A 50-Plus Year Golden Love Affair With A ‘54 Vette
John Loeper’s 1954 Corvette Hot Rod – Subtitle: Dad’s advice was, “Buy American! It will last a lifetime!”
by K.Scott Teeters (as originally published in Vette Vues magazine)
Sometimes, the things our fathers tell us when we’re young, really stick. John Loeper was just 16 years old in 1959 when he discovered a car that he just had to have.
John worked all summer, mowing lawns, doing odd jobs and such, to scrape up the $800 for a ‘54 Corvette that was previously owned, many times over.
In fact, John was the 13th owner and as fate would have it, the last owner of the car.
Loeper grew up in the beautiful, ocean side resort town of Ocean City, New Jersey and was a teenager in the ‘50s. I can’t think of a cooler place and time to be as a teenager.
John explains the car culture this way. “Back in ‘58 there really weren’t that many Corvettes on the road. Chevy had only made a little over 13,000 Corvettes by the end of ‘57 and they had a reputation as a rich kid’s car.
It was fairly common back then in the shore area that young rich guys would buy a neat sports car for the beginning of the summer, and then sell it in the Fall. That’s why I was the 13th owner! And since I was no rich kid, I had to work after school and summers to save up for a car. But when I saw the Corvette, I had to have it. My Dad told me, “Buy American! It will last a lifetime.”
Back in the day, most people bought a Corvette because that’s what they wanted to drive as “their car.” They weren’t toys or weekend cruisers, it was the car you drove to get from here to there – rain, shine, sleet or snow – it’s what you were driving. When John served in the Army, his friends and family drove the car to “keep the battery from going dead” (wink-wink). After serving his country, John was back behind the wheel of his “chick car” as his wife, Marj called it.
And drive he did! The original Blue Flame Six got a rebuild around 290,000 miles. That tells you how durable the lowly Chevy six-banger was. Eventually John moved up to V8 power with a 265 small-block that lasted another 150,000 miles or so. Later, the 265 Chevy was replaced with another Chevy six-banger. As the decades went by, John’s 54 became just an old driver. And with so many other hot Corvettes that followed, the old ‘54 was pretty long in the tooth. By the late ‘90s, after five engines and hundreds of thousands of miles, John’s ‘54 was pretty much shot. A hard decision was needed – it was either the junkyard, a full restoration, sell off the parts, or something else.
Loeper’s “something else” turned into the unique ‘54 Corvette hot rod you see here. John is a shipbuilder by trade, an experienced fiberglass worker, and owns the Northwood Inn, a bed and breakfast in Ocean City, New Jersey, but had never done an automotive project. It was 2000, and with the Corvette’s 50th Anniversary celebration at Bowling Green, Kentucky coming up, his ideas quickly came together. Since the beginning of John’s love affair with Corvettes, Zora Arkus-Duntov was “The Man.” So, John’s plan for his hot rod ‘54 Corvette was this, “I envisioned a car that Mr. Duntov might see as an updated version of the original Vette roadster, given today’s level of available automotive technology.”
Like any good design manager, John started with a sketch. A local illustrator, Greg Model, worked out the sketches that called for some significant body revisions based on a serious chassis update. For power, John had selected one of the now rare, ZZ430 R GM crate engines. With 430-horsepower planned in a lightweight roadster, serious chassis mods were called for. The frame enhancements and C4 chassis update was handled by Paul Newman (not the late actor), of Car Creations. The front clip is from a ‘90 Corvette and the independent rear suspension fit right at home in the ‘54’s frame. Bilstein coil over shocks were installed on all fours with ZR-1 disc brakes. The front suspension uses a ‘90 ZR-1 rack and pinion and sway bars. Boyd Coddington billet wheels are shod with Goodyear Eagle GSC tires. The front wheels measure 17×8 with 245/45/ZR17 tires and the rear wheels measure 19×9.5 with 275/40/ZR17 tires. John’s drivetrain consists of a 5-speed GM Tremec transmission with a Steeda short-throw shifter, a GM Performance Parts aluminum flywheel, a McLeod scattershield (one never knows about those clutches), transmission adapter plate. heavy-duty clutch, a custom aluminum drive shaft, and a 3.54:1 differential. Now the fun stuff under the hood.
Loeper is one of the fortunate 430 people that owns and enjoys the most powerful small-block engine based on the original SBC engine offered by Chevrolet – the ZZ430. Only 430 of these small-block Chevy beauties were made and John owns No. 101. Think, “LT1” with aluminum heads, no solid-lifters, and 80 more horsepower than the original. John saw no need to enhance the engine, so everything is “as is” from the factory. This cast-iron block and Fast-Burn aluminum head configuration has an easy to live with 9.6:1 compression ratio and is rated at 430-horsepower with 430-ft/lbs of torque. A 650-cfm Holley carburetor with vacuum secondaries and an electric choke sits atop of an aluminum dual plane intake manifold with a GM HEI distributor. John hand-made the cowl induction airbox fabricated from carbon fiber and has a 3-1/2-inch filter that feeds the big Holley. The headers are from T.I.P. with 2-1/2-inch diameter, 36-inch long tubes, that use a 3-inch crossover, and 4-inch Hooker side pipes. Loeper’s hot small-block has plenty of cooling systems. The custom aluminum radiator from is a high-capacity crossflow unit from Be Cool, Inc, with a 16-inch pulling fan and a 2-quart aluminum expansion tank. A Fluidline oil cooling system keeps the Mobil1 oil just right.
While gearheads like us are salivating over the ZZ430 engine and all the billet hardware, it’s the body mods that turn heads when John’s on the road. Fat tires and wheels are great, but they need to be covered up. Stylist, Greg Model penned out fender bulges similar to those on the C3 L88 racers. While the four-wheel, coil-over-shock suspension eliminated rear squat and front lift, the integrated front spoiler helps keep the front end down at higher speeds and looks cool besides.
Part of the mystique of muscle cars are the various scoops, vents, and bulges that make the cars look as if they’ve spent time on a Bow-Flex Machine. The ‘’68-’69 Z-28-style hood dome tells spectators that there’s something BIG under the hood. The ‘54 Corvette originally came with wire-mesh headlight covers to keep the headlights from being broken by thrown off stones during competition. In keeping with the quasi-racer theme, extra road lamps were fitted into the front grille, behind the headlight-matching mesh-screen, and C6-style brake scoops were grafted into the rear fenders, just in front of the rear wheel openings. It’s worth noting that John added the scoops BEFORE the C6 Z06 came out. Also note the ‘56-’57 Corvette front fender scoops and the racer-like “no bumpers” look, with the exception being the small horizontal bumper just under the trunk opening. Since John’s ‘54 is a daily driver, he opted for the third brakelight on the trunk lid.
When you live in Ocean City, “shorts” are the standard garb from May to October. Since those big 4-inch Hooker side-pipe collectors are functional and get very hot, John opted for L88 racer-like side-pipe covers. The trunk of John’s ‘54 is all business and sports a 24-gallon ATL fuel cell, Carter electric fuel pumps, a K.R.C. fuel rack and lots of decals!
When it came time to paint the car, John took some time to weigh his options. “I didn’t want a wild paint job. They’re nice, but kind of common. Since many of the Corvette racers were white, I went with the clean look with the dual center racing stripes that run from the front edge of the spoiler, over the hood, along the rear deck, and ending at the lower rear valance. Aqua, or as it’s known in Ocean City, “Sea Mist Green” was chosen for the stripes. And just to be different, rather than classic Corvette “Polo White” paint, I chose Alpine White Flat with a semi-matt finish. Custom-made “ZZ430 Roadster” decals grace the front fenders and rear trunk lid.”
Keeping with his racing theme, Loeper’s interior looks like a race track refugee. Early Corvette bucket seats were nothing more than narrow bench seats. Black leather seats from a ‘02 Corvette and Simpson belts help John and his wife Marj stay well planted. The top of the dash has a carbon fiber insert and the analog gauges are all white-faced with black numbers and lettering. The steering wheel is aluminum with a vintage-look mahogany rim. The racer-serious clutch, brake, and gas pedal assembly is from Tilton Engineering. Since Loeper’s ‘54 is a driver and it gets very hot and humid as well as freezing cold in Ocean City, the car has a full air conditioning and heater from Classic Auto Air. As a salute to the ‘50s racer look, John made a passenger-side tonneau cover for solo driving. And lastly, a dash-mounted CD player was installed for enjoying classic rock’n roll tunes while abiding in chili dogs and Black Cow root beers at the local Stewart’s Drive-In.
Loeper’s ‘54 project began in 2000 with the completion target date of June 2003 to coincide with the Corvette’s 50th Anniversary celebration in Bowling Green. By the summer of ‘01 John had the chassis completed and showed the project at the Ocean City, New Jersey Boardwalk Corvette Show on September 23, 2001. Thirty three months later, John’s ‘54 was complete and ready for its maiden voyage to Bowling Green. “Chevrolet and the Corvette people went out of their way to make sure that Corvettes from all over America could get to the event with plenty of backup. They even provided a toll-free 800 number to call if you got lost or broke down. Ours was nearly a 2,000 mile round trip and was completed without one mechanical issue! I should also mention that the ride was completed “top-down” at a pace that would be considered, ah, RAPID!”
Project cars and hot rods are notoriously never 100% complete. But aside from regular maintenance, John’s only future plans for his ‘54 is to enjoy it! And indeed he has. By the time you read this story, John and Marj will have over 700,000 miles on the odometer! The Loeper’s ‘54 Corvette is the certified highest-mileage 1954 Corvette on record. Mr. Duntov was famous for admonishing Corvette owners to “ENJOY” their Corvettes. For John and Marj Loeper, Duntov’s advice netted out over 50-plus years of pleasure and well over a million smiles. A golden relationship that continues on, for sure. – THE END
John and Marj Loeper have been owners and operators of The Northwood Inn, in Ocean City, New Jersey since 1988. For more information about their lovely Queen Ann Victorian Bed’n Breakfast, visit: http://www.northwoodinn.com/
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