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From Basket Case to Beauty

Well Worth the Trip

Jeff Barnes - November 21, 2013 10:00 AM

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It had been in a fire and was really a mess. Some of the burned parts were replaced with reproduction plastic, there was no top and the front buckets were broken. We used a forklift to get it off the trailers.

As a dentist, Joel Janssen has plenty of experience in restoring incisors and molars to their former luster.

By far, however, the biggest, toughest, most expensive project he’s had in making pearly whites shine again is his 1953 Corvette.

Janssen is a long-time car collector with a particular interest in Corvettes. He owns a dozen of them, including every year from the ’50s. “But if you’re any kind of collector, you have to have the first year,” he says.

He found the ’53 in an issue of a collector magazine about 25 years ago, listed by the owner of an auto parts store in Michigan. “I called for it and found out he’d already sold it to a broker I knew in Hastings, Nebraska,” Janssen said. “I then called the broker and he asked if I wanted it. ‘Pretty much,’ I said. He paid $25,000 for it and I paid him $35,000 and we both were happy.”

The car got to Janssen’s home in Papillion, Nebraska, by way of two trailers. The chassis, motor and transmission were in one and the doors, harness and other parts in the second. “It was a basket case,” Janssen said. “It had been in a fire and was really a mess. Some of the burned parts were replaced with reproduction plastic, there was no top and the front buckets were broken. We used a forklift to get it off the trailers.”

Thus began an eight-and-a-half-year restoration, led by Gary Sortino of Papillion. Typically, the two take about five years for a restoration. This time, seven years were spent just on the fiberglass body, turned on a roll-around dolly in the paint shop. There’d be a gel coating, sanding, another seal, heating, letting the car sit for three to four months, more sanding, etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

“When paint shrinks, it cracks and the plastic continues to cure over the years,” says Janssen. “Then it took three and a half years to put it back together. Making things fit took most of the time and you have to have the correct screws, the right springs, the right belting, use the proper quality, the right facing and stamping. All of that is judged.”

All of the early ’53s were handmade on hand-laid fiberglass, Janssen said, and actually were poorly made. “This car is better than the original – you’d have to intentionally make it look bad to bring it to original, which nobody is going to do.”

Janssen did some amazing sleuthing to find some of the components for the car such as original, asbestos-lined spring leafs and original cast aluminum buckets for the headlights. He also found a new original stock top in Minnesota. He didn’t open the box right away, putting it aside until ready for the installation.

“When I opened it eight years later, I also found a top for a ’54 in there, too,” Janssen said. “I would have given it back, but it had been so long since I bought it, I didn’t remember who it came from.”

The top is a prime example of how persnickety the ’53 Corvette can be. Janssen said the initial install of his ragtop took him 45 hours due to the weak bow system of the frame. “It still takes six hours to make it properly fit,” he added. “Now, I rarely drop it.”

In keeping the restoration completely stock, the “Blue Flame” six-cylinder engine was rebuilt to specifications, as well as the carburetor. “It just goes ‘buzz’ – it wouldn’t beat anything,” he said. “In spite of the fiberglass, the car’s heavy. The six-cylinder engine weighs more than a V-8 and puts out only 150 horsepower. It’s basically a big truck engine with three carbs.”

It only has about 60 miles on it since its completion 12 years ago, but Janssen said he and his wife will now drive it more. “It’s old now, and after a point, there’s nothing you really can do to keep fiberglass from moving,” he said. “You can work and work to get it perfectly gapped and it will still shift apart.”

Is it at all fun to drive? “No!” exclaims Janssen. “You feel all the tar marks in the road and hear all the wind noises – it goes ‘clunk-clunk-clunk.’ But it hasn’t done badly – it looks really nice for what it is. It’s time to just enjoy it.”

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