Crazy for Corvettes
By Pat Sunderland
Published Wednesday, October 12, 2016 9:00 am
Photo by Pat Sunderland Ron Austin's toy room is filled with Corvettes of all sizes. Display cases and the diorama in the corner showcase his collection of 500-plus models. In the foreground is a half-size, fully operational Grand Sport convertible he bui
Not long after the first Chevrolet Corvette rolled off the production line in 1953, one of the original models was totaled in a single-car accident near Ron Austin's childhood home in Redding, Calif. The accident drew a crowd of curious neighbors, none of whom knew what a Corvette was at the time. Ron gathered up a few pieces of the chrome grill that had broken off the wreckage and attached them to his bicycle. Although he didn't realize it at the time, that was the beginning of a lifelong zeal for Corvettes.
"I've loved them ever since," Ron said.
In 1967, he purchased his first Corvette -- a '57 model. A "stolen recovery," that car had so many parts and pieces missing it was easier to customize the replacements than to track down the original parts. He happily drove that car until 1969, when his wife Donna got pregnant with their daughter. They decided to replaced their stick shift with a 1963 Corvette that had automatic transmission, power steering, power windows and power brakes. With a baby bed behind the seats, the Corvette served as the family car for many years.
The Austins became active in the Corvette Club in San Diego, where Ron worked as a deputy sheriff. Soon, Donna wanted her own Corvette and Ron customized a Rally Red convertible with a roll bar for autocross events. They raced that car in parking lots, reaching speeds up to 100 mph, but Donna also used that car for day-to-day activities. With a pristine red interior to match the shiny red exterior, that car drew a lot of attention. It was featured in Corvette magazine and on the big screen in a Dennis Hopper movie called "Sunset Heat."
Ron owned a number of other Corvettes over the years, including some he fixed up then turned around and sold.
Then in 1996, he got a call about a Grand Sport that had been totaled and was sitting in a tow yard in San Diego.
Chevrolet produced a thousand Grand Sports in 1996 as a tribute to five racing prototypes developed in 1963 in response to Ford's Shelby Cobra. All five originals still exist; the last known sale was for $10 million.
Ron was aware of the new Grand Sports, but he'd never actually seen one except in photographs.
When he walked into the tow yard, there it was. A 19-year-old sailor had put it off the road at about 100 mph the night before. The car went spinning through a field, knocking down eucalyptus trees. The exterior was destroyed, but mechanically the car was okay.
"My first thought was, if I can get my hands on the that car, I could build my own Corvette. I had no intention of putting that car back together as a '96 -- what I wanted to build was a tribute to the original Grand Sport utilizing all the running gear and electronic components out of the '96."
Ron took delivery of the wrecked auto body in January 1997 and began a 3 1/2-year endeavor to completely rebuild the car from the ground up. The project involved a great deal of cutting and fitting and trimming. "The best way to describe it is putting 10 pounds in an 8-pound box," Ron said. "There are components stuffed into every nook and cranny in this car."
The end product is a very unique car that still carries the original vehicle identification number assigned to his Grand Sport, which was number 300 of the 1,000 produced.
In commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the 1996 Grand Sports, Ron and Donna drove the car to Pennsylvania for an all Corvette show. There, Ron won a trophy for quality of craftsmanship. "There were 10,000 Corvettes in that show, so I was pretty proud of that award," he said.
"Anyone can just go buy a brand new Corvette, but not everybody can build one," he added.
Ron said he was raised with a can-do attitude because his family was fairly poor. "If you wanted something, you figured out a way to make it yourself or you didn't get it," he said. "That's just the way I grew up. My dad was a craftsman, so I know where I got my talent from."
While Ron and Donna were active in the Corvette Club in San Diego, Ron's brother and sister also developed an interest in Corvettes. One day, his sister brought him a go-kart she'd purchased at a garage sale. "Can you fix this?" she asked her brother.
The plastic body said Corvette, but that was the only resemblance, Ron said. He completely resculpted the body to replicate the silver '85 Corvette Coupe owned by his sister. After fabricating a fiberglass mold, he realized he had a prototype for a half-scale Corvette that could be fully operational. He contacted GM about licensing requirements -- which were strict -- and was gearing up for production when 9/11 hit. Orders for the high-end toys disappeared and worse, one of his product liability policies was cancelled. Because of the terrorist attacks, Ron had trouble finding an insurance company to provide the coverage required by GM. He was forced to close the business down.
But because he loves to create, he soon found a new venture. After the death of Andy Mallett, a well-known auto collector in Delta, an estate sale was announced. Ron and friend Bob Johnson decided to check it out. They spotted a rusted out back seat -- a "really rough" component with the center steel cut out. They purchased the seat and another piece for $25 and set to work designing a sturdy, comfortable piece of furniture that could be used in a man cave or a restaurant.
They completely redid the seat body so all the weight would be on the frame, not the fiberglass wraparound. "The thing about fiberglass is, eventually with stress it will get hairline cracks," Ron said.
The tilt of the seat, the ability to customize each seat and the cost of production were all carefully thought out. The most challenging element turned out to be upholstery. Ron was confident he'd be able to find a local upholsterer, but his search proved to be extensive, taking him across the country and eventually to Canada. They found an upholstery expert there who specializes in automotive restorations. They provide him with paper templates, dimensions and photographs and he ships the upholstery to Delta where it's installed. The type and color of upholstery material are part of the customization process.
The first two phaeton seats were made of red marine vinyl and were so sturdy they outlasted the doughnut business they were built for.
A phaeton, Ron explains, is a style of open car or carriage that was available in the late teens and early '20s.
"That word is unique to the style, not to the manufacturer," Bob added.
Ron and Bob added a single taillight -- just like in a vintage automobile, but in this case it's an LED bulb powered by two AA batteries.
The other thing that sets these seats apart from a regular piece of furniture is the build sheet. "In the car world, collectors look for the build sheet," Ron said. "It tells when the car was made, the colors, everything."
"Basically it was a guide for the assembly line folks," Bob said.
In keeping with that theme, each of the phaeton seats has a build sheet tucked into the frame. Each frame is stamped with its own serial number, signed and dated by Ron.
The seats are marketed on the website rnbclassic
From start to finish, it takes about three weeks to complete a customized phaeton seat. Every component is of the highest quality and the frame is a "work of art," Bob said.
"Bob and I don't do anything unless we do it right," Ron said.
In addition to their website, Ron and Bob market their handbuilt seats at car shows. Their display features Ron's full-size Grand Sport, the matching but diminutive half-size Corvette and a phaeton seat. It's no surprise their display attracts a lot of attention.
The two also collaborated on a diorama to showcase an assortment of Ron's 500-plus model cars. The diorama's unique design keeps multiple scale cars in proportion to their surroundings. The cars start out large in the foreground, then get smaller as the eye moves from a golf course with large estate homes, to an industrial area with a mine, and finally to a mountainside community. In the upper corner of the diorama is a model of Ouray's historic Beaumount Hotel. Ron and Bob took photos of the building, blew them up to the correct scale and wrapped them around a styrofoam block. Then they hollowed out the styrofoam and put in lights that shine through the hotel windows. Tiny people stand on the sidewalk in front of the hotel.
A silhouette of Mount Sneffels and surrounding mountain ranges carry the eye up to the sky, where a tiny Bonanza airplane has seemingly just taken off from the airport.
More recently, Ron has enlisted Bob's help with a major landscaping project in his back yard. There are few projects they aren't willing to tackle.
"I just like to build and create things," Ron said.