Time-Capsule Shark

With its roaring LS6 big-block, Roger Suddeth’s ’71 coupe is a flashback to the height of the muscle-Vette era.

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August 19, 2016

For some it was the Motorama car. For others it was the original Stingray. For Roger Suddeth it was the Mako Shark. That was the Corvette show car that rocked the young Kentuckian’s world when he first saw images of it as a teenager. “I couldn’t believe how futuristic it looked,” recalls Suddeth. Naturally, once the third-generation Corvette debuted as a 1968 model, when he was 17, it immediately became his dream car, the one vehicle he was desperate to own. His friends were into muscle cars, not sports cars like the Corvette, but to the longtime Beaver Dam resident, the Chevrolet transcended categories. “The Corvette was the pinnacle,” says Suddeth. “It was the ultimate.” Three years later, after he diligently saved and patiently waited, that transcendently futuristic car was parked on his driveway.

But this 1971 Corvette purchase was far from straightforward. First of all, Suddeth bought the most powerful and exclusive model that was available at the time: a 425-horsepower LS6, one of just 188 built. Second, as a result of unforeseen circumstances, it took an agonizingly long six months for him to take delivery of his coupe. (Fortunately for Suddeth, his Chevy dealer came up with a compassionate way of curbing his horsepower cravings, but more on that anon.) And finally, 45 years later, he still owns the car.

Ordering

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In September 1970, Suddeth, all of 19 years old and having secured his first decent-paying job while still in college, traveled to Tichenor Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Buick in nearby Hartford with money in hand. He told the owner, Riley Tichenor, that he wanted a Corvette, and not just any Corvette. “I ordered the biggest engine I could,” admits Suddeth. “I wanted a hot-dog car.” He could have gone for the “standard” LS5 big-block. Its massive 454-cubic-inch V-8 was rated at a heady 365 horsepower, considerably more than the base small-block’s 270 hp. But no, Suddeth wanted the hottest dog, so of course he checked the LS6 box, meaning his Corvette coupe would have an extra 60 ponies.

That additional output came courtesy of a larger four-barrel Holley carburetor; a hotter, solid-lifter camshaft; a less-restrictive aluminum intake manifold and “open chamber” aluminum cylinder heads—the very same ones fitted on the race-spec L88 and ZL1 mills. No wonder the LS6 engine came with beefy four-bolt main bearings, as opposed to the two-bolt ones on the LS5. With a nominal compression ratio of 9.0:1 and a less radical camshaft due to the presence of newly mandated smog equipment, the LS6 was not nearly as highly tweaked as some it its 427-ci predecessors, but what it lacked in tune it compensated for with displacement. Those additional 27 cubic inches allowed it to crank out 475 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. By comparison, the L71-spec 427 was rated at 460 lb-ft.

All that hot-rodding came at a price, namely $1,221. While that might not sound like much in today’s dollars, it was a considerable amount compared with the $5,496 base price of the Corvette. Interestingly, air conditioning was not available on LS6-engined Corvettes, so the young Suddeth couldn’t go completely crazy with options. But still, after ordering a few creature comforts, the bill came to $7,100. “That was a chunk of change back then,” says Suddeth.

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In addition to War Bonnet Yellow paint and a Saddle Leather interior, one of the boxes Suddeth checked on the order form was for an M40 automatic transmission—not exactly the “hot dog” choice. Asked for his reasoning for this selection, Suddeth drew a blank. Though he doesn’t exactly recall his thinking process, he says, “I’m glad I got it.” He would likely be driving the car less now had he coupled the LS6 engine with the M21 four-speed manual transmission, and even less had he opted for the heavy-duty M22 version—ultra stiff and noisy, the high-effort shifter is called the Rock Crusher for a reason. The fact that the M22 would have added $100 to the bill, while the M40 automatic was a no-cost option, may have played a role in the decision; with the auto tranny, it was a bit like getting something for free.

What Suddeth definitely got was a more drivable car. Sure, in retrospect, having chosen either of the manual transmission options would have added value to his Corvette, with M22-equipped LS6s being particularly rare and valuable (just 36 made), but Suddeth has never seen his car along these lines—certainly not as a teenager when he bought it and not today, despite the model’s lofty perch in the Corvette collector-car market. For him, the car’s greatest value is that it’s parked in his garage, not somebody else’s.

waiting

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Once he ordered his Corvette, Suddeth assumed he’d have to wait a while to have it delivered—but he was thinking in terms of weeks, not months. As it turns out, though, his order coincided with a national UAW strike, which began on September 15, 1970. As a result, he would have to cool his heels for a spell before taking delivery of his hot rod. Each week he’d head over to Tichenor Chevrolet to inquire about the status of his Corvette, armed with a check—he’d decided, at the dealer’s urging, to start making payments on the car. But Riley Tichenor was no shyster; in no way was he taking advantage of his teenage customer. How’s that? you ask. How about the fact that Tichenor lent Suddeth a brand-new Pontiac GTO to use while he was waiting for the Corvette to arrive. No contract, no signature, no nothing. Just keys to a much-lusted-after muscle car. Eventually the GTO got sold, and so as not to leave Suddeth without a set of wheels, Tichenor loaned him an Olds 442, arguably an even more enviable ride. There’s just no doubt about it, those were more innocent times. Today, can you imagine a Chevy dealership handing over a new Camaro Z/28 to a young, male Corvette customer while he waited to take delivery of his Z06? Just ain’t gonna happen. “He was really good to me,” admits Suddeth. “I consider myself lucky.”

Delivery

The UAW strike lasted more than two months, not coming to an end until November 24, 1970. With the time it took to ramp production back up at the St. Louis Assembly Plant and the ensuing holidays, production of ’71 Corvettes was significantly impeded, with backlogged orders taking a considerable time to fill. Suddeth’s car did not show up at the dealership until March 27, 1971. He had turned 20. You can imagine just how excited he was to drive the LS6, but Suddeth wasn’t the only one looking forward to getting behind the wheel: It turns out Riley Tichenor was also chomping at the bit. The performance-car enthusiast said that this particular Corvette was the first one off the assembly line with the LS6 engine, so he was eager to experience the new-for-1971 V-8 himself. [We’re unable to verify Tichenor’s assertion, but it makes for a great story nonetheless—Ed.] Tichenor was the first to drive the car once it arrived. Given the dealer’s generosity with the loaner vehicles, Suddeth considered this a small price to pay.

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As you can well imagine, especially after those long six months of waiting, Suddeth was a very happy young man. He not only had a brand-new Corvette with wild, head-turning styling, he had the fastest Shark available at the time. Though he never street-raced his new Corvette—“I didn’t want to”—he admits to frequently unleashing all 425 horses. “It shakes the ground when it runs hard,” he says with unmistakable enthusiasm and more than a hint of pride.

A few years into his ownership, Suddeth embarked on a road trip to St. Louis with a friend. Their aim wasn’t to visit the Corvette Assembly Plant or attend some special event; they just wanted to head out on the highway and look for a little adventure. As Suddeth humbly says, “It was just two buddies on a weekend trip.” A distance of 250 miles from western Kentucky, it was the farthest Suddeth had driven the car to date. The long stretches of freeway allowed him to exercise the LS6 in ways the local commute didn’t, leaving him even more impressed with the Corvette’s power and speed. Though Suddeth isn’t one to brag about speedometer readings, he does admit to going through seven tanks of gas over the course of the weekend. Let’s just say that the always thirsty big-block was guzzling considerably more gas than usual. “That was fun,” he says of the trip, intentionally being cagey about details.

Ownership

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At the time of our interview in spring 2016, the still-accurate odometer on this ’71 Corvette read 33,315 miles. As Suddeth admits, “That’s not many miles for a 45-year-old car.” Given the low figure, it comes as no surprise that Suddeth has had very few problems with the machine; it’s far from worn out. Sure, the clock and radio no longer work, but those gave out long ago and are known to do so. Other than the usual maintenance work, the Corvette has required little attention over the years. As such, it is very much an unrestored car, still wearing its original paint and interior panels.

That is not to say, however, that this LS6 is in all-original condition. You’ve probably already noticed the car’s 1973-spec alloy wheels and the aftermarket front spoiler, but what about the side mirrors? The body-color bullet-style units give the Corvette a later-model appearance without calling undue attention to themselves. The same is true of the smaller-diameter aftermarket three-spoke steering wheel. In addition to its more compact size, Suddeth likes the feel of its thicker grip. Underhood, the smog equipment has long since been removed, and a set of aftermarket headers assure the 454 emits a hearty rumble. Suddeth has kept all the original parts, of course, but feels no compulsion to put them back on. Though they’ve tried, Corvette purists have been unable to shame him into doing so, not even the simple process of bolting on the period-correct wheels for a car show. You see, Suddeth doesn’t do shows. “People have tried to talk us into it,” he says, “but it’s never been shown. [I]t’s not my thing.”

Suddeth has had a few offers to buy his ’71, some very serious, but he has no plans to sell. That said, he is well aware of the car’s high value and has the proper insurance to protect it—agreed-value insurance, to be exact. Said insurance limits him to 1,000 miles per year, but he habitually falls well short of that figure, putting on only about 500 annually. Basically he and his wife, Linda, will go out for 40- to 50-mile drive every month or so. One reason they don’t drive farther or more often is the Corvette’s thirst for fuel. Even with the lightest of pressure on the throttle, the best gas mileage Suddeth can achieve is 12 mpg. This really puts the efficiency of today’s Corvettes into perspective. Despite its forced induction and prodigious 650-horsepower output, the current Z06 consumes roughly half as much fuel. But no matter how far he drives it, the LS6 brings Suddeth pleasure. “It still puts a smile on your face,” he says. Actually, just cranking over that big-block V-8 in the garage is enough to crack a grin. “It shakes the walls in the kitchen and rattles the dishes,” he says.

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When asked to sum up his perspective on the car, Suddeth says, “This is our first and last Corvette.” Notice that he includes his wife in the ownership role. Though he certainly bought the car on his own and drove it for many years before Linda came into the equation, the Corvette is definitely now under joint custody. There was even a time, several decades ago, when Linda occasionally drove the LS6 to work. On one such occasion, the Kentucky skies blanketed the ground with snow while she was toiling. Knowing full well that a massively torquey engine and slippery roads were a hazardous combination, Linda refused to drive the Corvette home; her husband had to come to the rescue—not that he was all that excited about driving the car in such conditions. Even by today’s standards, 475 lb-ft of torque is a whole lot of twist. Surely, the LS6 generated more of a grimace than a grin on this occasion.

Speaking of third-generation Corvettes, as opposed to earlier iterations, Suddeth says, “They still look like they belong on the road.” To his eye, the car just looks right, especially when it’s streaking down the highway. Which is why it pains him that he doesn’t drive his LS6 more; he wishes it didn’t spend so much time parked in his garage. But despite this car’s sedentary state, it still gives Suddeth great pleasure. Just knowing that he bought and still owns his dream car—his own piece of Mako Shark magic—is deeply satisfying.

Also from Issue 108

  • Owner-Built C7 Custom
  • $8K Buyer's Guide
  • '67 "Astronaut" Coupe
  • Bob Bondurant Profile
  • Styling the First Corvette
  • Corvette-Selling Tips
  • Callaway C12
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