It’s not his first Corvette, nor is it his only, but for Mike Emerson this 1970 LT1 coupe is definitely his favorite. He’s owned it for 34 years, he’s driven it across the country twice and he’s had three wives come and go while only one shark has occupied his Hayward, California garage.
Having been born in the summer of 1953, Emerson’s personal history is inextricably linked to that of the Corvette’s—both were June deliveries. He remembers seeing a ’63 split window for the first time and thinking it was the coolest car he’d ever seen. “It looked fast just sitting still,” he remembers. A neighbor had a ’65 coupe, so, as a youth, Emerson had every reason to be fixated on Corvettes. He was, but he was also into motorcycles, hot rods and everything else that was fast and loud.
Emerson hadn’t planned on buying a Corvette on a spring day in 1972 when he bought his first. A senior at Castro Valley High School, Emerson was at work at a local tire store when a blue ’65 big-block convertible rolled in for new rubber. After his boss told him that the Corvette owner was selling it and only wanted $1,200, Emerson immediately thought of his bank account: It held $1,150—certainly close enough to close the deal. He was right, and before the purchase fully registered in his brain, Emerson was a Corvette owner. The only hitch was that the car’s fuel gauge was on E and he had spent his last dime. Graciously, the former owner gave the young tire jockey a twenty and Emerson was on his way, wasting no time showing off his new ride to friends. He quickly gained an appreciation for the big block’s 425 horsepower, blasting up to 120 mph on a banked freeway overpass. “I could kill myself in this car,” Emerson remembers telling himself.
For the next two years, Emerson was the envy of the East Bay, but his Corvette ownership experience wasn’t without its problems. Though he managed to stay out of jail, Emerson couldn’t keep the ’65 out of the repair shop. First, a valve spring broke. Though he was able to get that repaired for just $250, the next fix was going to be far costlier: The blown clutch needed to be replaced. With work slow (Emerson is a fourth-generation masonry contractor) and gasoline prices high (the OPEC crisis had just hit and that 396 V8 was a guzzler), the Corvette was proving too much for his budget to bear, so he decided to sell it. Emerson was barely able to coax the Corvette over to a local hot-rod dealer, where he was offered $1,500 on the spot. It was just too good to pass up. While he eventually regretted selling that mid-year, at the time, he didn’t really have a choice.
Towards the end of the ’70s, Emerson was more established and could finally start thinking about getting back into a Corvette. He had the money to buy a new one, but the ’78 Corvette’s styling update didn’t appeal to him, nor did its relatively weak, 185-horsepower V8—he wanted an early, chrome-bumper shark with a strong motor. A neighbor who happened to be a Corvette broker told him that he had just what he was looking for, a ’70 convertible. Emerson was excited about the prospect until he found out the car was yellow, a color he hates, and told the neighbor, “No, thanks.” After some coaxing, however, Emerson agreed to at least see it.
Originally a New York car, the Corvette was in good shape with just 32,000 miles. It didn’t have power anything, nor was it equipped with air-conditioning, but the engine felt really strong and emitted a soul-stirring racket through its sidepipes. Plus, it had a four-speed manual transmission, thus fulfilling Emerson’s performance requirements. A factory hardtop was included in the $7,000 asking price. It seemed like a lot of car for the money, especially after negotiations brought the price down to $6K. Emerson still didn’t like its color, but he was overjoyed to be back behind the wheel of a Corvette. Anyways, he planned to have it repainted.
The ’70 convertible immediately became Emerson’s daily driver, taking him to his job sites. On the weekends it transported him all over Northern California, to the Mendocino Coast for abalone diving, to the American River for rafting and to the Sierra mountains for skiing. A rear luggage rack aided in these adventures. He didn’t baby his Corvette, driving it hard and usually parking it outside.
Whether Emerson was flooring it or just cruising, the car was loud. As it turns out, one of the previous owners had removed the baffles from the car’s sidepipes. In conjunction with the Hooker headers that had also been fitted, these straight-through sidepipes amounted to a race-ready exhaust system. Emerson loved the roar; police officers were much less enamored of it and pulled him over repeatedly. One time they accused Emerson of racing another car, even though he was barely creeping along. “If I had wanted to race, I would have been long gone,” he says. Though he got out of this ticket and others, Emerson eventually elected to have the sidepipes rebuilt with baffles.
Still decades away from becoming the Corvette expert that he is today, Emerson had been convinced by fellow car enthusiasts to keep the car’s original Daytona Yellow paint job on account of its relative rarity. He learned a lot more about his Corvette when its engine spun a bearing at the 65,000-mile mark in 1982. The mechanic entrusted with the repair told Emerson he was impressed with the car’s LT1 engine. It was only then, four years into his ownership experience, that Emerson found out his car was equipped with this highly desirable option.
How could he not have known? First of all, the Corvette did not have an LT1 hood when Emerson bought it. While the LT1’s solid lifters and high compression ratio can definitely be felt, they cannot be seen. And finally, 350-horse L46 engines are no shrinking violets; Emerson just thought that his was particularly robust.
Though pleased to find out about the LT1, Emerson didn’t suddenly treat his Corvette as a collector car. He kept driving it regularly, the period modifications he had made to the engine bay—Edelbrock valve covers, various brightwork—remained, and he was in no hurry to track down a correct LT1 hood. Still spending a lot of time on two wheels—he was an active member of a Harley-Davidson club—Emerson didn’t have the time to immerse himself in the Corvette hobby.
It wasn’t until 2002 that he joined a Corvette club, the Northern California Corvette Association. By that point, his ’70 convertible was showing its age, especially the interior. Emerson elected to have it restored. Having been bitten by the originality bug, he decided to track down original, new-old-stock panels and pads as opposed to using aftermarket replacement parts. Though it was a time-consuming process, Emerson eventually found what he needed on eBay. He not only kept the cockpit its original black color, he chose not to change or upgrade anything; he didn’t have a more reliable quartz clock fitted nor did he have air-conditioning installed. That latter item would have come in handy on his next road trip, which involved driving from Hayward to Bowling Green.
The Northern California Corvette Association had organized a caravan to Kentucky to join in the nationwide celebration of the Corvette’s 50th anniversary. Naturally, Emerson wanted to join in—after all, the event coincided with his 50th birthday. Normally, he only drives his Corvette with the top down, but on this cross-country trip the weather proved so searingly hot that he was forced to seek the shade of his black soft top. Covering about 400 miles per day, the group reached their destination in four days.
Emerson had the second oldest car in his group—a ’65 was also along for the ride—which resulted in him being given preferential parking spots wherever he went during the event. Chrome-bumper LT1s always draw a crowd, and those that swarmed Emerson’s ’70 convertible were universally amazed by the fact that the car still wore its original paint. They were even more amazed to find out that Emerson had used a rather unorthodox cleaning product to prep his car: Comet. People simply couldn’t believe it.
Though this bleach-infused scrubbing cleanser had certainly been effective in removing years’ worth of oxidation, it didn’t exactly improve the paint’s luster. To that end, a 50th-anniversary participant suggested Emerson try a new paint-rejuvenating product that was being promoted at the gathering. He gave it a try, and was amazed at the results. With his shark looking better than ever, Emerson drove to a nearby catfish restaurant for dinner. It was his birthday, and time to celebrate the celebration within the celebration. After parking his Corvette out front, Emerson strode into the restaurant feeling as if he was on top of the world. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for him to be knocked off that lofty perch.
A young, attractive woman entered the restaurant, asking who owned the yellow Corvette convertible. Thinking his night was just about to get better, Emerson raised his hand. That’s when she dropped the bomb: She had hit his car. Not believing it for a second, Emerson was convinced that this was all part of an elaborate birthday gag about to be foisted on him by his buddies. He expected the woman to start taking off her clothes at any second. Instead, she took him outside and showed him the damage. She’d smacked a front fender hard enough to dent the panel and pop the door open. Right then and there, Emerson knew that his original paint job was toast. His high spirits utterly deflated, Emerson faced a long drive home with a duct-taped door.
Upon his arrival back in Northern California, Emerson went to work on his insurance company (the perpetrator had been uninsured). It offered to repair the damage and put the car straight, but said it would only cover the painting of the affected panels. Emerson found this unacceptable; he knew there was no way even the finest paint shop could come close to getting the finish of the repaired panels to match that of the 33-year-old originals. Eventually, Emerson prevailed and the Corvette was given a complete, modern, two-stage paint job. Naturally, he chose to keep the original Daytona Yellow hue.
Before any paint was sprayed, however, Emerson elected to address a number of aging-car issues. For example, the windshield frame had rusted and needed to be repaired. While the stainless-steel exterior brightwork could be buffed clean, the aluminum and chrome bits could not, and would need to be replaced, as would the top. Oh, and the time had come to get a proper LT1 hood. Before he knew it, Emerson had commenced with a full-on restoration, and, as usual, it took a lot longer than he expected it would. He knew the process of tracking down hard-to-find original parts would be tedious, especially since you usually have to buy multiple examples in order to find one that fits properly, but setbacks like his paint-shop guy getting deported were impossible to foresee.
As the project neared its third year, Emerson had finally had enough of his Corvette-less existence and took a drastic measure: He bought a brand-new 2005 Corvette coupe. “It helped me get through the process,” he claims. Though blown away by the C6’s handling—“It’s a go-kart on steroids”—Emerson was even more impressed by the new Corvette’s fuel economy. Even when driven in a spirited fashion, the car got no worse than 24 mpg, and showed well over 30 mpg during steady-state freeway drives—nothing short of “amazing” given the 400-horsepower car’s performance.
While he appreciates the C6 Corvette’s appearance, especially the way the tapered backlight mimics that of a mid-year coupe’s, in his book it just doesn’t compare to an early C3’s looks. He says styling is definitely the ’70 convertible’s finest attribute. He loves the way the front fenders rise to sharp points on either side of the hood, the way the aggressive grille “looks likes it’s going to gobble up everything around it” and the intricacy of the eggcrate side vents. Above all, Emerson thinks his car looks sexy. Recalling the halcyon days of an era gone by, he says, “The girls loved it.” He’s quick to add that it still turns heads today—perhaps even more so.
Given his affection for the machine, Emerson was understandably thrilled to finally get his shark back from the shop. The long restoration had been quite a learning experience. Emerson gained first-hand knowledge of the fact that no two factory LT1 hoods were alike, for instance. Finding one online was just the beginning of the process; getting it to fit his car was much harder, involving lots of bodywork expertise and loads of patience. Though Emerson strived for originality in most aspects of the restoration, he turned to the aftermarket when it came to the soft top, having already watched four replacement factory tops discolor too quickly.
As for other aftermarket upgrades that often find their way into early Corvettes during restoration, Emerson says he was tempted to add power steering and brakes but ultimately resisted the urge. “She is what she is,” he says, referring to the car’s heavy controls. He did, however, give some thought to installing a tilt steering wheel. The re-padding of the seats during the interior restoration left him sitting higher and closer to the wheel rim, and Emerson admits that some extra padding around the waistline might have worsened the problem. But after the seats settled and he lost some weight, he is glad he didn’t monkey with the steering column.
One thing he did monkey with long ago was the shifter, replacing the clunky stock linkage of his M22 four speed with a smoother-shifting Hurst one. Though he drives the ’70 much less than he used to, he doesn’t hold much back when he’s behind the wheel and doesn’t want the shifter slowing him down. Indeed, not that long ago he ran the LT1 down a quarter-mile drag strip at a Northern California Corvette Association event in Sacramento. He posted an elapsed time of 14.01 seconds, exactly what the Chevrolet sales brochure promised over 40 years ago.
The car certainly felt fast during my brief time behind the wheel. The rush of acceleration as the engine sweeps past 5,000 rpm and tears to its 6,500-rpm redline is absolutely intoxicating. Emerson says this 350 pulls harder than the 396 in his ’65, especially at high rpm. Though the LT1 doesn’t like to be lugged around at low revs, I wouldn’t describe it as high-strung. The slick-shifting Hurst linkage makes rowing through the gears a snap. I can only imagine how loud the exhaust was when the car still had its unbaffled sidepipes, because it still plenty boisterous now.
The steering is definitely high-effort during parking-lot maneuvers, but quickly lightens as speeds increase. I didn’t have much opportunity to test the car’s handling, but Emerson was quick to point out that it in no way compares to his C6’s. He gets that car on track as often as his budget will allow, but has no interest in hustling his C3 around a road course. Still, I would love to drive this car up the Northern California coast, retracing one of Emerson’s abalone dive routes with the tall front fenders framing the experience the whole way. This LT1 just begs to be driven.