“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find…”
A “milestone Corvette” can mean a lot of things, as indicated by the range of vehicles covered in this issue. Some Vettes are milestones as rare collectibles, or for their achievements on the track. Others are milestones for their level of performance or customization. And then there are those milestone Corvettes that play a significant role in the span of a lifetime, and receive an extraordinary level of attention during restoration.
The latter is the case with Milton Lewis’ 1964 Coupe. Over the last four decades it has witnessed all the important milestones of his life, from his achievements as a NASA engineer to earning the prestigious NCRS Mark of Excellence Duntov award. Among all the great experiences he’s had in his Sting Ray, the Duntov award clearly stands out as a high point of his long-time Corvette ownership. Lewis put in a great deal of time and labor to bring the car back to its original state and win this trophy. He chronicled the restoration in every detail, and shared a few insider tips on the project, along with some wonderful recollections of his ride down Memory Lane in his prized Corvette.
Lewis purchased the car new for $5,652 from a dealer in Beverly Hills, California. At the time Hughes Aircraft Co. employed him as part of the Space and Communication division, working on Surveyor, the lunar landing spacecraft. The program included seven spacecraft in all, and in order to complete them, he had to drive the Vette cross-country from Los Angeles to Coco Beach and Cape Canaveral, Florida three separate times. During his stint in Florida he recalls taking as many as four other engineers to lunch, not an easy feat with two in front and two squeezed in the back compartment of his two-seater coupe (which might have reminded them of riding in a space capsule!).
On a more somber note, many years later Lewis worked on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle as well. He was scheduled to go into space as a payload engineer, but due to inadvertently missing a paperwork deadline, he was bumped off the crew list. He still shakes his head over the loss of his fellow crewmembers and the odd circumstance that spared his life.
Milt’s Sting Ray saw happier moments as well. One especially fond memory was the birth of Milton’s daughter born in March 1970. He brought her mother and daughter home from the hospital in the ‘64 Vette, with their newborn in a small bassinet tucked in the back.
As his daughter grew older, she often said that she would like to drive his ‘64 Corvette, and on her 13th birthday she said it again. He deftly sidestepped this request, telling her that it would be difficult since he was working on the car and we would talk about it at another time. He then promptly removed the steering wheel and the car sat in his garage for 12 years. She learned to drive in a new Ford Mustang convertible instead. (Father knows best, right?.)
Years passed and when the treasured Corvette began to show its age, Milton decided it deserved some attention. His neighbor Joe Rajacic helped him start the process of a frame-off restoration and engine rebuild.
As dedicated Corvette restorers already know, making a car “better than new” is the wrong approach, at least if you plan on entering a competition for the NCRS (National Corvette Restoration Society). Since judges deduct points for an engine that’s too quiet or a paint job that’s smoother than the original, factory imperfections such as noisy tappet valves or wavy fiberglass are valued hallmarks of an authentic Corvette.
If done professionally, a complete frame-off restoration can cost at least $25,000 or more, depending on the condition of the car and the documentation research required (such as to verify an unusual special-order color or option package). Although a body-off job is more expensive, if the frame and suspension need attention, it’s the best way to go. Cars from back East often require this level of restoration, due to road salt pitting the frame, which has to be filled and smoothed. California Corvettes usually don’t have that problem, however.
With the body off, and all the suspension pieces removed, along with every nut and bolt, the frame is sandblasted and powdercoated for improved corrosion protection. Some judges deduct points for modern powdercoating, but if it’s the right color, they might not do so.
Here’s another tip to make sure there’s no deduction: some restorers lightly sand the powdercoating and paint over it with original factory paint. That way they have the latest technology in corrosion protection, but the frame still looks authentic.
Milton Lewis’ conscientious efforts were ultimately rewarded. His ’64 coupe won not only 99.2 percent of 4,510 possible points at two collector events, but also the NCRS Mark of Excellence Duntov award. Even though the restoration proceeded simultaneously on the engine, chassis and body, the entire process required more than two years of meticulous work. Why did Milton go to so much trouble to restore it? Partly because the car is worth a lot of money now. More important, though, are his personal reasons. This is not just a Corvette for driving, but also a milestone on Memory Lane.
These date-coded, black-colored shocks were original equipment, even though the NCRS book says the factory only used gray shocks. It turned out that Lewis’ ’64 was built early in the year before GM switched to the gray-colored units.
Restoring rear drum brakes can be expensive, because the metallic lining can cost $1000 or more (originally they were $12 each). Fortunately Lewis had an extra set on hand.
Fortunately, the original 3.08 Posi rearend was still in good condition, so it just needed to be cleaned up and have the seals replaced. The ’64 Corvette’s differential was not normally coated, so this one would lose a point in a resto judging. On the other hand, rust means a loss of five points, so it’s usually better to coat things and make them look pretty.
All the suspension pieces needed to be removed so the frame could be sandblasted and either powdercoated or painted. Any pits or dings should be filled and smoothed, but only to a point—judges will deduct points for a frame that looks cleaner than a factory piece. Lewis reinstalled most of the suspension components in his garage with the help of some house calls from a local Corvette restorer, Carlos Vivas. Each bolt has different head marks and torque specs, so some expert knowledge comes in handy.
After sitting several cross-country trips and sitting idle for a number of years, the 365hp engine was sorely in need of attention.
Most 1964 Corvettes with air conditioning had 250 to 300hp engines, but Lewis had one of the few with a 365hp mill.
Even though 375hp Fuelie had the highest output, most Corvette buyers of that era preferred this carbureted 365hp engine because it’s easier to maintain and service.
During the engine restoration, Lewis decided to add roller rockers to the valvetrain, good for about ten more horses. Note, however, that contest judges actually deduct points if the valvetrain doesn’t have the louder sound of stock tappets, so you may have to adjust the valvetrain to make more noise.
Chevy orange is the correct paint for the engine block, but Lewis applied a coat of red oxide primer first, because the paint sticks better and you don’t need to use as much. Note that the oil filler neck had to be rechromed as well.
A body-off restoration costs more, but makes access to the mechanicals a whole lot easier. Here Lewis swings the freshened mill back into the bare chassis, with no concerns about hitting the fiberglass body panels. There are only about eight to ten bolts securing thebody to the frame, but the hard part is separating the two. You’ll need about four or five helpers to do it right.
Accessories such as the air conditioning, wiper motors and brake master cylinder often require rebuilding and/or replating. You don’t want to leave anything undone, or they may give you problems later on.
Lewis ordered the “Off-Road” exhaust system for its heartier rumble, even though it’s still legal for street use. It was later replaced with a stainless steel system, which the judges deduct points for because it discolors and turns blue. To imitate the original, Lewis coated a late-model aluminum system with magnetic paint so the judges magnet sticks to it as if the tubing were really made of steel. He didn’t use steel because it rusts, which can result in even more point deductions.
With the drivetrain installed in the restored chassis, the body can be remounted.
Once the body was off the chassis, Lewis placed it on a dolly to keep it as straight as possible during the six-month prepping and painting process. Early Vettes are known for the orange-peel texture of their paint, and this “flaw” must be preserved (by not color-sanding the finish) to score well with judges.
Alignment of panels such as the hood should be done evenly, but not too precisely or the judges might deduct points for “over-restoration.”
Replacing rear quarter panels is fairly common due to accident damage, but often the replacement parts are of better quality than the original fiberglass, and thus need to be “aged” so they match the rest of the body. Some restorers have been known to put dirt in the bonding, or rub the inner surface with a towel soaked in black paint to take out the sanding marks.
Talk about a “dirty job”—Lewis spent two long weeks removing the undercoating so the car would look like a factory original and not be penalized by the judges. The dealer added undercoating prior to delivery, a feature not found from the factory, so prior to completing the bodywork, Milton painstakingly scraped off every speck of the sticky black film. “It took me two weeks with a heat gun, putty knife and lacquer thinner to remove it to a factory appearance,” recalls Lewis, shaking his head.
Once the body has been refinished and the trim pieces re-attached, it's placed on a lift and then gently lowered back on the chassis. Care must be taken to use the exact shims that were on the car from the factory, or the alignment may not be right. No two Corvettes from this era were alike. After a convertible body sits on a dolly for six months, it begins to sag, and may need to be shimmed to fit back on the chassis. For that reason, before beginning a body-off restoration, Lewis made a meticulous disassembly diagram showing the exact location, number and type of shims used at the factory. Complicating this process is the fact that the shims are made of metal, rubber or even cardboard.