2 June 2015

Lost and Found: The Art and Science of Hunting Rare Corvettes

Vintage Corvettes have been bought and sold as collector vehicles for decades, and so you could be forgiven for thinking that all the hot ones have been accounted for, and that the current body of research has documented all that’s known about them.

That’s not the case, and to seasoned Corvette hunters like Kevin Mackay, that’s actually good news. Mackay started his business, Corvette Repair, 30 years ago in Valley Stream, N.Y. His timing could not have been better. Chevy had just launched the exciting C4 model, and the Corvette collector hobby was shifting into hyper drive. That trend brought a renewed interest in the Corvette’s heritage, including racing.

There were already expert collectors well versed in Corvette history, but history has a way of changing. As deeper dives would reveal gaps in Corvette knowledge, those who applied the resourcefulness and tenacity of TV police detective Columbo were able to find and authenticate super-rare Corvettes.

You won't find Mackay wearing a rumpled raincoat around his shop, but his detective work continues to uncover cars thought to have been lost. Some of those are race cars that have come through his shop, including the 1960 Briggs Cunningham Le Mans car, 1962 Yenko Gulf Oil, 1966 Penske L88, 1968 Sunray DX L88 (found in a barn) and 1969 Rebel L88. All were Le Mans, Daytona or Sebring class winners. Corvette aficionados will see a pattern: Among lost Vettes that Mackay hunts are ones campaigned in those races.

The Rebel was one of the most successful C3 Corvette race cars ever, winning the GT class at Daytona and Sebring in 1972, where it also took fourth overall behind two prototype-class Ferraris and a prototype Alfa Romeo. Mackay tracked the car to a southern scrapyard 24 years ago and restored it; the car sold at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale sale in January 2014 for $2.86 million.

“I know where every Corvette that raced Le Mans is,” Mackay said. Knowing, of course, is only the start of a long road to acquiring a car. Aspiring Corvette hunters might take note of other cars that grab Mackay’s interest.

Listen to What The Man Says

It could go without saying that any Corvette collector would want to stumble upon an L88 hiding in a barn. It’s a comparatively small group of cars, but it’s bigger than originally thought.

“We located 13 factory L-88 cars not previously known,” said Mackay, adding that three of the 20 1967 L88s are still missing. So, when an elderly man approached him with a claim that he still owned a 1967 L-88 that he bought new, Mackay listened, if with a skeptic’s ear.

“That happens a lot,” he said. “Guys claim they have a car that nobody has ever seen.”

A doubter may dismiss such claims, but Mackay says his experience has shown that sometimes, they lead to Corvette treasure. For example, he knows of a 1967 L-89 car, one of 16 made, that hasn't been seen in decades; it was driven just 11 miles from new and put away.

Not every lead pans out, but patience can lead to gold, Mackay advises.

“I waited 11 years to buy one particular car,” he said. “I’d call the owner every year. It was all about building trust.”

And so comes another lesson in hunting and buying classic Corvettes: It’s not always about the money. Mackay said that some owners are too emotionally attached to their cars to let go. And some never do, leaving valuable cars to be auctioned by heirs. In such cases, years of patience and building trust can seem wasted. But Mackay loves the challenge of the hunt.

For another car, he waited 19 years. And he’s got a list of others.

“There are two cars I’ve been waiting nine years to buy,” he said. “I always tell the owner that he’s just holding them for me for free storage.”

Follow the Clues

Many car enthusiasts enjoy reading old magazine articles. Mackay reads them for clues. “I look for names of people associated with cars, such as race mechanics, and then I look for those people,” he said.

Knowing where a Corvette was sold can be a help for an experienced hunter. If you have a Corvette’s VIN, you can get its original shipping data – including the selling dealer – from the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) for $40. Even if the dealer is no longer in business, the information could lead to other clues.

Sometimes, answering an ad for parts leads to whole cars. While hunting down a lead on parts for a 1969 Baldwin-Motion Phase III Corvette, Mackay stumbled across a super-rare Phase III GT that turned out to be a car a customer owned when new and had regretted selling many years before. Mackay has also found engines and then later located the cars they belong to.

Serial Boxes

Some collectors like to own “firsts” and “lasts” and therefore hunt low and high serial number cars. The top prize in that category would of course be the very first Corvette built, but the first two were test cars thought to have been destroyed. Yet, as Lt. Columbo might ask, “Where’s the body?”

Mackay can claim something close. He found the original chassis to 1953 serial No. 3 for a customer. He explained: “The first three made were test cars. Before GM sold No. 3, they swapped the chassis, because the first one had been used in Belgian block testing, and there were concerns about possible stress cracks.”

Somehow, the first chassis got out of GM’s grasp and was discovered underpinning a 1955 body in the 1970s. Another chassis swap ensued, and 1953 No. 3 just needed to be reunited with its original body. Mackay said the owner of that car, however, was not interested.

So, instead, Mackay is building a unique cutaway 1953 Corvette around the chassis. It’s something he said could be shown and enjoyed by the whole Corvette hobby.

Other aspects can catch a collector’s fancy. It should be no surprise that original color can affect value, but the effect might be bigger than you thought.

“Black is the most sought-after color for Vettes,” said Mackay. “A black 427/435 car could be worth double a green version.”

And then there are production oddities, the kinds of things that likely would never happen on today’s computerized assembly lines with their just-in-time parts inventory control systems. The fabulous center knockoff wheel offered as an option for the 1964-1966 Corvette actually made an earlier appearance. Mackay said 12 cars got the wheels in 1963. One is claimed to be a Z06 “big-tank” car.

Have a clue to a “lost” Corvette? Mackay would love to hear about it: corvetterepair@yahoo.com

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