Fantastic Foursome

This Corvette quartet is highlighted by a pair of historically significant road-racing machines

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May 9, 2019

Are all Corvette collectors are created equal? Well, “Some are more equal than others,” to borrow from George Orwell’s satirical observation in his allegory, Animal Farm. We’re not poking fun at Bryan Hill’s impressive assemblage, just noting that his Corvettes (along with Zora Duntov’s aluminum small-block, detailed in the accompanying sidebar) have much more historical significance than most.

Take his ’64 roadster, for instance. While the car was modified to ’63 specifications, it was also blessed by the hands of Dick “Mr. Corvette” Guldstrand. How did this unusual parts mash-up come about?

“Guldstrand destroyed the original ’63 by going end-over-end four and a half times at the Riverside track [that year], spending two weeks in the hospital,” Hill relates. “He literally pulled the center out of a factory steel wheel, setting up one of the most memorable crashes ever at Riverside. Guldstrand saved what pieces he could, used them on his ’64 replacement car and never looked back.”

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Hill’s ’64 roadster embodies a savvy mix of factory and aftermarket hardware.

Years later, Guldstrand went to extraordinary lengths with Hill, a longtime friend and fellow vintage racer, to rebuild this “Frankenstein” Corvette using a combination of parts from his original ride that he installed on a rust-free ’64 he found in 2002. While the latter was discovered in reasonably good condition for its age, it had the wrong engine and transmission, was missing its top, and the body had been “embellished” with thick gobs of Bondo.

After five years of significant effort by Guldstrand, his staff and Hill, every component of the chassis and driveline had been replaced with Guldstrand-designed performance parts, along with detailed revisions to the body and interior. The goal was to meet the Historic Motorsports Association (HMSA) and Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) tech standards for vintage sports-car competition at the point in time that the car originally competed. All body modifications meet the HMSA requirements that prohibit fender flares or other alterations that might allow for wider tire-and-wheel combinations. Consequently, the car was outfitted with American Racing 15×7-inch, five-spoke F&R rims and Hoosier Street TDXS rubber measuring 225/60D15.

For his part, Guldstrand insisted on using as many of the people who contributed to the original car as possible. Even though the complex project proved daunting, Hill now looks back on it with fond memories.

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Hill and “Mr. Corvette” (seated) at Sonoma in 2013.

“From that beginning, through all of the teething problems to the final performance [at Sonoma in 2013], we had the best time imaginable,” he recalls. “When a spectator at the 2013 race came by our pit and said that Guldstrand [then 85] was turning the same times on the back half of the course as one of the original Grand Sport Corvettes, it was all worth it.”

Getting down to the details on all the hard parts installed, the ’64’s base engine was swapped out for a 327-cubic-inch, 339-horsepower mill (block code 3892657) personally built by Guldstrand and Hill. They fitted the bottom end with a small-journal forged crank slinging Crower I-beam rods and Ferrera forged-aluminum pistons. The heads have Crane’s Nitro Carb flat-tappet, 1.5:1 rocker arms, bumped by a Crower blueprinted version of the famed Duntov “30-30” cam.

Topping off this mill is a Rochester fuel-injection unit fitted with Y-code nozzles. The air-filter canister was replaced with a flexible duct from the “S” tube (on the high-pressure side of the radiator) to the fuel-injection air meter. The duct itself is the vintage-style cloth flex hose, as used back in the ’60s, rather than the plastic-covered flex hose common today.

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The engine has a Traco remote cooler and filter for the oil, but, interestingly, not for the transmission or differential. The Super T10 four-speed runs an 11-inch single-disc Centerforce clutch with a Schiefer aluminum flywheel. A ’65-vintage third member from Tom’s Differentials has a 4.11 ratio and spins extreme-duty half-shafts and U-joints. It’s supported by Guldstrand fully adjustable, offset trailing arms with heavy-duty spindles, and every HMSA-permitted chassis modification is in evidence.

Other items installed include a Guldstrand adjustable suspension with a bump-steer kit, along with such rarities as a complete set of real-deal Corvette Grand Sport aluminum door hinges. A ’63 hood was acquired and bolted on, and the convertible top’s lid was modified to accept a chrome-moly roll bar of the exact configuration used on Guldstrand’s original car. In addition, the bumpers, side glass, carpets and windshield were replaced with period-correct pieces.

During this time, the body was taken down to bare glass, with all the cracks repaired and Bondo shaved down, and then painted in the original Daytona Blue. The lower side trim was then modified to allow installation of Stahl side pipes with mounts specially designed to Guldstrand’s specifications. Their size? “Proprietary” is all that Hill will reveal.

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The interior is original-issue ’63 except for the driver’s seat, which is an exact replica of the seat that was originally installed in Hill’s ’56 Corvette vintage racer (more on that car in a moment). “I did the replica myself using my fiberglass skills developed while working on Fiberglass radomes used on B-52s and KC-135s during my college days working civil service for the…Air Force,” Hill notes. 

What about the other cars shown here? Notably, Hill went up against Guldstrand in the Chevrolet 75th Anniversary Races at Laguna Seca in 1987, running a ’56 against a ’57 respectively, with a surprise ending. On the last lap, when Hill took the checker, he saw Guldstrand’s ’57 parked on the side of the track and assumed that he finished ahead of the racing legend. (There was no scoring tower at the time.)

“Once back in the pits, Guldstrand finally showed up on the end of a hook, courtesy of the Laguna crash trucks,” Hill relates. “When I went over to talk to [him], I thought I had won, [but] he said, ‘No, I won. I broke about 10 feet past the finish line.’ The mark of a true professional!”

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The ’56 has gone through a series of street- and track-tuned permutations, ultimately ending up as an SCCA vintage-racing regular. Its Fuelie 289 has benefited from the ministrations of several Corvette-racing heavyweights, including driving legend Doug Hooper.

The ’56 had a motley past, as Hill found it in 1971 in a backyard in Ridgecrest, California, near the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. The car had been raced on both road courses and drag strips by prior owners, but while it had no drivetrain, it was in otherwise decent shape, still wearing a set of A-1 slicks and assorted competition markings.

After acquiring the car in a trade for some Chevy engine parts, Hill initially returned this aging racehorse to a street-legal ride over a five-year period, installing a 283/290 engine (block code 3896944). But that all changed after he attended the Fourth Annual Monterey Historic Automobile Races in 1977.

Bitten by the racing bug, he contacted Guldstrand about preparing the car for SCCA vintage events. Even though the tuning maestro was initially reluctant, he eventually agreed, noting that he had a lot of early competition parts on hand that could be utilized in the job.

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Jerry Balenger fabricated the one-of-a-kind “Tri-Y” headers, while famed Corvette racer Doug Hooper did the tuning and setup on the Bill Thomas–modified ’61 Rochester FI. Machine work on the engine was done by Hill’s friend Chuck Freeland, of Indy Car and California Roadster Association fame, as well as others who went on to careers with such varied motorsports organizations as Edelbrock and Ferrari North America.

Space doesn’t permit going into the details of all the racing mods, but the wheels are especially noteworthy. They were initially genuine Halibrand 15×6-inch magnesium rims from one of the ’60 Cunningham Corvettes, but these were replaced with aluminum Halibrands for one simple reason. “It became obvious by the mid-1980s that those wheels were actually museum pieces, and any damage to them would be unacceptable,” Hill explains. “My understanding is they now have been reunited with one of the [Briggs] Cunningham cars.”

The competition conversion was completed at Guldstrand’s shop on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City in around 10 months. “I felt that I was in good company since Guldstrand’s shop was previously used by Lance Reventlow to build his famous Scarabs, and the Traco engine shop was right next door,” Hill points out. “It was readily apparent why they called [that area] ‘Thunder Alley.’”

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The car was accepted for the Fifth Annual Historics at Laguna in 1978. Prior to then, no production Corvettes had been so honored. “Well-known early Corvette racer Ron Moore was also accepted with his 1957, and went on to win our race against a factory-supported Mercedes Benz 300SL driven by 1956 national champion Paul O’Shea,” Hill adds. “I finished a distant 12th but had such fun that it [would be] the first of 27 entries at the Historics with this car.”

Hill’s favorite moment, though, wasn’t dicing it up on the track, but instead winning the Rolex Award at the 50th Anniversary of the Corvette Races at Monterey in 2002, where it competed against the finest early Corvette racecars in the country. Other honors are less tangible, but no less cherished. “The car gave me entry into the world of early Corvette racing, where I was able to call Corvette legends such as Zora Duntov, Dick Guldstrand, Doug Hooper and many others [my] friends.”

As for the other two Corvettes shown here, the ’56 street car and the ’65, they, too, have their stories. The former was built to be a road-legal version of Hill’s competition-spec ’56. Again, Guldstrand applied his considerable chassis skills to customize the suspension, albeit it to a slightly less radical degree. Powered by a fuel-injected 327, “It handles like a detuned race car,” Hill says. “Uncivilized, rough riding and noisy, it requires my full attention at all times—no texting while driving this car.”

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The ’56 “street car” is in fact a highly tuned performancxe machine. “It requires my full attention,” says Hill of the 327-powered roadster.

The ’65 coupe was found at a Corvette body shop in Bakersfield, California, in need of repair. The car’s owner had sent it there while he was serving in the army, but was killed in Viet Nam. Hill felt some sort of connection with him, having been forced to put his own ’66 Corvette in storage when he was drafted, so he purchased the car in 1975.

The drive home included one particularly tense moment, when the “ear” from one of the knock-off wheels came loose and flew off the car. Fortunately, Hill’s wife Beverly was following in her ’56 Corvette, saw what happened and flagged down her husband immediately. They were able to locate the knock-off on the side of the street and avert disaster.

The second reason Hill bought the fully loaded car was its potential to be an exceptional street-driven Corvette.  To that end he installed a fuel-injected 355/350, which he was able to obtain from Hashim’s Speed Shop in Bakersfield when a friend who had commissioned the short-block was unable to pay for it upon completion. Hill picked up the tab, finished off the engine and installed a number of other custom enhancements to make the car both reliable and fun.

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Hill takes it out on the road nearly every week. “I knew that this was to be my long-term driver, and it has never let me down,” he says. And neither have any other of his Corvettes after all these years.

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The ’65 takes the opposite tack, combining stock looks with smooth reliability. A lightly warmed-over 350 Fuelie helps in this regard.

Sidebar: Zora's Aluminum Small-Block

In addition to rare and significant cars, Corvette collectors are sometimes able to acquire some notable parts and pieces. In Hill’s case, these include an engine prototype with an intriguing history.
To wit, the July 1972 edition of Hot Rod magazine had a cover shot of a new Chevy Vega fitted with an all-aluminum 327 engine, which was pictured just below the car. The article begged a question: “…So where did this aluminum small-block V-8 come from?”
According to that feature, way back in 1959 Zora Arkus-Duntov developed it for one of his Corvette research programs. He used an Alcoa aluminum block with cast-iron cylinder liners, along with aluminum heads. Needless to say, the engines were built in extremely limited quantity and were never offered to the public through either the production line or the service-package parts program.
The original aluminum blocks had a 3 7/8-inch bore and were 283 cubic inches in displacement. Later, when the engine was passed along for further Corvette research and development, the bore size was enlarged to four inches and combined with a 3 1/4-inch stroke to produce 327 cubes.
The engine was used in a special lightweight Corvette program, and later was installed in the original CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle), an open-wheel, rear-engined prototype now in permanent residence at the Briggs Cunningham Museum in California.  
How did Hill come across it? It took him about 40 years to source all the parts from various vendors and racers. Per Ken Kayser, who worked as an engineer with Duntov back in the day and literally wrote the book on Corvette fuel injection, the engine and heads were originally assembled in the Chevrolet engine room. The date and “zero-dash” numbers indicate that this one features the first prototype block. But the whole story behind this special mill would fill a book of its own.

Also from Issue 130

  • Rare-Color '54 Driver
  • Race-Themed C5/6/7 Models
  • C7 Buyer's Guide
  • IMSA Big-Block '76
  • C7.R Engine Tech
  • Racing: Season Update
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