Even if you disagree with personifying a machine with human qualities, like describing a car as "her" or as having "attitude," there's no denying the 427-powered '69 Corvette owned by Tom Grady of Aspen, Colorado has Presence...and LOTS of it!
Tom, a Captain with the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, has been nuts about performance cars since he was a child. At the tender age of 12 he was operating a tire machine in his dad's independent tire shop in Illinois. "As the real musclecar-era grew, I became an expert on mag wheels and wide ovals," Tom recalls. Around the same time, he became the "garage rat" (and occasionally a "human welding jig") for the older boys that lived next door in their Chicago neighborhood. "Their stable consisted of a '57 T-Bird, '64 421 Grand Prix, '65 GTO, and a '62 Pontiac Star Chief that was campaigned weekly at U.S. 30 drag strip. What a 16-year-old kid with equal parts testosterone and 93-octane gas running through his veins wouldn't do for 4 1/2 hours of wheel time in a '65 Goat!"
That adolescent adoration for musclecars and racers never left Tom. He has owned a number of them over the years, and is an active member of "Team Tabasco and the Tired Iron Cafe Racing Society," comprised of cops, firefighters, EMTs and rescue personnel for "the unorganized enjoyment of old sports cars and vintage motorcycles." When the Fates put a ragged, big-block '69 Shark in his hands a decade ago, Tom jumped on it. The poor Shark was very rough but relatively straight under a torn and threadbare car cover, cheap black paint over Monaco Orange, no brakes, ripped top, hacked dash with a cobbled stereo, and an L36 427/390hp big-block that hadn't been turned over in years.
Tom stumbled upon the ratty roadster as he was close to finishing his '70 1/2 Trans Am. The Vette was a driveway derelict that he passed regularly on police patrol. Tom eventually bumped into the owner, and immediately began trying to buy it, but without any luck. "Tenaciously, I continued to stop by occasionally to no avail." In 1991, "after 2 1/2 years of visits and watching the Vette get worse with time, the owner called me out of the blue." A messy divorce had prompted the guy to bail out of the '69 so, "the Vette was mine and I towed it home two hours later!"
Over the next four years, the '69 evolved from a neglected derelict into a spectacular era-correct, Cafe Racer-style street machine, that is "capable of negotiating the twisties and 10,000-foot mountain passes of the Rockies with spirit." Deeply inspired by the old privateer road racers of the past, Tom wanted his Vette to be race-prepped and street-legal. For the Shark, that meant one huge infusion of attitude!
And as such, it was also a very hands-on construction. "This Vette was a true group therapy project that included both hobbyists and professionals," declares Tom. "Not a dime was spent on labor--just parts and materials. The pros let me have a hand in all the important aspects, like engine building and paint. Graciously, they covered me and walked me through the jobs." Friends and colleagues like Scott Thompson, Brian Benton, and Joe DiSalvo also have contributed many hours of weekend wrenching on the '69, not to mention all the diligent detailing done by Tom's girlfriend Jodi, the "Q-Tip Queen."
Under the Eckler's replica L-88 hood, the original 427 rat-motor has been gently persuaded to pound out a real-world 450 hp and 510 lb-ft of torque. It now displaces 436 ci after being bored and blueprinted at Sean's Engine Service in Snowmass, Colorado. With guidance and help from proprietor Sean Cleary, Tom rebuilt the motor with Keith Black 10.5:1 pistons, a .520-inch lift cam and lifters from Isky, Elgin chrome moly pushrods, and a Cloyes double roller timing chain. An Edelbrock oval port intake and 750-cfm carb sit atop the Chevrolet Orange big-block, while Edelbrock port-matched aluminum heads are assembled with Crane 1.7 aluminum rockers, Isky springs and retainers, a five-angle valve job, and bronze guides. The stock crankshaft has been nitrited and balanced, while the stock rods have been peened and polished. An eight-quart oil pan, Flow Kooler water pump, Paragon reproduction pulleys, and Mallory ignition also went on, as well as Super Comp 2 1/8-inch headers.
Sean's Engine Service rebuilt the Turbo 400 automatic as well, using a B&M 2,400-rpm torque converter and shift kit. Sean then retubed and balanced the original driveshaft, which transfers mountainous power to the 3.55:1 ring-and-pinion.
Just like old times, Tom did most of the suspension work at the family tire shop, Empire Tire Co. in Orland Park, Illinois with his brother Brian. The chassis is basically stock, but significantly enhanced thanks to 1-inch front and 3/4-inch rear anti-roll bars, a 350-pound composite leaf rear spring, and 550-pound front springs, all from Vette Brakes & Products. Polyurethane bushings, Koni shocks, and adjustable rear struts also add to the cornering ability, while the factory steering box has been rebuilt and blueprinted. The stock disc brakes have received stainless steel sleeves and braided stainless lines. Goodyear 255/60-15 rubber mounted on P.S. Engineering 15x8-inch wheels connect this animal to the road, while also providing an appropriately meaty stance.
With a great deal of help from Dave at The Works in Frankfort, Illinois, Tom prepped the body and sprayed it PPG acrylic urethane Hot Red. The stock interior has been redone in black, including reproduction vinyl seat covers and new nylon carpeting. A new Custom Autosound stereo was fitted into the original dash opening and connected to speakers in the original locations as well as removable rear 6x9's, in case eight cylinders of big-block music ever gets tiresome. Despite its skin being basically unaltered, Tom's '69 just screams for attention even without the deep, rumble and thunder from the four-inch Hooker side exhaust. There's absolutely nothing subtle about a bright red, big-block Corvette with sidepipes! As Tom puts it, "The Shark is very fast, very loud, and very red!"
Although Tom always keeps the Vette immaculate--inside and out, from top to bottom--that doesn't in any way mean he's afraid to use it. Driving and playing with the '69 is only further justification for more "therapy sessions" in the garage! He believes "that real car guys are just the temporary caretakers of the classics, and we have a duty to fix 'em up" and enjoy them. Even high up in the Rockies, the Shark has run the quarter-mile in 12.85 seconds at 109, and Tom's topped it out at 135 mph. At Woody Creek Racetrack, a 1.1-mile road course with eight turns, the '69 has turned a best lap time of "a minute 20"--not bad for a 30-plus-year-old car, considering the overall track record is 1.06! It also has, not surprisingly, taken home some local car show trophies.
After often long and stressful days or weeks on duty, Tom sees working and playing with his '69 not just as R'n'R, but rather as true therapy. Especially when the thrills, as well as the labor, are shared with enthusiastic friends and cohorts, the Vette certainly is a lot cheaper (and more fun) than seeing a psychiatrist!