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Innocence, Chuck Brahms, and the Classical Corvette

Published on Tue, Jun 9, 1987

By: Len Frank

Len Frank on Chuck Brahms’ Corvette Italia by Scaglietti. Original publication information not known; written in 1987

First Part

The way the story begins is, an American Innocent (try Rock Hudson’s role in the film version of Edna Ferber’s “Giant” for a model) finds out that the broken crankshaft in the Ferrari Monza he’s been racing back home in, where else, Texas, is going to cost more than the mortgage on the widow’s spread. What to do. Get good and mad at those wily foreigners and formulate a Plan. What a plan.

Start with a true, blue, American car (one with a $58 crankshaft, remembers Gary Laughlin, the Innocent here), and that could only be the Corvette. All this planning is going on in 1958/59. The Scarabs are not only beating old Monzas, they are tearing up the best and newest weapons in Ferrari’s arsenal. And of course, the Scarabs have Chevy engines. Remember that the Chevy V-8, which first saw light in the 1955 year-model was designed to be cheap and easy to manufacture: it had a thin wall iron block, interchangeable (left to right) iron heads, an intake manifold that acted as a valley cover, stamped rocker arms on pressed in ball studs (instead of forged and machined rockers on bolted-on machined shafts) a water pump that did duty as a front motor mount. Cheap. Easy. But you knew all of that.

You probably also knew that it was substituted for Jaguar’s twin cam six in Listers and the odd D-Jag. And in a pretty fair number of Ferraris and Maseratis it replaced fours, sixes, eights, and twelves with equal impunity. It found its way into Siatas and the HWM that Kirk Douglas drove up the steps of the Casino in “The Racers.” It became an almost standard exchange for Austin-Healeys and was C. Shelby`s engine of choice for the sports car concept he was promoting. Chevy elected not to play, so Shelby turned to Ford. But the Cobra is another story and you knew all of this anyway. The point was, the small block was a terrific engine that increased the power and reduced the weight (and cost) of every car in which it was installed.

So when Laughlin, who among other things, just happened to own a Chevy agency or two, got fed up with his broken Ferrari, he turned to friend Pete Coltrin to work out the details of the Plan. Coltrin was the Spirit of America residing in the shadow of the Ferrari works. He knew those who made things happen and what was happening. Remember that Turin and Milano, Modena and Maranello were all closed, secret societies in those days (and not too different today), very much an old boys network with members who had known one another since the players were A.L.F.A.and F.I.A.T., with Vincenzo Lancia working for F.I.A.T. and Enzo Ferrari looking for a job. Coltrin was certainly the first, and possibly the only American automotive journalist to be allowed honorary membership.

Gary Laughlin had gotten together with Texas friends Jim (later Mr. Chaparral) Hall and Carroll (later Mr. Cobra) Shelby to decide just what form the Corvette-based car would take. All three were tall, well over six feet, and the Corvette, relatively large car that it was (102 inch wheelbase, 3000+ lbs.), was cramped inside with a largish steering wheel placed too close to the driver, non-supportive seats, and an intrusive center console. That would have to be corrected. The idea was to combine the most attractive aspects to the Ferrari GTs of the time (great looks, great performance, great range, Something Different) with the most attractive aspects of the Corvette (great performance, great reliability, a $58 crankshaft). What can we do, Mr. Coltrin?

Coltrin put Laughlin together with Carrozzeria Scaglietti. Though he never mentioned it, Laughlin’s Monza had probably been bodied by Scaglietti–most were. It’s always difficult to identify the artist, the “author” of a particular body, but most of Scaglietti’s designs were by Pinin Farina (now Pininfarina).

Second Part

Brahms was on the phone: “Chuck here. Have you ever heard of the Corvette Italia? A Corvette with an Italian body? I just bought it.”

I have one of those peculiar memories, a result of intense interest and an uneventful life, I’m sure. There are things that I remember in excruciating detail; there are things that I remember that didn’t happen at all. I told him that I remembered the car, that it had been on the cover of Road & Track sometime in 1960. And I immediately confused it with a Vignale-bodied Corvette built about the same time.

Turns out that the Scaglietti-Corvette had really been on the cover of Car Life (which belonged to R&T at the time) in June 1961 but had been in R&T a few months earlier. This was actually important. The articles made mention of Mr. Laughlin, three cars, ease of repair of aluminum bodies, estimated the cost as half that of a Ferrari with similar performance, and mentioned that the 1956/57-style Corvette grill was another of Laughlin’s requirements.

Chuck Brahms is a perfectionist who was, at the time of the call, just winding up a restoration shop that turned out Mercedes-Benz–primarily 300S/SCs and a few 300SLs. Chuck tells me that the worst any of his cars did in concours competition was a first in class and having seen the cars, it’s not hard to believe. He is the most doggedly determined man I have ever come to know. His primary tools are perserverence and a telephone, and he produces amazing results with them.

Brahms had focused on Benz for the last decade but at one time had lusted after, then owned, first, a `55 Chevy Bel Air, then a couple of Corvettes, still with plastic bodies the way Duntov and the General built them. He had seen a story about the #3 Scag-Vette in a weekly, and since the car was close by, went to see it.

It was a mess. It had had louvers punched in the hood and fenders, Mustang-like louvers let into the rear quarters, had been converted from Powerglide to a four-speed. It was painted a bilious green that at one time had possibly been a green-gold metallic but now had oxidized to a shade between zinc-chromate and a bad kosher dill. It also didn’t have (and never had had) a Corvette-style grill.

But Brahms and his magic telephone: when he found out that there had been three cars built (he hadn’t, at this time seen the magazine articles though the owner of the pickle-colored #3 had), he called all over the midwest until he found the whereabouts of the #1 car, and the name, at least, of the owner of #2. Remember that these cars had been neglected and nearly forgotten, that they appeared in the two articles mentioned, in one brief piece in an early Car and Driver, and a brief mention in Ludvigsen’s book, “Corvette” (A small picture shows the #2 car at a concours. It has a hood scoop and also lacks the Corvette grill). The book also mentions Laughlin but manages to cloud most other details.

By the time–maybe 48 hours had passed–I got down to see Brahms, he had ferreted, weaseled, wormed, dug out names, dates, numbers. Chuck’s #1 car had been sold just weeks after the magazine stories hit in 1961 to Fred Gifford in the Chicago area and Gifford had treasured the car all of the ensuing 26 years. Gifford had owned some pretty nice cars, including Rust Heinz’ Phantom Corsair (A mean-looking, futuristic coupe built on a Cord chassis, later owned by Herb Shriner, still later by Harrah) but never kept any as long as the Scag-Vette. He had some badges made up that said “Corvette-Italia” on them, changed the 4.11 rear gears for something more moderate, eventually had the car repainted (still silver-grey), and added a set of hefty bumpers right over the original Italian decorative numbers. He drove it 27,000 miles in the 26 years. It still had the original BFG Silvertown spare when Chuck got the car.

Third Part

The whole Corvette thing was a mistake. General Motors was a product of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. who decreed that everything that happened was going to be the result of study by committees, decisions by committees, marketing by committees, engineering by committees, etc. The Corvette was not a committee car–it was a toy to be shown at GM’s traveling Motorama road show, cobbled up from what was available around Chevy in those days–no great leaps in future-tech (The LeSabre and XP-300 from a year or two earlier had featured small dual-fuel supercharged alloy V-8s driving through transaxles, lots of magnesium alloy, trick suspension.). The original show car was rammed through by styling chief Harley Earl with collaboration by Chevy Chief Engineer Ed Cole (later GM president) and mechanical details handled by Rolls-Royce transplant Maurice Olley and a few others. Olley revised the 1949 Chevy front suspension, designed a boxed-rail X-member frame, dropped the torque tube common to other Chevys at the time in favor of the Hotchkiss open driveshaft, and, hey presto! A sports car was born. At least for the show circuit. That was late 1952. By 1953 it was in low-volume production.

Even in those days General Motors was less than enthusiastic about spending big bucks in order to get something just right when people could be coerced into buying it the way that it was. So America’s premier (and only) production sports car used, by 1956, a combination of hardware from Chevys past and Chevys present. Not too auspicious. Only the ill-fitting, imitative, overly trendy, wavy, creaking, cracking glass body was exclusive to the `Vette.

And it was precisely this body that Laughlin wanted Scaglietti to address. Laughlin’s oil business takes him all over the world, so between other chores it was comparatively easy to stop over in Modena to oversee the progress. Laughlin’s real frustration began when he tried originally to get the stock Corvette chassis. After blocks in the regular Chevy conduits, Laughlin was able to persuade Ed Cole to push the right buttons, and three `Vette chassis, one with a 315 hp Rochester f.i. engine and most of the competition options, the other two with Powerglide automatics, went from the St.Louis Corvette plant to Texas to Modena to get new suits of clothes. Chassis cost: about $2500.

Laughlin’s second series of frustrations came in dealing with the Italians. What was it exactly? “Everything,” he says now,”…something about the Latin temperament…I still won’t fly on any airline operated by a Mediterranean country.” This from an ex-WWII/Korean fighter pilot, who now flies a Kristen Eagle aerobatic biplane for fun.

By the time the first car,the one shown here, arrived in Texas in the fall of 1960, Laughlin says he was fed up. Hall took delivery of the second car as planned, but Shelby was forced to pass on his for the usual reason–money:lack of. Maybe the Cobra was really a stepchild of the Scag-Vette? Laughlin says he could hardly look at the car when it arrived, and when Gifford made him an offer immediately after seeing it in R&T, Laughlin accepted. Hall kept his a little longer, but when he needed a windshield and Scaglietti failed even to respond, he too sold his car. The second owner was more persistent and practiced in the art of diplomacy. He still has the car.

Fourth Part

Restoration started immediately–there were about a ninety days to the target, the Monterey Historics held the week of August 20. Nineteen-eighty-seven was Chevrolet’s year in the limelight there, so Brahms had a good chance of being selected for that rather exclusive event. Now remember that his orientation is concours, a contest where neatness certainly counts (compulsive cleanliness is closer to the truth), but “originality” has a different connotation. What counts is a peculiar rendition of original condition where all traces of imperfection are removed from as much of the original equipment as possible. It means a dressing and quartering of every seam and surface, reproduction of any original piece no longer available (Brahms used to cast his own Varta battery cases for the Mercedes restorations, then apply his own reproductions of battery labels–including the one on the bottom. Time and money are not spared by the true fanatic in the search for perfection.), always at far greater cost than the original.

Brahms says he is not proud of the restoration. The car was painted in a week–an impossibly short period of time considering the process.All of the original paint had been stripped along with the filler underneath. Understand that many Italian coachbuilt bodies that are supposed to be aluminum really are aluminum armatures covered with a filler that is patted, polished, sanded and filed into the final body shape of the car. Remove the filler and you have a car-shaped light alloy walnut remaining. There was also the matter of fifty or so pounds of Italian bituminous undercoat and the 27 years of dirt that it had collected to remove.

In three months or so: two engines were built (a 283 with Rochester injection, Chevy 097 “Duntov” cam, 1.94″ valve early “fuelie” heads, stock “rams horn” exhaust manifolds,etc. The second, though still a small block takes a slightly more liberal interpretation of “vintage”.), the original Warner T-10 four speed was rebuilt, a set of 4.11 gears were found and installed in the rebuilt “posi” rear end, the Borrani wire wheels were rebuilt, rechromed, repolished, several sets of heavy-duty brake components were found and refurbished, the radiator, instruments, steering gear, front end, springs were all either new or rebuilt, new shocks were fabricated for the front, Konis found for the rear, the seats were reupholstered in leather, the car rewired (the original wiring was not to be believed–the #3 car was brought in to use as a pattern and found to have the same Modenese rat’s nest–this is one area that deviates visually from original), a set of American Racing mags were bought as backup (the center-lock Borranis were adapted with bolt-on hubs–these are frowned on by vintage racing tech inspectors) and a couple of sets of Goodyear Blue Streaks fitted.

The car had been reduced from a running–sort of–car to a collection of parts that were spread to all points of the compass, scrambled, entrusted to a whole army of mechanicians, technicians, restorers, and people of questionable virtue. The parts were then recollected and reassembled. By this time the body, which had had holes filled, doors fitted, an acrylic windshield and windows fabricated, grill opening massaged, a new grill fabricated (that only looks like a Corvette grille), was filled, painted underneath with German undercoat, painted, color-sanded, rubbed, polished, had the repolished aluminum trim, the rechromed trim, the reshaped, repolished alloy rear bumper added…you get the idea. Attempts were made to align it and dyno tune the engine, but, alas, there was no time to actually track test before Monterey. I was the designated driver.

And how did it go at Monterey? Well, the ground shook when the engine started–Chevy Thunder and all that, but the handling was not worthy of the term. Then the engine went a bit flat and a whole succession of “experts” tried their screwdrivers, culminating with a real expert,Lou Cuttitta. Seems Mr.Cuttitta had designed the Rochester injection all those years ago–fortunately his memory was good (He is also in large part responsible for the Tuned Port injection on the new `Vette). The wire wheels and knock-off adapters were traded for the American mags and the handling got better. I’ll leave out the shock adjustments, pressure adjustments, questions about alignment, about the adjustment of the triple plate clutch, throttle linkage, etc. The short of it is that this gorgeous ninety-day recreation would simply run out of gas at full throttle in about 400 yards. Everything that anyone could think of was tried–no luck. So much for the race.

The car was chosen to be shown at the Pebble Beach concours in the racing car class and it didn’t have to run over 400 yards to be driven over the trophy ramp. Small victory. Wait until next year.

Top image: 1959 Chevrolet Corvette Italia by Scaglietti (from the Petersen Museum collection)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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