The Torchbearer

Veteran mechanic Kevin Ferguson returns a dual-quad ’57 roadster to its original glory

Photo: The Torchbearer 2
June 23, 2022

Every Corvette belongs in a good home, especially a classic one worthy of preservation. But what does it take to keep such a car running and looking nearly new? Just ask Kevin Ferguson, who has worked for 36 years as a master mechanic and in that time built and customized more than 70—yes, 70—cars. All of them had one thing in common.

“I go to bed with a bowtie on,” he admits, referring, of course, to the Chevrolet engines they all have (even the non-GM marques). So he could hardly turn away from a collection of Corvettes he came across quite by accident.

“I went to look at a dog for adoption, and the owner asked me if I liked ‘toys,’” Ferguson relates. The gentleman then proceeded to open up a 20-car garage with more than a dozen Corvettes and hot rods, plus a solid wall of shop manuals. After Ferguson identified every one of the cars, a hidden gem revealed itself.

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“I saw part of the grille and asked, ‘Is that a ’57?’ I had to look further and asked if it was for sale. Well, obviously it was, because I am now the third owner. He’d had the car for 23 years.”

The men cut a deal for $100,000, which included a ’59 El Camino in the price. Unlike the familiar stories about classic-Corvette acquisitions, this C1 was not a basket case, but rather in relatively good cosmetic condition considering its age. Even so, Ferguson had his work cut out for him.

The 283-ci, 270-hp 469C engine, with its mechanical lifters and dual Rochester carbs, was sputtering and spitting. The leather in the accelerator pump had dried out, and the distributor was the original factory unit. The shocks were so bad that the driveshaft slapped against the underbody. “I had to heel-and-toe it to get it home, [and] barely made it,” Ferguson recalls. “It took an hour to go 36 miles, stalling out a lot.”

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He spent the next six months or so rebuilding the worn-out carburetors, flushing out all the fluids, replacing the filters, doing a complete tune-up, and replacing the exhaust “donut” gaskets. Also, while rebuilding the wheel cylinders for the brakes, he discovered that the brake fluid had transformed into something resembling black tar.

As for those mushy shocks, Ferguson replaced the original Delcos with Bilsteins. He also found out that the previous owner had taken the body off at some point to install new mounts, but subsequently gave up on the project. Closer inspection revealed that the frame stamp on this ’57 had an 11th-month ’56 production number. The car came with a three-speed gearbox from the factory, but in 1960 the transmission was replaced with a T10 four-speed unit. Since such an upgrade was common for the era, and because it improved the car’s drivability considerably, Ferguson elected to leave it in place.

Some of the car’s cosmetics needed attention as well. In addition to a general scrubbing, Ferguson polished all the chrome and trim pieces. The car came with both soft and hard tops, and the latter needed buffing out involving a lot of elbow grease. And the original Venetian Red body color had been repainted by the previous owner, but not in lacquer. So Ferguson massaged the finish with a Griot polisher to bring out the vivid hue. Finally, he took out the cables for tach and speedo and replaced them. “Everything works nice now,” he reports. “It purrs like a kitten.”

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He drives the car weekly to keep things lubricated, but no further modifications are planned, as he wants to keep it as close to original as possible. But while he exercises the car regularly, he doesn’t drive the ’57 on long trips. “I won’t take it anywhere that it leaves my sight,” Ferguson insists. “It’s too easy to hot-wire.”

And besides, there are comfort and usability issues to consider. “Let’s face it, this car wasn’t built for big boys,” he points out. “I’m 230 pounds and five-ten, and I have to squeeze my body into the car. [And] handling is not its best attribute.”

That’s especially true compared with his 2016 C7 with the LT2 package and Magnetic Ride suspension: “I love that car,” Ferguson enthuses. “It handles like a dream. The ’57 is loose on the road in comparison. Let’s face it: A suspension with kingpins, tie rods, idler arm, and Pitman arm is no match for modern technology.”

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Yet owning and driving a ’57 Corvette brings more smiles and thumbs-up as he’s driving. “Kids, moms, and dads all seem to love it. How cool is it to own one of only 6,339 1957 Corvettes ever built?”

While Ferguson’s Corvette has won awards, there’s more to his ownership and enjoyment of the car. He belongs to the Americana Corvette club, a nonprofit outfit that raises money for various organizations. Many of its members, ranging in age from their 30s to 80s, own multiple Corvettes themselves.

But while every member enjoys owning and driving his or her own example of America’s Sports Car, “Nothing is finer than a ’57,” Ferguson feels. “It has a grille like it’s going to take a bite out of you. And it’s a sexy car, with the two-tone color scheme and cream coves. It is and will remain an icon forever.”

All the better that it’s being looked after by a dedicated torchbearer.

Sidebar: Mechanical Matters

Thinking about buying a vintage Corvette? Need a few pointers about maintaining an older car? Kevin Ferguson is a factory-trained master technician, and prior to that he apprenticed at a frame, brake, and wheel shop, sorting out a variety of chassis issues. Plus he’s owned and restored an impressive array of cars over the years, as noted previously. So he has plenty of practical, hands-on tips for anyone looking to acquire and/or restore an early Corvette. While some of these pointers may be fairly familiar to long-time car enthusiasts, a few reminders can’t hurt, especially when faced with an impulse buy. His fundamental recommendation?
“A chassis inspection is very important prior to your purchase,” he advises. “Through the years of my experience in automobile dealerships, I have seen so many cars that should not be on the road.”
If you don’t have the luxury of a hoist, at least use a floor jack—along with jack stands, of course—to get under the car. “The early Corvettes have kingpins, so definitely check for any unwanted play and looseness on the idler arm, Pitman arm, and all tie-rod ends,” he notes. While you’re at it, the steering box should be examined as well. All of which should give you a general condition of the suspension and how well the car was maintained.
As you’re doing your inspection, look for oil leaks, including how much oil has sprayed toward the rear of the car and burned onto the exhaust. Look for signs of frame rust, too. All of these items can help in the evaluation of your potential purchases. Next, Ferguson likes to check out the ignition system.
“These cars came with ignition points, and some Chevys have two sets of them inside the distributor,” he points out. “Many people today are not familiar with setting up points with a dwell meter.”
Dwell, you ask? “Dwell is the length of time the ignition points are closed,” Ferguson explains. “Normally in a Chevrolet distributor, dwell is set at 28 to 32 degrees, on either a cold or hot engine. Always set dwell prior to setting ignition timing, since dwell does affect timing.” He prefers an analog meter because it doesn’t jump around and is easier to read with aging eyes.
Speaking of how things look, Ferguson wisely observes that, “Purchasing an older car should be done with thought—not how much you like how it looks. Though, of course, that does come into play.” When examining the body, he carefully inspects the fitment of the doors, hood, and trunk. He then does it a second time to make sure he didn’t miss a flaw that might indicate a bigger issue. “Inspect the seal condition, along with latches, and any color
variations where a repair might have been done,” he says.
Besides the ignition system already mentioned, look again for oil or coolant leaks in the engine bay. Examine the brake-fluid color, and pull the dipstick and oil-filler cap for signs of moisture in the crankcase. Remove the radiator cap and inspect both the coolant color and the condition of the seal on the cap. In addition, see if there’s anything that shouldn’t be in the cooling system. “I often have seen large amounts of radiator sealant sitting inside the radiator, looking like sludge,” Ferguson recalls with a wince.
Another telltale trouble sign is the weep hole on the water pump, which can show signs of fluid loss, along with the condition of the rubber hoses. “Grab the cooling fan and try to wobble it back and forth,” he recommends. “This will let you know if the bearings are shot.” If the transmission is an automatic, pull out the dipstick and look at the color, and smell the fluid for a possible burnt odor.
For older Corvettes with mechanical fuel injection, the high system pressure can cause small leaks to become major problems as the atomized fuel sprays out. This spray can turn a classic into a fireball in just seconds, so inspect all of the fuel lines and fittings for leaks on a regular basis. Pay particular attention to flexible rubber lines. If in doubt, replace these lines with new ones that are rated for fuel injection. Do not use low-pressure fuel lines on an injected car, and always use top-quality hose clamps that do not cut into the rubber as they are tightened.
Keep your fuel clean by replacing fuel filters on a regular basis. The high pressure of the FI system can quickly clog a filter if there is any crud in the gas tank. If your tank has any rust on the inside, get it flushed and treated before you drive the car.
Finally, get your injectors cleaned and blueprinted by a professional. As with a clean set of properly sized carburetor jets, injectors are crucial to performance. Dirt and varnish can cause a clog, altering the spray pattern or blocking it altogether.
Only after Ferguson has completed this entire process does he start the engine and look for smoke coming out the exhaust. He listens for any unusual noises as well, and checks the operation of the gauges. “After the car warms up, if possible, feel the radiator for any cool spots,” he suggests. They indicate whether coolant is circulating throughout, and a cool spot says no fluid is passing through. “Then road-test the vehicle for basic drivability, braking, steering, transmission, clutch operation, and body roll.”
Now you can decide if you want the car—and, depending on what you found during your inspection, perhaps negotiate a better price. “None of the items that I mentioned guarantee that the car will run a long time,” Ferguson admits. “Remember, these are machines, and machines break. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have had a career fixing them.”

Also from Issue 155

  • C8 E-Ray Preview
  • 780-HP C6 Z06
  • Market Report: C6
  • 540-CI '74 Custom
  • Restored '67 Convertible
  • History: The Spectacular SS
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2022 Corvette Buyer's Guide
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