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C1 Corvette Interior - Overhauling A Friend's '59 Vette, The Finale

Rob Sutter's '59 Gets A New Interior Plus Other Goodies To Finish Off What Started As A Simple Engine Swap

Dick Moritz Aug 4, 2009
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It appeared that the original seat covers had been replaced a long time ago, and the years had not been kind to the seams. However, the last 30 years have seen substantial improvements in many parts, including reproduction upholstery, and the new covers seemed to be heavier and better built.

If you've been following the story about Rob Sutter's '59, you'll know that his friend and business partner Bob Yeoman "stole" Rob's car out from under him to repay a large favor and replace the way-too-radical former dragster engine with a perfectly-streetable crate 350 from GM Performance Parts. The project escalated, as these things so often do, into a wholesale transformation into a resto-mod C1, complete with state-of-the-art steering, suspension, and brakes. In our last installment we detailed the installation of a trick monoleaf fiberglass rear spring from Vette Brakes & Products, adjustable QA1 rear shocks, rear sway bar courtesy of Jim Meyer Racing, and the crowning glory, a rear disc brake setup from Stainless Steel Brakes Corp. to match those they supplied for the front.

With all of the drivetrain and steering and suspension upgrades, Bob just couldn't return the car to Rob with tattered upholstery, inoperative gauges, and other time-worn interior parts. So the call went out to long-time CF advertisers for the pieces and services needed to make the '59 look as good as it runs.

Our friends at Corvette Central stepped up to the plate and provided a full interior kit-pretty much everything except a dash pad cover, since the replacement installed some 30 years ago was still in as-new condition. Corvette Central supplied new seat covers, carpets, interior door trim with door reflectors and kick panel inserts, even new door and lock handles. Plus, they were kind enough to supply a full set of weatherstrips for the convertible top, and a new trunk weatherstrip for good measure.

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The seats lift right out of their frames on C1 Corvettes. Installation of replacement covers can be a do-it-yourself job, especially if you have a friend who has done the job before. It can be difficult for a first-timer to get a perfect installation, but the results can be entirely adequate for a driver-quality installation. But if you're doing a show car, installation is best left to a pro.

Brian Tilles and his team at Corvette Specialties of Maryland eagerly took on the task of restoring the gauge cluster since gauge restoration is one of their, well, specialties. They've got years and years of experience, along with special tools and procedures for rebuilding, refinishing, and calibrating Corvette gauges, and you can see some of the steps they take in the accompanying sidebar.

A complement of carefully-crafted wiring harnesses came courtesy of M & H Electric Fabricators, including a new main dash harness, an engine compartment harness, a rear lighting harness, plus headlight extension and generator harnesses as well. These excellent reproduction harnesses fit like factory, and were a welcome replacement for the 50 year-old originals that had suffered the pocket knife-and-electrical tape fate so common in older Vettes. The new main harness included a new, nicely-integrated fuse block so there was no need to re-use the potentially problematic original with all of our nice, new harnesses. And with our newly-reconditioned gauge cluster, we didn't want to risk damage, or smoke-or worse-with the original, oft-repaired harness. The new wiring was cheap insurance, and offered great peace of mind.

To complete the IFS/R&P setup from Flaming River Products which was covered in a previous story in this series, Gary Gardner and his crew at Gardner's Automotive installed Flaming River's steering column kit, which includes a column complete with turn signal switch and wiring, along with a heavy-duty steering shaft with beautiful billet U-joints, and machined firewall cover plates for both the engine compartment and cockpit sides. A machined adapter allows for installation of a reduced-diameter look-alike steering wheel from Corvette Central that simulates the look of the factory wheel but with a smaller diameter that allows for more leg room while enhancing the feel of the wheel. Plus, the reduced diameter wheel works in perfect harmony with the lower steering effort required by the R&P setup.

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The new covers we got from Corvette Central were exact reproductions and showed excellent workmanship. Since these seats had seen so little use over the years, we elected to re-use the seat spring assemblies, but install a new CC seat foam kit. The new foam would help re-establish the bolsters, providing as much lateral support as these early designs were capable of.

Finally, as detailed in our first installment in this series, the newly resto-modded Vette was presented to Rob at a surprise party attended by all of the "co-conspirators" in the project, along with friends who helped with the original rebuilding of this basket case. CF editor Alan Colvin traveled to Bethlehem, PA for the grand unveiling, and Rob was presented with a custom-made trunk board that included the logos of many of the fine suppliers that made the project a success.

An overhauled Corvette, a great, fun project, a lot learned, and deep friendships enhanced-truly a fairy tale come true.

Don't Do It Yourself

There are many things you can do to your Corvette that are fun and fulfilling and can save you a substantial bundle of shekels. Rebuilding your instruments, however, is not one of them. Other than simple lens replacement, any other gauge repair or restoration should be left to those with the special skills and tools needed to do the job properly. You wouldn't try to fix your own wrist watch-either digital or mechanical-and gauges are similarly complex.

In the course of resto-modding this C1, project manager Bob Yeoman sent the gauge cluster off to Corvette Specialties of Maryland, one of the best known in the art of gauge restoration. For years they've been rebuilding, repairing, and restoring 53-82 Corvette gauges and, in fact, offer a range of services from mechanical repair to full cosmetic and mechanical restoration.

Photos 21 to 39 show the steps they take in restoring a '59 speedometer; tachometer and small gauge restoration is similar. Given that labor to overhaul a C1 speedometer or tachometer starts at just $90.00, and typical bottom line costs average $150-300, you'll see that this is a cost-effective job best left to the pros. And a small gauge overhaul costs even less.

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The key to installation of seat covers is the use of "hog ring" pliers and rings that are supplied in the Corvette Central installation kit. Crimping these rings draws the upholstery up tight to the seat frames.

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The new seat covers are made with channels that accommodate stiffening rods, about the thickness of welding rods, that you feed through to provide a solid surface to clamp. Crimping the hog rings around these stiffeners distributes the pulling force throughout the seat cover. Without these rods, the hog rings would simply tear through the fabric.

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Rob's friend "Dr. Harry" Marcy accepted the assignment to install the new covers. Dr. Harry is a dentist with thousands of fillings and root canals (sorry...) to his credit, so he has the skilled hands needed to handle this upholstery job. Having done seat covers on his own '66 Vette, as well as many other sports cars including his Firebird and a friend's Jaguar, Dr. Harry has learned the gentle art of using a hair dryer to help smooth out wrinkles that may appear in the vinyl.

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The "new" 30 year-old door panels were in surprisingly good shape, but had never been on the receiving end of new metal insert panels. Corvette Central supplied a beautiful set of ready-to-install panels.

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The panels were pre-punched so it was a simple job to crimp on the new metal panels, then install the finish trim by simply bending over the retaining tangs. Quality reproduction door panels come "pre-perforated" with knock-outs for power or manual windows.

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We also installed new door panel reflectors from Corvette Central through the knock-outs provided. New small chrome bits help provide a finishing touch that makes a job like this look, and stay looking, fresh.

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Here you can see clearly the process for installing the panels and finishing trim. The panels are precurved and notched so that the finished product looks exactly "factory."

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The completed door panel makes a huge difference in the appearance of the interior, and is a job easily performed by a do-it-yourselfer. While installation of new seat covers calls for a deft touch and some experience, door panel renewal is a straightforward task, and a perfect Saturday afternoon job.

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The steering column kit from Flaming River came complete with all the pieces needed for installation, and was a perfect complement to the rack-and-pinion unit covered in a previous article. Supplied complete with turn signal switch and horn wiring, this column is a virtual look-alike to the original, but with 21st century technology behind it.

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In the engine bay the column and steering shaft have that "nearly original yet slightly high tech" look, perfect for the resto-mod look of the rest of the car. The Flaming River kit includes a steering column and steering shaft, as well as beefy U-joints. The only modification required with this kit is a slight notching of the driver's side horizontal ignition shielding for steering shaft clearance.

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Here Gary Gardner installs the inside firewall finishing plate, a beautifully machined piece that, along with its counterpart on the engine side of the firewall, prevents the passage of wind and water while providing a support point for the lower end of the column.

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With the instrument cluster off to Corvette Specialties of Maryland for overhaul (see sidebar), you can see the original dash wiring harness which, like those of most cars of this vintage, has seen its share of splices and repairs. The good folks at M&H Electric Fabricators provided all new harnesses to keep the volts where they belong. Corvette Specialties also supplied new speedometer and tach cable/casing assemblies to install while the cluster was out.

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Our new M&H wiring harnesses were made with particular attention to important criteria like color coding, exact length, proper connectors, and wrapping just like original. Their attention to detail made installation straightforward and assured that all the electrons will be flowing properly for many years to come.

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Here you can see that our new steering wheel from Corvette Central was a bit smaller in diameter than the OE wheel, but maintains the correct look while providing the proper amount of leverage to direct the R&P steering.

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The new carpet kit, courtesy of Corvette Central, came cut and bound so installation was a virtual drop-in job.

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The finished interior is a work of art, with newly-refinished gauge cluster, seat covers, steering column and wheel, and new carpet kit (with carpet mats in place to protect our new original-look carpets.

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Joe Drum is one of Rob's friends who helped with the original reassembly of this basket-case '59. Joe actually applied this paint thirty years ago and polished it just before the surprise party presenting the finished car back to Rob. Joe jokes that he waited this long to buff the paint out "just to be sure it had enough time to dry."

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One last surprise awaited Rob at the unveiling of his newly resto-modded '59. A custom-made trunk board included the logos of many of the suppliers who supported the project, along with the autographs of key players in the surprise, include that of CF editor Alan Colvin.

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The original '59 speedometer was not in bad shape cosmetically, but was totally inoperative. Clearly the years had taken their toll, and Corvette Specialties' Brian Tilles told us that this is very common in these older units.

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Likewise the original tach looked pretty good, but Brian said it would have howled like a banshee if not overhauled, and removing the cluster a second time to get the tach out again is a job we sure didn't want to do.

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Initial disassembly of the speedometer shows the major components.

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The speedometer and tachometer are completely disassembled in order to access and evaluate the condition of all moving parts.

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Here you can see the intricacy and delicacy of the speedometer's components. Just looking at these pieces should convince you that speedometer overhaul is not a DIY job.

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Restoration begins with media blasting of the various housings to restore a like-new finish that will stand up to the toughest NCRS and Bloomington Gold judging standards. The technicians at Corvette Specialties are always careful to preserve original part numbers and other stampings that appear on the backs of the gauges.

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Odometers and tachometer rev counters, where applicable, are completely disassembled, serviced/repaired as necessary, lubricated, and reassembled. Brian and his team are able to replace counters that are no longer serviceable, and he cautions that others in the business who do not have access to correct parts sometimes use counters from passenger cars of different years and even from other GM car lines. The numerals on these "replacement" counters may look significantly different than the original Corvette units and cost points during show judging.

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This photo shows a broken hair spring on a speed cup, a common failure on these speedometers.

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Another common failure is a broken solder joint holding the spindle to the speed cup.

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Brian has sourced a secret supply of new speed cups that allow his team to make reliable, permanent repairs.

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All components must be reassembled in precisely the right order or the unit will not work properly and may, in fact, cause damage to newly-replaced parts.

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Pinpoint lubrication with a light machine oil helps prevent the "speedometer howl" so common in cars of the 50's and 60's.

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The field plate and speed cup are mounted to the frame, forming the foundation of the reassembled speedometer head assembly.

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Installation of the third worm is a precision step in the process.

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Show restorations receive a new odometer so that the numerals will be crisp and clear, not faded and discolored like most originals.

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Vanessa Tilles carefully re-screens faces with the help of an industrial magnifying glass. It's this kind of old-world craftsmanship (craftswomanship?) that produces show-winning results.

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Karl Burl installs the refinished face onto the reconditioned speed-ometer/ odometer mechanism.

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Brian Tilles uses a special fixture to calibrate every speedometer and odometer repaired by Corvette Specialties. This step assures accuracy, and also serves as a quality control check for all the work that has gone into the restored unit.

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Final assembly includes installation of a new lens into the newly-rechromed bezel/housing. This step assures that the overhauled speedometer will look as good as it works.


Corvette Central
Sawyer, MI 49125
Lakeville, MN 5504
M&H Electric Fabricators
Vette Brakes and Products
Corvette Specialties of Maryland
For previous installments:



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