Full Circle

The restoration of a '66 big-block coupe brings an owner back to his automotive roots.

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September 9, 2011

More than any owner we’ve come across, Dave Farrell can say he restored his Corvette himself. The Omaha, Nebraska resident disassembled his ’66 big-block coupe without any outside assistance, including the task of separating the body from the chassis. Then he not only prepped and sanded the body, he painted it—in his home garage. While he sent out the car’s tired 427 for a rebuild, the frame for sandblasting and various trim pieces for replating, everything else was restored by his own two hands. On many levels, this laborious project was a way for the 55-year-old to get back to his roots.

When he was 19, Farrell bought his first Corvette—a ’66 coupe. “It was a basket case when I got it,” he says. He had already owned a few cars by that point, and had, out of necessity, learned to wrench. He tore apart the Corvette’s small-block engine and repaired its damaged body. The aim, however, was just to get it running, not create a show car. Farrell owned the ’66 for a couple of years, but it was just one of many American performance cars he owned at the time.“I was always buying and selling cars,” he says.

When he was 21, Farrell began working at an auto-body repair shop; soon, he had a shop of his own in Omaha. While working on other people’s cars was his bread and butter at first, Farrell found himself spending more and more time buying wrecked cars, repairing them and selling them. Once he discovered that it was more lucrative to sell parts from salvaged cars than entire vehicles, Farrell’s business began to head in a different direction. Before long, he was specializing in recycled Toyota parts, hiring employees and acquiring land on which to park his growing fleet of Japanese cars.

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Farrell was also getting away from the hobby that had led him down the automotive path in the first place. “When I started the parts business, I stopped doing anything with muscle cars,” he says. “I didn’t want to lose my focus.” The strategy worked, and Farrell created a profitable company, one that caught the eye of some big players in the recycled original-equipment parts business. International behemoth LQK began merging with Farrell’s business in 1999, and Farrell began working less. Eventually, he had the time and money to pursue his passion for muscle cars. “I came back to my hobby,” says Farrell.

The car he wanted most was a ’66 Corvette, but not just any example would do. He wanted a 425-horsepower big block that was as original as possible, well documented and painted Sunfire Yellow. Many other cars were purchased before he found what he was looking for, including several Corvettes. He restored two of them, mostly by himself, and, wanting to do things right, he had a dedicated workshop complete with a four-point hydraulic lift built on his sprawling rural property. Farrell’s restoration skills were honed; now he just needed that yellow ’66.

Bonnie Jeffrey had no interest in adhering to societal norms as a youth. Considering the fact that she graduated from college in the mid-’60s, she was not alone. Instead of leaving Newport Beach, California for a commune in Oregon, however, Jeffrey marched into a Chevrolet dealership looking to buy a Corvette. And not just any Corvette, but a big-block coupe with four on the floor, no power assists of any kind and no air-conditioning—the ultimate “man’s car.” Hers was not an act of defiance, though; she just wanted to drive fast, and at the time she couldn’t do better than a four-and-a-quarter-horse Corvette. Her father supported the idea, but Jeffrey admits that there might have been some confusion on his part: He apparently thought she was getting a Corvair, not a Corvette.

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Jeffrey’s local dealer didn’t have what she was looking for, but he quickly tracked down one that did. Unfortunately, that dealer was way out in Hays, Kansas, but this geographic hurdle didn’t scuttle the purchase. The dealer offered to meet Jeffrey halfway, in Denver, Colorado, and a deal was struck. A doctor friend of Jeffrey’s—she had studied nursing—accompanied her on the retrieval mission; he was buying a Corvette, too. The pair didn’t baby their new steeds on the journey home. “We had a lot of fun,” she recalls.

Once back in Southern California, Jeffrey immediately put the area’s relatively traffic-free highways to good use. She drove her new Corvette up and down the nearby Pacific Coast Highway, from Huntington Beach up to Long Beach. “I was the terror of PCH,” says Jeffrey. Even less traffic was encountered when she ventured east towards the inland deserts. She recalls hitting 160 mph during one of these forays.

Based on the recommendation of a friend who told her that big blocks were delivered in a detuned state, Jeffrey had a local Corvette specialist do some work on the engine. Bill Thomas of Santa Ana blueprinted the motor to the tune of 550 horsepower. Jeffrey says the first time she goosed the reworked V8’s throttle, the car immediately went sideways; she couldn’t believe how much more power the 427 was putting out.

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Jettisoning the stock bias-ply tires and installing a set of new Pirelli radials helped tame the Corvette’s wayward tail, as did more delicate gas-pedal work. Armed with Positraction and the improved rubber, Jeffrey’s Corvette could beat just about anything she came up against at a stoplight, save for a Shelby Cobra. A guy she knew had a 289 model equipped with a 4:11 rear end. “He could get me off the line,” says Jeffrey, “but I could get him down the line.”

Jeffrey didn’t reserve her Corvette driving for hot-rodding: The car was her daily driver, and continued to be for more than a decade. She raised a lot of eyebrows during that time, especially in the first few years, and not just because of the novelty of a woman driving such a serious sports car. “There weren’t a lot of Corvettes around at the time,” says Jeffrey. She admits the car’s clutch was stiff, that her feet would get hot while stuck in traffic and parking it could be a workout, but says she happily put up with such compromises in exchange for the speed.

Eventually, Jeffrey started driving the car less. First came a move to Virginia, where she was forced to store the Corvette during the snowy winter months. The ’66 also accompanied her upon her return to California, but beginning in 1980 it had to share the stable with a ’66 Mustang, which became Jeffrey’s commuter car. As the decade wore on, outings in the Corvette were more about keeping it exercised than wringing it out. Ever-increasing traffic had made the latter more difficult, as did the car’s thirst for jet fuel, which she added to compensate for no-longer-available leaded gasoline.

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Finally, Jeffrey’s longtime mechanic told her that the car had reached the point where it needed a lot of work, especially the engine. She had had the ’66 repainted once and a new set of springs had been fitted, but the suggested work was going to be an order of magnitude more expensive. It was with much dread that she sold the car in 1991, to a small used-car shop in Costa Mesa, California called Corvette Lady. “I never wanted to sell it, but the car was going to cost me a fortune to restore,” says Jeffrey.

In 2005, Dave Farrell tracked down just the car he was looking for: a Sunfire Yellow ’66 Big Block. He bought it from Corvette Lady’s Sonya Keith. After purchasing the Corvette from Jeffrey, Keith had kept the car for a while herself, then sold it. She ended up buying it back a few years later, and keeping it for another stretch. With just 55,000 miles on the odometer, the car had yet to be restored when Farrell bought it. All the body panels were original, as was the interior, including the carpet and gauges. None of the glass had been replaced, either. Though the car had been well-maintained, it was far from pristine. “It was tired,” says Farrell. “The engine had never been out of the car, and it looked it.” To prove its originality, the Corvette came with a tall stack of records. It also came with a high price tag, as C2 big blocks were experiencing a real run-up in value in 2005.

Though the ’66 was Farrell’s ideal Corvette, it still had to wait in line to receive its restoration—other car projects needed to be completed. He didn’t start the restoration until summer 2009. Beginning with the bodywork, the first step was to remove all of the trim pieces, molding and bumpers. Instead of separating the body from the chassis and placing it on a dolly at this point, as he had done with his previous restorations, Farrell decided to keep it attached. In addition to providing a more stable platform for all the heavy work to come, this approach would ensure that the body would line up correctly with the chassis after it was removed for painting.

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The next step was to strip the paint. Not wanting to damage any of the fiberglass, Farrell employed a trick he learned back when he was doing body work full time. “The key is that the stripper only takes it down to the primer,” he says, “then you wash off the primer with lacquer thinner. It takes a lot of elbow grease.”

Though Farrell was committed to maintaining the Corvette’s originality, that commitment did not extend to the body’s imperfections. He filled the seams and leveled the gaps, resulting in panels that looked better than stock. He knew this additional work would not be seen favorably by the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS), and that when he had the car judged it would lose points for “over-restoration.” But, says Farrell, “That was a hit I was willing to take.”

After he coated the body with primer, Farrell raised it off the chassis using his hydraulic lift. Once he pushed the chassis out of the way, Farrell carefully lowered the body onto a dolly. At this point his attention turned to completely dismantling the car. When it came to carefully sorting and labeling the multitude of parts he had just removed, Farrell had a bit of an unfair advantage given his work experience. He says that creating a photographic record of where the parts go is key.

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Farrell pulled the engine so that it could be sent out and rebuilt, then removed everything else from the frame. It was sent out to be sand-blasted, as were large suspension pieces—basically anything that couldn’t fit into his sand-blasting cabinet. Farrell painted all of these pieces, however, including the frame.

In terms of painting the body, Farrell took a route that he thought would please the NCRS judges. Obviously, he kept the original Sunfire Yellow color, but he also elected to use lacquer, employing the same one-stage painting method used back in 1966. Most Corvettes are repainted using a two-stage process that involves first spraying a layer of base coat followed by a layer of clear coat, with both steps usually involving urethane paint. But what really makes Farrell’s route the less-travelled one is that all of this work was done in his own dedicated paint booth. And we’re not talking about some jury-rigged contraption, but a professional setup with full plastic skirting, extensive overhead lighting and an industrial-strength air-filtration system.

Though he used the original painting methodology, Farrell’s execution was different than that of the Chevrolet factory workers. Basically, he was a lot more thorough and consistent with his paint application. He had the time to bend down and carefully shoot harder-to-reach spots like the rocker panels and front valance; the circa-’66 painters didn’t. As with the panel gaps, Farrell just couldn’t bring himself to re-create past imperfections.

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Similarly, when it came time to buff the painted body, Farrell applied a far more loving touch than it originally received. For example, the rocker panels and front valance panels got a full polishing, instead of being left dull as they were at the factory. On the other hand, Farrell left the door jambs completely unpolished; their matte finish is period correct. It is in this location that Farrell’s use of lacquer paint is most evident. The rest of the body is so perfectly polished that it looks like a modern two-stage urethane job.

The interior also received Farrell’s full attention, though it required far less work than the body. He did selectively redye some of the vinyl and applied some touch-up paint on the dash, but for the most part, it was a matter of thoroughly cleaning all the various elements. The original carpeting was retained, as was the original windshield. Farrell believes the latter’s weathered patina is part of the charm of the car, not to mention its value.

Having put in many long days through the fall and winter, Farrell began the reassembly process in the spring of 2010. The list of replacement parts he’d had to track down was short. Mostly it consisted of things like gaskets and retainers, but he did need to purchase reproduction side mirrors and taillights, the latter item being too difficult to refurbish. The original bumpers were sent out to be replated, as were a number of bolts. Unfortunately, some of the original bolts were lost by the refinishers. This minor snafu really irked Farrell. Perhaps a replating station will be added to his workshop in the future.

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Farrell says reassembling the chassis went off without a hitch, as did reinstalling the rebuilt engine. The trickiest part of the restoration was reattaching the body. The actual body drop was not all that difficult, says Farrell; it was getting the completed body off its dolly and onto the hydraulic lift that proved to be the biggest challenge. The process involved a separate scissors lift and “a lot of patience.” It did not, however, involve any outside assistance. The only time somebody lent a hand was when is daughter, Kelley, helped him put the hood back on. She also helped bleed the Corvette’s brakes. Before the first heat of summer swept across the Nebraska prairie, Farrell finished the restoration and drove the big block out of his garage.

Farrell wasted no time in having the car judged, which, of course, meant his nine months of hard work would be coming under scrutiny. In May 2010, he entered the ’66 in a regional NCRS event in Des Moines, Iowa. As with most owners, his aim was to come away with a Top Flight award. Given the Corvette’s high level of originality and the careful way in which his restoration had aimed to preserve that originality, he felt like he had a good shot. He knew he would lose some points for over-restoring the body, but he was pretty sure the rest of the car could compensate for those indulgences.

That proved to be the case. He got dinged for a cigarette lighter that did not function properly and a windshield-washer pump that was incorrect. Those small deductions didn’t bother Farrell, but the number of points the car was docked for its paint job did. The Corvette received a standard 22-point deduction in this category, which is the same amount a car receives when it is repainted using a historically inaccurate two-stage urethane process. Farrell felt as though he had gone to all the trouble of using a one-stage lacquer yet received no reward for it. However, with his 96.3-percent rating earning him Top Flight, he wasn’t about to make a fuss. His mission had been accomplished.

Farrell’s mission today is to drive his ’66 more often. With he and his wife living part of the year in Florida, and the Corvette soon to make the journey to this milder clime, this should be a lot easier. “I know there is a certain amount of value that is lost when you add miles to a car like this,” says Farrell, “but I’m going to keep it.” The car’s first owner, Bonnie Jeffrey, says she was “tickled” to find out her ’66 had been restored to its original luster—“I could never have done what he has done”—and even happier to learn that Farrell plans to drive it. Now, he just needs to find a friend with a 289 Cobra.

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