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.
After that trip to Carlisle, John came home, sat down, and did some more thinking and planning. He decided the approach that he saw in a lot of hot-rodding-oriented magazines was not the way for him to go. Instead, he went in a different direction and looked to the Corvette "godfathers" for inspiration. "I got away from the hot-rod magazines look," he says. "I went more to circle track and NASCAR with some of the thought processes." He adds, "Every time I came to a turning point where I had to do something or think about it, I'd think 'What would Harley Earl and Zora Arkus-Duntov have done at this point?' And that's where it is today."
Where he arrived came after one more trip to Carlisle, where he met with Paul Newman of Newman's Car Creations. "He was very helpful," John says. "He and I could not get together on a timeframe where I could send him a frame, have him do it, and send it back to me. But he was very honest with me. He said, 'This isn't rocket science. You can figure this out if you've worked with anything.'"
John adjourned to his garage, where he spent the next three years building his C1 his way. "I got the '90s Corvette suspension, held it up underneath the frame, cut and fabricated the brackets, tack-welded them on, then the welding shop would come around late in the afternoon every day and do finish welds on everything that I'd tacked," John says of the three-month process where he added C4 chassis hardware to his C1 frame. He says that cutting out steel parts like brackets was the hardest part of this project. "I thought it would never end because I didn't have a lot of steel-fabrication in my background," he says.
Compared to that, the rest of the project went easier. That includes the bodywork, done when he rolled his '54 out of his garage to a friend's shop. That's where the fender flares went on. Why? Says John, "I didn't want the flush-wheel effect of the new Corvette. I wanted the wheels to have back-sets, like the original cars. So, it has a little wider stance, and that's why the fender flares are there."
Also going in: a GM Performance Parts ZZ430 crate engine, with some notable upgrades. "The front pulley assembly is from KRC in Georgia, and they do that kind of equipment for stock cars/circle-track race cars. The bellhousing is by McLeod and the clutch is a hydraulic Centerforce clutch." John adds that Tilton Engineering designed not only the clutch, but the brake system, which John says is so well done that it needs no power brake booster. All the hoses and AN-fittings in the powertrain and chassis came from ARP, which John points out also make hoses and components for not only NASCAR and Indy Car teams, but also NASA.
The result of John's work (and his inspiration by Zora and "Misterl") is the roadster you see here. "It has the full stance of a '90 Corvette-it's not a 'shortened-in' version," he says. "It has a shorter wheelbase than those cars, so it corners better." How is it as a driver? "The car drives and handles extremely well," John says. "It's very fast off the line, and it corners extremely well." How fast? "I did the Toys for Tots Run at Kerbeck at 150 miles an hour," John says. "It's a top-down car. It's easy to say that you did 200 in a Z06, where you're in a coupe. Doing 150 in a car with the top down, it's different!"
John adds that the original Corvette body design is an early example of stealth technology. "If you break down all the curves on that car, all the angles come out to 33 degrees," John says. "What's 33 degrees? Stealth technology-that car does not print radar! I've had friends on the police force with radar, and they tell me that it doesn't print radar very well."
John's '54 draws crowds whenever he shows it. "I take this thing to Corvette events, and people are all over it. You can have 500 Corvettes in a show, where people walk by a lot of cars, and people are all over my car."
Does John have any advice for those looking to make an early-generation Vette into something more along the lines of what Messrs. Earl and Arkus-Duntov had in mind? "It's something that can be done. It's not that difficult to do, and when you're done, you have pride of ownership."
Data File ::: '54 Chevrolet Corvette roadster Owned by John Loeper, Ocean City, New Jersey