass stains on your knees.' He responded by saying, 'I have to see this for myself,' and it turned out that the fellow was Dave Hill! And, one of the Corvette engineers told us, 'I don't want to swell your head, but our last night's dinner conversation was primarily about your car.' When Corvette engineers can appreciate something that an individual has done, that's high praise, certainly. But that was our other car!"
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