Ron Cherry: Back in a Vette again
February 23, 2018
Back in 1989, Russ Wright bought a brand new Corvette.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "But 10 years later I had a kid come along, so … "
So the Vette had to go. It wasn't exactly family-friendly.
About three years ago, the Vette itch hit again and he was in a position to have a fun car, one that was not needed for hauling the family to soccer games or Disneyland. Then he heard through the car grapevine of a '69 Vette coupe for sale in Colfax.
"I was kind of looking when I heard about it by word of mouth," Russ said.
So he went to check it out.
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It was white with a tan interior. The engine was 350 cubic inches with 350 horsepower and it had a Muncie M21 4-speed trans.
"It was bone stock and a plain Jane," he said. "It looked okay, but it was a little ratty when you looked closer."
The seats had been redone in '70s-style velour and the dash pad was cracked. But the basic car was good, including having a rust-free frame and decent paint. But Russ knew he'd want to make changes anyway, so he bought it.
A real gear head
Russ was no stranger to a wrench. He'd worked as a mechanic since high school, mainly on German cars. But he'd also worked with local fuel-injection guru Paul Caselas at Paul's Corvette shop when they'd both lived in Milpitas.
For a power plant Russ bought a Dart small block bored to 427 cubic inches, aluminum heads, a roller cam an Edelbrock Performer intake, a monster Holley 850 cubic feet per minute four-barrel carb, and an MSD ignition system, then turned them over to Paul to build a killer engine.
Next Russ turned to Vansteel, Corvette suspension specialists, for offset trailing arms and rear bearings to accommodate wider rear tires. While it was apart, he had the differential rebuilt. He also went through the suspension, set it up for touring.
For improved steering, he changed to a Borgeson steering gearbox. While he kept the Muncie trans, he did change to a Hurst Competition Plus shifter. To keep cool under the hood, he used an aluminum radiator.
When he installed the new engine, he added a handmade set of Bill Boat Exhaust stainless steel headers and sidepipes. While side pipes look cool, they're not cool in temperature.
One serious problem is burning a leg when stepping out of a car with unshielded sidepipes. It can leave a permanent scar as well as it hurting like the devil. The ones Russ purchased from BBE are insulated to prevent that burning issue.
"They get hot," he said. "But won't blister you."
For wheels, he opted for 5-spokes from Vintage Wheel Works with 17×9 1/2 inches in the rear and 17×9 inches in the front.
Fixing up the interior
Inside, Russ made it more stock than when he bought it. He pulled out all the tan interior, including the ugly velour on the seats, replacing it with black. That meant all new black door panels, trim pieces, headliner, leather seat covers, carpet and dash.
"Replacing the instrument panel was the hardest part, getting the wiring back in," he said. "I finally heated the wiring harness with a heat gun to straighten all the kinks and bends out. Then I was able to position it how it should be and everything works."
Although the harness had needed very few repairs, he would not recommend it.
"I suppose if I ever had to do it again, I'd be an expert," he said with a chuckle. "But if I did it again, I'd put in a new harness."
He did put in new fiber optics, which were stock in Vettes from 1968 to 1971 and gave warnings on the console about which lights were on.
When it comes to sounds, Russ still hasn't decided what he wants. He has a stereo, but has not installed it.
"I don't know if I'll hear it over the sidepipes," he said. "I always run with the windows down, even if it's snowing."
Since Vettes aren't known for handling in snow and their owner's manuals warn not to use chains, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but no doubt Russ likes his windows open. He has Vintage Air air conditioning, but still lets the outside air freely blow in when he runs the A/C.
"Those side pipes play a nice tune when the window are down," he said with a laugh.
It took Russ about three or four months to finish once he started and he did everything except for building the differential and engine. He said he probably won't repaint it any time soon since the paint is presentable and he doesn't worry about door dings every time he drives it. However, he said that he doesn't know about the future.
Since finishing it, or at least finishing it for now, one place he cruises in his Vette is to Cars and Coffee, which happens every Saturday from 8-10 a.m. at the K-mart parking lot off McKnight. There's no admission, no trophies, just a bunch of car lovers checking out cool cars with fellow car nuts and telling tall tales of "back in the day."
Many bring their hot rods, classics and collectibles, but others come just to hang out and enjoy the view. But Russ might not be driving his '69 Vette when he's there. Since finishing it, he's bought a '62 and a '67 Vette as well. He's really back into Vettes.
"It's a sickness, you know," he said.
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.