Friday, February 19, 2010

The Delmo Johnson Corvettes

Mecum Performance Auctions held their first-ever Monterey sale last year during the Historic Weekend in August. In preparation for that event I flew to California in early June to audit a private collection that was consigned to the Monterey auction. I spent a fascinating couple of days poring over documentation, spec sheets and photo albums, and along the way had the opportunity to drive several highly collectible and incredibly valuable cars - exciting in theory, but a bit intimidating in practice, at least whenever I stopped to consider the price tag on whatever I happened to be driving.

Two of the most interesting cars in the collection were factory-prepared Corvettes originally raced by Texas Chevrolet dealer Delmo Johnson and his friend and co-driver Dave Morgan, whose partnership excelled in SCCA A-Production competition. The owner of the collection arranged for me to call Delmo for an interview which, as sometimes happens, never made it into the promotional materials for the auction.

So here for the record I am pleased to share Delmo Johnson’s thoughts on campaigning these two Corvettes in the golden era of American road racing:

On the 1962 Corvette

We did well at Sebring in 1962- I enjoyed racing that car. We always used cerametallic brakes but that was the first car to use forward self adjusters and the expanding shoe package. Of course they originally had conventional reverse self adjusters which were no good during a race. Before Sebring I kept asking Zora, “do you want us to spin out a lot?”, because the only way to adjust the brakes was to apply them while the car was in reverse. So he finally sent us brakes with forward adjusters for Sebring, but then those worked too well! We had great brakes for the first two hours, then none for the next ten, which wasn’t that big a problem for us; we were able to adapt to that without too much trouble.

After the race the mechanics put the car up on jacks right away because they wanted to have a look at the brakes, and boy, they were surprised- the linings were long gone, just the t-shaped shoes were left and they were metal-to-metal with the drums. But we finished high anyway, first in GT by our scoring but officially we came third in GT.

That car was a winner. We (Johnson and his racing partner Dave Morgan) had a lot of confidence in it. Just to mess with the competition we’d load a six pack and a small tool kit into the car and drive it to the races- that got into their heads. Then Morgan took to racing an open wheel formula car sometimes in support races so we put a hitch on the Corvette and showed up with the formula car on a trailer out back. And that really shook ‘em up.

The stock engine was really good. When a new one came from Zora we would take it apart and blueprint it, because the stock specs were just right for the 327. You might get one with the bore angle at 89, maybe even 87 degrees to the deck, so we’d bore it out and straighten it to 90 degrees, things like that just to make sure everything was exactly the way it should be. If you did that, those 327s would run all day long and make all the power you’d ever want. In fact, if you kept them at 6,500 RPM they’d last forever. Of course, most guys couldn’t hold back like that, and they all learned the hard way that you can’t run for long at 8,000 RPM.

You learned something every time you raced, and we always rebuilt what we didn’t like, but Chevrolet made that ’62 so that right off the showroom floor it was a very useable race car. We added an oil cooler, maybe a rear end cooler, stuff like that, but Zora did a very good job designing and building those cars.

On the 1963 Z06:

There was nothing special or secret in that car, we ordered it through the dealership on a normal order pad. Mind you, we were in constant communication with Zora, and we know he had some influence with the assembly, but I couldn’t say what, specifically. Chevrolet usually began annual production around September 15 and we normally did not receive a new car until late December, but we got the Z06 in time to run a few races in the Dallas area and develop it before Sebring.

That was the first car with two-bar spinners for the knock off wheels. They came in a “race box” Zora sent us. We ran into a problem right away: the right side wheels fell off the first couple of times we tried them, because they had sent us four right-side spindles. So Zora sent us a pair with reverse threads and that solved that.

We did a lot of test work for Zora. He’d design some piece and send it to us in a box, we’d test it and if it failed we’d send it back so he could determine why and redesign it to correct the problem. Sometimes we’d hear about it from Zora and other times we never heard from him again. Every time we went racing we’d have something experimental on the car, but we always had the original part for back-up so that we could change it back if it broke. But racing was how Chevrolet improved their cars. Positraction, brakes, 2-by-4 carbs, fuel injection, the small-blocks, the big blocks; almost all those things, and a lot of accessories, came from Chevrolet’s racing program. That was just how they did it then.

The basic Z06 was always a good race car. Sometimes stuff broke, but we were very active racers so that was bound to happen. We raced fifty weekends a year, and the only reason we didn’t race fifty-two was that no-one held a race on Easter Sunday or Christmas Day. We raced from Mexico City to Chicago, Phoenix to Nassau; all over the Southeast. But it was just too far to go to California too often or to the Northeast- you could waste a whole day driving two thousand miles, you know.

For most of us there were only two reasons to race: a few did it to make money, but for most of us it was just because it was so darn much fun. We had a lot of great times and made a lot of good friends and memories.

We were serious about the racing itself, though. The first time out with the Z06 was at Caddo Mills; I got stuck behind a guy in an older Vette who was obviously slower but there just wasn’t enough room to get clean around him. So I approached him afterwards and said, “hey, my car is faster, why don’t you be a good sport and let me past so I can race?” And he starts talking about how Delmo Johnson is more worried about his bright shiny new car than about winning. He said “If you’re so fast, then pass me." So I took my key and ran it along the side of the Z06, and I looked at him and said, “I don’t give a shit about the car. I’m here to race, so if that’s how you want it, that’s fine with me". Next time out, he saw me coming and moved right over.

But that sort of thing didn’t happen too often; it was mostly just a lot of fun.

You can read more about Delmo Johnon's 1962 Corvette racer here, and about the 1963 Z06 here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sleeping Beauty

The Z06 is in storage until late April, after which, lore tells us, all those showers bring May flowers. But an early spring has arrived here in Vancouver along with the Winter Olympics,  and with the recent warm and sunny weather I may very soon be taking RT66 out for its first drive of the year.

Vette Garage: The Series

I’m way behind when it comes to watching YouTube, but I have found an excellent cable-style series online in Vette Garage, The Series, broadcast in HD. It’s all about Corvettes, without all the screaming and yelling of American Chopper or any of the other “reality conflict” junk out there (I had to hand it to the guys at Pink Slips when they took all the starting line squabbling out of the show and unleashed drag racing’s inherent sportsmanship).

There are presently four installments, the first three covering Pfadt Race Engineering as the crew begins development on its C6 Z06 racer in Utah. Episode 4 tells the story of Corvette Recycling, one of the largest operations of its kind - you won’t believe how big these guys really are.

The series’ target audience could not be more well-defined: Corvette lovers. And they come in all ages, shapes and sizes, because almost everyone loves the Corvette.

Vette Garage, The Series is a huge hit with Corvette fans. Here is the first installment:

Corvette enthusiasts rejoice; this is exactly what we want to watch. gives it a big thumbs up.
Here is their home page - catch all four episodes and read the reviews.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Great Exploding Pinto

In August 1972 my friend Jim Leishman and I took the bus from Hamilton, Ontario to Niagara Falls, New York for a big show at 1320 Dragway (Sundaaayyyy!!!! Niagaraaaahh!!!!). It was a solid big-name Top Fuel and Funny Car show, the kind they screamed about on the radio during the week. Along with the local talent, all the big guns were there: Snow, Schumacher, The Hawaiian, the Mickey Thompson Pinto; Chris Karamasines, a young Jeb Allen, Tommy Ivo and yes, Big Daddy Don Garlits and Tommy Lemon. I was a wide-eyed fourteen year old and loved every second of it; it was like spending an entire weekend in the pages of Drag Racing USA.

Come the final rounds, the light was fading on Dale Pulde's Mickey Thompson Pinto and Gene Snow's Snowman Charger, the last survivors of the Funny Car field. When the cars fired the Pinto sounded like it was packed with dynamite. I thought at the time that maybe driver Pulde had piled on the nitro, as he'd been known to do on occasion. Whatever the reason, its engine note was sharp and loud. I shouted to Leishman that I thought the Pinto was going to blow, and off I bolted toward the finish line. Both cars roared through their burnouts behind me as I ran at full speed along the slope bordering the track. They lined up just as I scrambled down the hill to watch them launch from about a thousand feet away, separated only by a couple of steel cables lining the edge of the asphalt.

The Pinto left hard, way out ahead of Snow. Sure enough, it blew to smithereens right in front of my eyes at well over two hundred miles an hour. It was magnificent. Fans scrambled to retrieve the pearl red fiberglass shards and the bits of blower that rained down. Pulde and the crew posed for photographs with what was left of the car, and on their way back to the pits they threw Peter-Paul candybars to the cheering crowd.

As if that wasn't enough, the very next race was the Top Fuel final, in which Don Garlits beat a tearful Jeb Allan and set a new national record at 6.10/244MPH, breaking Clay Harris' mark by .24 seconds and 9MPH, a big fat country mile. Big Daddy celebrated with a huge fireworks show. It was all great.

What's special to me now about the story of the Great Exploding Pinto is that 35 years later, I found this photo at


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette, Part 2

Bloomington Gold photo by Walter Thurn

Mecum Performance Auctions made big news at their January, 2009 Kissimmee, FL event when the 1963 Gulf One Z06 Corvette sold for a record price of $1.05 million. There was a great deal of promotional work in the months prior to the sale, involving extensive research, writing, and photography. Noted Z06 expert Eric Gill contributed his expertise, writing the forward for a book I wrote about the car’s history, “Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette”, published by Mecum as part of the marketing campaign. That book has since become somewhat of a collector’s item and is difficult to find. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that its contents have been the source, shall we say, of several subsequent articles both in print and on the web, so I have decided to publish the original text here at Musclecar Classics.

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette
Part 2: Grady Davis, Dr. Dick Thompson and Gulf One Today

Grady Davis approached racing with the same zeal for which he was famous in every other aspect of his career. Like the great Alfred Neubauer, whose management of the fabled Mercedes-Benz racing teams established the modern standard, Davis had run his first Gulf Corvette efforts with military precision, and he applied the lessons learned to the new operation right from the start.

Chassis number 2227 was delivered to Gulf personnel at the St. Louis plant in early October 1962, driven to Gulf’s Pittsburgh corporate headquarters, dismantled and rebuilt to Davis’ specifications and rushed to Puerto Rico for the first and only Puerto Rico Grand Prix. With famed Corvette specialist Dr. Dick Thompson at the wheel, the new racer, famously designated by Davis as “Gulf One”, scored the first class win of its career. After an A-Production victory at Marlboro, Maryland’s “Refrigerator Bowl” in January 1963, Gulf One was then prepared to FIA rules for Florida’s Daytona Continental and Sebring 12 Hours races. In February, Dick Thompson scored a huge third place overall and first in GT3 at Daytona behind two Ferrari GTOs, following up in March with a disappointing gearbox failure at Sebring after another impressive drive.

But the Sebring results were rendered irrelevant by GM’s devastating post-race announcement: the factory had decided to withdraw its support; dedicated racers who had staked their fortunes on the newly-minted Z06 were suddenly on their own. Worse, at two thirds the weight of the Corvette and equipped with disc brakes, the rapidly-improving Cobras had signaled their potential against all comers, prompting Duntov’s famous observation that the handwriting was “on the wall.”

Davis, his drivers and the entire Gulf team resolved to continue campaigning at the national level despite these withering blows. Even as the Cobras gained steam, Thompson barnstormed Gulf One across the country, winning 1st place overall at the SCCA President’s Cup at Marlboro, Maryland and the A/Production class at Danville, Virginia and Road America, and finished the season as the most successful of all the factory Z06 racers.

The intervening years have shown the 1963 season to be one of the most important in the history of motor sports; it was certainly that for the Corvette, especially the Z06. Even within the context of the Cobra challenge and the European marques’ arrival on the American racing scene, the Z06 Sting Ray represented an epochal moment in the Corvette’s development and its bedrock establishment, some would even say its consecration, as America’s Sports Car. The Gulf team’s 1963 campaign was the very definition of the mythical Hero’s Journey, running fifteen events in twelve months and prevailing against insurmountable odds.

After the end of the 1963 season Grady Davis sold Gulf One to Doc Blatchley, who continued to race the car in SCCA events, as did its subsequent owner Don Pulver. Collector and racer Rich Mason purchased the car, still complete and virtually unchanged, from Pulver in 1991. Mason then undertook an extensive and thoroughly documented restoration which was executed by talented Carson City, NV specialist Chet Bunch. Gulf One was then bought by Harry Yeaggy, who maintained it through several years in race-ready condition, as it remains today under private ownership.

Gulf One’s racing career represents one of the noblest campaigns in Corvette racing history, a dramatic last stand against a confluence of forces that eventually spelled the demise of the Z06 concept until its recent and widely celebrated resurrection. What’s old is new again, and as the most accomplished Z06 in Corvette history, Gulf One is still at the top of every knowledgeable Corvette collector’s list of must-haves, the most significant, well-documented and thoroughly authenticated of the 1963 Z06 Sting Rays purpose-built for racing. It was the first car prepared with advanced race technology developed specifically for the Z06 and later adapted for use on the prototype Grand Sports. During its career it was the most widely campaigned of all the works cars; indeed, it was the only one to compete entirely at the national level, racing in more venues than any other. No other Z06 received more corporate support from Chevrolet. It remains the most highly original of all the racing Z06 Sting Rays and a monument to one of American racing’s greatest eras.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette, Part 1

Mecum Performance Auctions made big news at their January, 2009 Kissimmee, FL event when the 1963 Gulf One Z06 Corvette sold for a record price of $1.05 million. There was a great deal of promotional work in the months prior to the sale, involving extensive research, writing, and photography. Noted Z06 expert Eric Gill contributed his expertise, writing the forward for a book I wrote about the car’s history, “Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette”, published by Mecum as part of the marketing campaign. That book has since become somewhat of a collector’s item and is difficult to find. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that its contents have been the source, shall we say, of several subsequent articles both in print and on the web, so I have decided to publish the original text here at Musclecar Classics.

Gulf One 1963 Z06 Corvette
Part 1: The Origins of the Z06 Concept

In the present era of exploding advances in automotive technology and design, it is easy to lose sight of just how far the Chevrolet Corvette has journeyed from its timid origins as a tentatively-conceived, mild-mannered boulevard cruiser. Tracing its beginnings and early development at the hands of founding patrons Ed Cole and Zora Arkus-Duntov, several developments stand out as important points in the marque’s progress. Its very introduction in 1953 reflected the post-war European influence on the American market; Duntov’s single-minded insistence on the car’s survival resulted in early improvements to styling, power and handling that established its identity in the public mind. By the early Sixties the Corvette was a perennial champion in American sports car racing, a fan favorite at Le Mans thanks to the efforts of Briggs Cunningham, and the star of its own television show. Yet with all that success and international fame the arrival of the 1963 Sting Ray took the motoring community almost completely by surprise.

With styling based on the Bill Mitchell show car, the Sting Ray’s organic lines were inspired by the graceful contours of its waterborne namesake, but the look was All-American and almost avant-garde to the contemporary eye, instantly making every other car look dated if not downright obsolete. But it was not just its radically aggressive appearance that set it apart, for the new car’s performance was also astounding, even in comparison to the previous year’s model in full factory race trim.

From the Corvette’s coming of age in 1956 as a true performance-oriented, V-8-powered sports car through 1962, Chief Engineer Duntov had introduced a wealth of racing-inspired performance options to the equipment list, including a Sebring-proven RPO brake and steering package incorporating sintered brake linings, finned drums, internal cooling fans and scoops, performance suspension and a quick steering adapter. Four versions of the 327 were available, the most powerful generating 360 bhp thanks to its Rochester fuel injection and solid-lifter cam, and racers could choose a larger fuel tank to extend the time between pit stops. Aluminum-cased manual transmissions, Positraction and free-flowing exhaust were also available, all perfectly suited to competition.

Duntov saw the coming of the 1963 Sting Ray as an opportunity to assemble these various bits and pieces into one balanced package that would take advantage of the new stiffer platform and another Corvette innovation, its independent rear suspension. The result was the superb Z06 coupe, the first factory-built, race-ready Corvette in the marque’s history, embodying the most dramatic improvements in production Corvette performance to that time. The car’s technical developments were of a caliber akin to advancements normally found only in wartime. After years spent chafing under GM’s racing ban, which was newly exacerbated by Ralph Nader’s nascent threat and Ford’s free-wheeling Total Performance campaign, Corvette racers saw the new Z06 as heralding a long awaited corporate return to unfettered competition.

Among those so impressed was Gulf Oil Executive Vice President Grady Davis. An oilman by profession and a fierce competitor by nature, the Texas-born Davis had forged a highly successful career and a reputation for daring business decisions. Davis had demonstrated to the Gulf Board of Directors the value of real-world competition as a product development tool, fielding a team of Gulf-sponsored Corvettes beginning at Sebring in 1961. In the new 1963 Z06 he saw the raw material for advancing that cause, behind which lay the enlightened self-interest that always fuels such ventures. The Harmarville research facility then under Davis’ command had, in 1937, provided financing and technical support for Harry Miller’s last great racing project, the Gulf-Miller Indianapolis racers, the premise for which was to build the Gulf brand and develop its products. It was for the same reasons that Davis had begun racing the Corvettes, and now Harmarville would serve as headquarters for another Gulf racing effort, this time centered on two of the revolutionary new Z06 Sting Rays.

Bloomington Gold photos by Walter Thurn

Kissimmee, FL Auction
January 22-24, 2009

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Harley Earl 1963 Corvette Sting Ray

The Personal Car of GM Designer Harley Earl

With all the great collector Corvettes out there, the Bloomington Gold Corvette Auction always guarantees something special and, given that event's remarkable history, that's saying quite a lot. This was proven again last year when Harley Earl's custom-built 1963 Sting Ray convertible was a Main Attraction at Bloomington Gold 2009. It was fascinating to delve into the tale of this famous Corvette and an honor to  contribute to its historical record.

Earl kept this car as a driver much longer than most of the other special cars he brought home over the years, but it was not long after he sold it that it seemingly disappeared. The story of its discovery and resurrection spans more than a decade, and demonstrates the dedication and commitment of both the die-hard Corvette aficionado and the factory GM Design staff to the preservation of the marque.

You can read the story of Harley Earl's 1963 Sting Ray here. And if you don't enjoy it, you probably like the Trebant.

Ford's Big Boss

1970 Ford Boss 429 Fastback Super Drag Pak, 11,000 Miles

It took five years for the Mustang to build its underhood herd to the prodigious fury embodied in the celebrated Boss 429, one of those milestone cars that stands alone in musclecar lore. Built to homologate the 429 “semi hemi” engine for NASCAR, the Boss 429 was assembled exclusively by Kar Kraft in Brighton, Michigan, who modified each Mustang’s front suspension and steering to accommodate the gigantic engine. 499 cars were produced for 1970, among which the Grabber Blue Star Car featured here is one of the most prominent.

One of the finest in existence, this original Boss has tallied only 11,000 original miles since it was purchased new at Kemp Motor Company in El Paso, Texas in 1970. Its extensive standard equipment includes manually-operated hood scoop, front and rear spoilers, a very handsome White-on-Black Deluxe D├ęcor interior, power steering and power front disc brakes, a Hurst-shifted close-ratio 4-speed and 3.91 Traction Lok rear end.

Among the car’s distinctions is its selection by Ford as one of the key historical vehicles in that company’s 100th Anniversary Celebration in Dearborn, Michigan. It has also been featured in a Ford promotion for the SVT Cobra Mustang, and recently won Best in Class at the invitation-only Bay Harbor Concours d'Elegance in Bay Harbor, Michigan.

This incredible 1970 Boss 429 crossed the block as Lot F239 at Dana Mecum's Spring Classic Auction in May 2009, selling for $199,000.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mecum Kissimmee Results

Mecum Tops $25 Million in Florida

Stefan Lombard reports from Sports Car Market:
Preliminary results from Mecum's annual High Performance Auction in Kissimmee, Florida, held January 28 through 31, show a 71% sell-through on nearly 1,000 cars, for a $25.6m total. All figures are up from last year, where 437 cars sold for $16.4m and a 58% sell-through.

Top sale was a 1966 Riva Super Aquarama speedboat, one of just 201 built, and hammered sold for a strong $837,000, including commission. Top car was a 1931 Auburn 851 Boattail Speedster at $398,560. Final results will be posted as they are made official.
These are very strong results that bode well for the collector hobby. As I wrote previously, quality cars are getting good money, and there are lots of quality cars.

Check out Mecum's auction results for a full recap.