Setting the Standard

Having spent much of its life in storage, this rare Corvette Copper '55 remains remarkably original.

Photo: Setting the Standard 1
November 12, 2015

Well-known professional restorer Dominick Salvemini has owned more than one hundred Corvettes over the past 40 years, but this 1955 definitely ranks among the rarest. Only 700 ’55 Corvettes were produced by Chevrolet, making any ’55 something of a rarity, but this example is one of only 15 that left the St. Louis Assembly Plant wearing Corvette Copper paint. Since Chevy didn’t affix trim tags to Corvettes until model year 1963, it can be difficult to determine the original color of 1953–’62 cars, and even more difficult to prove the authenticity of an especially rare hue. Performing those steps with this particular car is not a problem, however, because today, more than 60 years after it was born, this ’55 still retains about 75 percent of its original paint!

The incredible originality of the car and its ultra-rare color are what caught Salvemini’s seasoned eye. “I’ve owned and restored several 1953–’55 Corvettes over the years,” he explains, “but have never come across a ’55 that’s as original as this one.” The primary reason the car remains so close to factory condition is that it was in dry storage for about 42 years.

In early 2013 Salvemini bought the car in Georgia from long-time solid-axle Corvette collector Gene Tucker, who had acquired it in 1971 from another well-known early-Vette collector, California turkey rancher Ed Thiebaud. Though in remarkably original condition when Tucker bought it, the car was starting to show signs of its age and mileage—it was by then already 16 years old and had been driven some 108,000 miles. This was an era when preserving old Corvettes in an unrestored state was not really a part of the hobby, so it was routine to repaint and otherwise refurbish cars to “correct” cosmetic imperfections that would tend to be overlooked today in the interest of maintaining originality.

Photo: Setting the Standard 2
More reassembled than restored, Dominick Salvemini’s Corvette Copper ’55 retains the vast majority of its original parts. Notable exceptions are the carpet and seat foam, which fell victim to the depredations of time and ravenous rodents. Factory 283-ci V-8 and Powerglide trans were rebuilt to stock specs, yielding a fully drivable car.
Shortly after obtaining the Corvette, Tucker partially disassembled it, going so far as to remove the body and taking all of the suspension and steering parts off of the chassis. Before he got any further, however, his attention was diverted to other, apparently more pressing things, including some other cars he owned. The copper-colored ’55 went into long-term storage with its body on a dolly and its chassis on jack stands.

“It was a little surreal when I first saw the car,” explains Salvemini. “The chassis was completely disassembled, and the body was off to the side on a rickety, homemade dolly. But it was virtually untouched, with the interior intact and all of the chrome and trim still in place.”

So instead of shipping a car back home to New York from Georgia, he was faced with the difficult task of shipping a completely assembled body, a bare chassis and a whole bunch of parts. Luck was on Salvemini’s side, however, as he has a friend in the trucking business who happened to have a partially empty tractor trailer heading up to New York from Florida. They were able to get everything into the truck, and the parts safely made the trip north.

Photo: Setting the Standard 3
More reassembled than restored, Dominick Salvemini’s Corvette Copper ’55 retains the vast majority of its original parts. Notable exceptions are the carpet and seat foam, which fell victim to the depredations of time and ravenous rodents. Factory 283-ci V-8 and Powerglide trans were rebuilt to stock specs, yielding a fully drivable car.
More concerned with getting his treasure home than anything else, and secure in the knowledge that the originality of the car spoke for itself, Salvemini didn’t initially give much thought to the car’s early history. “I’m always interested in knowing more about the Corvettes I own,” he explains, “but quite frankly, I wasn’t even thinking about that when I bought the car. After I got it home, how-ever…I did wonder about where it came from, and about a few little things that someone did to personalize it, like put the ‘V’ emblem on the trunk. I also wondered what the ‘UCSB’ stickers on the front and rear bumpers meant.”

It was more likely than not that Salvemini would never get the answers to some of his questions. Back in the early 1980s, when the vintage-Corvette hobby exploded in popularity, it was relatively easy to trace a car’s history, track down previous owners and so on. That has changed dramatically. For starters, it’s now 30-odd years later, meaning memories have faded, many former owners have passed away and much valuable documentation has been discarded or lost. Additionally, the wave of privacy statutes that spread across the country in the 1990s has made prying loose DMV records virtually impossible, when those records exist at all.

There remains, however, one thing that can reveal a wealth of information about an old car’s history, and that’s good, old-fashioned, dumb luck. “After I got the car home and took a better look, something pretty amazing happened,” explains Salvemini with an ear-to-ear smile. “In the driver-side door panel, I found a handful of really old service receipts from the Santa Barbara, California, area with a woman’s name on them. I did an Internet search and within a couple of minutes I had a phone number. I called and asked the woman who answered if she’d ever owned a Corvette, and she immediately said she had a beautiful Corvette a long, long time ago—a bronze-colored 1955!”

Photo: Setting the Standard 4
More reassembled than restored, Dominick Salvemini’s Corvette Copper ’55 retains the vast majority of its original parts. Notable exceptions are the carpet and seat foam, which fell victim to the depredations of time and ravenous rodents. Factory 283-ci V-8 and Powerglide trans were rebuilt to stock specs, yielding a fully drivable car.
The woman on the phone was Marta Rebec, and she told Salvemini that she acquired the Corvette in 1965 from her friend, Kenneth Lipshie, who bought the car in 1961 from its original owner, an executive with the Walt Disney Company. The unusual “V” on the trunk, as well as a set of modified front “bumperettes” adapted to fit the rear of the car, were added by the first owner. The added V emblem complements the stock fender emblems, whose enlarged Vs in the “Chevrolet” script were meant to promote the new-for-1955 V-8 engine under Corvette’s hood. The UCSB stickers were parking stickers for where Rebec worked at the time, the University of California, Santa Barbara. Salvemini has stayed in touch with Rebec and Lipshie, who were both delighted to learn that the car was alive and well and in the hands of someone who loves it.

In his conversation, Salvemini learned that in late 1969 or early 1970, Rebec sold the Corvette to a man named Tim Wingerd; a short time later, Wingerd sold it to the afore-mentioned Ed Thiebaud. Two years earlier, in the fall of 1968, Thiebaud had founded the Vintage Corvette Club of America, and in the December 1970 issue of the club’s newsletter, called Blue Flame Special, he advertised the 1955 Corvette for sale. The ad touted the car’s original paint, upholstery and soft top, describing it as “one of [the] nicest ’55s on [the] West Coast.” Thiebaud also noted with conviction that it could be driven anywhere. That ad caught the eye of Gene Tucker, who bought the car and brought it to Macon, Georgia, where Salvemini later purchased it.

Salvemini was thrilled to learn so much about the car in such a short time, and this fueled his motivation to put it back together. Though his shop, Vette Dreams in Babylon, New York, is one of the premier restoration facilities in the country, he decided not to fully restore the rare ’55. Instead, he opted to reassemble the car while preserving its originality, refurbishing only what was clearly too far gone to save. This meant rebuilding the original 1955 engine and Powerglide transmission, going through the brakes and replacing the soft top, carpet, seat foam, tires and battery.

Photo: Setting the Standard 5
More reassembled than restored, Dominick Salvemini’s Corvette Copper ’55 retains the vast majority of its original parts. Notable exceptions are the carpet and seat foam, which fell victim to the depredations of time and ravenous rodents. Factory 283-ci V-8 and Powerglide trans were rebuilt to stock specs, yielding a fully drivable car.
“The original top and carpet were literally shredded,” he recalls. “They were apparently in excellent condition when the car was put into storage in 1971, but mice got to them and made them unsalvageable. The seat covers were in very good condition, but the seat foam was literally hard as a rock, so I replaced the foam. I inspected all of the mechanical parts, including the original rear end and radiator, and they looked excellent so I left them alone. The instruments, the lights, the horns—they all work.

“The car clearly shows its age in some areas,” Salvemini continues, “and some people would choose to fully restore it. Everything is there, even the really hard-to-find parts like the heater shut-off valve and [unique-to-’55] side curtains. [The curtains] are still in the original factory storage bag that’s held to the trunk board. While the…bag is being reproduced, originals are impossible to find. So this would be a perfect car for a 100-point restoration, and I would restore it if a customer wanted me to. But for now I’m thrilled with the car just the way it is.”

Besides his deep appreciation for the Corvette’s originality, Salvemini gets a lot of joy from driving it. “While original paint obviously can’t be replaced, I don’t worry about this car the way I would if it was fully restored. The paint has enough chips and scratches and stress cracks that a little stone chip here or there isn’t going to make any difference. And it rides and drives great. It’s extremely comfortable, and it’s actually pretty quick. The engine doesn’t produce a lot of horsepower, but it’s very responsive—and don’t forget, these early Corvettes are very light.”

Photo: Setting the Standard 6
More reassembled than restored, Dominick Salvemini’s Corvette Copper ’55 retains the vast majority of its original parts. Notable exceptions are the carpet and seat foam, which fell victim to the depredations of time and ravenous rodents. Factory 283-ci V-8 and Powerglide trans were rebuilt to stock specs, yielding a fully drivable car.
In addition to thoroughly enjoying the car’s performance, Salvemini gets a big kick out of the reaction it engenders among those who see it. With so few 1953–’55 Corvettes made in the first place, these cars had all but disappeared from the roads by the early 1970s. Very few people have actually seen one in the flesh, so the sight of Salvemini cruising along in his ’55 can leave bystanders stupefied. “I do get the weirdest looks,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s a Corvette…but they do know one thing: In a world full of so many cars that look alike, this car looks unique and beautiful.”

Of course, there’s a reason why nearly all of today’s cars look so similar, while this 1955 Corvette looks so unusual. Unlike modern cars, its uniquely beautiful design had nothing whatsoever to do with wind-tunnel analysis, computational fluid dynamics or supercomputers. Instead, it flowed from the imaginations of people who labored with love under the tutelage of Harley Earl, putting pencil to paper in order to bring their wildest dreams to life in an era when GM Design set the standard to which all others aspired.

Photo: Setting the Standard 7

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