How does a typical restoration get done? There are two ways that come readily to mind. One is to pay an expert to do everything; the other is to load up on assembly manuals and restoration guides to perform a do-it-yourself job. But what if paying someone else to do things you're fully capable of is against your religion? And what if, on top of that, there's a shortage of manuals and information on the project you've just taken on? Well, unless you want to just give up, you do things the hard way-piece by piece, recording each step, and put in lots of detective work to get the information and pieces you need. Does this method work? Can dogged persistence and attention to every little detail overcome the lack of black-and-white directions? After seeing Don Harwood's Top Flight '55 Vette, we answer with a resounding "Yes!"
Harwood, a resident of Floyds Knobs, Indiana, had his first Corvette encounter later in life than most. While on a business trip, Harwood picked up a "cars for sale" paper to read on the flight home. Two cars caught his attention: a Plymouth Hemi GTX and a '55 Corvette. Harwood's interest in the Hemi made sense. His first car was a '55 Chevy, which he worked on with his older brother. He also owned a '57 and a '60, though never a Corvette. His interests turned toward quarter-mile racing, and Harwood describes himself as an "old drag racer," though his memories of Super Stock Chryslers and "Big Daddy" Don Garlits are still vivid. The GTX, however, isn't the vehicle that he called about.
When asked, "Why a Corvette," all Harwood answers is, "I don't know. I knew nothing about them." Whatever it was that drew him, he made a call to the '55s owner to get the low-down. He told Harwood that the engine was out of the car and the transmission was in the trunk, and he claimed that all the parts were "present and accounted for." It took an attorney's intervention to obtain a clear title, but once done, Harwood made an acceptable offer and went to pick up his "new" '55.
It was only when he got the car home and started looking closely at it that Harwood realized he was in for an adventure. The first obstacle was that some of the original gauges, the radio, and other rare parts were missing. The second came when Harwood started looking for information on the '55 Corvette. The problem? There wasn't much out there. No assembly manuals, no restoration guides, just one book by Noland Adams (which Harwood does admit helped a lot). The V-8-powered '55 Corvette, after all, was in many ways a one-year only vehicle. The small-block Chevy was a brand-new engine, with more than a few components that were found only during that model year. This resto was gonna have to be done the hard way: with tons of documentation and detective work.
Harwood is the type who dives into a project feet first, so he tore into the old Vette. There was a method to his madness, though. Everything that was taken off the car was "bagged and tagged." Every plastic bag was documented with extensive notes-information that proved invaluable later on down the line. Harwood also took extensive pictures, photographing each step of the disassembly. Once he had the body off the frame, every marking was captured on film, and he documented each and every bolt, screw, and connector. He even put all his documentation into a book-20 pages worth of '55 Corvette details.
This process, of course, worked great for dealing with the parts that were there. As for things that needed to be replaced...the name of the game was footwork. Harwood hit the big Corvette meets across the country, talking to anyone he thought might have even a clue to the whereabouts of any of the '55 items he needed. Through word of mouth and the telephone, he gradually found everything he needed. The one-year only heater cut-off valve was also found on Dodge trucks-that's where Harwood found his. The unique air cleaner? He ended up trading an engine for the correct piece. An original jack? It took 10 years to track one down. A correct vacuum advance? That took 11 years to find. A set of N.O.S. hubcaps were found at Carlisle one year. And how about a '55-only hood release, a cigarette lighter, and side curtains? The list was extensive, but like an automotive archeologist, Hopwood dug until he found the pieces he was looking for.
Over time, though, it all came together. Harwood did most of the work himself. He did enlist the help of a local man wearing a "Will Work For Food" sign to clean the greasy undercarriage-surprisingly, Harwood couldn't find him for a second day of work. Paint is another task he didn't want to tackle, and, unfortunately, problems with an unscrupulous shop owner caused Harwood to temporarily lose interest in the '55, though not in Corvettes. In fact, he bought a '62 racer and restored it to its original condition, and a 502-powered '71 for drag strip duty. In fact Harwood tells us he's "gone crazy," given that a 31,000-mile '65 and a '54 that's destined for a street rod treatment have joined his other three Vettes. He may not know why he bought that first one, but he sure knows what he likes!
Somewhere along the way, Harwood's wife Jackie joked that she'd like to ride in a '55 Corvette before she "passed on." That was the prodding Harwood needed to get the resto going again. Over the course of seven years he worked on reassembling the car, estimating it was about 80 percent done when he sent the car to Classic Restorations (located in Floyds Knobs) to be completed. Now planning on making it to February's NCRS Regional in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Harwood had the final touches applied when he flew in John Kennedy of House of Customs to stitch up the roadster's beige top and interior, which were finished barely a day before they had to leave Indiana for the meet.
Despite coming down with a slight case of manifold rust on the drive to the more humid South, Harwood's '55 was more than up to the test. All that research, documentation, and footwork added up to a 98 percent score and a Top Flight award in the car's coming out party. Harwood doesn't yet know if he'll go for any other awards. About his first Corvette and long-time project, he says, "It's awesome...it needs to be in a museum." And while we like to see Corvettes get driven, we agree in this case. All that digging and investigating brought one of the only 700 '55s built back to life, after all, and that's something worth preserving.