Car of the Week: 1961 Chevrolet Corvette

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Story and photos by Sharon Thatcher

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There is truth to the old adage that good things come to those who wait. Take the case of the 1961 Corvette that sat wasting away in a farm shed in north central Wisconsin. It took 16 years for the old car to see the light of day again, but thanks to the patience of one man, the rewards have been plentiful. It’s been a happy ending for both the car and the man who restored it.

Gary Janssen, of Merrill, Wis., said the car belonged to a friend of his when he first saw it, but it wasn’t for sale. “It belonged to his brother who had passed away,” he said of the previous owner. It took awhile for the family to let go. “It was a memory and they didn’t want to get rid of it, but they didn’t like to see it deteriorating.”

The time wasn’t right for Janssen, either. Although he never stopped thinking about the Corvette and the possibilities, his own life was too consumed with making a living and raising a family to adopt an old car that had 98,000 miles on its odometer and needed a serious restoration. Still, he often inquired about the Corvette and offered to help fix it up if ever the family decided to take on the expense.

Then, one day in 2002, everything fell in place. “After the kids were out of college, then it was my time,” Janssen said. Instead of selling the Corvette to someone who was interested in parting it out, the owner decided to sell it to Janssen for restoration.

By then, the car was 16 years older and in sadder shape than the first time Janssen had laid eyes on it. “It had chicken manure in the carpeting, fruit jars all over it and tractor tires leaning on it,” he said. Still, to Janssen it was a beautiful sight.

His farmer friend hooked onto the car with his tractor to pull it out of the shed, when Janssen’s joy was suddenly dimmed by calamity. As the car was being pulled from the barn with a chain, it began to roll forward down a slight embankment and collided with the back end of the tactor, damaging the car’s passenger-side headlight assembly, grille and body.

Disappointed, but not deterred, Janssen trailered the car home and immediately began the restoration process. “I started it in 2002,” he said. “We finished in 2004-2005,” explaining that the “we” included his son Cliff. “Cliff helped a little bit when he could be here. He was in college and he’d come back and we’d tackle it together.” Gary’s wife, Cindy, was a strong supporter, “and she paid the bills.”

Janssen set one goal for himself when he started the project: “I said, once I start it, I want to continue. I didn’t want to stop, because you see so many projects that get started and then get put in a corner. They’re in the corner and then you fall out of love with it.”

To avoid the corner, he set up one ground rule. “I said to myself, ‘When I go into the garage, I have to do one thing; it doesn’t matter how much or how big a thing, even if it’s just polishing one stainless part, do one thing.’”

He lived up to his vow, and he never found the corner and he never fell out of love with his project.

Even though the Corvette was the first car Janssen had ever restored, he was by no means a total rookie. “I’m an electrician, but years ago I was a mechanic — a welder,” he said. He had also been a farmer and knew a thing or two about machinery. The Internet, magazines and friends in the car hobby were also invaluable resources. “We touched every nut and bolt about four times,” he figures.

Perhaps the biggest surprise during the restoration was the discovery of the car’s original color. “The color was white originally,” Janssen said. “I thought it was green because when we started to sand the blue away there was green underneath. It had been painted twice before.”

The Corvette was returned to its original white with the blue side cove. “We researched it and it was an option, so we just flew with it,” he said. The paint job was done by a professional in nearby Wausau.

The car was authentically restored with a few exceptions. Because of a knee replacement a few years back, Janssen installed a different shifter. In the interior is a new dash pad to replace the old sun-cracked dash.

“I also put disc brakes on because the original single-cylinder [master cylinder], even though I rebuilt it, the rubber was going bad,” he explained. “This allows me a dual-cylinder braking system. You’ve got all this money invested, if you trailer it from show to show, it’s different; and I respect those guys who do, but they have to respect me as well.”

Under the hood, there’s a new radiator. “A friend of mine is a radiator guy and he said the old radiator is fine, but it’s 40-some years old. If you want to drive it, do you want to be broke down by the side the road?”

But more importantly, and more prone to debate, is the 350-cid crate engine installed to accommodate today’s lower fuel octane ratings. He knows it disappoints some purists. “A lot of Corvette guys don’t agree with what I did,” he said, “But I have the original radiator and the original motor in the garage, so if we did want to change it, it only takes a couple of hours to change it, but we just enjoy going out with it and we want to be safe.”

The car does indeed go out a lot. The Janssens take it to several car shows throughout the summer and have added about 11,000 miles to the odometer since finishing the restoration. “It does have its dings now,” he admits, “but we enjoy owning it and the fun part is driving it.”

New, Janssen’s car was at the low-end price for a Corvette. “This was a Plain Jane,” he said. “A solid white car with a [230-hp] 283, four-barrel — the smallest V-8 you could put into a Corvette. It did have a radio and a heater. I think they ran about $3,200-$3,400.” Roughly 9,600 were built for 1961.

Back when the car sat neglected in a farm shed, it may have been a Plain Jane, but today, Janssen’s Corvette is anything but a wallflower. It gets plenty of looks and plenty of trophies. “I don’t go for trophies,” Janssen said about car shows. “I enjoy talking to people and it just happens; the trophies just seem to follow me home.”

Not bad for a car once buried in chicken manure, fruit jars and old tires.

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