Ron Cherry: A long and winding road with a ’56 Vette
March 16, 2018
A Corvette wasn't the first choice for Michael Lane. Back in 1985, he'd just sold his business and was considering buying a classic car.
"I saw a 300 Gullwing Mercedes for sale in San Francisco for $65,000," he said. "I thought about it, but that was a lot of money at the time, so I didn't. It was a major faux pas."
While maybe not a social blunder, it was a financial one, since one of those Gullwings, built only from 1955 to 1957, is now worth over a million in average condition. But when a friend had a '56 Vette for sale, the same era as the Gullwing, about 24 years ago, he bought it.
"I got stung," he said. "It was the beginning of a long and expensive journey."
For its year, the Vette had a number of options. It had a heater and AM radio, which were optional then, as well as the rare dual quads and power windows. Although the car was drivable, the paint was not in good shape.
"It was rough," Mike said. "So that's where I started. When I stripped it off, I found it needed to be re-glassed. That's when I decided to do a full restoration."
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It was about 20 years ago when he connected with the late John Hughes, who had a shop with a paint booth.
"I'm going to charge you $25 an hour and don't come in the shop until it's done. I don't want your help," John said to Mike.
"I'm not really a car guy, but I said, 'Let's do this,'" Mike said.
Rebuilding the Vette
First, John pulled the body off the frame and set it on a custom jig. After John stripped and painted the frame, Mike took it home. Mike had the 256 cubic inch V-8 engine and rearend gone through, as well as the suspension rebuilt.
Someone had swapped out the original 3-speed manual trans for a 4-speed one and Mike found a correct replacement. In the meantime, John did all the fiberglass repair on the body and painted it in original Aztec Copper with Polo White coving. It took about two years, and 1000 hours of labor.
Once finished, Mike took the frame to John and the body was set back on it. The car sat in John's shop for another eight years, mostly unassembled. Then it was moved to Mike's garage, to sit again.
"At the 15 year mark, I decided to sell it and put an ad in Hemming's," Mike said. "I got offers of $7000 to $8000. I realized I had to get it done, even if I was selling it."
The problem is finding someone you can trust, someone who will do a good job at a decent price, to finish the restoration. He finally found that person last January.
His neighbor's father-in-law, Ron Custer, had been a heavy equipment mechanic who had done some work for Mike. Mike asked him. Ron worked at Lanmark Auto, owned by Lanny Netz.
"He said Lanny was the best, if he would take the job," Mike said. "Lanny said, 'Well, I'm booked up for five or six months.' I said to put me on the list. Four months later, he called me and said he had an opening. I was in my place in Colorado, so he had to go to my garage here and get it."
"It was a basket case with many, many baskets," Lanny said. "The car had 10, maybe 20 moving blankets on top of it and looked like a sofa. We put the car on a trailer and had three pickup loads of parts. It took the first week to categorize everything."
Lanny's specialty is building street rods, where it's not important what part you use as long as it works. But Mike had said, "Listen, whatever you do, try to keep it as original as possible."
So a deal was made where Mike would search out parts and Lanny and Ron would do the work.
"I did a lot of the leg work," Mike said, "tracking down parts on the internet. Lanny would give me a check list of parts and I'd go to it."
While the body was on the frame, it was just held on by finger-tight bolts. Lanny and Ron mounted it with correct shims and tightened all the loose suspension bolts. Then there was the engine.
"It had big issues," Lanny said. "When we turned it over with all the plugs out, stuff came out the holes. A critter had gone up the exhaust manifold and stuffed the cylinders full of pinto beans. We vacuumed out as much as possible, but when we finally started it, pinto beans still flew out the tail pipe."
Since everything was off the body, Lanny and Ron had to install the doors, hood, deck lid, convertible top and windshield, adjusting for the proper fit. Mike had Al Knoch, well known in the Corvette community for quality upholstery, redo the seats.
"I was going to buy their kit from another Corvette parts supplier and have them done here, but called them," Mike said. "They said they could do the job if I sent them my seats and it turned out it was cheaper and better that way."
Some problems were from previous work. For the rechroming years before, Mike had used a formerly local chromer who had been recommended.
"Like a fool, I trusted the guy and gave him all the parts," he ruefully said. "They came back garbage."
Some he was able to get rechromed by a reputable company, but some were so bad that getting them redone right was prohibitively expensive, so he replaced them with reproduction parts. The AM radio that he'd had done years before and never could test didn't work.
Other problems had to do with finding replacement parts. The switches for the power windows were bad, but Mike found a new set on eBay, so he bid on them. Alas, a last-minute bid aced his out. Since only 547 out of the 3,467 Vettes made that year had power windows, finding the swtitches again was near impossible.
Fortunately, Lanny was able to make them work by some creative parts-swapping and rebuilding. Then the cardboard heater plenum box was shot and so was a spare one. Mike found a source that made them back East and bought one. After waiting for months, Lanny made a pattern from the pieces of both old boxes and fashioned one out of metal. The cardboard one arrived later and now sits on a shelf.
Now Mike's Vette is on the road, fully restored. It's notable that both Mike and Lanny have only good words to say about each other. As Lanny's first restoration in over 50 years of building cars, he has a few observations.
"I liked working for Mike. He was so grateful, even though I was getting paid. I enjoyed the challenge of doing a restoration, even though I'm not a restoration type of guy. Would I do it again? I don't think so. Would I want to own the car? No. It's one of the most beautiful cars on the road, but just not for me."
Then Lanny added, "Ron did more of the hands-on work. He really got into it."
Mike's words about Lanny are just as positive.
"He was the salvation for me. I just can't say enough good about him," Mike said.
Then he added, "I would have been way ahead if I'd bought the Gullwing instead, even if it hadn't skyrocketed in value."
But he wouldn't have had the fun of the journey.
Ron Cherry's books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, "The St. Nicholas Murders," is a Christmas mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.
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