This '61 Corvette, owned by Tom and Connie Wegman of Effingham, Illinois, is not what you would call a "flawless" car, but it's as near to perfection as we could imagine. We admit that "perfect" is a mighty strong word, but it's fitting. Webster's New World College Dictionary has a whole range of definitions for perfect, including (to be) "completely correct and accurate," and describes perfection as, "extreme degrees of excellence according to a given standard," and "a person or thing that is the perfect embodiment of some quality."
The '61 is completely original and unrestored, but it's not a virginal artifact. And the few faults it has are worn as badges of honor that have been earned. While the 283/230hp roadster has always been very well maintained and cared for, it has truly earned its keep, having seen over 135,000 miles of America's highway system! We can't think of many things that could better embody the spirit of America's Sports Car than an all-original solid-axle that has been used and enjoyed like it was meant to be.
Tom bought the '61 in 1995 from the estate of its original owner--but he's known of it for most of his life. He grew up in the small town of Teutopolis, Illinois, and was 16 when the local grocery-store owner, Edwin "Sodie" Fuelle, brought home a brand-new Roman Red '61 Corvette as a 50th birthday present to himself. "There were less than 1,000 people in the town, and that was the only Corvette. Of course everyone knew about it," Tom recalls. In 1965, Tom bought a new midyear, which then became the second Vette in town. And if you included the '63 owned by a kid named Mike Yager (who would start Mid America Designs many years later), there were all of three Vettes in the entire county! That, of course, led to a pretty tight little fraternity of people in "the know" and Tom and Sodie would often share Corvette stories.
The '61 always looked great and it was obvious to everyone it was well maintained. After many years of enjoyment, however, Sodie lost interest in the Vette in 1976, when he parked it in a one-car garage, covered it, and walked away. There it stayed for the next two decades.
In 1995, a few years after "Sodie" passed on, Tom began to inquire about the car. "I had no idea about its current condition. I'd ridden in it in my teens, but it just seemed to have disappeared." Many people had wondered what ever happened to it, but Tom was apparently one of the first to actually ask. "It was very lucky timing," Tom says, "because [Sodie's] nieces were actually just starting to think about selling it."
Although the '61 sat untouched for almost 20 years, it was remarkably well preserved, hardly showed its true age. "It was in such great shape that I decided not to 'restore' it," Tom says, "but just to do exactly what was needed to
bring it 'back to life' in as good of condition as could be." That required lots of cleaning, polishing, and TLC. Sodie had been very meticulous about the Vette, and had saved every last maintenance and service record. "The clock showed 33,700 miles on it when I bought it. Everyone thought it was a low-miles original. It wasn't until I began really reading the service records that I realized that this was the second time around!"
Every summer, Sodie would take a couple weeks of vacation, hop in the Vette, and drive. It had done numerous trips all over the U.S. and along the old Route 66;to Montana, Wyoming, Yellowstone, and California. It seems that Sodie, who was a life-long bachelor, would head out West one year, then drive east the next. The solid-axle was a fair-weather-only driver, and never saw runs of less than 100-200 miles minimum at a time. The lack of short trips and commuter-type driving help to account for the amazing lack wear on any of the components.
With the help of his friend, Ray Jansen, a mechanic who happens to have been a neighbor of the original owner, Tom woke the old Vette from its long slumber. There was tons of grease in the engine compartment, but everything was in fantastic shape overall. "I replaced the battery, and all of the electrical systems worked perfectly, immediately. It was amazing!" That includes the Wonderbar AM radio, defroster, in-dash clock--everything! All it took to get the 283 running smooth again was to regrind the valves and replace the pitted pistons.
All of the other engine internals are still original, as are the accessories. Ray rebuilt the Carter carburetor, and they flushed the radiator, rebuilt the brake cylinders, and replaced only one seal (one!) on the differential pinion. The ignition system is still completely original, save for spark plugs, wires, and new points in the distributor. Other than various rotted rubber components like belts and hoses, just about everything else is factory equipment, including the generator, starter, and exhaust manifolds. The clutch had bonded itself to the flywheel over the years, but that was easily fixed. The four-speed gearbox required no refurbishing and still works as good as new. The same goes for the original brake shoes, rubber brake lines, and shock absorbers!
Outside, all of the chrome was pitted and aged, but it took only a thorough cleaning and polishing to return its shine. The '61 still wears all of its original paint. There are no records of the Vette ever having been damaged, nor has any of the paint ever even been touched up. The weather seals around the hood, doors, and trunk are O.E. and in good condition, as is the black interior. All of the original instruments and gauges work like new, including the next-to-impossible-to-repair dash clock. The virtually unused passenger seat is in great shape, while the driver's seat has splits in it, proudly showing some of its many miles--if not years. Both sets of seatbelts still have the soft cloth labels from their maker, Irving Air Chute. The original spare tire still resides in the trunk, along with perfectly readable jack instructions.
Sodie had ordered the Vette with both the soft top and the auxiliary hardtop, but he apparently never took the fiberglass roof off. In all of its life, the convertible top had never been opened! It took Tom over two weeks to carefully heat, moisturize, and stretch the softtop open.
In 1996, with the '61 thoroughly detailed and in tip-top running order, it earned a Top Flight award with a 96.3 at the NCRS Regionals in Bowling Green, Kentucky. It was soon PPV'ed (Performance Verified) on its first time through, meaning that every part on the Vette was in proper running order. On his PPV score sheet, NCRS official Vinnie Peters wrote, "Best original '61 I've ever seen!" The following year, Tom took the solid-axle to the NCRS Nationals in Collinsville, Illinois, where it earned Top Flight, and a Four-Star Bow-Tie. It also scored Survivor status in all four judged categories at Bloomington in 1997, and earned its Gold Certification the next day to qualify as a Benchmark car--one of the highest awards available to an unrestored original. Tom also took home a special award for having the highest miles Survivor judged that year! As you can guess, it's a very popular little Vette, and received Chip Miller's Celebrity Choice at the Mid America Funfest. After photographing the '61, Tom took me for a ride, and insisted that I drive it back. It was unbelievable how well it ran; it was like a brand-new car with 40-year-old engineering. Tom drive his '61 regularly, continuing this Vette's great legacy. "We take it out for nice Sunday drives every couple of weeks, often 30-40 miles to some interesting restaurant or winery," but he still intends to round out the prestigious collection of awards with a Fifth-Star Bow-Tie and hopefully a Gold Spinner at the Chicago VetteFest. That shouldn't be a problem since, in our humble opinion, this '61 Vette is practically perfect!
That perfect-appearing top...
That perfect-appearing top is not an excellent reproduction--it is the original, factory-installed component. Look at how clear the rear window is.
This engine bay is not as...
This engine bay is not as pretty as those in most show cars you'll see, but it's totally original and what you see has amassed over 135,000 miles. The 230hp 283 and four-speed drivetrain work as good as (if not better than) the day they were first installed, and do so with only very minor repairs and maintenance!
Speaking of original...how...
Speaking of original...how about the original spare tire. The trunk mat is also the original and normally hides the spare tire and cover.
The driver's seat may be split,...
The driver's seat may be split, and the dash pad a little wrinkled, but everything inside this '61 is completely original. It's hard to believe that the 35K miles showing on the odometer are really on its second trip around!