From IBM Accountant to Corvette Wizard

When I contacted the Corvette Club of America to see who they might recommend as a Corvette expert, they gave me a name without hesitation.

"Contact Tony Avedisian at Tony's Corvette Shop," Terry Popkin, the club's ambassador to the National Corvette Museum, wrote within 20 minutes of my sending an email.

I had been expecting a connection with an older gentleman, one presumably living in a wide-open desert with plenty of space for fast driving and long-term project storage. Avedisian was neither. A former accountant, he was gray-haired, but in good trim and abuzz with youthful energy. His shop was nowhere near the desert, but in suburban Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C.

Located at the elbow of an intersection between the main road and a strip mall, Tony's Corvette Shop is a sprawling complex comprising two hangar-like buildings and some shipping containers filled with spare parts.

Upon entering the garage in Building One, I came face-to-face with a restored 1963 Z06 that looked as if it had just rolled out of the factory. It had been finished just in time to be loaded into a trailer and sent to Bloomington Gold, a judged event where the Corvette faithful go to prove their dedication to the high priests of the Corvette tribe.

The reasons for Avedisian's success were evident as soon as I entered the shop's inner sanctum. Farther inside, even, than the boxes of sun visor screws, marker light bezels and other very specific parts, was the shop's unemotional brain: a computer loaded with digital photographs. Avedisian says he takes photographs of every detail – not just of the cars he restores, but ones he spots in shows and even junkyards. All of his technicians have digital cameras, too.

The level of detail they chronicle is astounding. During the early '60s, for example, there were only a handful of GM plant employees who wrote the assembly-line alphanumeric codes on the firewall. Avedisian and his team are familiar with their handwriting, and can tell when someone has changed the original number to make a car appear more valuable.

Much of this Corvette knowledge was gained from his many years on the job. Avedisian has been restoring Corvettes professionally since 1989. Still, when questions about what's correct and what isn't bubble to the surface during a restoration, the irrefutable proof comes from the shop's archive of photos.

"It's doesn't even come down to my opinion anymore," he said. "It's forensic; you can't argue with pictures."

And then there are all the parts.

"I'm a parts hoarder," Avedisian said, plucking a screw from one of the gray metal bins lining the wall. "You see this? It's a No. 10 screw with a No. 6 head, chrome-plated."

He told me it was the only correct screw to mount sun visors on a specific Corvette model. He showed me colored fuses he'd taken from junkyards back in the '90s. There was a 600-pound stash of original wheel weights from the factory. He had suspension cradle nuts and weatherstripping, and parts that had been discontinued for years.

We walked down corridor after corridor, passing steering columns, metal trim strips and suspension parts, among other things. Avedisian pointed to a bushel of dipsticks protruding from one of the shelves. The judges at Bloomington Gold are sticklers for correct gear, he said. Non-original dipsticks and incorrect sun visor fasteners wouldn't do.

"For an original build, everything has to be the way it was when it rolled off the assembly line," he said. "That's why we've been able to succeed in this business – we have an unbelievable amount of parts."

Avedisian's rise to Corvette wizardry was circuitous. He caught the bug in his teens and restored his own cars over the years. But for nearly two decades, he worked for IBM as an accountant. Eventually, though, his love for the cars outweighed his need to maintain a 9-to-5 office job.

After restoring a co-worker's Corvette, word spread that Avedisian knew what he was doing. A local police officer was the next to commission him for a restoration. Others followed. By the end of the '80s, he and Andrew Toman, who is still his lead tech, were moonlighting at Avedisian's house. But after working nights and weekends for 10 years, Avedisian finally decided to quit his day job.

"Everyone thought I was nuts," he recalled. "There I was, I worked for IBM and had a wife and two kids. But I did it and I don't look back. This is the American dream."