Reincarnation Magazine

Reincarnation Magazine
Continuation, Reproduction and Replica Automobiles
Rein Car Nation Cover Fall 2019
						1954 Corvette Corvair 2
THE FIRST CORVAIR

Corvette Concept Car

As Told by Mike Terry

Photos by Steve Temple and courtesy of Mike Terry

Editor’s Note: Before there was ever a 1960s Corvair, there was a Corvette Corvair. No, not an air-cooled, rear-engine, “unsafe at any speed” version of a Corvette. Instead, it was a highly creative concept, a flowing, fastback styling exercise that debuted at the 1954 Motorama in New York city. The name was a portmanteau, combining two separable items, in this case Corvette and Bel Air.

According to the GM Heritage Center, sluggish sales of the 1954 Corvette deterred GM management from moving forward with the Corvette Corvair. This fastback coupe was rumored to have survived the crusher, but no trace of it has shown up. Also rumored that there was actually more than one car built, but no paperwork has ever surfaced as verification.

Yet the car lives on, at least in replica form. While the reproduction shown here is a one-off that we came across at Mid America’s Funfest last Fall, it appears that Blue Flame Restoration might be building a few for select customers. We’ll let you know if that takes place, in the meantime, here’s a saga of how it was developed, related by Mike Terry.

It all started back when I was a kid and saw a picture of the 1954 Corvair Motorama Car. I fell in love with it—until I found out it had been destroyed.

Now we jump ahead to 2010 when my friend Brett Henderson at I were coming home from Corvettes at Carlisle. We were talking about nothing else but Corvettes, when Brett asked me if I could have any car in the world, with money not being a problem, what car would I want? Of course I said the 1954 Corvair Motorama Car, but you can’t have what has been destroyed.        

All of a sudden Brett said, “I have always wanted to build that car, but right now I do not have the funds to do it. Do you have the funds to pay for it?”

If it were within reason I told him, yeah, I can pay for it. He said, “Well the first thing we have to do is find a donor car.”

The rest of the trip we talked about how we would go about building this thing. Brett said that he and I would build it together and work on it on Sundays, when he was not restoring one of the many 1953 Corvettes in his garage. I told him I would be there every Sunday to help him since he had all the talent on knowing how to go about building something like this.

One day I was contacted by a good friend who is on Corvette Forum all the time like me, and said he found me a car if I was interested. It was a 1954 Corvette and that was about all he knew about the car. He sent me the link to the car and it was on Craig’s List in New Jersey.

I called the owners right away and and the guy said he still had the ‘54 Corvette for sale and wanted to know where I was from. I told him just south of Indianapolis and he wanted to know how I found out about the car and I just told him a friend found it and contacted me because he knew I was looking for a ‘54 Corvette.

The owner and I made a deal on the car, and I wired him $1000 and said that I would be out his way in a couple of days. Sad to say, a blizzard ran up the east coast, burying everything in snow chest-high deep. Even so, some 10 hours later we pulled up in front of the guy’s home and eventually were able to back up the trailer to the ’54 Corvette.

The first thing I thought of was that the frame was rusted away. So the first thing Brett looked at was the chassis and he came back and told me it looked like new, with only a little surface rust. We were both surprised about that and I was glad to hear it.

We finally got all the parts out of his basement and we winched the car up into my trailer. After it was all in, I told the guy we had a problem that the motor was not the original that he said it was, and that I could not pay our agreed amount because it was not the car that he said it was. So we agreed on another amount and late in the afternoon we were headed home. 

Getting home the next day Brett and I unloaded the car into my garage and home Brett went while I unloaded all the parts that came with the car. Brett could not get the car into his shop for awhile, so my grandson Giles helped me strip the car down.

Since I have a bad back, it was great to have Giles on the floorboard unhooking all the gauges and wiring from under the dash, while I removed exhaust and other items from the car. I piled up all the parts that Brett and I were not going to need and started selling off everything. After most all the parts were sold I only had about $1000 invested in the car. That made me feel good.

Some time later I took the car out to Brett's shop where it remained for almost four years. That’s where we took measurements and talked about things we had to make and things that we were going to have made for us.

It was summertime and we were hand-laying fiberglass, and laying it by the rolls. We had to build and change things like the height of the A-pillars, and by doing that we changed the angle of the top to the body. Then after figuring that out then we had to make more molds, and from the molds we laid more fiberglass to get the parts we wanted. We custom fabricated the doors because they had to have room for the door glass to fit into them.

We had to have all the glass custom made to this car because we have changed so many angles on so many things that no glass from the original car would fit. Plus we had to have made a rear window, windshield and side windows. We also made the molds for all the glass.

Other things we had to have made were the gull wings on the front fenders. The Motorama Car just had straight trim and no gull wings on them. So ours was cut off and filled in with Bondo and we sanded it smooth and then had a small foundry pour us some out of brass and then sent them along with all the other chrome and stainless out to be re-chromed or repaired and polished.  

We then had the body sandblasted before we made the final panels for the car. After that we sandblasted the frame and sent it out for powder coating and then returned to the shop.

We had to make corrections to the hood and then make molds off the hood and then build the doors and build the trunk lid and custom fit parts of fiberglass into the trunk to make the rain troughs.

So by now we have made every body panel for this Motorama Car but the two front fenders. The roof and both rear quarter panels were made as one part. It was a lot of extra work, but this way, by being one body panel, it would not crack where the roof was screwed down to the body. Just in case the roof and body flexed when crossing railroad tracks or driving down a bumpy road. If the roof was screwed down to the rear quarters, there is always the chance that it would crack where the body panels would have met up after hitting a pothole.  

Now we have jumped ahead a couple years, and have made everything fit and match up on the car body. We are ready to send the body out to paint and we start putting the chassis back together. We decided to put on disc brakes for stopping power and now the motor is being built.

Our engine builder had a 265 block that has December 1954 codes and heads that were from November of 1954, plus a 1955 265cid Corvette carburetor.

While the motor was being built and the body was out to paint, we finished mocking up the motor on the chassis and the brakes and exhaust. It is now about February 2015, and we have committed to having the car at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in mid March.

So now we went from working on the car only on Sundays to working on it around the clock almost every day. We got the body back from the paint shop about two weeks later than we thought we would get it back.

So with the engine installed, along with brake and gas lines, and the rearend, all the rear wiring was installed in the body before the car was painted and now we start it up and also make sure the transmission works Okay, we are about ready to put the body on the chassis. With the help of our engine builder and another car guy, plus Brett and myself, we have now put the body on the chassis and it is crunch time. We only have one week to finish the car and take it to the Amelia Island in Jacksonville, Florida.

So with all of us working on the car it took three more days before we got everything done like the emergency brake hookup, fuel line hooked up, rear end bonding straps installed, and connecting the transmission to the shifter lines.

After that was done, the car went to Brett’s where we finished installing the carpet and door panels. Now I went home to get some sleep and headed back to Brett's in the morning and load up the Motorama Car and head for Florida.

I pulled up at Brett's at 6:00 a.m. like we talked about, and there was no sign of life. About 7:00 Brett’s wife came out and saw my in my truck and told me Brett was in the garage that he did not come to bed last night at all. So I walked into the shop and there he was installing the driver’s side door panel.

It seems that when we sent the body to the upholstery shop he did not figure the door seals installed on the car, and the doors would not close. So instead of calling me Brett took it upon himself to remove the leather on the door panels and cut the panels down and them put the leather covers back on and hook everything up.

Brett went into his home and showered and packed his clothes and we loaded the car and headed to Jacksonville. Oh, I forgot that we did put five gallons of gas in the car and only drove it from his shop about 20 feet, and up into my trailer. Now Brett slept all the way to southern Georgia where we got a room for the night. We arrived in Jacksonville on Friday afternoon and checked in and then went to Amelia Island after we dropped the trailer right in front of the motel manager’s office window. We walked around and checked out all the cars that were already there for a car show, but it was not the Concours d'Elegance. 

While we were checking in they told us that we could put our car on the show field on Saturday after 4:00 pm. So we took the car and trailer and off to Amelia Island Golf Course we go. They had a place for us to park our truck and trailer. At 4:00 pm we unloaded the car from the trailer and had to drive it about a mile to where we went into place the car on the showfield. We were hoping we had enough gas and that we did not break down.

We covered the car with its soft cover and a clear plastic cover just in case it would rain. Sunday morning we were at the front gate before 8:00 a.m. and there were already some 5,000 or more people waiting to get in. After we went to the front of the line and showed our pass, we went straight to the car and uncovered it. 

People from all over came over to see the car. Now it is 9:00 a.m. and they opened the gates and there must have been close to 10,000 people rushing in. There were so many people you could not see the grass, it was like a stampede coming our way. We had tons of people around the car all day long and Edward T. Welburn Jr., GM Vice President of Global Design came by at two different times and talked to us about the car and told us how much he liked it.

Later we won two awards and had to drive up and get our awards. I remember talking to Brett on the way up and asking if he thought we had enough gas to get up the the awards area and drive back without running out of gas. We made it and Brett and myself were so excited we did not have words to say how we felt. Just think two guys building a re-creation of the 1954 Corvair Motorama Car that GM built, and we built it well enough to win two awards at Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance!

A couple months later Brett was busy so I took my grandson who is now 15 years of age to Cincinnati, Ohio to the Ault Park Concours d’Elegance. Our Motorama car was up against such cars like the Model A and Model T, along withsome cars that I had never heard of before, and they were all outstanding cars.

Well, my grandson was in awe to see all these cars and asked if I thought we would win something. I just told him there were some nice cars here and I think we have just as good a chance as they do to win. First place! Plus later they came back and said that we won Chairman's Choice!

Now I remember putting in five gallons more gas in the car, so I was not worried about running out and we now were escorted down and put into a line of cars that had to drive up and get our award, and we did it.

The car was also at the Lucas Oil Mansion for a $250 per  plate dinner fund raiser where I had a ton of people asking about the car. And in September I took the car to Effingham, Illinois to Mid America Motorworks, where it was on display for all to see and a ton of people came by and asked about the car.

On Saturday the 1954 Motorama Corvair re-creation was choosen by the one and only George Barris the King of Kustoms. Later into the day I had to bring the car up and collect my award and have picture taken with myself, Brett Henderson, Mike Yager, and George Barris. To me that was the most important award I have ever received.

Now in September of 2015 Vette Vues did a six-page article and I was asked if I would bring the car to their Chevrolet Corvette Expo and I told them I would be there. After going to the event for Vette Vues, I stopped on my way back to Indiana and dropped the car off at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That is where it resides till I come and pick it up about the second week of May. So if you are wanting to see the car in person stop by the National Corvette Museum. We hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed building it.

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