It's been 23 years since Larry Van Gelder's '69 Corvette appeared in thepages of VETTE magazine. Much has changed in that time, and Larry's"Nightwind" Vette evolved radically as the decades rolled by. He's theoriginal owner, and that's about the only way you can use "original" todescribe his Vette.
This isn't your average project car. It's more than a set of wheels,some engine work, massaged fiberglass, and re-covered seats. Over thelast 40 years, Larry has dedicated himself to making Nightwind "faster,sleeker, lighter, better handling, and more comfortable than when it wasnew." For Larry, his '69 embodies "the latest aftermarket technologyincorporated into the ever-changing dynamics of its design."
That's not hype. Larry's Vette is an incredible automotive temple ofdesign and engineering, limited only by the owner's imagination andcreativity. The exterior appearance is dominating--if Darth Vader drove aCorvette, this would be his set of wheels.
Larry ordered his ride in late 1968 from a dealer in Chicago. It had theL36 390hp, 427-cube big-block; a wide-ratio Muncie four-speedtransmission; a 3.08:1 Posi-traction differential; power windows,brakes, and steering; and air conditioning. Right after taking delivery,Larry and his wife, Sherry, wasted no time driving it to the snowy wildsof Wisconsin to go autocrossing on a frozen lake. For years, it was hisdaily transportation, and was even used to bring both his children homefrom the hospital.
But somewhere along the line, Larry began dreaming of turning his ebonyVette into a wild street custom. He and his family moved to Florida in1974, and by 1978 he began his modifying mission. Most of the body modswere made then, but the C4 Kaminari nose was modified and grafted on in1991. Further mods included reworking flip-down headlamps from a '90sPontiac to fit inside. Mounted on an aluminum bar, they're now operatedby a power-window motor that drops down into the grille.
But all this bodywork--Larry's first attempt--didn't happen overnight. "Inaddition to my full week at Automotive Engineering in Clearwater,Florida, I spent approximately 50 hours per week on the process, for 8straight months," Larry says. "The front fender flares were hand-formed.The rear clip was originally manufactured by Eckler's, but wasextensively reworked and modified at the time of installation. It hadbeen installed on a ZL1-powered '69 Vette painted Candy Magenta, soNightwind was temporarily black with pink hindquarters."
Afterwards, the rockers were smoothed and molded in, as were the C4outside rearview mirrors. The rear window is Lexan and replaces thestock upright rear glass. A carbon-fiber wing is mounted on the rearpanel, which contains the custom sequential rear lamps surrounded incarbon fiber. A '69 Camaro fuel tank is fed from a filler behind therear license plate. "Mounting the Camaro fuel tank under the frameprovided two clear benefits," Larry explains. "It cleaned up theappearance of the rear deck, and it moved something on the order of 126pounds of fuel 12 inches lower in the chassis for a lower center ofgravity." The bumpers, exterior door locks, and emblems have beenremoved, and the rear of the L88-style hoodscoop was modified to line upwith the windshield.
Since Larry was autocrossing the Vette until 1981, the chassis andsuspension were also radically reengineered. At first, he experimentedwith a variety of wheel sizes, spring rates, and stabilizer-bardiameters. "For many years," Larry says, "I kept adjusting the tire andwheel sizes in the search for optimum balance, with 10-inch-wide frontwheels and 12-inch-wide rears providing the best combination. RPO F41front springs and a factory five-leaf 'Daytona' rear spring with a15/16-inch front stabilizer bar and a 5/8-inch rear bar also workedbest. The 5/8-inch wheel studs were added after nearly losing a leftrear wheel to broken factory 7/16-inch units."
In the mid '70s, Larry switched over to Vette Brakes & Productssuspension pieces. "That smoothed out the ride and eliminated a lot ofweight in the process," he notes. "It also lowered the suspension 2.50inches." Up front, he switched to a transverse fiberglass spring,tubular-steel front control arms, and a hefty 11/8-inch stabilizer bar.At the rear, he used a VB&P dual-mount fiberglass rear spring, while theIRS received adjustable rear strut rods. Tokico shocks were mounted atall four corners.
Larry now has the brakes, wheels, and tires dialed in the way he likes them. The binders are Stainless Steel Force 10 aluminum calipers on Power Stop cross-drilled rotors, and all lines are plumbed with braided stainless lines. At the front, Boyds Super Star billet wheels measure 17x9 inches, with Michelin 275/40ZR17 Sport tires. Larry chose 17x11 Super Stars on 335/35ZR17 Michelin Sports for the rear
The stock iron 427 was recently replaced with a 479ci Merlin aluminum block and Edelbrock aluminum heads, a transplant that shed almost 200 pounds from the front tires. Larry chose a Crane solid-roller cam with .595/.615 lift and 288/296 duration to bump the roller valvetrain.
The fuel-induction system is a cleverly engineered combination that starts with a B&M supercharger with an 8mm drive. "The supercharger was one of the earliest released by B&M for big-blocks," Larry says. "The main prerequisite for installation in Nightwind was it had to fit under the existing hood."
The upper plenum manifold was fabricated from .125-inch sheet aluminum and Schedule 40 tubing to place the four Model 40 DCOE Mikuni carburetors, as well as the fuel inlets, as low as possible. "Changing from carburetors to fuel injection required installing a high-pressure fuel system, mounting eight 42-pound injectors in the upper plenum, and installing sensors and controls for intake-charge temperature, idle air control, and manifold absolute pressure," Larry says. The carburetors were converted to throttle bodies by gutting them and blocking all internal passages with carbon-fiber plates. A divider plate was added inside the plenum to enhance fuel dispersion, and the entire system was programmed to operate in speed-density mode.
Grant Goheen fabricated a custom upper intake manifold, while the fuel-injection system is controlled by a Holley Commander 950. Just for laughs, Larry added a 200hp shot of nitrous. The spark to light this colossus is controlled by an MSD billet distributor, ignition, and rev limiter.
Next, a Richmond six-speed transmission was hooked to the lightweight Fidanza aluminum flywheel. "The transmission was one of the very first six-speeds released by Richmond," says Larry. "It required removal of the factory-welded, center-frame crossmember, which was replaced with a new, removable unit fabricated from 2x3-inch steel tubing. I designed the shifter mounting to place it as low as possible in the console and in the stock location." An Eaton Posi-traction differential is filled with 3.08:1 gears. This combination provides neck-snapping launches and lets the Merlin lope along at high speeds.
The cockpit also reflects Larry's take-no-prisoners attitude. The original Saddle interior was trashed in favor of the more comfortable '79-'82 seats, which also appeared in the '78 pace car. While the upholstery has gone through a few changes over the years, today the interior boasts natural-grain leather with grey perforated suede and Indian Red suede accents. It also has carbon-fiber and polished-aluminum accents. A set of five-point competition belts and shoulder harnesses keep driver and passenger well cinched
The Grant Corsa steering wheel boasts integrated radio controls. Behind the wheel is a five-instrument Cyberdyne driver information center. The gauges are hidden in the center stack behind a smoked Plexiglas panel so they don't show until the ignition is activated. Larry even tricked out the Kenwood sound system. "It sports a plain black plate over a face that flips into view when activated," he says. Four Alpine speakers in hand-formed housings keep the music thumping from the 200-watt amp.
Larry considers Nightwind a work in progress. "As technology changes and advances, the car will continue to be modified and improved," he says. "That's what keeps the entire concept dynamic, interesting, challenging, and fun."