It was supposed to be a day off. No photos to take, no articles to write, no phone calls to answer--just a relaxing Saturday, taking in the great weather at the Del Mar Goodguys show, checking out some cool cars, having a few cold ones, and enjoying the company of friends. And that's just how things went, until we walked through the show's main hall.
It stood out like a sore thumb among the down-in-the-weeds rods and customs, all sky-high stance, Hillborn stacks, and killer flames. A closer examination revealed an immaculately detailed ride, a fat-tired Gasser-style dragster and spit-and-polish showcar, all wrapped up into one '57 Corvette. It was time to go to work, 'cause I had a photo shoot to set up.
Pat D'Ambrosio of Bothall, Washington, was born into a Chevy family. He was reading every car magazine he could get his hands on by the time he was 16, and also spending time at the dragstrip at nearby Seattle International Raceway. There were a multitude of musclecars to check out and admire, but it was the "Gassers," those solid front-axled, high-standing, mondo-motored doorslammers that left an impression on young D'Ambrosio. And as for a particular marque among these quarter-mile warriors...
"Corvettes always spoke to me," he told us, and it's no wonder. His first car was a '63 split-window coupe, a car D'Ambrosio says was "dangerous to own," but also served as a "great equalizer" when it came to the high school dating scene. It also gave the young Corvette fan a chance to discover his talents at tinkering, a habit he continued into the '70s, owning '67 and '68 big-block Vettes. Then, as it usually does, "real life" intervened, and the Corvetting went on hold for awhile.
Cut to a year-and-a-half ago. D'Ambrosio found himself in between projects, and felt that the time was right to get back into Corvettes. He found a starting point in Las Vegas, struck a deal, and brought the well-worn '57 home to Washington. At this point, the problem was, "What do I do with this thing?" The old Vette, which had a 30-year racing history in the Vegas area (campaigned by Don's Chassis Shop), had a decent interior, but also had a straight front axle, a rollbar, and a big-block powerplant fed by dual four-barrels in the engine bay.
More importantly, the stock frame had been chopped off at the firewall, and a box-section frame welded in to accommodate the solid front axle. The rear frame section had also been modified and strengthened, from under the driver's door back. "It sat too high," D'Ambrosio recalls. "It was too extreme." As for the quality of the modifications made to this old warrior, D'Ambrosio was less than impressed. "The car was done in a rough way, by amateurs," he bluntly states. The extreme frame alterations made a traditional restoration impractical, so an entirely different approach would be needed. In Pat D'Ambrosio's words, it was time to go "all the way."
ONLY A GASSER WILL DO
One of the first alternatives D'Ambrosio considered was the now-popular "hybrid" approach, incorporating late-model Corvette running gear into the old solid-axle's chassis to create a sexy vintage Vette with modern performance. In this particular hot rodder's mind, however, it had been done--D'Ambrosio wanted something that really "spoke" to him. That voice was found in the past. "In looking at some old photographs, I was reminded of many of these cars were turned into Gasser-style drag cars," D'Ambrosio told us. "Specifically, my photos from 1969-72, which showed some very nice examples of '57s. The majority of these cars were owned by a group of Japanese racers at Seattle International Raceway. So, a combination of it being the right candidate, and a strong passion for the past and all the emotion that it brings, made it easy to build the car into what it really should be."
The key partner in this endeavor was Jory Brender of Classic Car Service in Snohomish, Washington. D'Ambrosio discussed his goals with Brender, who quickly developed a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea of creating a Gasser Vette. Brender's paint and fabrication shop disassembled the entire car, repaired the fiberglass, and began the engine work.
The challenges were certainly numerous. The car had been stripped of all street legal and "comfort" items; companies such as Corvette Central, Paragon, and Zip provided new glass, wiring, weatherstripping, door and window hardware, and countless other components. All the chrome and bright work was also refinished or replaced, as was the replacement hardtop, purchased from Crane Corvette in California. Finding new parts wasn't the only tough task; refurbishing those that were still intact was also problematic. "Where do you go to get an old Borg-Warner transmission rebuilt?" D'Ambrosio wondered. (The answer was Classic Car Serivce). It was a challenge, but one that both owner and builder were up to.
GETTING IT RIGHT
It's evident that a great deal of detail work went into creating this Vette, a running, driving, immaculate street car with the soul of a old-time drag car. Things like creating inner fender panels that show off the custom headers, and matching the rest of the interior to the vintage-style seats. But one thing that D'Ambrosio considered essential to the Gasser look was the Hilborn injection stacks sticking through the hood. Bob Beam of Imagine Injection in Phoenix provided a computer-controlled engine management system and a Hilborn unit converted to electronic fuel injection. Once the new system was dialed in, the 427 big-block provided plenty of go for the chow, churning out 560 horsepower at 6,200 and 480 lb-ft of torque at 4,600 rpm.
Another thing that had to be just right was the stance. The rough-done race car needed help, and that's where Brender's fabrication skills came in handy. The frame was adjusted until the '57 had just the right look. Along with the 15-inch American Racing wheels, fat rear rubber, modern Wilwood binders up front, and the peek-a-boo headers on display, it's safe to say that this thing sits just right.
And then there was the flame job. D'Ambrosio traveled to Northern California to meet with noted flame designer Art Himsel, who provided insight into creating a period-correct flame job. He also looked through many more photos and old flame books for inspiration. D'Ambrosio also commissioned several renderings by automotive artist Jason Rushforth, all in an effort to nail down the right look. Ultimately, Rich Thayer of R&J Customs was brought in. "He really helped interpret what I wanted," D'Ambrosio comments. "It is, to me, a dramatic use of color that really adds to the car." We agree.
TIME TO ENJOY
The Vette was finished just in time for the Del Mar Goodguys show, with D'Ambrosio working overtime on the final reassembly. Now that his modern Gasser is finished, D'Ambrosio says he's "Just gonna enjoy it." Vacations are being planned around various car shows so that he car get out with family and friends and enjoy his creation. Not that this Vette is just a piece of art. "It drives pretty well, even with the straight front axle," D'Ambrosio declares. And, true to his roots, he plans to take his Gasser out to the track, attending various nostalgia drag events in the Northwest.
Of course, this reborn '57 is a piece of automotive art. "It's American culture...an art form," D'Ambrosio reflects. "And Corvettes are an icon of American culture." Pat D'Ambrosio grew up on Gassers and Vettes, and those youthful influences led to his own interpretation of auto as work of art. Aesthetics aside, we just know a rad, bitchin', cool--and unique--Corvette when we see it. We hope you enjoy checking it out as much as we did.