Go to just about any Corvette show, and you'll likely come across at least one car that really stands out from the crowd. That doesn't mean that the rest of the Vettes aren't nice-some cars just have that "something" that makes people stop for a closer look. At a national "happening" with thousands of cars, like Carlisle or Mid America's Funfest, there's usually more than one such car. To be the star at one of these shows is difficult at best; there's just so many incredible cars to check out.
At Corvettes at Carlisle 2001, however, there could be little doubt that the star of the show was Rich and Barbara Lagasse's LS6-powered, Paul Newman-chassised, immaculately detailed '62 roadster. Even the Lagasses were a bit surprised at the reaction to their latest project, completed the night before they had to leave for Carlisle. There was a constant crowd around the car, keeping Rich and Barbara busy answering questions. "People kept coming back," Rich remembers. "They'd comment on how they were still noticing new stuff after two or three looks." Perhaps the biggest compliment, though, came from a member of the Corvette engineering team. An unidentified member of the group came back for another look, telling Rich, "You know, there's not too many cars that we end up discussing over dinner."
So how did the Lagasses, residents of Enfield, Connecticut, end up with the star of Carlisle 2001? Rich's love affair with high-performance started when he was only 10 and began racing (go-karts and endurance events) with his father, doing so into his early 20s. It's possible that Rich's Bow Tie enthusiasm started with his father's '54 Chevy, which, equipped with dual carbs and a high-lift cam, blew away his uncle's Ford. It was only after a long hiatus from American iron, however, that Rich returned to those roots.
Not that he gave up on performance. As Rich and Barbara married, started their careers (Rich ended up as a vice president with The Hartford Financial Services; Barbara still works as a nurse manager for Aetna), and raised their two sons, Rich stayed interested in performance cars. He went through a Porsche "phase;" in fact, he admits to having "been through all the German cars." The problem, according to Rich, is that he couldn't do much of his own work on these cars, and he wanted to get "hands on." The search for performance and a chance to get their hands dirty led the Lagasses to the Corvette hobby. They were involved with NCRS for nearly a decade, showing a highly optioned '66 big-block coupe. And while they enjoyed their time doing so, Rich and Barbara eventually found themselves looking for more variety.
Rich is clear about his reasons for wanting to blaze his own path when it comes to his Corvettes. When Rich found out how rare and valuable the '66 was, it got driven less. So, "we bought the cars to drive," is the first one Rich brings up. "And, we wanted to dive in and build a car that reflects how we think these cars should be. We want to improve the performance, in a package that's readily identifiable. Something creative and unique, but that maintains the integrity of the original. We want to follow our own rules, not 'the book.'" The idea behind these rules follows a concept that Lagasse calls "Pro Classic": the creation of a Corvette with "improved handling, ride, braking, comfort, and performance, while maintaining the integrity of the original classic design."
The first result of the Lagasses' new way of thinking was their '67 big-block convertible, itself a showstopper (see "Been There, Done That," Jan. '01). For their next act, and not wanting to cover what they call "old ground," Rich and Barbara decided to go even farther with their next project. For a starting point, Rich found a '62 roadster that was missing its original engine, and hadn't been driven since 1988. The old solid-axle was a bit too far gone for a restoration, which made it perfect for what the Lagasses had in mind.
Once the donor car was acquired, Rich went to work. His experience as a project manager was invaluable. "I picked the right teams for each task," he says. "People with skill and the proper attitude." What resulted is an assembly and fabrication process we couldn't begin to re-create here. The bulk of the assembly was handled by Lagasse and Arthur Bonneau of Bunjie's Hot Rod Shop in Brimfield, Massachusetts, but multiple tasks wre happening at once; at one point, parts of the '62 were in nine states and Canada. The much-condensed version goes something like this:
The roadster was stripped down to the bare frame, which was then shipped to Paul Newman's Car Creations. Newman & Co. then performed their particular brand of magic, modifying the vintage frame to accept front and rear '95 C4 suspension systems. But before the chassis was assembled for the final time, Rich took things a step beyond. Before heading to the paint booth at Corvette Center in Newington, Connecticut, Rich smoothed and filled the framerails. He also filled and sanded every aluminum suspension component to remove the casting marks before having them ceramic coated. The new frame was then assembled, using a laundry list of good stuff: Energy Suspension urethane bushings, Vette Brakes monoleaf springs, Bilstein shocks sporting Newman-spec valving, and a Dana 44 differential sporting 3.92:1 gears. Z06 calipers grabbing Baer rotors were hung on the new axles, along with 17 x 8.5-inch chromed Z06 wheels and 255/45ZR17 Michelin Pilot Sport rubber. The wheels feature one of Rich's unique touches: the center caps were fabricated using '62-vintage horn buttons, creating "a link between old and new." Rich laughs when he says, "the touch gets as much attention as anything."
What really grabs people's attention, though, is the 2001 LS6 small-block sitting under the solid-axle's hood. To get air into the new mill, Rich designed his own intake system (brought into being by Mark's Machine), which feeds into a chromed Street & Performance ported throttle body. A custom computer program, created by Zac Fliss at Speed Scene Wiring, controls engine operations. Chromed S & P accessories hang on modified brackets and are run by an S & P belt system. A one-off Bill Kydd radiator, which sports an integral A/C condenser and a Spal electric fan, keeps things cool, while a custom-built Borla exhaust system (running through enlarged holes in the chassis X-member) dispenses with the spent gases. The hopped-up LS6, which Rich figures makes 435-plus horsepower, runs through a Z06 clutch and flywheel to a Hurst-shifted Tremec T56 six-speed, and a Spicer aluminum driveshaft on its way to the Dana rearend.
The 30-year-old fiberglass was prepped to perfection by the Corvette Center, but not without some extensive yet hidden modifications. The spare tire tub was cut out and raised 4 inches to make room for the exhaust system. A new trans tunnel from Alf Eberoth's Performance Automotive was mounted to accommodate the modern tranny. Eberoth also modified a stock '62 brake pedal assembly to work with the new binders, and provided the stainless steel fuel tank. The rear inner fender panels were extensively modified toaccommodate the A-arm suspension. It all got a flawless coating of RM Diamont paint, the shade of which is known only as "Rich's Red."
The interior, which was installed by Rich and Barbara, is as immaculately detailed as everything else on the '62. Al Knoch Interiors supplied many of the new items, including the deep-pile carpet and floor mats, as well as the trunk panels and carpet. The really trick stuff, though, came in the form of the custom-designed leather seats, which look like originals, but have raised back and side bolsters. The seat position is just about perfect, according to Rich, and it's a good thing. "They ended up the only place they could," he recalls. "With the new transmission tunnel, we had to modify the inner seat rails." Knoch also supplied the leather dash pad, door panels, kick panels, and visors. A leather-wrapped Corvette Central steering wheel sits in front of a Lagasse-designed and built gauge cluster sporting a full complement of VDO gauges. Rich also designed the center console, which holds the controls for the Pioneer stereo, the Vintage Air A/C, and the new electric wiper system, which is run by a modern unit in the passenger side kick panel.
It took 11 months plus one week, consisting of somewhere around 2,500 man-hours, to bring the Lagasses' vision into being. Finished just in time for Carlisle, Rich and Barbara took pleasure in the overwhelming response they got. But this car was built to satisfy on other levels. "It's the total immersion in the project," Rich says. "And seeing it through to completion, while retaining the integrity of the theme. It's my concept of this, and I don't apologize for it." We don't think that's a problem, Rich. In fact, we'd say being the star of the show means no apologies. (Rich and Barbara Lagasse invite you to check out their '62 and their '67 at www.corvetteforum.net/c5/richs7/ -Ed.)