1971 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3 upgraded to ’70 LT1 specs
A casual conversation with a stranger in the small town of Taihape turns up a treasure.
By Patrick Harlow
CORVETTE STINGRAY TAIHAPE TREASURE
Taihape is a little town about a quarter of the way up the North Island. It makes a convenient coffee stop for those driving north to Taupo or beyond. While some choose to power on through, I have stopped there many times. About three months ago. we stopped there again with friends, on our way to Taupo for a holiday. Unfortunately, I had parked the car in front of a dress shop, which immediately demanded investigation by our wives. My friend and I spent a few dutiful minutes in the shop prior to being evicted for somehow not having the right spirit of enquiry. Outside, we were considering how much damage might be done to our bank accounts when one of the locals pulled up to buy a pie at the local bakery and cafe.
His car, an old Alfa Romeo, was thankfully interesting enough to distract me from the excited comments coming from within the shop that had started me wondering what dinner would actually be like at a soup kitchen. The car’s owner was in no hurry, and as it appeared that we were going to be waiting outside the shop for a good while, he was happy to talk about his car. I am always looking for the next magazine story but had not expected to find a scoop in Taihape. But ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, so I asked the owner of the Alfa Romeo, Jeff Wong — clearly some kind of car guy — if he had a hobby car besides his Alfa.
It turned out that he owned a ’66 Shelby Mustang, a Ferrari 308 that he kept for racing, a Ferrari 430 that was his dream car, a W8 VW Passat, a beat-up Rover 75, and the Corvette featured here. It’s the car he has owned the longest. My opinion of Taihape changed instantly. I only vaguely recall noticing my wife exiting the shop carrying several bags.
Three months later, I headed back to Taihape, by myself, having ascertained before leaving, and checking again in Levin, that my wife was not aboard, and not hiding in the boot.
Jeff knew just about everybody in the small town by name. His father had owned a store in Taihape and Jeff had been born there. Many years ago now, Jeff had left Taihape to earn a few bob, after which he returned. He was now a member of the local council.
As I was early, I popped into one of the many cafes that littered the high street and found myself sitting next to a group of retired people who obviously met there regularly. They were having a conversation about how much better it was living in Taihape than in Waiouru, where they were based in their army days. Taihape had everything they needed. Admittedly, there was no longer a local car sales yard. Back in the good old days, they had a local Ford and Holden/Vauxhall/ Bedford dealership. In the same town they also had separate dealerships for BMC/Triumph/Rover, Renault/Škoda, and Chrysler/Hillman/Mitsubishi.
These days, if you wanted to buy a car, you had to travel to Palmerston North, 90 minutes or so down the road. As the time approached to go and meet Jeff, the conversation had shifted to the disgusting price of petrol.
SIDE BY SIDE
As a treat to myself, I had driven to Taihape in my C5 Corvette, and I thought it would be fun to look at the two cars side by side and maybe cruise some roads together. Jeff was keen and we soon found ourselves driving on what had been the old State Highway 1 before the government put the current road in. It was quite windy, with plenty of bends that could be driven at speeds that tested the Corvettes’ handling. Jeff’s Corvette may have been a couple of generations older than mine, but it was not slow.
Our last stop was the local workingmen’s club, a converted house that was, conveniently, right next to the Cascade Brewery. It was said that the disused brewery still stored enough beer to get the town through an apocalypse. Naturally, everybody inside the club knew Jeff, and I was introduced as ‘the guy from that classic car magazine’.
Not surprisingly, the story turned to cars, and I soon discovered that many of them owned classic cars too. Gathered at the club were owners of an HZ Monaro, a ’65 Falcon, and even a couple of other blokes who owned Corvettes. Once they had assured me that Corvettes were not as common as taxis in Taihape — actually, they are much more common, as there are no taxis in Taihape — the conversation moved on to other things, such as my origins. In a reversal of the usual conversational trope, I discovered that the fact that I had been born in the South Island meant I was an immigrant and, even though I had lived in the North Island for 40 years, I was still ‘fresh off the boat’.
That night was the working-men’s club’s big pool challenge, which was played for high stakes. After a couple of hours of relaxed but serious competition, Steve Cope, a Corvette C6 owner, was declared the winner, claiming the prize purse of a heady $10.
The next day I met Jeff for the photo shoot outside the Cascade Brewery, a building that had been built in the artdeco era and, like a lot of the buildings in the town, had plenty of character. The photo shoot had to wait until after we had said hello and chatted to the gentleman who had been the rural postie since 1968. Only then was I able to get down to the serious business of taking photographs. Several interruptions later, courtesy of people walking or even driving by who had to stop for a chat, the job was eventually done.
Every Corvette owner has a story. Jeff’s starts with his father who used to occasionally buy magazines like Autocar (UK), Road & Track (US), Motor Trend (US), and Wheels (Aus.). As a boy, Jeff would look at the photos and sometimes read the words but kept coming back to a Corvette article that he had seen in the May 1969 issue of Motor Trend.
At the time, Jeff was in primary school. The Corvette captured his young heart, its over-the-top Cokebottle curves making the cars that were journeying up and down New Zealand roads look very bland in comparison. The words of the article’s subheading stated “Go directly to the Chevrolet Sports Department. Do not stop. Do not pay $200. They’re not about to sell the first American Ferrari that cheap”.
The story was written by automotive journalist Eric Dahlquist, an employee of Motor Trend, who would have been very well regarded by the Chevrolet sales department. He goes on to write in the first paragraph:
“Button down your mind. Tight. Lock it in place and twist up the safety wire. You’re on the border of your imagination. The front door of the terminal is the nearest Chevrolet Sports Department, and they won’t care if you run; you’ve waited for this since you heard the first 265 power pack ’Vette go up through those four delicious gears. The low pitch whine of the T-10 at full song is the sound of your soul being set free.”
And it goes on with several more similar ‘honest’ journalistic facts and ‘unbiased’ statements. That article, along with the several black-and-white pictures printed on the newsprint, would stay with Jeff. He still has the magazine.
Over-the-top magazine articles aside, 1969 was just before the petrol shortage and tighter emissions rules strangled the car, American cars in particular. Unaware of what would soon befall the industry, Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov had created an impressive sports car for Chevrolet. The Corvette was well on the way to becoming Chevrolet’s halo car and the US’s best and only sports car.
LITTLE ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES
Many years passed, and it would not be until 1987 when Jeff had the means to begin looking for his first proper muscle car. Browsing through the Saturday-morning Herald one day, he saw a 1971 C3 Corvette advertised in New Plymouth. It was 16 years old, a little rough around the edges, but affordable. The car had not been driven by a little old lady to church and back; it had been driven to the local drag meet and raced. The owner, who had done club drag racing, showed Jeff what the car could do, slamming the car through the gears and blasting it to warp speed on the local dual carriageway. Jeff was instantly addicted, and money changed hands.
Thirty-five years later, Jeff still owns the Corvette. The original white colour has been changed to a stunning purple, making it stand out from the crowd instantly in any car park. The rear transverse leaf spring has been upgraded to the composite fibreglass spring used on later C3 cars. To ensure that the car starts as easily as modern cars, Jeff has added electronic ignition. Other modifications that set this car apart from similar ’71 Corvettes are the side pipes, a Mallory tach, and a Hurst shifter. The wheels that it wears were first shown on Corvettes in 1973 but were not available until 1976. Apart from those few changes, the car is more or less as it was when Jeff bought it.
After the photo shoot, I had the opportunity to drive the C3 through more of Taihape’s back roads. It did not take long to get used to the throw of the four-speed gearbox. The clutch that connected it to the 350-cubic-inch (ci) (5735cc) V8 was remarkably light. In fact, the car was very easy to drive.
I even had time to admire some tall cliffs as I whipped it around tight scenic corners that only the locals really know about. The steering was light with a tendency to oversteer, which was held in check by the wide rear tyres. Looking down the long bonnet with its huge bulge in the middle and classic high Corvette front fenders, this car could not be mistaken from the driver’s seat for being anything other than a ’Vette. This car could not be mistaken from the driver’s seat for being anything other than a ’Vette
I was following Jeff, who was driving my C5. We had been driving for about 40 minutes when he turned left down a muddy farm drive before stopping in front of a farmer’s workshop. But this was no ordinary workshop. Inside, under construction, were three replica world rally-winning Lancia 037s all destined for overseas buyers. I spent a pleasant hour wandering around these cars talking to the design engineer who was building them, making a mental note to return at a later date to get the full story. That is, if I could ever find the place again.
Afterwards, we headed to Mangaweka for a late lunch, where Jeff and I swapped car stories and discovered that we knew several people in common. Taihape may be a small town, but the car community is a close-knit bunch of people where friends are made easily.
Returning to the Taihape Workingmen’s Club, I discovered it had apparently become a honeypot for Corvettes. The people that I had met the day before had brought theirs along for a bit of a get-together. After a bit of Corvette conversation, I was asked where I wanted to take them to get some photographs. It was certainly too good an opportunity to pass up, photographing four Corvettes from four different generations together. I pointed to the biggest building that I could see on the hill and said, “how about there?”
We parked the cars in front of what had apparently been a convent and lined them up in numerical order. Jeff suggested that I take some pictures from the upstairs balcony. He knew the owner of the building. By now, I was not surprised at how many people Jeff knew but I was not expecting the owner to be his brother, Phillip. After I had taken the pictures, along with those of Steve Cope and Ken Cribb, owners of the Corvettes, we spent a pleasant evening chewing the fat and sharing drinks on the balcony looking across the friendly town that is Taihape. I knew for sure that I would be returning to dig out some more stories.
The next day as I was getting ready to leave the motel, a 1971 Chevrolet El Camino rumbled into the car park. Thinking, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, I wandered over to greet the young owner of the car. He had bought it the day before, in my home town of Wellington, and my next stop.
This car could not be mistaken from the driver’s seat for being anything other than a ’Vette. The split removable T-top roof was a standard feature for the C3 Corvette.
The photo shoot had to wait until after we had said hello and chatted to the gentleman who had been the rural postie since 1968.
Jeff’s Corvette may have been a couple of generations older than mine, but it was not slow.
The chrome side pipes give this Stingray a menacing look, not to mention that sound.
The snug cockpit is totally functional Jeff’s Corvette may have been a couple of generations older than mine, but it was not slow
The snug cockpit is totally functional. The chrome side pipes give this Stingray a menacing look, not to mention that sound.
Jeff’s Corvette may have been a couple of generations older than mine, but it was not slow. Chrome bumpers stand out from the later models The egg-crate grille was standard on all ’1970–’1972 C3 Corvettes.
TECHNICAL DATA 1971 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray C3
- Engine Chevrolet V8, upgraded to ’70 LT1 specs
- Capacity 5.7-litre
- Bore/Stroke 102mm/88.5mm
- Valves 16
- Comp. rate 12.5:1
- Max. power 270hp (201.3kW) at 4800rpm
- Max. torque 490Nm at 3200rpm
- Fuel system 750 Holley carburettor
- Transmission Four-speed manual, Hurst shifter
- Suspension, F/R Four-wheel independent; double-wishbone, coils / leaf-spring
- Steering Recirculating-ball with linkage booster
- Brakes, F/R Power-assisted ventilated disc / Power-assisted ventilated disc
- Length 4630mm
- Width 1753mm
- Height 1215mm
- Wheelbase 2490mm
- Track, F/R 1490mm/1510mm
- Weight 1494kg
- Acceleration 0-62mph (0-100kph) 7.1 seconds
- Max. speed 225kph