One thing you have to remember about the Corvette: It almost didn't survive its initial ('53-'55) years. In fact, an interdivisional memo written by Zora Arkus-Duntov in October 1954 helped convince Chevy's upper management to keep Corvette going beyond 1955. In that memo, he chided Chevy for considering dropping Corvette while arch-rival Ford's two-seat Thunderbird was still in production. "If Ford makes success where we failed, it may hurt . . . We will leave an opening in which they can hit at will. 'Ford out-engineered, outsold, or ran Chevrolet's pride and joy off the market.' Maybe the idea is far-fetched. I can only gauge in terms of my own reactions or actions. In the bare-fisted fight we're in now, I would hit at any opening I could find and the situation where Ford enters and where Chevrolet retreats, it is not an opening, it is a hole!"
Zora continued, "Now if they can hurt us, then we can hurt them! We are one year ahead, and we possibly learned some lessons which Ford has yet to learn." He called for " . . . a subdivision, section, department, or what not, but an organization no matter how small but which is directly responsible for the successes of operation is necessary. An organization which will eat and sleep Corvette as our divisions are eating and sleeping their particular cars. I am convinced that a group with concentrated objective will not only stand a chance to achieve the desired result, but devise ways and means to make the operation profitable in a direct business sense."
But, what if The General gave Chevrolet the same kind of research, development, design, engineering, and tooling funds that they gave the Bowtie division to make the V-8 engine a production piece and radically redesign the steel-bodied Chevy that it would go into? (The General put $300 million-in 1955 dollars-into the V-8 and '55 Chevy redesign programs.)
That's the way John Loeper approached the conversion of his '54 Corvette into the Vette Rod seen here. "What I wanted to do, when I built the car, is what Harley Earl and Zora Arkus-Duntov would have done if they'd unleashed the checkbook in 1954," he says, also referring to the legendary GM Styling boss who'd been behind the Corvette's creation as a "dream car" for the '53 GM Motorama. "In 1955, the V-8 was available, but they had it in 1954. Disc brakes were available, because Harley Earl had seen them on European cars. Independent suspension was available . . . All that stuff was out there then. So, I decided to build it to where they might have built it if they unleashed the checkbook."
John had the ideal car to start with: A well-used original '54, which he'd bought for $800 back in 1959, and had put several hundred thousand miles on. As he puts it, "The valves were hanging out, the original brakes were a problem, and cosmetically the car looked pretty shabby." It was on its second six-cylinder engine, the original lasting until about 1976, when he swapped in a later 235-inch six-banger.
A chance meeting with Carlisle Events' Lance Miller at a party in Ocean City, New Jersey (where John owns and operates the Northwood Inn) got him interested in the Corvette hobby in a much bigger way than he'd known it. "We got to talking about Corvettes, and he said, 'Have you ever been to Carlisle?' I'd never known about it," recalls John. "He said, 'Come to Carlisle.' So, I went there that first year, and I looked at all the restored cars, and I got prices for all the stuff that I'd need to restore mine. I started looking at the cost of restoration versus the cost of just a rebuild the way that I wanted to do it." John says when he did the math, the dollar value said "rebuild it." Besides, he figured, there were enough beautifully restored '54 Vettes already.