I came across an attention-grabbing old-school Vette while attending the Dead Man's Curve/Radir Wheel Extravaganza in Northern New Jersey this past year. While strolling through what seemed to be endless aisles of high-end dream cars and backyard bombers alike, I spied the vintage rod sitting next to a brace of '60s Buick gassers, just begging to be noticed.
And by the looks of it, this graphics-laden, straight-axle Chevy had an interesting story to tell, as it was no mint piece of pampered pop culture. No, this car had seen some heavy use. I took a few shots and then continued on my way, leaving a message with the car's neighbors that I was interested in talking to the owner.
Well things didn't pan out, and I never got to meet the owner that night. However, while scanning through my pictures the next day, I came across some shots of the car. The Corvette was labeled "Spastic Plastic" in big colorful letters and had the callouts for a custom shop from Brooklyn painted on its rear flanks. I did some homework on the Net and somehow got an email address, which led me to the owner of the car, a Mike Walsh of Shohola Falls, Pennsylvania. Case solved.
Walsh isn't just a Corvette lover; this guy's whole lifestyle just revolves around all things pertaining to fiberglass Chevys. Based up in the hills of eastern Pennsy, Walsh owns and operates the The Early Vette Shop, a primetime restoration facility and a second home for many wayward hot-rod fanatics.
Walsh invited me up to his compound for his annual Dyno Party, and I obliged. I was amazed at the prime American iron present at the show, an array of rods and rides spanning the 20th century. But what really caught my eye was his steroid-driven incarnation of a '59 Vette, which sat stoically on the pavement in front of the garage. That car deserved a closer look.
Mike Walsh's Story
Walsh always had his nose in the want ads, and pretty much knew about every Corvette that made the northwestern New Jersey tri-state region its home. He grew up in a Vette household, with his dad owning several models over the years (he still rips it up in a custom '65 he bought 40 years ago). That love of fiberglass trickled down to Mike, and pushed him into scoring his first Corvette in his late teens--a '62 that had been left out in the woods to rot. That car would be the first of many he would restore over the years, and he still owns it today.
In 1984 Walsh spied a '59 Corvette in the local car-trader magazine. Funny thing was, he never saw this car out and about, and it was located just a stone's throw from his house. So curiosity got the best of him, and he went over to take a look. What he came upon was an ex-race car, with no motor under the hood, and with a Chrysler Hemi/four-speed Doug Nash crashbox sitting between the seats. The car was highly modified to run a quarter-mile at a time, with several body chops made along the way. The 427 that was used during its race days had been sold off earlier, and the car's lettering had been hastily removed.
The owner was trying to make a fast buck with the shell and offered it up for $7,000, a pretty steep asking price more than 25 years ago. Walsh offered the owner $3,000 and was turned down flat.
A few weeks later, the owner contacted Walsh and told him he would take his offer. Walsh was a little short on cash at this point, but luckily his boss at the concrete company where he worked offered to buy him the car as a gift for all his hard work over the years. Some boss!
After getting the car home, Walsh got a better look at his new project and noticed a few interesting things. First, the front suspension had been replaced with a front end from another Chevy model. The rear was also gone, replaced with a Chevy 12-bolt unit. Nothing strange about that.
Interestingly enough, though, there was a fuel-injection-only 6,500-rpm tachometer in the dash, and the car also had the "fast" steering adapter attached to the column. On closer inspection, Walsh also discovered air-cleaner holes in the inner fender, a hole for the tach cable, and holes in the fenders where fuel-injection emblems would have been. These were all telltale signs that the car once sported the rare RPO 579D and possibly the 684 option codes, which GM used for its big-brake and fuel-injected cars, respectively.
Since there was no buildsheet, or any other way of determining the origin of the car, Walsh decided to locate one of the previous owners to find out more of the history behind his new ride. His first clue was in the faint remnants of the racing callouts on the car's sides. "Spindle City Corvettes" was barely legible, but it turned out to be a big help in tracking down the car's owner during its quarter-miling days. More detective work followed, with Walsh finally getting an email from a woman who knew something about the car's past. This led to Jim Davy.
The Race Years
Back in 1970, Jim Davy was a high school student in Westford, Massachusetts, who wanted a Corvette in the worst way. He eventually discovered an old, beaten-down '59 sitting behind a local Chevy dealership. The Vette was up for sale, at an asking price of $175 in engineless, stripped form. A deal was struck, and soon the badly bruised Chevy had made its way to Davy's backyard, much to the chagrin of his parents.
For $100 he secured another Corvette for parts, this one a '60 resting on its hubs at a nearby gas station. Davy and his buddies pushed the Vette into the family garage and started the arduous task of bringing it back to life.
Their first task was to build a 327 for the car, complete with a four-speed, to help get it moving under its own power again. That proved to be the easy part of this "restification," as the body was a different story altogether. It seems the last owner had attempted to remove all of the original paint from the fiberglass body with a grinder, leaving gouges and low spots all over the car. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Then someone told Davy that instead of filling the scars, he should just sand them out. So he spent hours and hours block-sanding the battered body the best he could, thinning out the fiberglass flanks. Once the work was completed, he added a few coats of burnt-orange paint (remember, it was the early '70s) and he was off and running. Well, sort of.
Davy never really got the car to be totally street legal, which turned out not to be a problem since he soon got the itch for something faster. His buddy had just scored a 426 Hemi in a local junkyard, with a Doug Nash four-speed attached. While his friend built that drivetrain for his Plymouth 'Cuda, Davy decided he needed to get to work building something that could compete.
He went to Ted Wingate at Precision Balancing in Bedford, Massachusetts, and got him to build a dual-quad, tunnel-ram 427 for the Vette--a pretty hairy piece of equipment back in the day. He also talked his buddy out of the Hemi four-speed, mating that to his new Rat motor with a custom adapter plate.
With sufficient horsepower in place, Davy started to disassemble the '59 in preparation for making it into a full-blown race car. He vividly remembers taking off the original finned front brakes and tossing them aside, not knowing what they were. He installed a set of Moroso drag springs up front as well, a typical add-on at the time.
The original rear had broken during a burnout and was replaced with a narrowed 12-bolt out of a '69 Camaro. Davy added a Moroso posi unit, installed 5.57 gears (due to his tall rear tires), hooked up a set of ladder bars, inserted a pair of coilovers, and finally bolted up some chrome wheelie bars out back.
The trunk, meanwhile, was excised to make room for the new rear suspension and relocated battery. Up front, Davy cut 3 inches out of the valance and removed the front bumpers, giving the car a lowered, streamlined look. He then put at least 12 coats of lacquer on the car and buffed it to a nice shine. Finally, he had a local Hell's Angels member who went by the sobriquet "Stevie Wonder" come over and do the side graphics, complete with pearlescent paint and period-correct flakes.
Not only did the car look great, it really performed. Though a challenge to drive, the Vette ran consistent 9-second e.t.'s, making it one hell of a fast race car for the era. The '59 terrorized the New England scene for years under the "Midnight Express" moniker, winning match races and car shows alike, all while Davy was a member of the Spindle City Corvette Club.
Davy tired of racing the car in the early '80s. By that time he had relocated to New Jersey and didn't have the time to deal with the hot-rodded Chevy. One day a man came knocking, offered a reasonable sum, and a deal was struck. The car ended up in Sussex, New Jersey, where Mike Walsh would eventually find it, minus its racing engine.
Now temporarily retired from racing (we posed the car at Island Dragway in New Jersey purely for effect), the '59 sits at Walsh's shop in Shohola. He's got plans for the car, including putting it back the way it was when raced. Right now, a healthy 454 big-block sits between the front wheels, shifted by an automatic transmission. Walsh is already searching for an appropriate 427 to put back in the engine bay, and he still has that Hemi-spec four-speed sitting in the shop, along with a host of other parts that came with the car.
Given the expertise and drive of the boys at The Early Vette Shop, chances are good that the "Midnight Express" will once again be making quarter-mile runs on the dragstrips of the greater Northeast in the near future.
As far as the history of the car before Jim Davy's purchase, nothing's been uncovered. But due to the clues left with the car, we can pretty much conclude that it was born a big-brake/fuelie car. It now lives as a rolling testament to the crazy '70s, and its racing heritage will remain intact for generations to come.
Author's note: I'd like to thank Mike Walsh and the guys at The Early Vette Shop, as well as Jim Davy, for taking the time to relate the tale of the Midnight Express.