If there’s one thing Corvette Central founder Jerry Kohn wants you to know, it’s that the company he started 40 years ago does more than sell restoration parts – they manufacture many of them. In fact, there are about 2,500 parts Corvette Central produces, with the vast majority being brackets and other supporting parts that play vital roles in restorations.
“I like to say we fill in the blanks and provide the unseen components you need for a restoration,” says Kohn. “Just because you don’t polish it doesn’t mean a part isn’t important. For many restorers, our parts are the only sources for brand new components cast to factory specifications. In many cases, they’re better than the original part, but with the same look, feel and manufacturing process.”
Like so many success stories, Kohn’s entrepreneurial achievement was rooted in personal need. He was trying to fix up a second-hand 1958 Corvette back in the early 1970s. It was typical of many used Corvettes that were about 10-15 years old at the time: It had a later-model LT1 engine and a four-speed swapped into it, and it wore slotted “mag” wheels. Sheet metal screws were holding on the door panels, which said a lot about the car’s overall condition.
If You Want It Done Right, Do It Yourself…
Kohn wasn’t necessarily looking to concours-restore the Corvette – it was only a relatively inexpensive, 15-year-old used car at the time – but he wanted to bring it up to presentable condition. The problem was restoration parts. They basically didn’t exist, especially when it came to tracking down high-quality replacement grille teeth. Chevrolet only serviced three of the five different sizes of the die-cast grille teeth used in the early cars, but they had been already snatched up years earlier. Someone had produced reproduction teeth, but the quality and construction were nowhere near OEM standards.
Kohn was a man who made things for a living. As a matter of fact, his profession let him understand the intricacies and challenges behind manufacturing components such as the grille teeth.
“As a tool and die maker, I could immediately see the difficulty in producing them,” Kohn says. “Because of their depth and relatively thin walls, the teeth were surprisingly complex and difficult to manufacture. I’m not surprised GM didn’t service the teeth for very long. I imagine the supplier had a hell of a time knocking them out consistently at the necessary quality level. If the supplier went out of business, I’m sure no one else was looking to pick up that particular baton.”
But his experience as a tool and die maker also gave Kohn the insight to produce them more accurately, and with his drive for outfitting his Corvette with the right parts, that’s exactly what he did. After casting the teeth for his car, Kohn started putting more examples in the trunk and showing them off at swap meets. The response was immediate and enthusiastic – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Some Things Stay The Same
That’s not to say producing the teeth is easy, even 40 years later. “The manufacturing process is largely unchanged, and so is the design and shape of the parts,” he says. “We’ve gotten better over the years, but those teeth were and remain some of the toughest parts to cast, because of their thin walls and deep draw. They look great on a car, but I don’t think the designers had any idea of the manufacturing implications.”
Kohn had another reproduction hit on his hands in the 1980s, when he started producing factory-spec exhaust pipes and related components.
“Back then, it was hard to get factory-correct exhaust pipes,” he says. “It seemed obvious, but no one was really taking care of that part of the restoration business, so we started doing it ourselves. Today, exhaust pipes are one of our biggest-selling lines.”
Yes, almost four decades later, Kohn and the business that became Corvette Central, continue die-casting those grille teeth, producing exhaust pipes and thousands of other parts. The company is based in Sawyer, Michigan, which is closer to Chicago than Detroit. In fact, it’s no coincidence that Kohn forged his business there. With plenty of nearby sand from the area surrounding Lake Michigan, the southwest corner of the Wolverine State was a casting and tool-and-die hotbed in the heyday of manufacturing in the United States. The foundries have all but closed up in 2014, although ironically the only surviving tool and die shop in the area is owned by Kohn’s brother.
Keeping Trades Alive
Corvette Central has expanded over the years, covering approximately 75,000 square feet and employing about 80, some of whom are specialists in manufacturing trades that are disappearing all too frequently these days. It’s one of the largest employers in the area and turnover is low among the skilled workforce.
Manufacturing doesn’t merely involve casting brackets and grille teeth. It’s followed up with finish and assembly procedures, where necessary. Frames for heater controls are cast on site, for example, and are matched with all-new levers, screens and other hardware to produce entirely new control panels. In almost every case, the reproduction parts are assembled with the same types of hardware and assembly techniques as the originals.
When it comes to parts that are composed generally of a single cast part – like the grille teeth or perhaps a cross-flags emblem – they are trimmed, machined for attachment hardware and even sent out for chrome-plating. And while Corvette Central was founded on manufacturing, its catalog and Web sit balance the products produced in-house with other manufacturers’ components, including appearance and performance accessories.
“We make a lot of parts, but we can’t make them all,” says Kohn. “We complement what we don’t produce with other high-quality parts to give our customers a one-stop source for restoration parts.”
As we mentioned earlier, much of Corvette Central’s manufactured components are the arguably less-glamorous but no-less-important parts when it comes to assembling a 55-year-old Corvette.
“It’s a lot of the brackets and other metal parts you don’t see,” says Kohn. “We are the exclusive manufacturer of a number of parts, especially for C1 and C2 models, including shielding, mirrors and related parts.”
The bracket used with C1 turn-signal-canceling switches is a prime example. Decades after the cars went out of production, the demand for the part remains strong, while the call for new components to reproduce is as strong as ever.
“When the NOS supply of parts is exhausted or another manufacturer quits producing a part or goes out of business, we’ll jump in to fill the void,” says Kohn. “It’s a constantly changing business for cars that went out of production half a century ago.”
An Evergreen Part
A testament to the strength and endurance of the business is those grille teeth – the parts that launched the business. The company produces several hundred each year, just as it has for the past several decades.
“We still sell as many of them every year as we ever did,” says Kohn. “It has surprised even me, because you’d think they’d all be accounted for by now, but no. There are still cars being discovered in barns and brought back to life, just like I did 40 years ago.”
Along with manufacturing parts, Corvette Central has branched into component restoration services, such as repairing and strengthening C1 windshield mounting brackets. The tabs on the originals typically snap off and Corvette Central addresses the dilemma by carving out notches in the frame where the original tabs break off and bolting on stronger steel tabs. The surgery results in a much-stronger repair that’s completely invisible when the car is reassembled.
What Comes Next?
Kohn wonders, however, how the restoration business and the hobby, in a broader sense, will evolve as upcoming generations of enthusiasts embrace the refurbishment of later-model cars, such as the C4 generation.
“It’s difficult to hazard a guess, because at the moment, the core of the hobby is still focused on the vintage cars and demand remains strong,” he says. “But as the supply of those cars dwindles and their cost goes up, it’s logical to believe cars like the C4 will become more attractive.”
Unlike C1, C2 and C3 models, however, the C4-and-later cars are composed of much more plastic and electronically controlled components, making them generally more difficult to work on. That’s not to say Corvette Central doesn’t support C4, C5 and C6 owners. They certainly do – a fact to which this writer and former C4 owner can personally attest – but it’s clear the early parts are the company’s bread and butter.
“We’ll go where our customers ask and give them the parts they demand,” says Kohn, who has a penchant for pace cars and maintains an enviable collection of Corvettes and other Chevys housed at the company’s headquarters. “That’s been the foundation of our business for 40 years and it will drive our success in the future.”
All that from some homemade grille teeth, created when the market couldn’t give him what he needed. That’s the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s assuring to know it’s alive and well – and it’s found in the small town of Sawyer, Michigan.