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.