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1961 Chevrolet Corvette - Rarity + Detail = Top Flight

Tom Longo’s ’61 Big Brake fuelie soars high above the rest

Scott Ross Apr 7, 2011
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Attention to detail.

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It's what turned Corvette into the car to beat in road racing in the early '60s-and it helped this Vette become a top scorer at judging time. When the 1961 racing season began, Corvette had proven itself in races around the world, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. That's because Zora Arkus-Duntov and the other Corvette engineers tasked to make America's Only True Sports Car a world-class racer put plenty of effort in at the GM Tech Center and Proving Grounds as well as trackside, where they could see what the Vette's strengths-and weaknesses-were.

That's how Chevrolet was able to offer a host of racing-related options on the car starting in 1956. By the time the '61 model run began, that list included not just a high-output 283ci V-8-with up to 315 hp in fuel-injected form-but also a heavy-duty brake and suspension package, RPO 687.

That was among the options on a '61 Corvette that now resides in Tom Longo's garage on Long Island.

This isn't Longo's first Corvette-that was a Z07-equipped '93 he bought new and still has. "When I bought that car, and realized what it was, after the first year I had it I stopped putting so many miles on it," he says. Eighteen years later, with his 12,000-original-mile C4 safe in his garage, Longo set his sights on a solid-axle Corvette like the ones his brothers had when he was growing up.

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Eventually, he met up with Corvette restorer and collector Brian Cochrane, who owned one of the 233 big-brake '61s, a Roman Red one. "I wanted to buy his car, but he didn't want to sell it," Longo recalls. So he kept a lookout for another RPO 687 '61, which he found for sale in Maryland. This car-finished in Ermine White-had been sitting in dry storage for about 20 years, after its owner found out how rare it was.

Two decades of storage, on top of two decades of use (including drag racing by previous owners), meant that it was restoration time. But Longo didn't tear into it right away. "I didn't want to screw up the car," he says. "That was my biggest fear, that I would do something wrong with it. This wasn't a regular, base-model Corvette; it was a special car." His research gave him a stack of Corvette reference books that was about a foot high, plus loads of information specific to the '61 and its big-brake and fuelie options.

As a part of that research, he found his '61's VIN to be close to that of Brian Cochanne's red one-very close. "We couldn't believe it when the VINs on his car and mine were only 20 digits away," he says. "Both cars were on the line on the same day."

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Longo accomplished the four-year resto project with plenty of assistance. "The biggest help came from Gail Parsons, who passed away last summer," he says. "He had quite a few Vettes over the years, and a number of big-brake cars." According to Longo, Parsons had amassed a treasure trove of original General Motors, Chevrolet, and Rochester engineering drawings and blueprints, especially ones covering the Rochester mechanical fuel-injection system found on the RPO 354 315hp 283.

While Longo's '61 was intact and complete when he got it, there was plenty that needed replacing-which he did, thanks to his friends. "Everything on that car is what it's supposed to be, and it's mostly original or N.O.S.," he says. "Any of the stuff that wasn't there, I was able to find N.O.S. parts to replace them with." That includes a set of correct RPO 687 sintered-metallic rear brake shoes that he got from Parsons' wife, Maxine.

Longo also did a lot of work himself. As the owner of a dental laboratory, he spends his work days wearing a 3X magnifying loupe, and it was in this facility that he also refinished a lot of the small parts on his '61. "I tell a lot of my friends who restore cars that I work with tiny, miniature stuff all day long," he says. "I'm restoring people's mouths, basically. When I have those parts, and I'm looking at them, everything is large."

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Longo says that includes fasteners, an area in which supplies of N.O.S. parts have long since vanished. "Every nut and bolt on that car was blasted," he says of the hardware whose edges were showing their age. "If it's been taken off several times, you start to see the edges wearing down. Every one of those edges that was peened-over from the wrenches was fixed and straightened here in my lab before I sent it out to be cadmium-plated or black-phosphate-coated."

The body got its share of attention, too. Grant Herbster stripped off the old paint before the crew at Mad Creations in Deer Park, New York, got it ready for paint. Mad's owner, Michael DiLavor, expertly sprayed a new coat of Ermine White.

All that attention to detail paid off at judging time, with a C1 that wasn't over-restored. Longo says that when the judges looked inside his C1 and saw the speedometer and gauge cluster, they couldn't believe they were carefully polished originals. Same with the door panels. "When the interior judge opened the door, he knew right away it wasn't an Al Knoch replacement door panel. He said, 'Where did you get this panel from?,' and I said, 'It's the original panel. It's been cleaned and reassembled with most all of its original components.' He looked at the lenses on the reflectors on the door, and I told him, 'Those have all been taken out, re-polished, and put back in again.'" Longo figures he has at least 30 hours' worth of work in each door panel.

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Like a new big-brake Vette running away from its A/Production competition back in the day, Longo's '61 tallied a very high score the first time out. Needless to say, it's now a Top Flight car.

What's it like to drive? "With the quick steering, when you're driving it at a slow rate of speed, it's a handful," says Longo. "Once you get the car up to speed, it drives very nicely." He takes it out to run it at least once a month, weather permitting, "Whenever I take it out, even if it's just to get gas in it, it always draws a crowd."

Those big brakes don't give him a problem, either, thanks to the way he restored them. "If they're put on a lathe and cut with a fine cutter, then hit lightly with sandpaper to [yield] a smoother surface, the brake linings work pretty well. It's when they're not addressed correctly that there may be a problem."

He adds, "Some of the older brake mechanics have the right machinery on hand. They have a drum sander, which is a machine that'll match the O.D. of the brake shoe to the perfect concentric circle of the I.D. of the drum. So, when you press on the brake, you'll press on the whole pad. If you just take a set of pads and put them in the car, and they're not adjusted properly to the drum, they can take a little time to grab. That's because you're not working on a full pad."

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Longo's advice for anyone who's looking to buy a Corvette, be it their first one or next one? "Right now is one of the most opportune times to do it. The market is down, and because of that the car market is down as well. I'm in the process of restoring a '62 that I bought from a friend of mine. It's a running driver, and when I get done with it, it will be a Top Flight car.

"If you're interested in doing that, this is the time to get a car. Without a doubt, it's cheaper to buy the car already done than it is for you to buy one, take it apart, and restore it."



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