One man's meat is another man's poison, especially when it comes to Corvettes. For some, an all-original classic is the ultimate ride. For others, a pristine restoration that looks as good or better than new deserves the most the attention and the biggest dollars. Yet some Corvette enthusiasts see America's sports car as a blank canvas upon which to express their creative impulses. Only a customized Corvette—often called a "restomod"—gets their attention.
We're not here to pass judgment on any single point of view, but we can clarify some of the aspects of these three different categories, and how they affect the value of the car. Granted, not everybody buys a Corvette with an eye toward financial profit. There are far easier investments that don't require as much care and feeding in order to bring a solid return. But the money issue is always in the background, especially if you're trying to decide whether to drop a bundle on either a pure restoration or a "restification." Or whether it's simply better to leave well enough alone.
To help delineate these three categories, we'll provide some general definitions, and focus on one example of each type from the C2 era ('63 to '67), since "midyears" are the darlings of collectors right now. (Some of the observations, gleaned from both seasoned Corvette restorers and market experts, apply to both earlier and later models as well.)
A Survivor or Merely Surviving?
On the subject of nomenclature, up until 1990, unrestored cars were referred to in a number of ways, such as authentic, genuine, original, and so forth. The term "survivor" came into vogue when David Burroughs of Bloomington Gold registered it as a brand name. It has a very clear and distinct definition, a set of standards, and a process that must be followed in order to be properly used. In other words, just because a Corvette has "survived" through many decades of ownership, doesn't qualify it as a "Survivor." Employing the latter term in a precise sense actually refers to a certification process, not merely a condition.
As a comparison, Bloomington points out how many times people use words such as Kleenex for a tissue, or Xerox for a photocopy. Put another way, during a conversation we had with Burroughs at a private auction of muscle cars, he compared the difference between using the term "hamburger" and Burger King's Whopper. While these analogies might sound a bit prosaic when applied to a collectible Corvette, they do illustrate the importance of trademarks and intellectual property. And for a Corvette collector, owning a true, certified Survivor can affect the value of a car as much as the difference between a genuine Rolex and a cheap knock-off.
To illustrate, let's start with the non-restored black/red '63 Z06 Sting Ray shown here. Dave Glass of D&M Corvette Restorations purchased the car back in 1992. He says the color combo is rather rare, purportedly one of only nine produced. Showing less than 40,000 miles, it had been stored in a trailer for a number of years. Incredibly, the previous owner didn't realize the car was a Z06, having unknowingly purchased this rare collectible from the widow of the initial owner. While that scenario might sound ripe for the picking, Glass is a stand-up guy and wouldn't take advantage of the situation. So he pointed to the dual master cylinder as the telling difference. "It wasn't just a fuelie," he recalls. "I didn't want to mislead him or steal the car."
Though not a certified "Survivor" in the Bloomington sense, it's a veteran Vette with all the earmarks of an authentic original. Note that "Some people fake survivor status," as Glass points out. He feels it's probably one of the last, great, untouched originals still around, which accounts for the $250,000 selling price it commanded. Even so, "If I kept it, I would have restored it. The paint looks like crap—it's a 10- to 20-footer."
Whether a Corvette earns the Survivor designation or not, many folks would rather have a car that either looks as good as new, or drives even better than new. Which leads us to our next fork in the road. How do you decide whether to restore a Corvette or not?
For Glass, timing was one reason he didn't. "I was doing other cars like an LS6 and a 396 Chevelle, and just kept putting it off," he recalls. "It's easy to take a car apart, a lot tougher to put it back together. On a '65 fuelie, it took eight years to put it back together again." Another reason for his procrastination? M-o-n-e-y: "When I work on my own stuff, it's not a payday for me."
The financials do favor certain Survivor scenarios. David Kinney of Hagerty's "Cars That Matter" feels that well-preserved, completely original examples of significant, desirable, and rare cars with fully documented histories can sell for 75 to 100 percent more than the best restored examples of the same car—perhaps even more in the case of an ultra-desirable car for which it's virtually certain that another original example will never surface.
To some degree, the decision to restore depends on the eye of the beholder. For instance, noted Corvette aficionado Mike Yager of Mid America Motorworks came across a dilapidated '57 barn find. Rather than restore it, though, Yager plans to keep it the way it is, on a permanent display as a sort of window to the past. (But hey, Yager has more nice collectible Corvettes than you can shake a stick at, so he can afford to let at least of one of them look funky.) After all, it's like buying a piece of history, and you can restore an original only once.
Rejuvenating a Legend
Given the foregoing exceptions that prove the rule, how do you count the cost of a restoration project before proceeding? Taking a hard look at the market value of a non-restored versus a restored car depends on a number of factors. For some perspectives on this aspect, we touched bases with Patrick Krook of Show Your Auto, who has handled some of our auction coverage in previous issues. An expert at separating the wheat from the chaff, Krook's firm helps people build personal collections of Corvettes and rare muscle cars, and also helps to market and sell them. In the process of assessing vehicles, he does a fair-market valuation, weighing variables such as condition, research comparables, online sale dates, private sales of similar cars, and auction values. This last aspect is not quite as important as the others, however.
"I don't dismiss auction results, but I do qualify them," he admits. "Auction money is seldom reproduced in the private market." Instead, he focuses on originality, condition and desirability, and last, and—most important—authenticity.
"These are the four legs of the bar stool, and authenticity is the most important leg—if you can't tell if a car is real or not, the others don't matter. Unless you have good docs, you're sunk," Krook says.
Keeping that caveat in mind, you need to keep an eye on the potential ROI (return on investment). "Restorations can be cost prohibitive if you need to find the correct parts," Glass says. In the case of the black Z06, he figures the job would take a year and cost about $75,000 to $100,000, even though all the parts are there.
On the other hand, the silver/blue Z06 seen here had been slightly restored already, so it was in a bit of a gray area. This California car has only 31,000 miles on it, and when first spotted, "It took my breath way, it was just so beautiful," says Glass.
While the car is probably due for a mild freshening, Glass feels it could also qualify as a Survivor, since it's more than 50 percent original. "It was restored so long ago, probably 1984 or 1985, it's almost a Survivor," he asserts. "On an older resto, it's hard to tell what's been done."
We're not one to split hairs over labels, but instead provide some guidelines about what to do and when. From Krook's experience, he feels that, "If a survivor is clean and pristine, leave it alone."
But when a Corvette is highly valued, "yet highly tired, and everything needs attention," he adds, then restoration obviously makes good sense (assuming it's not a masterpiece or historical artifact like Yager's '57, which would lose value by merely cleaning it).
Still, you don't necessarily have to take the project to a level that's 106 percent better than original. Instead, Krook suggests the approach of a "sympathetic resto" that doesn't alter the traditional patina. Instead, do a mechanical rebuild, refurbishing the car so you can drive it from New York to Los Angeles, if you so desire, to relive your Route 66 recollections. That's called a "preservationist approach," as opposed to an exacting restoration. There's one big proviso in either situation, however. "There's a five-year shelf life on a resto. You either have a concours show car or a concours driver, and you'll have to make excuses for mellowing and losing crispness," he adds.
Restored or Restomod?
What if you want to take a detour off the pure resto approach, however? When is a restomod an improvement on an old favorite, or like putting new wine into old wineskins? ("For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins."—Mark 2:22)
Biblical analogies aside, we should point out that unlike the Survivor trademark, restomod (or restification, if you prefer), is a rather broad term, referring to a wide spectrum of cars—everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. We've come across some impeccable examples that look virtually identical to an original '63 split-window, but are married to modern mechanicals underneath those classic lines. At the other extreme, we've also seen cars that look more like a chance encounter behind the bicycle shed, producing a mongrel offspring.
Then there's something in between: a customized Corvette that takes tasteful liberties with the original look of the car, along with its underpinnings, yet preserves the spirit and feel. Consider the black restomod displayed here, owned by Fred Barber of Hinsdale, Illinois. The only original parts on the car are the body and seats. Everything else is new, from the chassis to the 572 Chevy to the custom rims.
Why go to so much trouble and expense to modify a Corvette? "Why not?" might be the tart reply. In Barber's case, though, he's like Yager, with a large number of great cars in his stable, and thus feels comfortable tampering with history. "He made it the way he wanted," Glass notes. "He likes to drive the car hard, and it'll break loose the tires at 100 mph. He turns on the air and music, and he's stylin'." How many owners of Split Windows can make the same claim?
Taking on the role of a car designer is no easy task, however. The hardest part? "Making decisions on what direction to take," Glass says. "The customer was very involved in the build process, even though he's a very busy guy."
Through it all, Glass kept his eye on the practical aspect, since it wasn't intended to be a trailer queen, nor sipped wine over on a concours lawn. "He was gonna drive it, so I made it easy to fix, with nothing exotic or foreign, so it can be repaired while on the road if need be." (Barber did keep all the factory parts so he can return the car to its original condition, something Glass has done with his Gasser Corvettes, which we featured in a previous issue.)
Looking at restomods in general, which have grown in popularity of late, Glass freely admits that, for all his success over the years, "I'm an old geezer trying to stretch the dollars." So when he gets strange customer requests, he tries to keep costs down and recommends doing a little at a time. As a case in point, he recalls one guy spending $400,000 at another shop and still not getting a driveable car. His basic premise: "Let's not destroy the integrity of the car."
When it comes to restomods, Krook agrees on the value of restraint—and of starting with the right candidate. Find one that's "not well documented, not original, not one of the rare options cars, not a King of the Hill, and no original engine," he recommends. "Then turn it into a toy, great for personalizing."
But with one big caveat: Don't expect to see your investment returned on the back end of the project. "What you invest doesn't guarantee market value," he maintains. "Restomods are not moneymakers, but they meet an appetite."
Indeed, Glass points out that many automotive enthusiasts, who are accustomed to contemporary quality, now expect the doors to have even gaps, and to close with a solid thunk. The old days of those Corvettes sloppily built in St. Louis, and finished with orange-peel paint, just don't cut it. "People want to be proud of their Corvettes, and enjoy better gear ratios, brakes, suspension," he concludes. The bottom line: "There is no right or wrong—it's what makes you happy."