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1969 Corvette: One special graduation gift

A graduation gift that performs with honors

John Machaqueiro - August 01, 2011 09:00 AM

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Virginia resident Joe Witzgall can trace his automotive passion to an early age. When you observe the level of thought and attention to detail that went into his ’69 Corvette, you begin to understand the different automotive influences he had growing up.

“I was always fascinated with cars, their looks, performance, and driving them. I never had a favorite car. I’ve always appreciated all different makes and models, exotic and domestic,” he said. By the time he graduated college in ’94, a connection from a local car club actually helped him land his first job.

Shortly after his studies were completed, Witzgall came to the conclusion that he deserved a graduation present. Car ads in the local paper became a reliable source for him. One ad for a black ’69 Corvette caught his eye. The description stated that it was powered by a 350 small block and had factory side pipes, both tops, and a custom interior. “This sounded exactly like a car that belonged to my good friend’s father, who I had known since I was 13,” he remarked. “This was the same car that was always in the 4th of July parade. It also led the homecoming parade at school with the homecoming queen sitting on the rear deck. When my friend turned 16, he was hoping his father would give him the car, but his mom thought he would kill himself in it, so they sold it.”

When the owner opened the garage door, he realized it was that same car. “It looked exactly the same,” says Witzgall, “complete with the crack in the emergency brake console from the homecoming queen climbing in and out for the parades.”

Not being mechanically inclined, the owner’s complaint was that every time he turned the ignition key, something would break and the car would end up being flat-bedded to a repair shop. He was tired of the Corvette and wanted to see it go. After 12 grand exchanged hands, Witzgall assumed ownership. Once the loan on the car was paid off, the ’Vette restoration fund was started.

For the first 14 years, he enjoyed driving, drag racing, and autocrossing the ’69. During that time, he actually did a partial restoration of the frame. Autocrossing became a real passion and his desire to try the car on a full road course grew.

It became evident to him with each passing year that the fiberglass body was experiencing deterioration. The car looked great from a distance, but the flaws became more visible through the paint. With his growing interest in autocrossing, he realized wider wheels, tires, and wheel flares would be needed. At that point, he knew it was time to perform that full frame-off restoration.

When the decision was finally made to give the ’Vette the full resto, he was faced with a set of decisions. He didn’t want to give the car up for an entire summer because he enjoyed driving it so much. Since he wanted to personally do some of the work on it, that would be a problem with most shops.

After two years of searching, he found 2nd Generation Automotive Restorations in Walpole, Massachusetts, talking to the shop’s owner, Stan Chorianopoulos, before his final decision was made. “Stan drove down from Massachusetts to pick up the car on Memorial Day Weekend 2008.”

Many things were taken into consideration before any work was done on the car. “It’s hard to appreciate the amount of thought and planning that went into every element of this car. Most people just see a car … they might not realize why everything fits together so well, flows so smoothly, or appears so balanced – planning, tons of planning!”

One of the first large investments in time was the design and fabrication of the flares. Most of the flares installed on C3s have been reproduced to look like the original units used on the L88 racecars. Witzgall explains: “They served their purpose for instant large tire coverage back in the day, but were not the most aesthetically pleasing things, particularly when combined with a more modern tire and wheel combination.”

As a result, 2nd Generation ended up producing an entirely new design from scratch. Once the flares were completed, a hand-molded front spoiler was also fabricated and seamlessly integrated with the front flares. The front clip was also in need of major repairs. The headlight header bars and rivets were in very poor condition. As a result, they decided that it was easier to hang a new nose than to repair the existing damage. Fixing that problem was achieved with a one-piece reproduction nose from ACI. At the rear, a reproduction ACI tail pan was also used. It was molded into the back of the car and all seams closed off. The period correct L88 hood was retained and a custom-made fiberglass cowl cover added. The headlight doors were also removed and the openings reworked to accept reproduction FIA-style lighting assemblies.

After countless hours of bodywork, the body had taken its final shape. At this point, the attention shifted to the frame. The body was separated from the frame, which was stripped of all components and sandblasted. “Then came two days of welding,” Witzgall recalls. “We undertook the same basic process the late ’60s and early ’70s race teams followed when strengthening a frame for the track. The entire frame was seam-welded and gusseted for strength and stiffness.”

All production holes were also plated and welded shut and the sway bar mounting horns reinforced with steel plates. The crossmember was cut and modified, allowing it to be removed when needed. The last part was to install the six-point roll bar and RCI fuel cell. After all work was complete on the frame, numerous coats of epoxy primer were applied along with a final topcoat of black DuPont epoxy paint. The body was again mated to the frame and countless more hours were spent with more bodywork to get the body ready for paint.

Part of the careful planning that went into the ’69 revolved around a final color choice for the car. Initially, he wanted to repaint it black because it was the only color that he had ever seen on the car. After some persuasive convincing from Chorianopoulos, he realized that just painting it black wouldn’t do it any justice. In the end, the black was retained and silver chosen for the graphics. “I was entirely nerve-racked the day the silver was being applied to the car, worrying the whole time that we may have gone over the top, but in the end, I could not have been more pleased.” The final step was to bathe the body in three coats of clear and invest about 80 hours wet sanding and polishing to a mirror finish.

Of course, this wasn’t just a cosmetic makeover (see Mod List). Part of the overall plan also involved upgrading the engine and building a drivetrain capable of handling the added horsepower and torque. The increase in power was only a fraction of the overall equation, though. Since Witzgall had embarked on the restoration in great part due to his desire to autocross the car, this task required an extensive reworking of the suspension.

He began by replacing the rear steel leaf spring with an adjustable, dual mount fiberglass unit. The front coil springs also gave way to an adjustable, transverse-mounted fiberglass spring. Lightweight upper and lower control arms replaced the stock pieces, allowing for moderate weight savings, while the idler arm, ball joints, and tie rod ends were replaced with heavy-duty units. Polyurethane bushings and spherical joints were also used along with a smart strut rear camber control system, spreader bar front tower support, and rear crossmember stabilizer disks. A beefy 1¼-inch front sway bar was also installed along with Bilstein shocks at all four corners. The last part of the suspension upgrade was completed with the installation of a Concept One 12.7:1 power steering box and AGR Super Flow pump.

With all the mechanical and bodywork completed, the attention shifted to the interior. The choice could have been either mild or wild. Wanting to maintain that classic look, Witzgall opted to keep the interior visually stock but had all the panels and trim completely replaced with new parts. The only deviation was the installation of Corbeau Clubman racing seats and Corbeau camlock five-point racing harnesses.

“The restoration concluded with a two-week marathon where four to five guys, including myself, were working on the car every day, sometimes 16 hours per day, just to complete it in time for 2009 Corvettes at Carlisle. The car made it to the show – about 95 percent complete – and it was a huge success. It was also nice to win a Celebrity Choice Award.”

Witzgall is undeniably satisfied with the car. With a grin on his face, he states, “This car is a blast to drive. The sound, the power, the incredible handling – there aren’t many 40-year-old cars that will outperform their evolved modern day incarnations. This is one car that can.”

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