By Brian Earnest
Ken Amrick can look back and chuckle about it now. He admits he made a pretty big mistake — at least by his own exacting standards — when he really got neck deep into restoring his 1954 Chevrolet Corvette roadster. It was Amrick’s first frame-off restoration project, and “my first fiberglass body,” recalls the Pittsburgh-area resident now, some 23 years later.
“With the help of my daughter and some inner tubes, we got the body off the car, and had scraped everything underneath … and then I went and painted everything underneath the floor. Well, I didn’t know that wasn’t correct! Back then they didn’t paint underneath like that, other than around the fender wells. So I spent all of one weekend painting underneath, and all the next week removing it!”
Judging by the final product, it was one of the few missteps Amrick made in his do-it-yourself remake of his fabulous ’54. The car has gone on to rack up a shelf full of big hardware, including its NCRS Top Flight Award, Bloomington Gold certification and AACA Senior Award.
“I was really into having everything correct,” Amrick recalls about his brief painting miscue. “Like all the heads on the bolts on the car had to have correct markings. I wanted everything to be as exact as it could be.” His efforts all paid off handsomely when points judges confirmed that he had done almost everything correct down to the smallest detail. “When I won those awards, I felt good about it because I’m an amateur restorer and you are in there competing with professional restoration shops when you are at that level. It’s a nice feeling that the car can compete with them.”
The lengthy restoration on his ’54 vaulted Amrick head-first into the world of early Corvettes and led him to be an active member of the Solid Axle Corvette Club and the editor of the club’s magazine. It’s a pretty unlikely outcome for a guy that insists he wasn’t even looking for a Corvette in the first place. He was actually on the hunt for a car that turned out to be the early ’Vette’s main competitor — a first-gen Ford Thunderbird.
“I got the car in like ’87 or ’86, somewhere in there, and I didn’t actually start the restoration until 1989 or ’90. My wife [Marilyn] actually found it. She’s into cars just about as much as I am,” he laughs. “I was actually looking for a two-seat Thunderbird at the time and my wife saw this car in one of those local advertising papers that they give out. She showed it to me and we decided to go look at it. So it was a local car. It turned out to be a semi-started restoration project. They had started taking the motor apart and started sanding the paint on the body, and then lost interest and just abandoned it. Fortunately, they kept it in the garage and not outside. It had been in the North Hills area around Pittsburgh and I think it had two owners in that area, then this person bought it. They had it for quite a while because there was a photo of the car that was taken in 1971, so they owned the car the whole decade of the ’70s and much of the ’80s… They just used it as transportation for a while, and then they decided to ‘recondition’ it, I guess you could say. I don’t know what was wrong with the motor, but it was partially apart and I never really found anything wrong, but I decided to go ahead and restore the motor. It had 67,000 or 68,000 miles on it and in those days, that was about the time to re-ring it or something.”
Year 2: Still on shaky ground
Hard as it is believe today, the Corvette was very much an acquired taste for the buying public during its first few years, and after an almost experimental first year carried on into its sophomore campaign with few changes. Indeed, the 1953 and ’54 Corvettes are tough to distinguish from each other, even for ’Vette aficionados. Both had the initial Corvette fiberglass bodies, chrome-framed grille with 13 heavy vertical chrome bars, rounded front fenders with recessed headlamps covered by wire screens, no side windows or outside door handles, a wraparound windshield and protruding, fender-integrated taillamps. The interior featured a floor-mounted shifter for the Powerglide two-speed automatic transmission and gauges to monitor the oil pressure, battery, water temperature and fuel, plus a tachometer and clock.
For ’54, minor changes were made to the window storage bag, air cleaners, starter and locations of the fuel and brake lines. Unlike the previous year’s model, 1954 Corvettes were available in Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red and Black, in addition to Polo White. The soft top was now offered in beige. A new style of valve cover was used. It was held on by four bolts through the outside lip instead of two center studs. The valve cover decals were different with larger lettering. The optional radio had Conelrad National Defense System icons on its face. In early 1954, the original two-handled hood latch was changed to a single-handle design. Six-cylinder Corvettes after serial number E54S003906 had integrated dual-port air cleaners. A clip to hold the ventipanes closed was added in late 1954 and also used on all 1955 models.
Under the hood was the same 235-cid Blue Flame six-cylinder with 150 hp (later in the year, a new camshaft increased the hp to 155). It used three Carter one-barrel Type YH carburetors.
The cars rode on a 102-inch-wheelbase chassis and measured 167 inches from nose to tail.The suspension consisted of coil springs, tube shocks and a stabilizer bar in front, and leaf springs, tube shocks and a solid axle in back.
Options included a signal-seeking AM radio ($145.15), turn signals ($16.75), heater ($91.40), windshield washer ($11.85), parking brake alarm ($5.65) and courtesy lamp ($4.05).
Production of the 1954 Corvettes began on Dec. 23, 1953. About 80 percent of the cars were painted white. It was reported at the time that Chevrolet brass hoped to sell as many as 10,000 Corvettes in year two. The 3,640 that were actually built was more than 10 times as many as the debut year, but still meant that most American car buyers either hadn’t yet warmed up to the Corvette, didn’t know much about them, didn’t want to throw down 2,774 greenbacks for a two-seat toy or a combination of all the above.
Regardless, it was clear after the Corvette’s sophomore season that Chevrolet would have to raise its game — and probably its piston count — if it wanted the ’Vette to survive. That transformation began a year later when the Corvette jumped into the V-8 world to keep pace with the debuting Thunderbird.
Duntov’s special touch
Aside from the machining on the block, the transmission overhaul, the convertible top and the chrome plating, Amrick said he did all the restoration work himself, including all the upholstery and paint, inside and out. “I had painted cars before, but never one this expensive,” he joked.
His meticulous approach really became a challenge, he says, when he was trying to decide what to do with a broken heater control switch. “The switch is a Corvette-only part and trying to find a ’53 or ’54 Corvette part all these years later … I never did find what I wanted. I found a dealer that had one and he wanted a fortune for it. I worked on mine and eventually made it work.” He said that ultimately resulted in a trip to Radio Shack and “trying every resistor they had” until he found one that behaved close enough to the real thing. “It’s not the correct resister, but it’s sort of located above the switch and you can’t see it. Nobody would ever be able to tell.”
Amrick has never put many miles on the Corvette and it’s very doubtful he ever will, considering the condition of the car, the lofty market value of such machines today and the fact that he has a lot of other cars in which he can enjoy seat time. The ’54 only gets about 100 miles a year these days, he says, but the trips are fun while they last.
“It’s got bias-plys on it, so it doesn’t drive like a new car,” he chuckles. “But of course I wanted it to be as original as they were in those days. But it starts really easily. There’s no power steering because they didn’t have it in those days, but it steers like it does have power steering. You get up to speed and it really handles great.It’s got the old six-volt system, but as long as you keep it tuned up and stay on top of everything, it runs great. It rides good and doesn’t rattle or anything … I’ll tell you, when we do take it somewhere, it steals the show. Like when we go to a local show, yeah, it gets a lot of attention. Of course, part of that is that people think it’s a ’53. They see a white one, and they just assume it’s a ’53.”
One Corvette guy who could actually tell the difference between a ’53 and ’54 was Zora Arkus-Duntov, the famed Chevrolet engineer who and race driver who helped turn the Motorama Corvette dream car into a true American V-8 sports car. Duntov actually drove Amrick’s car when the paint was barely dry following its restoration in 1993.
Amrick had been recruited to participate in the festivities surrounding the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. He had originally be scheduled to take a parade lap with Duntov’s wife, Elfi, but instead got Zora himself. “He was supposed to bein a ’53, but they had a problem with the ’53 and everybody moved back one car and he jumped into my ’54,” he remembered. “I asked him if he wanted to ride or drive, and he said he’drather drive. So he drove!
Duntov signed the dash to commemorate the occasion. “He wrote, ‘I driven this car on 7-24-93,” Amrick notes. “We’d say, ‘I drove this car,’ but he was an immigrant and he was Russian, so he wrote it ‘I driven.’ It’s great!”
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