Restoring a Corvette to the nth degree is the ultimate goal of most Vette devotees, but to some, drop-dead gorgeous just isn't good enough. In our search for the world's most eye-pleasing '73 Corvette (hey, we have some pretty esoteric tastes), we were led to Helotes, Texas, where Jeff Lilly Restorations had just completed an astonishingly complete frame-off restoration of a Mille Miglia Red '73 Stingray.
"Owner Rich Wilson had driven 'Red' around for many years with many memories, and it had 41,000 original miles on its odometer when it arrived at my shop," Lilly says. "I asked him the history of the car, and he said he bought it new, it was his very first Corvette, and he had a sentimental attachment to it."
With an output rating of just 190 hp, the base '73 Vette was far from the kind of fire-breathing musclecar exemplified by its LT-1 and LS5/6 predecessors. But what the newer model lacked in power, it more than made up for in increased popularity. A total of 30,464 Corvettes were produced that year, an increase of 3,460 units over the previous 12-month span.
The '73 Vette resembled its earlier C3 siblings, though with a few important differences. For the first time ever, GM installed a body-colored, urethane-covered aluminum safety bumper designed to handle up to 5-mph front-end impacts. Also engineered for the car were a domed hood, steel guard-beam doors, a fixed rear window, new chassis mounts, air-duct-type front fender vents, a coolant-recovery system that allowed overflow coolant to recirculate back into the radiator, and improved sound dampening.
Two performance upgrades were available in 1973. The first was the L82 350ci engine, a new, $299 option that boosted the Vette's output to 250 hp. The second was the LS4 454ci big-block, rated at 275 hp. Wilson's Corvette received the L82 engine, making it one of 5,710 Corvettes thus equipped for the model year.
To begin the restoration, Lilly removed the Vette's body from its frame. Then, he steam-cleaned the chassis and fiberglass shell separately, removing 35 years of oil, grease, dirt, and other contaminants. His next step was to blast the fiberglass to a bare shell with plastic media. "There were hundreds of small cracks in the body that needed repairing. She was a decent car to start with, but still pretty rough," he recalls.
Lilly stripped the chassis, removing the drivetrain and the original suspension components, then media-blasted the frame with aluminum oxide. After priming, sanding, and painting the frame, he wrapped it with several layers of plastic for protection and lowered the fiberglass shell back onto it. Once the new body mounts were installed, it was time to move on to the bodywork.
Once the body was straight, Lilly used Glasurit paints to recreate the Vette's original hue, laying down six coats each of base and clear before color-sanding. "There's only one way to ensure color-sanding is dead-on," Lilly says. "We view the car inside a building with overhead fluorescent lights approximately 10 feet from its body. If the outer edges of the reflection of the light on the body are perfectly straight, the car is color-sanded correctly. If there are waves in the outer edges of the image's reflection, the color-sanding was not done effectively. This is called 'paint flutter,' and our goal was to make sure there was none of it on this Corvette."
At that point, Lilly removed the plastic protecting the frame and reassembled the restored suspension components. These included unequal-length A-arms, coil springs, and a stabilizer bar up front, along with trailing arms, toe links, and an antiroll bar for the rear. The only mods include better-handling Bilstein shocks at all four corners and a fiberglass transverse leaf spring.
An owner-requested engine rebuild allowed Lilly to reuse the engine's crank and connecting rods, along with new TRW 0.010-over cast pistons. Other engine specifics include Chevy No. 330545 cylinder heads featuring 76cc combustion chambers, 1.5-ratio stamped-steel rockers, 2.02/1.60-inch steel valves, a compression ratio of 9.0:1, and a factory-spec replacement cam. For spark, A PerTronix HEI distributor was chosen to supplant the Vette's original dual-point distributor, while the original (though rebuilt) Rochester Q-jet and factory cast-iron intake were charged with dictating the distribution of fuel to the cylinders. Up top, a K&N unit took on filtration duty within the Corvette's original air-cleaner assembly.
The remainder of the powertrain retains mostly original components as well. An OE-style clutch, an M21 close-ratio four-speed, a factory driveshaft, and a 3.36-geared rearend complete the configuration. Although "Red" originally shipped with 15x8-inch Rallyes wrapped in GR70x15 radials, the car now shows off 17x8-inch Vintage Cobra wheels matched to Goodyear Eagle 245/55VR17 rubber. Front and rear braking is directed by SSBC Force Ten calipers clamping 11.75-inch GM rotors.
The Dark Red interior is stock appearing, using a plethora of NOS pieces along with OE-reproduction leather seat covers, carpeting, and door panels from Al Knoch.
According to Lilly, the goal of the restoration was to bring both longevity and additional beauty to the '73. "I built it to withstand the test of time," he says. "We had to put a lot of time into the fit to make sure all of the gaps were exactly 3/16 inch. An average person overlooks factory imperfections, but this car had to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Fit and finish are what you look for when you critique a show car, and that's what we accomplished with this Corvette."
Spending several thousand hours of work on a high-production '73 Corvette may seem extreme to some, but as Lilly explains, the car owner's motivation went beyond practical concerns: "I think many people are concerned about cost, but when there's sentimental attachment to a car, quality becomes the first priority," he says. "This Corvette is the owner's baby-it's a family member to him, and because of that, he wanted the ultimate restoration for it."
For more details on the '73's build, as well as photos from before, during, and after its restoration, visit www.jefflilly.net.