Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, what do you do with a garage full of horsepower that is accelerating in value? All the cars are rebuilt to factory specs ("hook up the battery, turn the key, and it'll run"), and all are very capable of being driven. The collection still gets most of its exercise indoors; once a quarter-or about four times a year-every car goes into the shop area that is attached to the showroom, gets strapped down to the dyno rollers, and turns a few miles without moving out into the sunshine (or the rain, or truck traffic, etc.). Everything is well-lubricated, and any mechanical needs are addressed. This work is done by operations manager, Dave Cron, and his assistant, Troy Cummins.
"These cars are more than just museum pieces. I want them to be fully functional," says Cliff. "While the collection may not be getting much bigger at this time, vehicle quality is becoming more important in today's market. The goal I currently have for my cars is to improve the quality. Some of that improvement would be considered major, like the full frame-off restoration that was recently done on my gold Camaro. I was so pleased with the way that car turned out that we are going to focus more on upgrading other cars in the collection."
That Olympic Gold car, which was the prototype and dealer demonstrator used in the July 1969 Super Stock magazine road test with Ed Hedrick driving, is one of only 10 built in that color. Chuck Huber and Paul Cupp of CPRx Restorations in Monaca, Pennsylvania, performed a flawless restoration on the car.
"The cars that are really done well look great," Cliff continues, "and they ought to be around for decades, perhaps centuries to come. I just don't believe in the term 'over-restored'; I really don't think you can make a restored car 'too nice.' That being said, a museum level of restoration does make the car impractical to drive, which is an unfortunate side of it. I have some cars that I will improve to the highest levels, and others that will be kept as drivers, completely redone but not to the level of my gold car. Since I have multiple cars, I have the benefit of both worlds-drivers and show cars.
"Being basically satisfied with the collection, my focus sometimes changes, but not a lot. For example, I would still like to have a '55 Chevy if one turns up in the right condition and at the right price. I currently have a '56 and '57, so the '55 would be a good addition. I would also like to find a nice '67 Chevelle Super Sport convertible one of these days. It doesn't need to be numbers-matching, because I would make it into a fun driver with a 427/435-horse Corvette engine in it. I've seen a couple of these at car shows, and I think it would have been a great combination if Chevrolet could have offered it."
Though the prices of the cars may have made them out of reach for many buyers, Cliff ends with some sage advice for those who want to follow his footsteps toward the top of the musclecar pyramid.
"Buy what you like and keep it; that's what I did. I didn't begin with some grand plan; I just thought the '69 Camaro was one of the best-looking musclecars ever built. I like them all-the Z28s, the COPOs, the convertibles, and I was very fortunate to get into Yenko collecting when it was still somewhat affordable. I know it would be very difficult to start from scratch now. I've always been a car guy, and I am glad that I am able to own the cars in this collection."
A Tribute to "Mr. Chevrolet"
The name Dick Harrell is synonymous with Chevrolet drag racing history. Harrell spearheaded numerous projects back in the day, including the first of Don Yenko's Camaro conversions in 1967, development on the ZL1 factory experimental engine for drag racing, dealer Fred Gibb's decision to offer the ZL1 for sale in a production car, the 427 Nova package cars, and more. He was fatally injured while funny car racing in 1971.
In 2005, almost 35 years later, his daughter Valerie, together with her friend Dale Pulde, her mother Elaine, and supercar locator Tim Lopata, invited everyone associated with the original racing team to be part of the Third Annual Forge Musclecar Show, which Lopata organizes and promotes. With the event being hosted at the Opryland Convention Center in Nashville, Cliff Ernst graciously opened up his showroom on Saturday evening for a special tribute party attended by collectors and team members from across America. Despite a legal battle between the surviving Harrell family and a group of collectors, the group came together for a night of enjoyment, highlighted by some old racing footage Tim Lopata had found and personalized awards presented by the family.
At this event, the announcement was made that when the Fourth Annual Forge Show is held (it will be in Chattanooga October 19-20), there will be a new event devoted solely to Chevrolet factory and dealership modified musclecars, as well. Known as "Supercar Fest," and organized by noted collector Gary Holub and COPO expert Ed Cunneen, the 60-plus-vehicle event is already almost sold out. Literally a two-day-only museum, it will be open to the public for a small admission fee. See you there.