I met Jonathan Settrella in 1975, at an art show in Moorestown, New Jersey. We struck up a conversation, and it turned out that Settrella had a Corvette-a customized '63 split-window coupe. We hung out occasionally and saw one another at various art shows. But as the '70s and '80s wore on, life got in the way and I lost touch with my friend.
Fast forward to September 2009, at the Weaton Village Vettes At Glasstown Show in Millville, New Jersey. I looked up and saw a car I hadn't seen in nearly 30 years. Sure enough, it was my old pal, Jonathan Settrella. After catching up, I said, "Jonathan, I can't believe you still have the '63."
He replied, "This is actually a replica of the car you saw way back when."
Sensing a story, I asked what had happened. It turned out to be a classic tale of seller's remorse. In Settrella's case, it was major remorse. But first, let's back up about 40 years.
Settrella grew up in rural Glassboro, New Jersey, a sleepy town famous for two things: a state college and the location of the famous Lyndon B. Johnson/Aleksei Kosygin summit talks in 1967. His passions growing up were cars, racing, art, and Corvettes. After completing art school, Settrella settled into a career as a commercial artist, got married, and started a family. But not before sowing some wild oats in the raucous world of dirt-track racing.
Settrella's dream Vette was a '63 split-window. And in the mid '60s, when these cars were still very reasonably priced, he managed to buy an Ermine White '63 coupe with a four-speed. It wasn't long before the artist in Settrella wanted to personalize his ride. So in 1968, he started his gradual customization of the car. What started out as a simple de-chroming project gradually became a transformation into a full-custom road car.
Even though Corvettes aren't family cars, Settrella and his family were thoroughly in love with this one. His daughter, Donna, used to love to lie in the cargo area and watch the clouds roll by through the rear glass. His son, Jonathan Jr., dreamed of one day owning the car.
Now back to that seller's remorse part. It was 1980, at the same Wheaton Village car show, and Settrella was showing his custom Vette. A young fellow kept hanging around the car; obviously he liked it a lot. Eventually, he asked, "How much do you want for it?"
"It's not for sale." Settrella replied. But the guy kept asking. In hopes of putting him off, Settrella blurted out, "$15,000!" (A new Vette in 1980 had a base price of $13,140.) And to his shock, the young man said, "Sold! Can I pick it up tomorrow?"
Settrella didn't believe the guy, because he was very young and it looked like he was just trying to impress the gal on his arm. But much to his dismay, the next day, the young fellow showed up with $15,000 in cash. "It felt like a dope deal from the movie Scarface," Settrella says.
"Do you have tags and insurance?" he asked the buyer.
"No, I'll be okay," replied the young man, and off he went.
"And that's the last time I ever saw the car or heard from the guy," Settrella says.
The remorse was immediate. When his daughter learned that her dad had sold the Corvette, she cried. It took a long time for the kids to get over it, and there was a part of Settrella that never did.
In 2005, after a prestigious career in commercial art, Settrella retired. Over the years, he had bought and sold dozens of Corvettes and Mustangs as a hobby. With plenty of time on his hands and a nice retirement nest egg, Settrella set out to take care of the nagging regret he felt over the '63.
By that time, Jonathan Jr. was an accomplished painter and car customizer, so it didn't take too much coaxing to recruit his son to help with his latest project. With lots of photographs of the original car, the project was started in early 2007 and completed by September of that year.
Obviously, split-window coupes cost a whole lot more in the mid '00s than they did in the late '60s. The hard part was finding a '63 coupe that was complete enough, but not so special that it couldn't be modified. The best Settrella could find was a former drag racer for $35,000.
The car had been sitting on a trailer for 14 years, but aside from a lot of dirt and neglect, it was in pretty good condition. Early C2s were criticized for being over-decorated, so Settrella removed a lot of the frou-frou. Jonathan Jr. did the paint and bodywork to replicate the popular de-chroming process from the '60s. This "shaved" look included the removal of the door handles, windshield wipers, and gas cap. The windshield cowl vents were customized to eliminate the opening for the wipers, and the stock gas-filler cap was removed and relocated behind the rear license plate. Settrella also found the '67 big-block hood-which dispensed with the fake vents found on the base piece-to be a must-have.
In looking over the car, the most obvious feature is the lack of door handles. Also note the total absence of badges on the body. Another classic '60s custom touch is the extra pair of rear taillights, for a total of six. Other subtle details include black accents where vent openings should be on the front fender and B-pillar vents, and a thin red pinstripe to accent the horizontal body crease. The front grille is blacked out, and chrome caps cover the front turn signals for show purposes. And lastly, the side-window vent frames are painted flat black.
Under the hood, the 327 small-block is a visual mix of red and chrome parts, with anodized red and blue fuel fittings, and red ignition wires. What looks like a Stromberg carb setup atop the Offenhauser aluminum manifold is actually a cutting-edge fuel-injection system that uses six throttle bodies with 12 electronic injectors driven by a computer mounted in the glovebox. Settrella says that although the system was very difficult to set up, it was well worth the effort.
Ignition chores are handled by an MSD ignition with a 50,000-volt Blaster coil, also mounted in the glovebox. Stock cast-iron exhaust manifolds feed side-mounted exhaust pipes mated to Cherry Bomb mufflers under '65-'67 side-pipe covers.
Since the car had been a drag racer, the suspension was in pretty good shape and only needed refreshed shocks and bushings. Settrella lowered the car 2 inches by clipping the front springs and installing longer rear shackles. Since the differential was deemed in good condition, the 4.11 gearset and stock antisway bar were kept.
With a considerable amount of power available and the quick-accelerating gears, Settrella installed new carbon-metallic brakes and fresh lines for proper stopping power. One of the more distinctive aspects of Settrella's ride is the quartet of vintage Astro Supreme chrome mag wheels, shod with 205/70R15 Uniroyal whitewall tires.
As with the rest of Settrella's ride, the interior is festooned with custom touches. Stock midyear seats were replaced with Carrera buckets for more lateral support. The dash features new tach, gas, and fuel gauges. While the shifter linkage is from Hurst, the shifter itself is stock and the steering wheel is a custom billet piece. Settrella replaced the glovebox button, center dash controls, and driver seat adjuster with custom chrome balls. And finally, the unusual-looking cylinder atop the dash is a mock manual fuel-pressure pump, a throwback to Settrella's old dirt-track-racing days. Once a racer, always a racer.
Settrella and son completed the car in six months, just in time for its first outing in September 2007. Settrella's daughter, now all grown up with a family of her own, didn't know about the '63 custom rebuild. When she saw the car for the first time, she cried. "You got it back?" she asked.
"No, I built another one," her dad replied.
For most normal guys, a car like this one would be "it." However, Settrella also owns a '33 Alloway Speedstar street rod, a '37 Wild Rod street rod with a 454 Chevy engine, a '95 Pontiac Trans Am, a stock '69 SS/RS Camaro, a '76 Greenwood wide-body Can-Am Corvette, and a '78 Silver Anniversary Corvette.
As with all custom cars, none of them are ever really "finished." But Settrella's to-do list for his '63 Sting Ray is indeed short. And he's promised his family one important thing: "I won't sell it!"