Rare Air

Collector/restorer Dominick Salvemini calls this “air box” C1 the rarest and most interesting of the 57 1957 models he’s owned

Photo: Rare Air 1
June 15, 2015

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO renowned Corvette restorer Dominick Salvemini displayed his famous “half-car” at the Nassau Coliseum car show in New York. The half-car was a very original but extremely weathered 1957 Corvette that Salvemini restored half of—literally. He divided the car in half longitudinally and beautifully restored only one side as a promotion for his Long Island restoration shop, Vette Dreams.

The display caught the eye of Guy LaMotta, who asked Salvemini about painting his ’57 Corvette. In the course of the discussion, LaMotta revealed that this was no ordinary ’57. It was, in fact, a fuel-injected car equipped with a cold-air induction system. Corvettes fitted with this induction setup, commonly called “air box” cars, are extraordinarily scarce and extremely desirable.

Instead of painting the car for LaMotta, Salvemini, one of the world’s foremost 1957 Corvette experts, ended up buying it from him. Incredibly, it was the 54th 1957 Corvette Salvemini had owned over the years (he’s since bought three more!), and it was by far the rarest. The odometer showed only a little more than 25,000 miles, and all evidence pointed to this figure being accurate. The car had been disassembled for restoration years earlier, but from a professional restorer’s perspective it was a dream to put it back together again. “The car was incredibly original,” remembers Salvemini, “and best of all it had a beautiful, un-hit body and a perfect chassis, without a single rust pit.”

Photo: Rare Air 2
Paired with a four-speed manual trans, the ’57 Corvette’s optional 283-horse “Fuelie” served up class-leading performance for the era. Although the 579D “air box” package typically added heavy-duty suspension and braking hardware to the equipment list, Dominick Salvemini’s car curiously lacks both. One 579D item it doesn’t lack is the column-mounted tach, just visible here between the spokes of the C1’s manhole-sized steering wheel. Aztec Copper was a rare color choice for ’57, with 452 units sold.
But before attacking the resto, Salvemini had a couple of mysteries to solve. For many years it was generally believed that Chevrolet produced 43 1957 Corvettes with option 579D, which included the fresh-air induction system and a special, 8,000-rpm AC tachometer mounted on the steering column. Designed for serious road racing, the package also encompassed the high-horsepower fuel-injected engine, along with heavy-duty hardware for the braking and suspension systems. But Salvemini’s car did not have the HD brakes and suspension, so how could it have the cold-air induction? Also, the car had twin, high-powered driving lights and a wire-mesh grille in place of the standard, chrome-tooth grille. Where did this come from?

Previous owner LaMotta had done a fair amount of research on the car and learned that Bill Greene Chevrolet in Stuart, Florida, had sold it new. Based on that information, in 1997 Salvemini placed an ad in a local Stuart newspaper seeking anyone who had worked at or had some other connection to the dealership. At first, the results were disappointing. He heard from a couple of women who had worked in the dealership’s office, and from another woman whose father was a mechanic there, but none of them knew anything about this particular ’57 Corvette. Then, to his astonishment, Salvemini heard from two people with vivid recollections of the car.

The first was Michael Greene, who called and, in an understatement of epic proportions said, “I think you want to speak with me.” Back in 1957 Greene ran the dealership, which was then owned by his father, Martin Greene. No sooner had Salvemini begun to ask his questions than Greene interrupted him with a finely nuanced recollection.

Photo: Rare Air 3
Paired with a four-speed manual trans, the ’57 Corvette’s optional 283-horse “Fuelie” served up class-leading performance for the era. Although the 579D “air box” package typically added heavy-duty suspension and braking hardware to the equipment list, Dominick Salvemini’s car curiously lacks both. One 579D item it doesn’t lack is the column-mounted tach, just visible here between the spokes of the C1’s manhole-sized steering wheel. Aztec Copper was a rare color choice for ’57, with 452 units sold.
“I remember the car well! Air box, steering-mounted tach. I remember firing some kid over that car because he washed it and got the carpeting wet,” Greene said. This was in 1997, some 40 years after the Corvette was first sold, making it somewhat remarkable that Greene easily remembered so many details about the car.

“He went on tell me that of all the cars the dealership sold while he was there, this Corvette was the most memorable,” recalls Salvemini. “For starters it was a rare color, Aztec Copper, with rare options—fuel injection, cold-air induction, and the column-mounted tach. But perhaps even more relevant than his recollections about the car was the fact that Bill Greene Chevrolet sold very, very few Corvettes.

“He told me his father hated Corvettes, refused to stock them, and as a result they hardly ever sold any,” Salvemini continues. “So getting any Corvette into the dealership was a big deal, and he remembered this [one] as being very special. So much so that everyone in the dealership had strict orders to stay away from it!”

Photo: Rare Air 4
Paired with a four-speed manual trans, the ’57 Corvette’s optional 283-horse “Fuelie” served up class-leading performance for the era. Although the 579D “air box” package typically added heavy-duty suspension and braking hardware to the equipment list, Dominick Salvemini’s car curiously lacks both. One 579D item it doesn’t lack is the column-mounted tach, just visible here between the spokes of the C1’s manhole-sized steering wheel. Aztec Copper was a rare color choice for ’57, with 452 units sold.
Salvemini also had the opportunity to speak with the car’s original owner, John Marcin, who received it as a graduation gift from his father. Marcin confirmed what Greene had already told Salvemini, which was that the car was delivered new to him in 1957, showing eight miles on the odometer, with a 283-ci, 283-hp FI engine; cold-air induction; column-mounted tach; high-powered running lights and a wire-mesh screen in place of the stock grille.

Both Greene and Marcin were kind enough to provide Salvemini with notarized letters reiterating what they told him, with Greene’s stating, “In 1957 I was employed at Bill Greene Chevrolet, a dealership owned and operated by my father, Martin Greene. This letter is to verify that a 1957 Fuel Injected, Air Induction (air box) Corvette with steering mounted tach was ordered and sold by this dealership. The salesman’s name was Ed Williams, and the car was sold to John Marcin. Mr. Marcin purchased the car as a graduation gift for his son. The color of the car was Aztec Copper/Beige coves with Beige interior.”

Interestingly, John Marcin told Salvemini that he never really liked the Corvette, and primarily used it to tow his boat around. In 1961 he decided to buy a Porsche, which displeased his father considerably. His father then took possession of the Corvette and used it sparingly for about six years before selling it to Luther “Ed” Boyette. When Salvemini spoke with Boyette, he remembered Marcin stressing to him that the car was “very special.” Boyette drove the Corvette infrequently and eventually sold it to Jim Gregg. Gregg in turn sold it to Guy LaMotta, the man Salvemini bought it from.

Photo: Rare Air 5
Paired with a four-speed manual trans, the ’57 Corvette’s optional 283-horse “Fuelie” served up class-leading performance for the era. Although the 579D “air box” package typically added heavy-duty suspension and braking hardware to the equipment list, Dominick Salvemini’s car curiously lacks both. One 579D item it doesn’t lack is the column-mounted tach, just visible here between the spokes of the C1’s manhole-sized steering wheel. Aztec Copper was a rare color choice for ’57, with 452 units sold.
Following confirmation of the car’s originality by both the selling dealership’s manager and the original owner, Salvemini learned more about this rare option from Ken Kayser. Kayser worked in engineering and management for General Motors for nearly 40 years and authored a detailed tome on the Rochester fuel-injection system called The History of GM’s Ramjet Fuel Injection on the Chevrolet V-8 and Its Corvette Racing Pedigree.

“Ken told me that Chevrolet built a total of 50 air boxes,” Salvemini explains. “Forty-three went on the 579D-optioned 1957 Corvettes. Four of the boxes were incorrectly installed at the St. Louis Assembly Plant and subsequently cut off the cars. An air box was installed on a low-horsepower, automatic-transmission Fuelie, and there are photos of Zora Duntov showing this car to King Leopold III of Belgium. That accounts for 48 of the air boxes. Duntov personally delivered the 49th one to Rosenthal Chevrolet for installation on Dick Thompson’s ’57 race car. And the 50th and final air box was installed on my car.”

Exactly why that last air box went onto Salvemini’s Corvette remains something of a mystery. Why it was equipped with a wire-mesh screen and high-powered driving lights also remains an unanswered question. The car was not bought to race, and original owner Marcin does not know why his father ordered it the way that he did. He did, however, tell Salvemini that his father was a passionate racing fan and Corvette enthusiast who was friendly with some of the movers and shakers then involved with racing Corvettes, including Dick Doane and Jim Rathmann. Doane, owner of Doane Motors Chevrolet in Dundee, Illinois, was deeply immersed in Chevrolet’s road-racing activities in the 1950s. Rathmann, meanwhile, was a prolific stock, sports and open-wheel racer and Florida Chevrolet dealer. Either or both men could have had a role in Marcin’s decision to order the uniquely equipped Corvette for his son.

Photo: Rare Air 6
Paired with a four-speed manual trans, the ’57 Corvette’s optional 283-horse “Fuelie” served up class-leading performance for the era. Although the 579D “air box” package typically added heavy-duty suspension and braking hardware to the equipment list, Dominick Salvemini’s car curiously lacks both. One 579D item it doesn’t lack is the column-mounted tach, just visible here between the spokes of the C1’s manhole-sized steering wheel. Aztec Copper was a rare color choice for ’57, with 452 units sold.
With Mr. Marcin père, as well as selling dealer Ed Williams, both long ago deceased, Salvemini may never know the exact details regarding how his Corvette came to be outfitted the way that it was. But secure in the knowledge that it was in fact delivered with the unorthodox equipment already installed, he decided to restore it that way.

As you’d expect from a professional restorer with decades of experience and a particular love for ’57, he went to extremes to do the highest-quality, most authentic restoration possible. Perhaps the best evidence of this is his decision to paint the car with nitrocellulose lacquer, the original type of paint Chevrolet used for all ’57 Corvettes, save for those painted Inca Silver. (Beginning with ’57 Inca Silver and continuing with all colors from 1958 through 1981 St. Louis production, Chevy used acrylic-lacquer paint.)

“Nitrocellulose lacquer is considerably more difficult to spray well,” Salvemini tells us, “and it’s harder to repair, which helps explain why Chevrolet and other car makers switched to acrylic lacquers. But it does have a subtly distinct look that is uniquely beautiful.”

Photo: Rare Air 7
This photo underscores just how far Corvette tires have come in the past 58 years. That these cars were capable of running with Europe’s best is nothing short of remarkable.
Since completing this extraordinary Corvette’s restoration in 2008, Salvemini has driven it only a handful of miles, allowing the car to spend most of its time in climate-controlled storage. “It’s too nice and too rare to drive regularly,” he explains. “As someone who loves driving them, that’s a little bit frustrating at times, but even [so], this car has given me a lot of enjoyment over the past 25-odd years. And thankfully, I have other Corvettes to use, including a ’57 that I drive all the time.”

Then, after pausing for a moment, he adds, “Each vintage Corvette is special in its own way, but this air-box Corvette is by far the rarest and most interesting one I’ve ever had.” Coming from someone who’s owned 57 ’57 Corvettes, that’s really saying something.

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