Car of the Week: 1961 Chevrolet Corvette

Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Some Corvette lovers dream about big-block 427s or split windows. Some dream about ZR1s, some about ’68 shark bodies, and some about original Polo White ’53s.

Gary Conger, of Green Bay, Wis., always had his sights set on a 1961 roadster. The ’61s aren’t as pursued and coveted in ’Vette circles as some other years, but Conger never wavered. “When I got out of basic training, I found a ’59 [Corvette] out on a lot in New London (Wis.),” he recalls. “And I bought that ’59 and somebody had already put a 327 in it, so I put a 4.56 Posi rear end in it and I’d take it to KK [Kaukauna, Wis.] and drag race it. Then about 1970 I needed the cash, so I sold ’er. I had it maybe five years. But at that time I always liked the back-end styling of the ’61 the best, and I said, ‘Someday, I’m going to have a ’61. That’s what I want.’

“I just always liked that back end styling … and in ’62 they got away from the painted cove, and I wanted the painted cove.”

A little over a year ago, some 47 years after parting with his ’59, Conger went shopping for another early ’Vette. He had his sights firmly fixed on a ’61, and he was willing to gamble a bit on one. “I started looking on different sites and this one was actually on eBay originally, and it’s the one I ended up buying out of Houston, Texas,” he says of his stunning Jewel Blue roadster. “I bought it sight-unseen, just a lot of pictures.”

Pictures don’t always show a car’s flaws, however, and Conger quickly found out that the blue ’61 wasn’t as perfect as it appeared. There were a bunch of mechanical flaws hidden under the gorgeous exterior. He still loved the car, however, and decided just to swallow the cost of the repairs and keep it. “It had a differential noise they said they couldn’t hear. It had probably 12 or 15 oil leaks they said [they didn’t know about], and being 1,200 miles away you just go ahead and fix it and move on.

“The differential was rebuilt, the transmission was rebuilt, the engine was rebuilt. Other than that it was good! The brakes work great. It stops good. But I didn’t do anything to it cosmetically. It was good the way it was. A couple tiny chips here and there. I wanted a nice-looking car that I could drive and not be so concerned that I had to trailer it, and that’s what I got.”

The glorious blue color turned out to be an unexpected bonus. Jewel Blue was a one-year-only color and it certainly adds to the ’61’s appeal in Conger’s eyes. He had spotted a similarly painted car — although not a ’61 — in another collection, and was immediately attracted to the look. He didn’t expect to own a Jewel Blue ’61, however.

“I just liked that contrast. I get a lot of comments, and a lot of ‘Gee, I’ve never saw one like that [color].’ Well, there weren’t many like that. In the reading I’ve done, there were only 419 of them. Red and white and black were the popular colors. But this is a beautiful blue. I love the color.”

1961: The ‘Duck Tail’ takes flight

Corvette designers often just tweaked a few things every year during the car’s early years, so it can be difficult to tell one model year from another. The best way to tell a ’61 apart from its earlier siblings is from behind, where there were a few new tell-tale styling changes. The “duck tail” shape with four round tail light pods was a significant change from the more rounded ’60 look. The exhaust was also changed and the outlets moved under the car, rather than through body. This design was a predecessor to the Sting Ray coming in 1963 and added more space to the Corvette’s trunk. The rear emblem had a spun silver background with the crossed flags over a “V” design and the words “Chevrolet Corvette.” The badge on the front was a crossed flag over a “V” and the headlamp bezels were done in body color rather than chrome.

Most 1961 Corvettes, 51.98 percent, came with a detachable hardtop and 64.1 percent had a four-speed manual transmission. This was the last year wide whitewall tires were available. It was also the last year a contrasting color could be ordered from the factory for the side coves.

The standard engine was a 283 fitted with a Carter four-barrel that produced 230 hp. It was the last year for the 283, which gave way to the 327 for ’62. There were also two dual-quad setups available that were rated at 245 and 270, and fuel-injection options that raised the horsepower to 275 and 315. A 1961 Corvette with a 283-cid/315-hp solid-lifter fuel-injected V-8 and the 3.70:1 rear axle could go from 0-to-30 mph in 2.6 seconds; from 0-to-60 mph in 6.0 seconds and from 0-to-100 mph in 14.2 seconds. It did the quarter mile in 15.5 seconds at 106 mph and had a maximum speed of 140 mph.
A three-speed manual all-synchromesh transmission with floor-mounted gear shifter was standard equipment. A two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission was optional, as was a four-speed manual. Standard equipment included: new aluminum radiators (mid-year change); tachometer; seat belts; sun visors; dual exhaust; carpeting; electric clock; and an outside rearview mirror. The vinyl upholstery was available in Black, Red, Fawn or Blue. The 1961 “Magic Mirror” acrylic lacquer exterior colors were: Tuxedo Black; Jewel Blue; Fawn Beige; Roman Red; Ermine White; Sateen Silver; and Honduras Maroon.

The options list included: heater ($102.25); signal-seeking AM radio ($137.75); five 15 x 5.5-inch wheels (no charge); white sidewall tires 6.70 x 15, four-ply ($31.55); Powerglide automatic transmission ($199.10); auxiliary hardtop ($236.75); electric power windows ($59.20); Direct-Flow exhaust system (no charge); power-operated folding top ($161.40); Positraction axle with optional ratio ($43.05); metallic brakes ($37.70); heavy-duty brakes and suspension ($333.60); five 6.70 x 15 nylon tires ($15.75); and 24-gallon fuel tank ($161.40).

The two-seat convertibles carried a base price or $3,934 and weighed in at 2,905 lbs. Total production was up slightly from 1960 and finished at 10,939 for the model year. Perhaps some of the sales jump could be attributed to the car’s starring role in the TV series “Route 66,” which followed Martin Milner and George Maharis as they found fun and adventure on the open road in their new ’61 ’Vette.

Cars with the big 24-gallon tanks, fuel injection and the “Big Brakes” are all coveted among the ’61s. Matching-numbers cars can be scarce and some original interior and trim pieces are also a steep challenge for restorers to locate.

 

Riding low and slow

Conger remembers his drag racing days with his ’59 fondly, but has no similar plans for his Jewel Blue ’61. He’s happiest with the top down cruising around at a leisurely pace and attracting some attention. The car put a smile on his face the first time he drove it a year ago and the grin has rarely left since.

“I had a lot of the same feelings [as the ’59], but I didn’t remember how tough they were to ride in,” he laughs. “I’ve got a 2004 Corvette, and that rides so nice, and this is just … you grab the big steering wheel and go down the highway! And that straight axle, it’s not the same. But it’s fun. Back when I had the ’59, I guess I didn’t realize there was anything better.

“In those days I would drag race down at KK … now I wish I would have kept the 4.56. I would take it and put it in on Saturday night to go race, and Sunday night I would take it back out so I could drive it to work.”

After going through all the unexpected repairs when he first got the car, not to mention waiting nearly five decades to buy it in the first place, Conger figures he is overdue for some happy, uninterrupted miles in the car of his dreams.

“My only plans are just to drive it and enjoy it. I’m not going to worry about a little scratch,” he says. “I’m going to use it and enjoy it.”


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