1961 Corvette Roadster - Long Hauler

One man's 44-year journey with a '61 Corvette - and the many engines that powered it along the way.

Scott Lachenauer Apr 9, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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Henry "Butch" White began dreaming of owning a Corvette all the way back in high school. The allure of its swept-back lines and the thought of drop-top cruising combined with the obvious performance aspects to make the Vette his ultimate adolescent dream car. Unfortunately for White, there were a number of speed-related fatalities in his area during his teenage years, with many of them involving Chevy's little 'glass sports car. At the time, his dad told him straight out, "If you bring one of those things home, it better have a big enough trunk for all your [expletive deleted], 'cause I'm kicking you out." Enough said.

Finally in late 1968, at age 21, White decided to test his dad's resolve on the household Corvette ban. He found a nice little '61 for sale locally, finished in innocent-looking white paint and sporting a hardtop trimmed in black vinyl. It wasn't a bad looking car at all, even if someone had carved up the soft top to excavate the eight-track player from its dash.

It turns out the seller needed a bigger car with a trunk, since his wife had just given birth to their first child. White just happened to have a car like that in his own private stock: a '65 Impala with a 283 engine and a "boot" the size of a hot tub. The guy immediately took a liking to the gleaming-red Imp, and an even swap was made on the spot.

Needless to say, White's father was less than pleased--he even refused to talk to his son for a week. He finally broke the ice by saying, "You got away with that one, but if you ever bring home a motorcycle, you're definitely getting your ass kicked out on the street."

As a gift, White's best friend went to the local Chevy dealer and bought him a fresh Dunvtov solid-lifter "30/30" camshaft for the new car. A pretty tired 283 sat between the fenders of the '61, but the old motor came to life with the new cam, and it ran pretty well out on the street.

After a month or so, the Vette was involved in a "parking-lot demolition derby" at an all-night Christmas party. A quarter-panel and door were damaged pretty badly, but the car was still driveable. White drove the Vette for two months with the damage, then had a bunch of friends come over and repair it with used parts. He then took the remainder of the insurance money to his local Chevy dealer, where he purchased a brand-new Z/28-spec 302. This was in the winter of 1969, and the high-revving 302 would serve as the Corvette's motivation for the next few years. The purchase was the last ingredient in a recipe of trouble for White, the Vette, and his street-racing spirit.

"A License to Steal"

By this time White had become a full-fledged police officer in his local borough in New Jersey. White says being a cop was like having a license to steal. "We could basically make our own rules out there on the street, because we were the ones who were supposed to be watching for this kind of crap," he admits. Needless to say, White and his cohorts watched and participated in plenty of street races in North Jersey…and they did it their way.

"Many times I would let a friend drive my car in a race, while I was working as a cop on duty. I would mark off the quarter-mile with the police car, start the race with the roof light of the patrol car, and then judge the winner as they went by me," he recounts with a grin and a sly chuckle. "What a great time it was in my life. I was in my 20s, a little crazy, and I was doing what I loved to do: running fast and hard."

White had been dating his sweetheart for a few years at this point, and he felt it was time to pop the question. So he decided to purchase a ring for his girl, and asked for the help of his prospective mother-in-law in picking out an appropriate diamond. Unfortunately, the Vette was undergoing some pretty heavy surgery at the time, as White had just stripped the car of its paint, removed the exhaust all the way up to the headers, and denuded the interior of everything but its two buckets.

"It must have been quite a trip for her," he says. "She must have wanted to get her daughter out of her house very badly to do that with me. But it worked out real well, as we're still married after 41 years."

The next few years saw some pretty heavy racing action for the Vette. White had finished the bodywork--installing custom Dodge taillights along the way--and added a few coats of '70 Cadillac Nottingham Green Firemist. He also completely restitched the interior. But shortly after completing the cosmetic work, he spun a rod bearing while performing a massive 7,000-rpm powershift for the benefit of a crowd gathered outside the local watering hole.

Back at home, he tore down the motor and built it back up to spec, then continued to beat on it every chance he got. Local 'strips like Island Dragway and Raceway Park became regular stops, as White expanded his racing repertoire to include legal, on-track events. Finally, after a few more years of constant battering, the 302 had nothing more to give. White sold the short block to a local gas-station owner, who rebuilt it and put it in his '63 split-window. White's Vette, meanwhile, received an engine out of a stock '73 Chevelle; this would provide mild-mannered motivation until he could decide on his next move with the car.




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