Persistence Beats Resistance

It took him nearly four decades to accomplish, cost a bundle and frayed plenty of nerves, but this East Coast enthusiast got back his first Corvette—one of the original Baldwin-Motion Performance Phase III coupes.

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May 6, 2011

What do you do when you have an irrepressible desire to find the Corvette you sold when you decided to start a family? It’s a dream that has beckoned to you for nearly 40 years because it was a very special Corvette, one that you custom-ordered with your father—a genuine, 1969 Baldwin-Motion Performance Phase III Corvette, one of only perhaps 12 made by the legendary Long Island tuner.

This was the situation that Phil Schwartz faced. He had received the new Corvette as a high-school graduation gift—a reward for good grades. His dad said he could have any car he wanted, and at the time nothing was hotter, especially for an East Coast kid, than a Baldwin-Motion Corvette. Accompanied by his father, Schwartz went to Baldwin Chevrolet in Baldwin, Long Island, and ordered his dream machine.

The first step was to fill out the factory order form. Schwartz selected a Monaco Orange coupe with a long list of high-performance options, beginning with the 435-horsepower 427-cubic-inch L71 V8. He requested that the engine be fitted with the Transistor Ignition System and a pair of side pipes. He paired the big block with an M21 close-ratio four-speed manual transmission and a Positraction rear axle with a 4:56 final drive, as well as a heavy-duty dual-disc clutch. While Schwartz went whole hog in terms of go-fast parts, he didn’t scrimp when it came to luxury, and ordered power windows, a black leather interior, an alarm system and an AM/FM radio.

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After St. Louis had assembled and shipped Schwartz’s Corvette to Baldwin Chevrolet, Joel Rosen and his crew at the nearby Motion Performance shop performed their Phase III magic, which more than doubled the cost of the car. Most of the mods were engine related, including the installation of a three-barrel Holley carburetor, an Edelbrock intake manifold, Mallory ignition, special orange spark-plug wires, a unique Phase III ignition box and a Fly Eye air cleaner. These upgrades, combined with Hooker headers, launched engine output into a 600-horsepower orbit.

A set of Firestone Indy tires mounted on American Racing wheels was tasked with putting all this power to the pavement. To cover the wider rubber, a set of flares was fitted. While a tall hood with a larger air scoop and a flip-up fuel cap were part of the shop’s signature look, it was the Corvette’s black center stripe and black rear body panel that gave it the iconic Motion look.

Despite the extensive modifications, the Corvette maintained its factory warranty, as well as its street legality. This was fairly unprecedented for a tuner shop, as was Motion’s performance guarantee. If one of its street cars was unable to run the quarter mile in 11.5 seconds with a trap speed of 120 mph, the owner could return it. No one ever did.

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With 600 horsepower, incredible acceleration and a price tag approaching $20,000, the Phase III Corvette was a lot of car for a 19-year-old kid. Schwartz loved it, of course. A year after getting the keys, though, he was handing them over to a new owner. Another love had entered his life, and he felt that a two-seat hot rod wasn’t quite the right vehicle for traveling down the marriage-and-family path. Though a sensible choice, selling the car was a decision he would come to regret.

Several decades later, Schwartz reached a point in his life when he had the time and money to own sports cars again. The Rosylyn, New York resident acquired a number of Corvettes, but none of them—no matter how fast or how rare—satisfied his urge for that ’69 Motion car. Finally, it got to a point where Schwartz just had to get the car back. Fortunately, he knew someone who could help: Kevin Mackay.

In addition to running Corvette Repair Inc., a well-regarded restoration shop in Valley Stream, New York, Mackay is a National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS) Master Judge, as well as a Bloomington Gold Benchmark Judge. Armed with knowledge, connections and resourcefulness, Mackay is a master at tracking down rare Corvettes. For example, he helped the late Chip Miller find the ex-Cunningham Corvette that won its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1960.

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Schwartz was one of the first customers Mackay ever had, and over the past 25 years, Schwartz had occasionally mentioned his 1969 Baldwin-Motion Phase III Corvette. However, having heard similar stories from other clients, Mackay never really knew for sure if Schwartz indeed owned one of the rare Motion cars. Where was the proof? Mackay wondered. Then, one day, Schwartz surprised Mackay with some old photos of him with the Motion Corvette. Having convinced Mackay that he had indeed owned the car, Schwartz persuaded the restorer to help track it down.

Approximately one year after that conversation with Schwartz, Mackay was working on a Baldwin-Motion Phase III GT—the later, more heavily customized and luxurious Corvette. While hunting down parts on eBay, he came across a Phase III coupe for sale; it looked like it could be the one. He called Schwartz immediately to confer, giving him the eBay item number. Once logged on, Schwartz knew that, despite the car’s weathered appearance, he was looking at “his” Corvette. The clincher was a photo that showed a Stewart Warner fuel-pressure gauge mounted on the driver’s side wiper cowl. Schwartz had installed that himself. Without a doubt, he knew that Mackay had found the right car; Schwartz couldn’t believe his luck.

There were a few problems, however. First, the car was missing its motor and transmission. Second, despite the empty engine bay, the owner had set a “Buy It Now” price of $220,000. Mackay thought this was excessive, and advised Schwartz to make the owner an offer of $150,000. This was turned down. Then, after a few days, the listing was removed. When Mackay called the owner to inquire about the Corvette, he learned it had been swapped for an ultra-rare Central Office Production Order Camaro. “That was the last we heard of the car,” says Schwartz. “I was just devastated. We were that close!”

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Another year went by. Then, once again, Schwartz received a call from Mackay. “What are you doing this Saturday?” asked Mackay. Schwartz told him that he was attending a wedding.“No, you’re not!” Mackay said. “We’re going to an auction. Your car’s up for sale again. We’re going to go get your car back. No screwing around this time!”

A few days later, the pair were at the auction site in Connecticut, looking for their quarry among the field of 80 cars. Once they found it, Mackay was able to quickly ascertain that the Corvette had undergone an amateur restoration. “There were many things wrong with the car,” says Mackay. Although a proper L71 V8 and M21 gearbox had been fitted, not all of the correct Motion mods had been installed on the engine. Worse yet, the car didn’t run. Apparently, the owner had tax problems and needed to sell it in a hurry.

Armed with this knowledge and thinking that no one else would be bidding on a poorly restored Motion Corvette, Mackay and Schwartz started to believe the purchase would be a cakewalk. “We thought we were going to steal the car,” says Schwartz. Problem was, there was another person who really wanted the car, too.

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Knowing that lightning doesn’t always strike twice, Schwartz was determined not to return empty-handed: “I said, ‘This time, we’re not going to let it get away, whatever the cost—we’re just going buy it.’ It wasn’t a business decision; it was purely emotional.”

Part of the pair’s strategy was to conceal Schwartz’s place in the Corvette’s ownership history. “Kevin told me before we arrived, ‘Whatever you do, don’t say that you were the original owner or the pricing will get crazy!’” says Schwartz.

The bidding began at $10,000, and the numbers quickly began to climb—as did Schwartz’s nervousness. “It was crazy. I was on pins and needles,” he recalls. “I asked Kevin to bid because I really was too nervous to do it.” Mackay concurs: “Phil was a wreck! He was shaking, had tears in his eyes.”

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Mackay dug in his heels, and made it clear to the other bidder that he had no intention of losing the auction. “I told him that he was not going to get the car,” says Mackay. “I would keep bidding. I was going to get the car, so just quit now.”

But the bidding continued, and the price kept climbing.

When the gavel finally hit, Schwartz was unsure if Mackay had placed the winning bid. “It was a bit confusing,” he says. “The auctioneer said he had $220,000 on the car. I knew Kevin had bid $200,000. Then he said $220,000. I thought we lost it again! He repeated the price at $200,000. I knew that was Kevin’s last bid. Then he announced $200,000. The gavel hit again, and he said Kevin Mackay had won the car!”

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It was not until Schwartz had signed the paperwork, received the title and had the keys in hand that Mackay announced to the auction crowd that his client was the Corvette’s original owner—and that, after 37 years, he had now been reunited with his car. “Phil was in tears,” says Mackay. “The place went nuts!”

The real work began when they got the car back to Corvette Repair Inc. As Mackay had predicted, a full body-off restoration was required. “We started from ground zero,” he says. With Schwartz’s permission, the shop spared no expense in putting the Corvette back to its original, as-delivered condition. The process took 18 months.

One of the biggest tasks was replacing the car’s nose; it wasn’t an original piece. As it turns out, Schwartz had had an accident six months into his original ownership of the car. He lost control, smashed into a parked car and damaged the front end badly enough that a new nose was required. He took the Corvette back to Motion Performance for repairs. At that point, the shop was developing the Phase III GT, which featured a new front end with exposed headlights. Rosen offered to install this new piece, and, as would any young hot-rodder, Schwartz said yes.

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In order to properly restore the Corvette to its original Phase III condition, a nose clip from a ’69 Corvette was secured. It, as with all of the fiberglass panels, was completely stripped of paint. Although some restoration shops use chemical-stripping solvents to accomplish this, Mackay insists on a more time-consuming technique that’s gentler on the fiberglass: He and his crew use razor blades to scrape away the paint. “Chemicals are too harsh,” explains Mackay. “They can destroy the fiberglass.” Once the body was stripped, any cracks were repaired, and the seams were reglassed to create a smoother surface.

As one would expect, the frame was stripped down to bare metal and repainted. A similar approach was taken with the interior: The carpet was stripped out and replaced, a fresh set of hides were stretched over the seats and new glass was fitted all around. All of the chrome work was re-plated, and the stainless-steel trim was polished. When it came time to paint the exterior—in the original Monaco Orange, naturally—Corvette Repair’s John Penachio referred to a trove of photographs in order to get the Phase III stripes just right.

Wherever possible, original parts were retained. The fuel cap, for example, is the very one fitted back in 1969. The restoration also involved replacing incorrect parts that had been bolted on over the years. A proper set of American Racing wheels was sourced, a proper Hooker header was purchased and the right Edelbrock intake was tracked down, as well as various other Motion-specific engine accessories. If a part could not be found, it was recreated. Such was the case with the license plates; they’re replicas of the originals.

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In 2010, a reunion of Baldwin-Motion Performance cars was staged at Chicago’s Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals. Its restoration complete, Schwartz’s Phase III was there. So was Motion Performance founder Joel Rosen. In describing his feelings about the reunion, Rosen says, “I was overwhelmed! I haven’t seen most of these cars in over 40 years. It was a wonderful display.”

What did Rosen think about the restoration of Schwartz’s ’69? “Let me say something, the fella that did this work is a master!” The judges at the show were of the same opinion: The car earned a Triple Diamond award and Gold status for period correctness in the concours, as well as a Celebrity Pick award from Vette Vues. But perhaps the most significant moment at the event for Schwartz occurred when Rosen agreed to sign the dash of the car.

This July, Schwartz will take his Phase III to Novi, Michigan, where he will receive the prestigious NCRS American Heritage Award for preservation of a “historical, significant piece of Corvette history.” Of course, for Schwartz, the ’69 Motion Corvette is a significant piece of his personal history. Getting the car back in his life has been the greatest award.

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