1961 Chevrolet Corvette - A Jewel In The Rough

From Under A Trash Pile And Through A Legal Quagmire, This '61 Still Shines Through.

John Nelson Mar 1, 2001 0 Comment(s)
Vemp_0103_01_z 1961_chevrolet_corvette Restored_driver_side_front_view 1/1

Some guys have it, and some don't. Real car guys have a kind of sixth sense, a finely honed instinct when it comes to cars. Where some see something that's past its prime, worn-out, thrashed, and not worth dealing with, others see something special. That's certainly the case with Darold Shirwo of Sherman Oaks, California, and that sense has served him well.

Darold honed his "car sense" as a youngster in Skokie, Illinois. He started working at a local Shell station at the tender age of 12, shoveling the driveway and cleaning up. Two of the mechanics, Dave Olson (who, as Darold recalls, had a mystical ability to put his hands on a car and tell what was wrong with it) and George Howser, took young Darold under wing and showed him "everything" about working on cars. In 1955, when Chevrolet introduced its revolutionary 265ci small-block, the station started doing hop-up work for those eager to hot rod the new powerplant. "You have to remember," Darold reminisces, "that there weren't any 'hi-po' shops in 1955, and until that year everyone hot rodded flathead Fords."

His own first experience with the small-block Chevy came when Darold, with some financial help from his parents, bought a '57 fuelie Corvette from Mancuso Chevrolet in Skokie. Believe it or not, the dealer was having difficulty selling it, so the Shirwos got a good deal. According to Darold, "the T-bird was a big seller in the Midwest; people still thought of Corvettes as cars with side curtains and no amenities."

As a high schooler with a '57 Corvette, you'd expect that Darold lived every schoolboy's fantasy, and he did-their hot rod fantasies, that is. "Having the car was wonderful," he recalls, "but I worked all the time. I thought it was more fun to work on cars than talk to girls."

It all came to a halt when Darold was 17, however. Much as he wanted to keep working at the service station (there were plans for a performance shop dealing with small-block Chevys), his parents insisted that he go to college. Then there was the Corvette: "The insurance got tough. My father's rate was $80 a year; mine was $500." So the Corvette went, and Darold went off to college in a '61 Oldsmobile Starfire convertible, which had a much lower insurance rate and was ideal for carting around friends on the weekends.

As we all know, however, Corvette dreams never die. After graduation, Darold worked for awhile on the East Coast before moving out west. And when he did, he indulged his fiberglass jones with a vengeance. Starting with a big-block '65, Darold owned 50 mid-years at one point, including three or four fuelies and a fully loaded '67 with only 1,200 miles showing. It may sound extreme, but Darold is quick to point out that the cars were cheap (at that time), averaging about $1,500, making it easy to feed what he calls "an addiction." He didn't think about solid-axle cars at first, preferring the greater comfort and performance of the mid-years.

It was an ad for a '54 Oldsmobile convertible that got Darold thinking about the old days, and given his penchant for buying cars (he bought the Olds), it didn't take long until he was looking for a good solid-axle. There were a couple of '57s (one painted "gawdawful green" and sporting seats from a '60, the other obtained only after a trip to court), and then the day came when that long-developed "car sense" paid dividends.

In early 1971, one of Darold's employees asked him to go check out a Vette with him. The car was in a nice neighborhood in Long Beach, California, but, as Darold recalls, "it was all the way in the back; you couldn't see it." Once in the backyard, the car still couldn't be seen. What the duo could see was a pile of leaves, dirt, and branches. As Darold tells the story, "You couldn't even tell it was a car. My friend decided to pass, and I almost did the same thing, but something inside of me said to brush the crap away. I saw this glorious Jewel Blue paint and immediately fell in love with the car."

There was plenty there to be enamored of. The Vette, which showed 59,000 miles on the clock, was still all-original, sporting white coves to go along with the Jewel Blue body. It had the 245hp dual-quad engine with a Powerglide, a radio, and electric windows. The car was also a Harry Mann Chevrolet "California Vette," sporting six taillights in the new "ducktail" rear instead of four and featuring unique "windwings" attached to the door post. A '62-style rocker panel had also been added, but looked right at home on the '61.

Darold bought the car on the spot for the now incredible sum of $600. He concedes that the Vette took awhile to clean up, but, ironically, the layers of dirt and leaves protected the car from the elements. The sun couldn't reach the paint through all that dirt, and the part of the yard it sat in didn't get watered. What you see here is what Darold saw in 1971, with the exception of the dashpad.

As for the running gear, Darold did what he calls the usual: installed a new battery and spark plugs, and squirted oil into the cylinders. The 283 fired up immediately, and has been "getting better" ever since. The only major mechanical malfunction has been the water pump, which let go in Utah at a NCRS regional meet. (Darold and a friend found a rebuilt pump at a local parts store, installed it in a hotel parking lot, drove to the meet, and then re-installed the original pump for the judging.)

Darold has certainly enjoyed the car, but this isn't one of those stories in which our hero drives off into the sunset-at least not right away. In fact, he suffered an eight-year-long separation from the '61 when he and his wife divorced. A family law judge detained the car, and would only release it if Darold agreed to inscribe the car's serial number on every removeable part. He refused, of course, but finally reclaimed the Vette when the court proceedings were over. Adding insult to injury, however, the '61's wheels suffered water damage, freezing all four brake drums solid. It took a couple of weeks to set things right, but it turned out to be worth the wait. Even after an eight-year wait, Darold says that the enjoyment he gets from driving the '61 made it worth the wait. "Until I got back on the road," he declares, "I didn't realize how fun it was to drive.

He now puts 50-100 miles-or more-on the car each month, and sees incidents like being stuck behind a gravel truck or tackling a rainstorm in a car with a 38-year-old wiper system as part of the adventure. The '61 has held up so well that it's taken NCRS Top Flight awards at both the regional and the national level; plans call for tackling the last requirement for a Duntov Award, the performance verification, at the 2001 Western Regional in Scottsdale, Arizona. Given this Jewel Blue beauty's history of making it through tough times, our car sense tells us it'll be a walk in the park.

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