Chevrolet had some regular production options for 1970-1971 Corvettes that were extremely rare. One such car–a 1972 Corvette ZR1–was highlighted in the “Grand Finale” Special Collection at this year’s Bloomington Gold Corvette show. What you are going to read here is the unique story of this car and the two men who have owned it over a span of 37 years.
WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT A ZR1?
The ZR1 was a special small-block racing package in 1970-1972. It cost around $1,000. RPO ZR1 consisted of Chevy’s “Special Purpose” LT-1 350-cid V-8, a Muncie M-22 close-ratio four-speed transmission, heavy-duty power brakes, an aluminum radiator, and special springs and shocks, front stabilizer bar, and rear wheel spindle strut shafts. Power windows, power steering, air conditioning, a rear defroster, wheel covers, or a radio were not available.
Chevrolet made 65 cars in 1970-1972 with ZR options (“Z” stood for “Zora” and “R” stood for “racing”). Twenty-five ZR1s were built in 1970. In 1971, production included eight ZR1s and 12 ZR2s. (ZR cars were produced using leftover L88 components, with ZR1s using modified LT1 engines. ZR2s used modified LS6s with aluminum heads.) And in 1972, 20 ZR1s were made. Orders for a ZR car had to be approved by Zora Arkus-Duntov and by Chevrolet’s Central Office.
The original owner of this particular 1972 Corvette ZR1, Guy Carpenter, only drove it 290 miles since purchasing the car in 1972, and kept it in like-new condition. Al Wagner, a former Corvette designer who plans to keep caring for it the way it has always been cared for, recently purchased the car.
THE ORIGINAL OWNER
Guy Carpenter looks like a drag racer. He doesn’t really fit the mold of a Corvette owner who never drove his car. “I started out as just somebody interested in cars,” he told us during a recent interview. “I sold cars for a short while, but I found it conflicted with my hobby. After working all day as a salesman it was hard to come home and swing into working on cars at night.” For the past five years, Guy has worked for a professional restorer doing what he loves.
If you knew Corvette legend Chip Miller, you’ll think that Al Wagner could pass as his brother. As a college student, Al dreamed of designing Corvettes. He actually achieved this dream and many others. If you meet Al, the first thing you’ll notice is that he’s always smiling. He plays it so straight in his Corvette dealings that instead of building cars with repro tank stickers, he contacted the Wisconsin State Historical Society to learn how to restore the original tank stickers.
Carpenter is the perfect person to buy a Corvette from. Wagner was the perfect person to purchase Carpenter’s “Rip Van Winkle” Corvette ZR1.
Buying a new vehicle is always exciting. The typical “original owner” buys a car mostly for functionality. Performance, looks, safety, and economy are other buyer concerns. But very few people purchase a car only to not use it and keep it perfect. That makes Carpenter an unusual car buyer to say the least.
When Guy bought his ZR1 Corvette in 1972, he was putting in a brief stint as a Chevrolet salesman. That’s how he heard about the ZR1 package. Carpenter and his brother were drag racers, and knew that the muscle car era was ending. Guy read about the ZR1 in the Chevy salesman’s handbook and decided he wanted to buy one of the cars and preserve it, rather than use it.
Guy later worked for a mobile home manufacturer until the economy slowed down. After entering semi-retirement, Guy spent the past five years working for British Marque Restorations. “This allows me to utilize the knowledge I gained over the years as a hobbyist,” he told us, before driving off in his red Triumph TR4, which he actually puts some miles on today.
Carpenter ordered a ZR through the Marshfield Chevy dealer he worked for. That first order was rejected. He then looked for a dealer that could get the car he wanted. Salesman Ron Corey worked at Lou Backrodt Chevrolet in Rockford, IL, and said he could get one. Backrodt Chevrolet sponsored a ’Vette racing car and was able to get a ZR1 “VIP’ed.” Corey used a confirmed order to expedite delivery. Carpenter ordered it on Feb. 12, 1972 and got it on April 18.
Carpenter is a person who is fanatical about minor details. Before he trailered the car home, he arranged to get official permits from both states–Illinois and Wisconsin–to transport an unregistered vehicle on its MSO.
THE UNIQUE WAY THIS ZR1 WAS MAINTAINED
After the car got to Carpenter’s standard, concrete-floor garage, it went into storage. From then on, it was driven just 290 miles. Most of those miles were put on driving around the block to circulate fluids. The car was kept just like new.
Each time the car was driven, Carpenter put towels over the seats and carpets and removed his shoes. A second set of wheels and tires was swapped for the originals each time the car was used. The original tires are weather cracked, but otherwise look like new and have factory stickers on them.
The Corvette shows absolutely minimal aging. The body has no wear or tear of any kind. The car has factory overspray and you can see spots where the factory workers touched painted parts together and left remnants of the paint on the touched parts. The car has all of its factory markings, dots, and paint marks.
The car’s antifreeze was never changed until Wagner got it. He changed it without removing any clamps or hoses. The car had oil changes and the battery was replaced with a factory reproduction made by the Antique Restoration Battery Co. The behind-the-seat battery still has the factory-installed hoses that were designed to vent acid gases to the atmosphere. “I have owned many 1972 Corvettes,” says Wagner. “And I never saw the hoses on any car before.”
The matching-numbers, 350-cid, 255-hp V-8 has its original air cleaner element. The car’s saddle tan leather interior has no scratches or flaws. You can still smell the leather seats. The carpets are like new.
HOW GUY KEEPS A COLLECTOR CAR PERFECT
Guy Carpenter’s philosophy on taking care of a car involves more of a thought process than hands-on chores. “Whenever you’re around the car, you have to think about what the reaction will be to whatever you do,” Carpenter explained in our interview. “For example, you have to think, if you’ll be getting in and out of the vehicle, you might dent the sill panel by dragging your feet over it; so you get to be very deliberate in the way you get in and out of the car.”
Carpenter put thought into every part of the car. “This may sound a little weird,” he admitted. “But if you’re going to be sitting on the leather seats and it’s warm outside, you’ll be sweating, so you need to put something between you and the seat to protect the seat. I made a conscious decision to use bath towels between me and the seats each time I drove the car.”
When he exercised the car, he tried to drive the first hundred feet from a gravel driveway to paved road in a “manner that would get rid of stones in the tires.” Carpenter also realized that putting the four-speed in Low or Reverse would cause grinding, because the transmission is moving even when the car isn’t. “By putting it in a higher gear before you put it in Low or Reverse, you stop the primary shaft of the transmission and you’re not going to get the grinding,” he says.
Carpenter said he learned a long time ago that Mother Nature could be a big help in preserving a car because ultraviolet light “kills mildew.” He said that he doesn’t use any specific car care products, but doesn’t like anything that promises quick-and-easy solutions to car care. He prefers cleaning interior trim with lukewarm water, a very small amount of a good cleaning solution, and soft towels. “Then wipe it down and use a conditioner so it doesn’t dry and crack.”
THE NEW OWNER
Experts say that most people who buy a car will take good care of it for the first six weeks. After that, the interior will start to get dirty and they’ll ease up on taking care of both the interior and exterior. After a few months, the car will no longer look new. When Al Wagner brought Guy Carpenter’s car home to Delafield, he started a cleaning process that will probably never end.
Al says the car will never be driven or changed from its current state as long as he owns it. Wagner has a reputation of high integrity in the Corvette hobby–he knows what he’s got and he knows the proper way to treat the car.
Al Wagner has been a Corvette hobbyist, collector, and restorer for over 25 years. He spent 20 years with GM. While going to college, Al applied for and landed a work-study program at a GM plant in New York. He eventually became a GM employee and quickly worked his way through the ranks until he got where he wanted to be in the first place–doing design engineering on the Corvette. He is most proud of the time he spent working with Larry Shinoda.
AL’S HIGH-END APPROACH TO COLLECTING CORVETTES
Al followed a boss he had at GM to Harley-Davidson. He moved to Milwaukee to work as Director of Product Development and Design for the motorcycle maker, but his heart was really in classic Corvettes. Eventually, he gave up his fat corporate salary and perks to “run a fair and honest Corvette business in small-town America.” He started a company called An American Classic in the village of Delafield. To him, this is a dream come true.
Al has a deep, personal interest in history. The An American Classic building was once a Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealership. It also served at one time as the Delafield Village Fire House and later as its bowling alley. When Al and his friends refurbished the building, they did so in a way that preserves certain elements of its original character. He also handles automotive art.
Wagner deals with many special clients when restoring or selling Corvettes and other collector cars. His customers have included members of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Green Bay Packers. He also did work on cars that were used in the Johnny Depp film Public Enemy about gangster John Dillinger. He has one of the biggest collections of pristine condition Corvette sales and technical literature that we have ever seen.
Al is also considered pretty much an expert on the C3 Corvettes made from 1969 until 1981. The only thing Al didn’t know about C3s was that there was an almost perfect ZR1 version just four or five hours north of him in Guy Carpenter’s garage. “When Guy came up to me and said that he had a car I might be interested in, he was kind of messing with me,” Wagner recalls.
Carpenter wanted to sell the car to someone who would appreciate it for what it really was, and would take it to the right forums. He didn’t want it to be sold at auction. Some enthusiasts in NCRS told him about Al Wagner. One NCRS judge that Guy went to school with lives in Delafield and brought Carpenter to Wagner’s dealership. “I heard you were kind of a nerd about C3s,” Guy told Al. Wagner told him, “You can trust me. I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” Wagner says that Carpenter didn’t want the car blown out to the marketplace. At Bloomington Gold, Al was trying to sell a 1967 big-block he also purchased from Carpenter, but the ZR1 wasn’t for sale.
HOW AL TREATS A SURVIVOR CORVETTE
When Corvette & Chevy visited Wagner at his home prior to Bloomington Gold, he was cleaning the ZR1 and getting it ready for exhibition. However, you could not call what he was doing “detailing.” For instance, some metal parts that were originally unpainted had a normal, light coating of oxidation. Rather than touch up such things, Al was simply frosting on a light coat of a spray lubricant and cleaning the spots with it.
Al says he has never seen another Corvette this good in its original state. “Some people have been known to built Survivors,” he pointed out. “But I don’t buy some of those and this one is in a different category.” Al said that Terry McNan of NCRS took pictures of the details of the car to use in updating the NCRS judges’ manual. “This car has the factory stickers, dots, paint marks, and other things you don’t normally see,” Wagner emphasized.
Al’s recommendation on how to treat a car like this boils down to not changing a thing about it. “Nothing has been messed with on this car, and nothing ever will be,” Al said. He was going to change oil–using an original style filter–and everything else added up to just a good cleaning from top to bottom. “I really liked working with Guy because he is very meticulous. Between him and his brother, it is amazing how they took care of stuff. I have the 1967 I got from him and it also shows that they were very respectful and coddled and cuddled their stuff. No normal guy–there’s the “guy” thing again–would have done these things.”