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1961 Chevy Corvette - Vette Rod, Then and Always

Once-Injected '61 Corvette Will Rise From The Ashes With Twin-Turbo Power

Scott Ross Jun 28, 2010
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How does that old saying go? "Old Vette Rods never die . . . they get rebuilt into something faster, quicker, and cooler." That may have been made up as this story was written, but it definitely applies in the case of Tommy Vinciguerra's '61 Corvette-based Vette Rod.

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Tommy bought this car back in 1977. Like many Vette Rods-to-be, it was in a far-from-drivable condition, but perfect to start working on. "I brought it home with a complete drivetrain, but I really couldn't afford it at the time," he recalls. "A friend wanted to buy the engine, tranny, and rear out of it, so I sold that to him. We'd bought the car together, so I wound up with the body and frame, and he wound up with the engine, transmission, and rearend." But Tommy did have a powertrain available. "I had a '55 Chevy at the time, and I sold that without the engine, transmission, and rearend, and I used those parts in my Corvette. It took just under a year to get it running."

Running, yes-but painted, no. "I drove it around a while in bare fiberglass," Tommy says about the '61's pre-paint colors. "We stripped it down in the front of my friend's shop, and we drove it around in bare fiberglass for four and a half years before I got it painted." A coat of black lacquer went on sometime in the '80s, followed in 1988 by the multi-colored lacquer graphics you see here.

Under the 'glass and lacquer, Tommy was keeping busy, too. He's a chassis builder by trade and the proprietor of SuperPro Performance Chassis in West Islip, New York, where a lot of this car's hand-fabricated pieces were manufactured, like its rollbar, fuel cell, underhood pulleys, and other one-off parts. He prepared the OEM '61 Vette frame for a later and stronger powertrain that included a Dana 60 rear axle. "I moved the rear framerails inboard 6 inches a side," he says of the foundation work he did out back. "That's because back in 1983 when it was done, there weren't very many aftermarket components for the 9-inch rear axle, and the Dana was the choice rearend at that time." He also installed ladder bars and Koni coilover shocks.

He kept the front suspension basically stock, and eventually a Jim Meyer front end went on in place of the well-worn OEM pieces, joined by a rack-and-pinion steering setup. Despite the changes, Tommy kept the engine mounted in the stock location rather than moving it rearward. "Those (C1) Corvettes are great with the engine set-back they have," he says. "It hooked up real well, and it did a nice wheelstand about 6 inches to a foot off the ground each time it left the line."

The engine seen here is a far cry from that small-block that Tommy swapped in from his old '55 years ago. Gary Sharky built the 355-cubic-incher at The Engine Shop in West Babylon, New York. Inside the bored 0.030-inch-over block went 12.5:1 TRW pistons, a stock steel crankshaft, and a Lunati roller camshaft. On it went ported cast-iron Chevy heads with Manley valves, Comp Cams double valvesprings and Crane lifters, plus an MSD crank-trigger ignition. Tommy crafted the electronic fuel injection system in his own shop out of an Edelbrock intake manifold, Enderle fuel injectors, and an Enderle "bug catcher" scoop. He turned to A.J. Berge of Massapequa, New York, to sort out the electronics and tune the engine. Without him, Tommy says, that EFI system running a "bug catcher" scoop would not run well.

Behind the small-block was a Muncie four-speed at first, later swapped for boxes with more gears in them. "I first got rid of the four-speed and put a five-speed in from Gforce," says Tommy. "Then, I took it out and put one of their six-speeds in. That made it a dual-purpose car-I could get on the highway at 2,400 rpm doing 77 miles an hour, with 4.10 gears in the back, too. It was faster in the first four gears with the T-56 than it was before with a Muncie and 5.38 gears in the back!"

The best quarter-mile run that Tommy made with his '61 in the configuration seen here was 10.63 seconds at 129 miles an hour. He had some good times with it on a nearby oval speedway, too. "In September of last year, we took it to the Goodguys show at Pocono Raceway, and actually took it around the track," he recalls. "I was doing 105 (miles an hour) in Turn One, and they couldn't believe it."

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Later that show weekend, one of the Goodguys show officials came up to him and asked Tommy if the car handled well at speed. "I said, 'Yeah-it handles pretty well,'" he says. "The guy then said, 'I was driving the pace car, and I was doing 85, and I noticed that you wanted to go much quicker than that.' I said, 'Actually, I laid back the second and third time around the track.'" The crew in the tower also had their eyes on Tommy and his Vette, seeing him taking the high line around the track and passing just about everybody!

Unfortunately, the car you see here no longer exists, at least in this form. "On December 21 of 2009, I had a fire in my garage and I lost the car," Tommy says, adding that the frame is still intact and that he has another '61 Corvette body.

What happened? "I was draining gas out of the gas tank, like I do every year when I want to make improvements to it," he says of the first step he was taking in a planned revision to the rearend to fit lower-profile wheels and tires. "I had it up in the air on jackstands, and some gas hit the floor. Some vapors ignited in mid-air and hit the liquid and ran to me within a couple of seconds." Fortunately, Tommy was able to get the fire out, but not before the car had sustained heavy damage, especially on the body's right side. "The resin on the body would not stop burning," he says.

Some might despair of their loss, but Tommy didn't-for very long, anyway. "The frame is fine, and it's back on the jig," he says, optimistically. "Fortunately for me, I had another body." Turns out that Tommy bought a second '61 Corvette body and frame back in the late '80s, then sold the frame while turning down potential buyers' big-bucks bids for the body. Says Tommy: "I said to them, 'I'm going to hold onto it, because I'm going to build something else.' And now I'm glad that I held onto it!"

In the works for Tommy's '61 is another small-block. "We're going to build it bigger and stronger, but we're not going to need racing fuel anymore," he says of the twin-turbocharged engine that Andy Jensen is building as of this writing. "I've got the turbochargers, and I'm building the headers as we speak, right now on the jig," says Tommy, who adds that he just scored a set of Brodix 11X heads for it. How strong will it be? Says Tommy: "It's going to make 1,100 horsepower on pump gas!"

It'll look different on the outside, too, but will still have '61 Vette styling cues. "There's going to be a completely different paint scheme on it," Tommy says. "I'm looking for an aqua or a teal color that was originally on the '56-'57 Corvettes (Cascade Green? -Ed). We're going to keep it modern at the same time, nothing gaudy, and we'll lower the car, too. Adding to those new looks will be a set of Evod Industries wheels that are also under construction-18x7 inches in front and 20x12 inches in back.

Tommy's got plenty of advice for Vette Rodders (current and potential): "Don't give up on it, because you can't find 'em like you used to be able to. Don't sell it if you can't afford it at the moment. Just park it, and leave it alone for a while, and get back to it when you can. Because times are tough and the economy's tough, don't give it up. It's better than money in the bank. If I didn't keep this one, I'd have to be looking for another one!"



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