Ralph Montileone and the 1969 ZL-1
The amazing story of one man's journey which began with the 1969 ZL-1
Text and photos by Jeffrey Wagner of Simply Corvettes
Click the photo for a YouTube Video
The 1969 Corvette ZL-1 and the man who first brought it to life in 1969...
In a hot and humid brick factory in St. Louis, MO, during the month of September of 1969, a legend was created, unbeknownst to the assembly workers. Coming down the line of a 50-year-old Chevrolet assembly plant was a bright yellow Corvette just waiting to receive its heart and soul.
Most Corvettes coming down the line had their engines delivered on a metal rack grouped with other engines in sequence. But not this one. This particular one had to be hand-pushed to the engine area where a wooden crate was waiting. As a crowd of workers gathered around, like they were waiting to open a present from Santa on Christmas morning, the anticipation grew. Finally, the crate was opened to reveal its contents - an all-aluminum 427ci engine block that had been developed with the racers in mind. After all the oohs and ahhs, the engine was placed in its new home. Once all the connections were made and all fluids filled, it was time to start this beast up. That job came to one person, Ralph Montileone.
Ralph was an 18-year-old who grew up in the St. Louis area. He was like many of the teenage boys that grew up in the 60s. He loved fast cars and on any given weekend he could be found tearing up the two-lane blacktop in his 1966 Marina Blue Chevelle that was supposed to have a 396ci engine. Well, just like any kid wanting to go faster, he was able to sneak a 427 in it.
Now, most would think this was a dream job for an 18-year-old young man, to drive Corvettes off the assembly line. Ralph commented, "The only reason I got that position was that I was the new guy and nobody else wanted it." Back then the job wasn't as glamourous as you think. The factory was not air conditioned and the temperature in the plant in September in Missouri could easily reach the triple digits. And when it came to the big block cars, they were hot, loud and many didn't have air conditioning. Some didn't even have seats.
When it was time to start the "Special" Corvette, Ralph, carrying his wooden box to sit on, climbed inside and depressed the clutch, made sure the shifter was in neutral and turned the ignition on. The dashboard started lighting up. The gauges came to life. As the anticipation built, Ralph turned the key to crank the engine. The engine started to turn. The higher octane fuel started to flow. And of course, after a few seconds, it did not start. Well, just like always back then, jiggle this a little, adjust that a little, added a little fuel to the carburetor and after a few more tries, the beast came alive. With no side pipes installed, the roar blasted through the plant like a lion roaring in a cave.
A few years ago I had the honor of making a trip to Maitland, FL to Roger's Corvette Center to see the 1969 ZL-1 Corvette. The Judski family, Roger, David, Sr., David, Jr. and Danny are some of the nicest people I have ever met. I have visited Roger's a few times now and I am always looking forward to my next trip to see them. Some of you in the SC family had the opportunity to visit them this summer if you attended the "Run to the ZL-1" event. I am sure you can attest to this.
I met Ralph on Facebook through Simply Corvettes. Like many of us, we have met great friends through our passion for the Corvette. Ralph and his wife Phyllis are one of those cases. As I was getting to know Ralph, he mentioned that he was in charge of starting the Corvettes that came off the line in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we have had lengthy conversations about the early C3s and of course the ZL-1 was one of them.
In early January of 2018, I decided to go to "The Roar Before the 24" in Daytona, FL, and asked Ralph if he wanted to take a road trip. He said yes and the plans started rolling through my head. It is hard for me not to visit the guys at Roger's Corvette Center when I am in the Central Florida area. So Friday morning we drove to Roger's to reunite the Corvette and the man who started her for the first time.
We arrived at Roger's around 9:00 a.m. and the first person I see and shake hands with is Roger, himself. I gave the standard, "Great to see you again, Mr. Judski." And I get cut off with a, "Please, just Roger." Mind you, I have tried to call him "Mr. Judski" at least half-a-dozen times. I get the same response. I promptly introduce Ralph and Roger to each other and sit back and watch the show. Immediately the stories start to flow between the two. After nearly thirty minutes of the two sharing tales, I hear the magic words, "Let's go see the car."
Mr. Judski, I mean Roger, escorted us to the area he has set aside for his personal cars. Those consist of a 1988 Corvette Challenge race car, a 1966 Corvette 427 / Big Tank (1 of 66), a 1967 Corvette L-88 (1 of 20), 1968 Corvette L-88 (1 of 80) and of course the 1969 Corvette ZL-1 (1 of 2). It is not often you step up to a collection of Corvettes and there is one that will eclipse a 1967 & 1968 L-88. Roger gave Ralph a 1-on-1 personal walk around of the Yellow Stingray, opening the doors, lifting the hood exposing the massing 427ci ZL-1 engine, and pointing out the details of the Corvette of which he is most fond.
While I was taking in the awe of this moment and taking a few pictures, David Judski, Sr., approached me and informed me that they were going to get a battery and start the car and they were going to let Ralph do it. From what I understood, Roger did not know this at that point. Well, sure enough, here comes David, Jr., with a side post battery to install behind the driver's seat.
With flashbacks from September 1969 racing through his mind, Ralph once again climbs behind the steering wheel of the ZL-1 and settles into the black vinyl covered seat. No wooden box needed this time. As Ralph got comfortable, the smile would not leave his face as he wrapped both hands around the steering wheel and curled his wrist to grind his hands into the wheel. As the adrenalin built, nerves started building, too. "Does the e-brake work?" Ralph must have said, "It's in neutral" a half dozen times. Finally, Ralph pushed the stiff clutch and grabbed the key. Just like a little over 48 years ago, as he turns the key, the dashboard lights up and the gauges come to life. And with a further twist of the wrist, the engine started to turn. The higher octane fuel started to flow. And of course, after a few seconds, it did not start. So, just like back then, the hood was opened, jiggle this a little, adjust that a little, added a little fuel to the carburetor and after a few more tries, the beast came alive and echoed through the showroom like a lion roaring in a cave. A truly magical moment just happened. The man who brought this legendary Corvette to life with a twist of his wrist had been reunited with it and started it once again some 48 years later.
We all stood nearby and listened to the side pipes rumble and roar as Ralph depressed the throttle encouraging the 1969 Daytona Yellow with its iconic black nose stripes and 427ci ZL-1 engine to sing. While Ralph was in the Corvette, Roger came to me and said, "Well, it needed to be started anyway."
It ran for about 5 minutes and during that time, Ralph got out and they put me in it. I did pretty much the same motions as Ralph, I got comfortable in the seat, wrenched the steering wheel with my hands and reached over and rattled the shifter to make sure it was in neutral, even though it was still running. I revved it a few times. What a feeling. The vibrations you could feel completely through your chest. I reluctantly removed myself from the driver's seat and Roger, himself, climbed into the ZL-1.
Apparently, Ralph and I were a little more timid than Roger was with the throttle. Roger gave her the gas and really let it roar. A glorious sound. After a few minutes, Roger climbed out, walked over to Ralph and with a huge smile on his face said, "It just doesn't get any better than that." And it really doesn't. I think we can leave it at that.
Ralph and I must have hung around for another hour just talking and enjoying each other's company before we had to leave and let these guys get back to work. As we were leaving, David, Jr., was working a deal on a 1-owner 2003 Anniversary Edition with less than 10,000 miles.
The true passion of Corvette is the people and being able to share that passion with friends you already have and to use that passion for Corvette to meet new friends and to build those friendships to the point of being a family. THAT is what it is all about.
I cannot close this without thanking, and there is no way Ralph or I can thank them enough, the guys at Roger's Corvette Center for the opportunity they provided a couple of Corvette guys and the memories we have added to the list of Corvette Awesome Days.
I also believe we have added a memorable day to the list for the Roger's Corvette guys. :)
- Jeffrey Wagner
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8675 N. Orlando Avenue, Maitland, FL 32751