The adage, “It’s only original once” has become increasingly attractive for people who own muscle cars, and for good reason. After all, the cars themselves are mainly objects of metal and molded materials; they are very restorable today, and most factory processes can be duplicated. Hard use over their existence was sometimes quite extreme, leaving one wondering on occasion exactly how much of what’s presented as a restored car was actually on the chassis or subframe when it left the assembly line.
Of course, cars that did survive to the present intact tend to have a story associated with that preservation: a long-term original owner with treasured use, or extended storage due to a failed part that allowed the remainder to go untouched for decades. The guys who judge the select cars found in the Vintage Certification category at the Muscle Car and Corvette Nationals eat and breathe this stuff.
“My job is management of this area, but I am not the expert on everything,” says Steve Shauger, who has the sometimes daunting task of overseeing the Vintage Certification program. “Take Corvettes, for instance. For me personally, that is not what I would consider in my so-called wheelhouse, those cars I am familiar with. So we rely on experts who already do judging at places like Bloomington and NCRS to do the originality judging here at MCACN. The same is true for all the other marques here.”
Shauger’s dedicated volunteer judges are mainly restoration experts, and all of them are specialists in specific marques and vehicle types. Their passion is a critical part of the process, as these are people who have been hands-on with numerous original cars previously and who truly appreciate originality. It’s their level of understanding that helps give any car that passes Vintage Certification with a high score a level of pedigree one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
In 2017, the program agreed to look at 14 cars. This is not a small number considering that the public event lasts only two open days, that judging needs to be completed before Saturday if at all possible, and that the effort to judge a car may take three to four hours. Shauger and his guys are sometimes found working late into the night on Thursday and Friday as they go through paperwork, factory manuals, build sheets, numbers verification, and discussions about what to score specific areas of a car.
The highest level is called Time Capsule, a vehicle that has retained 95 percent of its original equipment in all five judged areas. One car at MCACN met this criterion this year, garnering an overall 3,279.66 points out of a possible 3,310 for a 99.08 percent originality score. This was the Chevelle owned by Robert Schumacher that Muscle Car Review Editor Drew Hardin introduced to our readership in our initial MCACN coverage (“The Greatest Muscle Car Show on Earth,” Mar. 2018).
The next level is Legend, which requires a total of 85 percent originality in all judged areas. Of the cars judged in 2017, six met this requirement. Again, for a vehicle to receive a level this high is a remarkable achievement. Many of the cars that come in for Vintage Certification have owners hoping to find out that they are indeed that original.
Heritage is awarded to cars that meet the 85 percent challenge in four of five areas. This is the classification where cars that have received some level of correct original OE component detailing end up, as they are not always able to claim complete originality but are correct in terms of parts in many areas. Usually a major component has been changed on the car, but everything else remains untouched to testify to the car’s originality. Some cars in Heritage may even score into the 90 percent range due to originality in other areas.
Shauger notes, “Cars have stories and lives, so we have to look at the overall car as we determine what is original and what is perhaps changed.” This normally comes from experience that the judges have, knowing how originality should look and how parts should properly blend. Somebody might swap out an original piece for a better original piece, but if it has aged less than everything around it, it can still be detected and points will be deducted. “Remember, we only give minor points for actual preservation; 90 percent of the scoring here is based on originality, period. Having original though imperfect components is still a plus here.”
Beyond Heritage is Legacy, in which three of five areas score 85 percent originality. Next is Reference, which is awarded if any area meets 85 percent originality. It is a brutal but honest process, as sometimes owners find that what they considered original was actually changed or modified.
The cars in our story here are a selection from this year’s judging, with comments from Shauger on specific areas.
Editor’s note: If you have an original car and are interested in putting it through the Vintage Certification program at MCACN 2018 (November 17-18), visit vintagecertification.com for more information.
1970 Buick GS Stage 1
Legend, 94.60% (3,113.47 of 3,291.11)
Any Buick GS Stage 1 is now pretty important, and a 1970 version with a reworked high-compression 455-inch engine and associated notoriety is just below the limited GSX models in terms of rarity. This fabulous car just missed Time Capsule due to the aftermarket reproduction (although correct-appearing) tires but scored over 90 percent in every other category. Painted all black, this New Hampshire beast shows only 26,850 well-cared-for miles since new. It scored over 99 percent in interior, underbody, and trunk, a testament to its preservation.
Shauger admits that this car was the biggest surprise for him in 2017. “This is the first Buick we have done, and expert Rich Johns led the judging. If it had not had the reproduction tires on it, it would have scored to Time Capsule. It’s that nice. This car is a late 1970 build and even has a couple of the 1971-design parts on it, but are verified right from the factory. And it’s in black—what’s better than that on a muscle car!”
Reference, 72.5% (2,426.34 of 3,344.44)
Frank Karabetsos had one of the most interesting cars at this year’s show, which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Class of 1967. His ’67 Hemi Belvedere is the car that Chrysler “didn’t build,” as the Hemi option was listed solely for the GTX that model year. It is thought that the company slipped five of them out the back door, mainly for racers, and this bench-seat four-speed is one of them.
Going through the car, several changes presented challenges, but the beautiful interior and the car’s overall operation gave it two areas above 90 percent. A true rarity for Mopar fans, this Illinois car showing 32,345 miles was a favorite because it presented itself very nicely despite the variances. It should also be noted that all the others known were indeed modified for racing, making this example the most original regardless of its score.
Shauger admits it was the rarest car for 2017 and further noted, “You have to really appreciate a survivor for what it is. We judge in this division based on originality, and some things had been done to make this car better in appearance, but those same things hurt it from a scoring standpoint. This Belvedere had the original tires and exhaust up until a few years ago. I’m told a previous owner wanted to ‘make it better,’ and unfortunately those parts were tossed. It’s a shame because the car could have achieved Time Capsule or very close. Still, Frank brought us a great car, and we were glad to have the chance to look at something this unique.”
Legend, 93.10% (3,102.39 of 3,331.11)
When it came to stories, John Keane had a few. He bought this 1-year-old Corvette slightly used in 1962 and has owned it ever since. Over the years, he cared for it carefully, although it did get some performance use in the early days. After the radiator began leaking and Uncle Sam called on him for a free trip to Southeast Asia, Keane parked the car, and it remained in storage for many years.
A meticulous owner, Keane recognized even early on that this Vette was a keeper, and the judges agreed. It scored a perfect 100 percent in both Operation and Interior and was above 95 percent in the trunk as well. The engine changes made in the early years kept the overall score down, but this was an exceptional car for its age in 2017 and one of the most interesting given Keane’s history behind the preservation.
Painted in a conservative bronze, this gorgeous 61,000-mile machine had such a large degree of originality that Frank Badalson, whose Mopar-oriented American Performance LLC sponsors the VC display, made it his personal selection for the weekend. He says, “Of all of them, I really wanted to hear the stories from John about this car. It is very unique—270 hp, 2×4, power windows, 100 percent paint and interior, with its only real changes being tires and exhaust.”
1970 LS6 Chevelle SS454
Legend, 89.75% (2,980.86 of 3,311.11)
Shauger was unapologetic about Charlie Lillard’s recently found, 5,951-mile LS6 Chevelle. “This car is fantastic. It’s beautiful from day one and has an all-original driveline, something not seen all the time with cars like this. Since this car was raced at one time, we knew already that some things were changed, but it scored near to Time Capsule in a couple of areas and was just under 90 percent overall. For any LS6, that is worthy of the Legend honor.”
Lillard, an associate owner of the show, wanted the judges to tell him exactly what he had. The underbody and engine had some minor changes, which still drew respectable scoring just over the 85 percent margin. The car was over 94 percent in a couple of areas and garnered a perfect 100 in terms of original interior, all the more unique considering its drag racing past. With attractive paint that scored as 99 percent original, it was a head-turner even among these cars.
1969 Camaro RS/SS L78
Heritage, 89.07% (2,970.99 of 3,335.56)
Among the Camaro contingent was this wonderful and recently found 1969 RS/SS with 24,500 miles and two previous owners. Camaros are like Corvettes in some ways: Original examples are well known in the hobby, and the model line has been well researched. Mark Bulaw’s car was well-optioned and featured the best-known standard 1969 Camaro small-block, the 300hp L48 350ci motor.
“The rubberized paint on the Endura bumper cars is always going to be an issue due to paint aging, so we take that into consideration. Camaros with those bumpers came with a specific jack,” notes Shauger, who is a specialist judge for F-Body Chevy models. “This car shows they’re still out there, a California car that showed up on Craigslist earlier this year. Mark can probably do some exterior detailing and replace a few incorrect parts to improve the score, which is the only area that kept it from being rated Legend. But it’s still phenomenal and scored 100 percent in operation and 99 percent on interior.”
When asked if judging cars like the popular Camaro was different from judging others, Shauger says, “Cars with higher production numbers are not necessarily easier, though there are more examples to compare with. For instance, if you’re knowledgeable about 1969 Camaros, you need to understand all the ongoing and date-related engineering production changes made during that model year. Simply having a basic understanding from a couple of cars won’t cut it. Things like fasteners, coatings, and so on will make a difference, so it’s all about data points and collecting information. Nothing is set in stone, though. Sometimes they might have even returned to the original process once the parts that were a little different were exhausted.”
1969 Gran Prix, Heritage
92.1% (3,108.6 of 3,376.67)
While MCACN is noted primarily for sport, ponycar, and midsize models, fullsize cars are growing in popularity. Considering so many of these big-block behemoths were scrapped after their valuable engines were removed, not many people understood how rare this 1969 Pontiac Gran Prix SJ was, with its performance 428ci engine. Showing just 13,875 miles since new, this first-year body design was the largest vehicle judged in 2017, and the resultant Heritage status reflects the difficult effort that goes into judging cars.
“When completed, Vintage Certification judging must reflect reference level and benchmark cars, and I think the owner had hoped it to be more original then it was discovered to be,” Shauger notes almost apologetically. “This is a wonderfully rare and beautiful car. While some paint repair corrections are its most challenging aspect, the remainder of this car was actually scored spectacularly, above the 90 percent originality margin in every area, a reality that is seen on the judging sheets. Amazing.”
1971 Olds Cutlass Convertible
Legend, 92.53% (3,128.42 of 3,381.11)
Iowa collector Dave Belk admits this car came to him as a fluke. He found out about it being in storage less than 10 minutes off the highway he takes to work each day. He was then able to acquire it from the wife of the original owner. Convertibles require excellent overall maintenance to achieve this level of certification, and Belk relayed stories from the family about how much the car meant to them over the decades of ownership. Powered by a 350/four-speed combo and well-optioned from day one, this car scored a perfect 100 percent in both interior and paint. Changes in the engine and underbody, done primarily for maintenance, were what kept it below 95 percent. With 37,000 original miles, a beautiful color combination of silver and black, and that scarce convertible design, this was a pretty stunning Olds from any perspective. Paul Martin was on hand to judge the Oldsmobiles and was impressed with Belk’s find as well.
“I have had it for seven months,” Belk notes. “I heard about it from a friend, got the information, and bought it that night. I’ve had a lot of cars but never one that’s this original—paint, interior, everything. I wanted to have the experts look at it and was pleasantly surprised at how well it did when it was rewarded with Legend.”
Asked about the owner, Belk says, “Up until recently she still drove it once a year or so, but it was literally stored in her barn, on top of a blue tarp with wheel chocks, and the interior had mothballs and dryer sheets everywhere. She even had zip-lock bags stuffed in the snorkels of the air cleaner. She and her husband had hoped to drive around in it after they retired, but he passed away. She told me, ‘I know it’s just sitting here, but I wanted to be sure whoever bought really appreciated it and knew what it had meant to us.’”
1968 Camaro Z/28
Legend, 93.9% (3,119 of 3,320)
“What a car!” Shauger says of Dave Beem’s Camaro. “It was with its original owner until last year. It’s as real as rain, not perfectly preserved but very original, with 90 percent of the original items still on the car.”
Those original items included the tires, which had been recapped but earned points for the Camaro. The 64,000-mile car had never been modified—it was “really unmolested, unfluffed,” in Shauger’s words—so “it was a great car to get information from.” It wasn’t as well preserved as some of the cars judged that weekend, “but that’s what the cars were built for. It’s one of those cars that you can get in, turn the key, and go, and not worry about it,” unlike a car that’s closer to Time Capsule status.
Adding to the appeal was the fact that it was a 1968 Z/28, which are rare, says Shauger. “We don’t find too many ’68s at shows. They’re real unsung heroes, and this was a very rare find, a great example.”