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1963 Chevrolet Corvette - Classical Gassers

Converting A Corvette To A Legendary Dragster

Steve Temple Jul 13, 2010
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The gasser wars. Back in the '60s, while Corvettes were duking it out with Cobras on road courses, supercharged Gassers were fan favorites on dragstrips across America. These wild, nearly uncontrollable machines were headliners at events around the country. With their short wheelbases and ungainly body styles, the Gassers were a challenge to drive and fun to watch-from a safe distance. Many of the earlier machines ran Oldsmobile or Cadillac power, but as the years progressed, entries with blown Chevy V-8s and Chrysler Hemis appeared.

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Among the most popular Gasser body styles were Willys models, specifically the '33 and the '40 coupe. Today, some of their drivers (such as Big John Mazmanian; Stone, Woods, & Cook; and K.S. Pittman) are nearly as famous as when they campaigned in the Gasser Wars.

So what do these dragsters have to do with a couple of classic Corvettes? After all, Vettes of that era were typically too pricey for this offbeat form of drag racing, while Willys and '50s Chevys were far more available and expendable on the track.

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So converting a Corvette into a Gasser takes a special sort of person, someone who both understands the importance of caring for a collectible and has an appreciation for a significant period of automotive history. Dave Glass and wife Mary fit the bill. In addition to regularly restoring Corvettes and other muscle cars at their shop, D&M Corvette Specialists, they share another automotive passion that dates back to the early days of their marriage.

"We watched all the Gassers race at the Nationals in Indy in the '60s," Dave explains. "We are John Mazmanian Gasser fans, so in our collection we built a cloned '40 Willys Coupe with a Blown 392 Hemi."

Now add to that list not only a '63 Split-Window Gasser, but a '62 model as well. Purists will no doubt question the wisdom of messing with a collectible Corvette, but Dave Glass has the street cred to do something different. After all, he's been a Bloomington Gold judge for more than a dozen years, so he knows his way around a trim plate. Not only that, GM hired him to restore a '53 model to commemorate the millionth Corvette in 1992, and he's been working on Vettes for more than 25 years at his shop. All of which means that when he decided to modify a classic Corvette into a Gasser, he knew the importance of not ruining the car, and making sure it would be possible to bring it back to original if needed.

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But why bother with this type of project at all? "These Gassers really make people smile," Glass laughs. Recalling his experiences at Bloomington Gold events, he adds, "Most folks will take a quick look at a 100-point, frame-off Corvette restoration, and then keep on walking. But the Gassers make them stop and stare."

Indeed, we had this exact same reaction when we first came across Glass's '62 (see sidebar) at a gathering of literally thousands of Corvettes. It was the one car that really made us linger in awe.

Taking things a step further is his recently completed '63 Split-Window Gasser. He came across the car a couple years ago when its owner contacted him about a possibly selling it for health reasons.

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"He brought it over to us, and I could tell from the look in his eye that he felt like he was saying goodbye to an old friend, and wanted to make sure it went to a good home."

After going through the car for a day or so, Glass asked him how much he wanted for it, and the two came to an agreement. The car was originally black with a red interior, a fairly rare combination, but it didn't have the factory engine in it, and it had been customized with different wheels and lights in the grille. So he set about cleaning up the cosmetics and sourcing the right parts.

He started by stripping off the frontend, storing it in a safe place, and replacing it with a lifted straight-axle suspension with 27-inch springs from Speedway Motors. While his other Corvette Gasser required building a subframe, this one didn't. "You just have to make sure there's enough caster with the stock steering box," he points out.

Next, he replaced the 300hp engine with a 400ci block pulled from his rusted-out snowplow pickup. (He briefly considered a big-block V-8, but decided against it since it wasn't available back in the day.) In addition to topping it off with a pair of 600cfm Holley blower carbs, he added an underdriven 6-71 Roots supercharger from famed racer Gary Dyer.

Explaining the more-modest boost pressure, he says, "This version is more user friendly and streetable than the go-fast '62. I wanted the motor to live, not race, so I can cruise around town." (Well, maybe not just cruise, but you get the idea.) Even though the car is intended for street duty, Glass added some comp-grade components, such as a Lakewood scattershield and a block saver (a 1/8-inch steel plate between the block and the bellhousing).


He also thought about adding fender-well headers that exited in front of the cab, but he didn't want to cut up the body to do so. "I can't get the purist out of my head." So he went with a set of Hooker headers instead, Jet-Hot coated.

The rearend has a fairly tall ratio at 3.73:1, since the car isn't seeing any hard-core track time. But it has been lifted with air shocks to fit those fat Coker "pie crust" slicks (so named for the pinched edges of the sidewalls). At the front are ET Gasser rims wrapped with BFG Silverton skinnies.

These days, this Split-Window Gasser grabs knowing glances from a more mature crowd. You know, the type who wear T-shirts that read, "Old Guys Rule." They did, and they still do.

It's a Gas, Gas, Gasser
Dave and Mary Glass admit that the inspiration for their Corvette Gassers didn't come on its own, but from a fellow enthusiast. While attending a Turkey Rod Run in Daytona, Florida, back in 2002, they spotted a '60 Vette with a straight-axle setup for drag racing, and got real excited. "Everyone loved the car, so we tried to buy it, but the owner wouldn't sell," says Dave. Undaunted, they decided to build their own version, using a '62 Corvette in need of some serious attention.

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"We bought the car about 10 years ago. It was sitting in a garage, had not been running for some time, and needed a total restoration," he recalls. The Vette, which had been raced previously, had a 350 small-block Chevy (instead of the original 327), a four-speed trans, and a Dana rearend with traction bars. But the owner lost interest in the project, and Dave took it off his hands, thinking he might bring it back to original spec.

After seeing people's reactions to the '60 straight-axle Vette in Florida, though, he decided to pull some parts off his '33 Willys, which used to run in the 10s back in the early '70s. To perform the transplant without carving up the Vette, he built a removable subframe for the straight-axle frontend.

In the meantime, Glass had his shop strip the paint down to bare fiberglass, which took a solid two weeks' worth of sanding, rather than risking damage from the use of blasting or a chemical strip. "All solid-axle Corvettes are very time consuming, because of all the curves," he points out. Since there was no trim code back then, he had no idea what the original color was, which freed him up to choose the same maroon that Mazmanian used on his Gasser (and which happened to be his favorite color anyway, since his first car, a '67 Sting Ray, was Marlboro Maroon).

The '33 Willys also contributed its impressive powerplant, built by racer Gary Dyer of Mr. Norm fame. The engine is a 327ci Chevy, bored 0.60 over and outfitted with a Milodon four-bolt main and Venolia blower pistons. To handle the forced induction from the straight-up 6-71 GMC blower, the block has been O-ringed and fitted with studded 202 Fuelie heads, a complete roller cam and kit, and topped with dual Holley carbs. While the engine has the appearance of a full-on Gasser mill, it starts right up without a hiccup and emits a steady growl when Glass tools around town or on the show grounds.

The driveline has a four-speed trans and 4.88 gears in a Dana 60 rearend. The rubber came from the Willys as well, a set of M&H 31-inch meats on 13x15 American Racing rims.

The car's interior was customized by the original owner. Glass added a hardtop he had in stock in order to protect it and give the car the period look of Mazmanian's Gasser. Even so, he never loses sight of the inherent value of an older Corvette. "One of the best things about the car is that it could be put back to original if someone wanted to."

Whether that will ever happen remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Dave and Mary are enjoy paying tribute in their own way to the era of the famed Gassers. "Everything is so high-tech now," he notes. "People really appreciate us emulating the time when drag racing was drag racing." What a gas!


D&M Corvette
Downers Grove, IL 60515



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