Corvette Resto: The BodyTips and tricks of fiberglass bodywork
For the final installment on the restoration of the '64 Corvette Coupe owned by Milton Lewis, we get into an area that most auto enthusiasts may not be familiar with: fiberglass bodywork. Maybe you know how to grind and pound on sheetmetal, but how about those resin-impregnated fibers? Lack of familiarity with the material is not the only challenge here: back when these cars were built, the fiberglass finish just wasn't as good as the resin-transfer methods used on later-model Vettes. Smoothing out the surface isn't the issue since there are a lot of refinishing products on the market that can make a body look better than new.
And there's the rub (pun intended) -because, as mentioned in our previous installments, if a restored Vette doesn't look exactly as it did from the factory, the judges will deduct points. The NCRS (National Corvette Restoration Society) is so intent on accuracy that it downgrades a Vette that's been over-restored. For instance, original cars were known for the orange-peel texture of the paint, and this "flaw" must be preserved if you want to score well in restoration shows.
Carlos Vivas of C&S Corvette Restorations speaks from experience here, having lost points at an event in Bloomington for a too-smooth body on one of his personal cars. Carlos probably knows as much as anybody about Corvettes, but even he sends out the bodies for restoration. The prep and paint takes about three to six months, and costs as much as $7,500. Want that original factory finish? "Orange peel is another $1,000-you have to pay extra for it to look worse," he laughs. "You don't color-sand the paint in order to leave in the orange peel."
It's not just in the finish, either. When doing bodywork on Corvette resto, "I tell the shop, 'Don't smooth out all the waves,' and 'don't align the doors real good.'" This paradoxical approach to restoring a Corvette leads to some surprising methods to recreate the look of authenticity. If a replacement panel has been used, Carlos says he can tell the difference in the resin and bonding of the newer part. "I know what to look for, and can hide it," he admits. In one car, he "aged" the panel and put dirt in the bonding. He also rubbed the inner surface with a towel soaked in black paint to take out the sanding marks. On Milton Lewis' car in particular, the dealer added undercoating prior to delivery, a feature not found from the factory, so prior to completing the bodywork, Milton painstakingly scraped off every speck of the sticky black film. "It took me two weeks with a heat gun, putty knife and lacquer thinner to remove it to a factory appearance," recalls Lewis, shaking his head. Now that's dedication!
Looking at the Corvette bodies in general, Carlos points out that it's easier to work on a coupe than a convertible because there's less flex and the parts line up better. He says that after a convertible body sits on a dolly for six months, it begins to sag, and may need to be shimmed to fit back on the chassis. For that reason, before he begins a body-off restoration, Carlos makes a meticulous disassembly diagram showing the exact location, number and type of shims used at the factory. Complicating this process is the fact that the shims are made of metal, rubber or even cardboard.
In addition to the bodywork, the final stages of restoration called for some work on the original rims. "I cleaned and restored all five aluminum wheels, which took all the skin off my fingers," Lewis says. But the alternative was probably more painful, at least financially. Back in 1964, steel wheels cost less than $20, but nowadays they're hard to find, and go for ten times as much. The real kicker is the knockoffs. He paid $300 for them back when the car was new, but today he says they go for as much as $6,300. So it's not surprising that Lewis put so much of his own time into the project. All that sweat-equity seems to have paid off because he's been offered more than $60,000 for the car-not a bad return on a $5,600 initial investment. Undoubtedly the real treasure is all his wonderful memories of owning and pampering his Vette over the last four decades.
C&S Corvette Restorations, 23206 Mariposa Avenue, Torrance, CA 90502, 310/325-6367