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Fantasy cars reborn

Restorer's reputation leads collectors down curvy country road

By MATTHEW WHITE
Staff Writer
The Tennessean
Sunday, 02/04/07

THOMPSON'S STATION — In one sense, George Ross works with precious metals.

"See these hubcaps?" Ross recently said, pointing to the wheels on a car in his Thompson's Station garage. "They're made of a very rare substance. It's called Unattainium."

That's what passes for a joke in the world of classic-car restorations, though there's little funny about these particular hubcaps or the car they are attached to: a red 1954 Corvette convertible. Even in the dim lights of Ross' garage, the car's paint job is so deep and clear that it seems to glow. Ross recently completed a yearlong restoration of the car, stripping and rebuilding the classic Chevrolet to every last bolt on the engine, stitch in the leather and, yes, original caps on the wheels.

He found this set still in their factory boxes from a collector online.

"The guy who had them knew what he had," Ross said. "So he could charge anything he wanted."

What he charged was $3,000, a sum that in 1954 would have bought the whole car, with enough left over for two popular options that year: windshield wipers and turn signals.

Details count to collectors

The Corvette belongs to Dale Johnson, a retired airline pilot (one of three retired airline pilots who currently have cars in Ross' shop) now living in Nashvile. Johnson bought the car four years ago in Atlanta. Though it was in good shape, he decided a little over a year ago to have it fully restored and rebuilt to exacting, original specifications.

After checking around Middle Tennessee car circles, he took the Corvette to Ross.

"The reason that I picked George is that he is the one who is meticulous and interested in the finest details," Johnson said. "Of course, I am also. And you want to work with someone who has the same train of thought as you do."

So now the car has $3,000 original factory hubcaps. It has also has an original Blue Flame inline 6 engine with triple side-draft single-barrel Carter carburetors, all mated to a Powerglide transmission, just like the original. It has an engine cover stamped from the original molds used in the St. Louis factory, just like the original. And because the entire body is made from fiberglass, the antenna for the radio is embedded in the trunk.
Just like the original.

If the car has a flaw, it may be that it's simply too pristine. In the classic-car world, Corvette buffs (along with followers of its ageless rival, the Ford Mustang) are known for their obsessive devotion to tiny details in restoration. At Corvette-specific shows, cars are judged not just by the hubcaps, paint job and antennas, but points are deducted from cars restored with any modern equipment or convenience, including such mundane things as protective undercoatings.

"The car today is a much better finished car than it was when it was delivered," Johnson said. "With George's talent, the car is actually over-restored. We've had some discussion that some shows expect a car restored identical to showroom delivery conditions. "

Ross and Johnson have high hopes for the Corvette. Johnson said he expects an invitation to display the car at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., and the car has already been invited to one of the nation's premier car shows, the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in Florida.

It all began with a Vespa

The '54 Corvette may turn out to be Ross' finest work, but his restoring career has humble origins. When Ross was 9, his father brought home a broken Vespa motor scooter in the back of his car.

"It was in the trunk of his Rambler Ambassador," Ross said. "He told me if I could get it running, it was mine."

He got the Vespa running. Soon after, he mounted a lawn mower engine on a bike, and got that running, too. He's been rebuilding and restoring vehicles of all types ever since. Ross opened Ross' Restoration at his Thompson's Station home in 1993 and a few years later added an industrial garage as big as his house. Since then, a steady stream of classic cars has rolled through his garage.

On a recent day, six cars in various stages of disassembly crowded the floor. At one end sat a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air recently delivered by its owner. Already restored once, and still in good enough condition to have placed second in a recent car show, Ross will spend the next year or so breaking the car down to every nut, bolt, ring, piston and spring. He'll also strip off the paint, currently a vintage turquoise and white, down to bare aluminum.

Ross considers painting his specialty, and his customers report that a Ross paint job can run up to $25,000. In his shop's paint shed, Ross hits each car with five grades of sandpaper then five levels of buffing. The result is an almost translucent final surface that reflects as crisply as a mirror.

"When you have a really good paint job, people don't say, 'How much did you pay for your restoration?' " Ross said. "They say, 'Who painted your car?' "

The shell of a 1968 Firebird sat mounted on a dolly in the paint shed recently. Ross is giving the Firebird just a partial restoration because the owner intends to drive the car as opposed to showing it.

"It won't be a trailer queen," he said.

Barn treasure to prize car

Though Johnson's red Corvette may break all of Ross' records for honors, his most decorated car remains a 1909 Oldsmobile X-3 Touring car he restored for Franklin's Mike Tschida. Tschida bought the Oldsmobile, the last one known to exist, in 1988 at an estate sale in Wartrace. Between 1909 and 1933, the car had been bought and sold between two men who, though unrelated, shared the last name of Smotherman. When Tschida bought it, one of them, Grady Smotherman, told him the car had been moved only once in the previous 50 years.

"In 1946, they pulled it out of the barn for a local parade," Tschida said. "It wouldn't start, so they put it back in and never moved it again."

After Ross restored the car, which had wooden wheels and a wooden body, the car was invited to both the Amelia Island car show, where it won an award for its paint job, and one at Pebble Beach, Calif., generally recognized as the nation's top event.

For his own use, Ross prefers British sports cars, which is not to say he actually drives one. He owns several MGs and Lotuses that sit in various stages of decay, none drivable. Until recently Ross drove a 1994 Mustang, far from a classic. When it was stolen and totaled, he bought a 1994 Lincoln Mark VIII with 130,000 miles for $2,000.

"They say cobblers go barefoot," he said. "I'd be real happy if I could just get one of my cars running."

Source: http://www.dicksonherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070204/COUNTY090101/702040347/1297/MTCN02
 

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