As a young boy growing up in Buffalo, New York, Cliff Kancler spent hour upon hour building models in the basement of his family’s house. Shunning outside assistance, he liked to figure things out on his own, relishing the challenge of creating his own parts or wiring his own electrical circuit. That he grew up to become an engineer surprised no one. Similarly, the fact that he singlehandedly restored the ’69 Corvette on these pages makes absolute sense. Still, the degree to which Kancler reengineered this coupe is impressive. Beneath its stock Cortez Silver paint—which Kancler applied his own garage—is a lightweight, LS3-powered machine with a highly tuned, autocross-ready suspension.
As more or less a Corvette purist, Kancler never really imagined himself performing what some might consider a “restomod” job. You see, he’s owned this particular ’69 coupe since 1972. At that point he was newly married and just a few years into his engineering job at Lockheed Martin in San Jose, California. He had sold his Pontiac GTO to buy a wedding ring and, for the first time since he got his driver’s license, was without a performance car. Feeling sorry for him, his wife suggested they start a fund to buy his dream car—a Corvette. Having witnessed the Mako Shark show car at the New York Auto Show in 1965, Kancler had a soft spot for third-generation Vettes. After a few years of saving money, however, he and his wife were well short of the funds needed for a new C3. “The jar never got full,” he says. A ’71 Corvette stickered for $5,800; they had amassed less than half that.
Undaunted, Kancler began searching for used examples. He found one in San Francisco, where he and his wife were living at the time. It was a an L46-equipped machine with a four-speed manual transmission. The original owner had driven it out from Ohio and put in a couple years of hard use, subjecting the car to street parking in San Francisco. As a result, the Cortez Silver C3 was no beauty queen. And even then, the contents of Kancler’s piggy bank didn’t add up to the asking price. Fortunately, after explaining that $2,600 was all he had, Kancler was able to drive off in the Corvette. And, for the next few decades, he kept on driving. The ’69 served as his daily driver—for much of the time, it was his only car—shuttling Kancler to and from Lockheed Martin until 2007, when he retired. At that point, the odometer read 280,000 miles. “That’s a trip to the moon and partway back,” he notes.
During those 35 years, the car remained a reliable and entertaining servant. For most of that period, it also remained stock. Then, in the late ’90s, Kancler got getting bitten by the autocrossing bug. He became a member of the Lockheed Martin Sports Car Club, which organized autocross events in the aerospace firm’s sizable parking lots. Initially Kancler didn’t make changes to his car, but when he got a ride in his friend Rob Sigler’s modified ’68 Corvette, he saw the light. “There was no comparison between his car and mine,” he says.
In terms of performance upgrades, Kancler started with the easy stuff, such as stickier tires, then began to make changes to the cars suspension. He swapped out the stock steel rear leaf spring for a fiberglass one, installed poly bushings and fitted adjustable shocks and aftermarket sway bars. The car’s handling improved markedly, and Kancler was able to post more-competitive times at autocross events.
After a while, however, the engineer realized he was starting to run up against some limits imposed by the original C3 design. For example, the increased lateral acceleration his Corvette was generating caused noticeable frame flex, causing the hood to occasionally pop up. The addition of harness and spreader bars ameliorated this problem to a certain degree, but hardly solved them. In addition, Kancler began to realize that the stock suspension geometry was a limiting factor. Making his ’69 corner faster would require more drastic steps than the minor changes he had performed up to that point
It was a similar story on the engine front. Kancler had had a hotter cam installed on the car’s small-block V-8, as well as few smaller tweaks, so his L46 was likely generating more than its original 350 (gross) horsepower, but it didn’t have the kind of grunt necessary to edge out his autocross competition. Then oil started accumulating under a valve cover, and Kancler new the original engine’s days were numbered. It was then that he started to seriously think about treating his Corvette to a major overhaul.