My Garage - Al Wagner by Phil Berg Car and Driver

My Garage:
Al Wagner

by Phil Berg

Right after Corvette design engineer Al Wagner's boss Dave McLellan, chief engineer for the Corvette from 1975 to 1992, called the 30-year-old into his office to congratulate Wagner on his engagement 20 years ago, a half dozen colleagues tackled Wagner in the hallway, clamped a shackle around his ankle and padlocked it. Attached to the shackle was three feet of steel chain bolted to a 16-pound bowling ball. "You had to wear it for a week; take it home and shower with it," he recalls. Another gift was use of 1990 Corvette ZR-1 serial number one, a prototype, to use during the wedding.

"My dream as a kid was to design Corvettes," Wagner, an obsessed car and tool nut, adds. His first cub scout "Pinewood Derby" car was machined on a pro Bridgeport mill. "Every Saturday we would go to Sears and look at tools." Wagner's dad liked Jaguars, but Wagner loved Corvettes.

His journey toward making his dream a reality began at GM's foundry in Messena, New York, and continued at the Tarrytown assembly and robotics plant and the Advanced Vehicle Engineering facility in Michigan. At 29 he became a Corvette designer. "Most of us [designers] had classic Corvettes in our garages. A design could take four years to reach production—adding a new carb one night was instant gratification." He also began collecting Corvettes as well as other classic cars.

Today, at age 50, he has 16 cars in a 104-year-old garage in rural Wisconsin, and a storage building with 65 cars, one of which is Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti's original '33 Lincoln limousine, and it was used in the Johnny Depp 2009 gangster movie "Public Enemies" filmed in nearby Milwaukee. "Here's another 'air' roadster; they only made 35 that we know of. I have four of them. I've been buying Corvettes through the years. I've had at least 100 Corvettes. I jumped on C3s early because there are more rare C3s than C2s," he says.

Weary of the corporate struggles at GM, Wagner moved to Harley-Davidson in 1996 as director of product development, and enjoyed that post until 2004, when he purchased his garage and began restoring his collection of old Corvettes. Although he's set up a business, An American Classic, "I do my cars for myself and then put them up for sale, because there is no way to set the price for a good restoration, and there are no expectations when it will be finished. I restored one car for a customer, but I said 'The rule is there is no timeframe.' I said, 'If you ever ask me when it will be finished, I'll trailer it over and dump it in your driveway.'" The customer kept quiet and the tan-on-tan convertible turned out spectacularly.

Eighteen years ago Wagner bought a 1969 427 Corvette, and just now has finished its restoration. It's up for sale, because he found another one he likes better. Two months ago a California collector just bought Wagner's 1972 ZR-1, one of ten remaining examples of this pseudo race car. Its 290 miles have been accumulated by drivers using towels on its seats, and the pedals have only been touched by stocking feet, not shoes, to prevent any wear.

"All the customers from big cities say 'I just bought a car in Mayberry.' I should get a fishing pole and Opie to greet them when they come here to Wisconsin."


Car and Driver
My Garage: Al Wagner