By Angelo Van Bogart courtesy of OldCarsWeekly.com
Larry Fisette had no idea whether he was buying King Tut's tomb or Al Capone's vault when he agreed to buy 21 trailers said to be full of Corvettes and Chevrolet muscle cars and parts. Luckily, all of the rumors he had heard whispered around his northeast Wisconsin home turned out to be more true than he ever dreamed.
So far, Fisette, a De Pere, Wisconsin, restorer and automotive repair shop proprietor, has opened 17 of the 21 sealed trailers one-by-one and found a Yenko Camaro with 45,000 miles; a pair of low-mileage 1970 LS-6 Chevelles; a 1972 Camaro Z/28; two 1957 Corvettes, one a fuel-injected car, the other a dual-four-barrel-equipped example; and several other Chevrolet performance cars. Filling in the space around the cars like water around pebbles is an inventory of NOS and used performance parts that would make a Nickey Chevrolet parts manager jealous, and Fisette is not done cracking trailers open. He's also confident there's more muscle hidden in the trailers.
How the trailers came to be full of new Corvette side exhaust systems, factory Corvette race parts, and highly desirable engines and parts is as interesting as the man who filled them.
Donald Schlag's passion for Chevrolet performance cars, even when they were new, gave him the foresight to realize that someday, others would have just as much interest in them. So while he was working at his father's John Deere dealership, Green Bay Implement, Schlag began buying the parts from the local Chevrolet dealer's parts counter in the 1960s and stored them at the John Deere dealership. He also made annual trips to California, pulling a trailer behind an RV for a month at a time in order to retrieve more parts for his stash. When his father died and the dealership was liquidated in the early 1970s, he tucked the parts and cars in semi trailers.
But when the very people who Schlag was saving parts for betrayed him by stealing a part, Schlag stopped sharing his collection. He even went so far as to completely seal the trailers off once they were full. By butting the trailers up against each other, not even he could go back in them. Schlag also stopped driving the cars he collected after one of his Corvettes was keyed in a parking lot. From that point on, he swapped the engines and slipped the cars into the trailers, never to be gazed upon again.
Many local car collectors believe the reason why Schlag pulled the engines from his cars and installed a different engine before he put them away was to thwart thieves, since the cars wouldn't be numbers-matching. Even rare parts, like a first-generation race Corvette gas tank, was separated from its two filler neck pieces and its parts spread between three trailers. Another theory to explain why Schlag swapped and separated engines was because he predicted the engines would be worth more than the cars, so he pulled the hot engine from most of the cars and put a slightly less desirable engine in its place.
Despite his unfortunate interaction with some of his fellow hobbyists, Schlag remained friendly. When scouring car shows and swap meets around Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay for more parts in his rusty El Camino, he could be found engaged in a conversation in which he would even mention if he had a part or a car.
"He'd talk about what he had, but he didn't brag and he didn't sell anything," said Fisette, who met Schlag before his June, 2005, death on two occasions. Through these brief interactions, people began to piece together what he had hiding.
And while no one knew exactly what Schlag had, Schlag knew what they had in their garage. By being the local expert on fuel injection units and offering other mechanical services, Schlag became acquainted with cars in the area, which also helped him feed his collection.
"There was a rumor that Don would remove your big-block and install a small-block [as a gas-saving measure during the second fuel crisis]," Fisette said. This would explain why about half of the engines Fisette has uncovered are big-block Chevrolet engines.
Upon learning that Schlag passed away, Fisette took a chance on acquiring the collection and contacted Schlag's family.
"I called her [Schlag's sister's] number, told her my name, and said I'd buy everything and told her I had the capability to buy and disperse it all," Fisette said. After checking with other hobbyists, Schlag's family decided that Fisette was the right person to buy the collection.
"We were so lucky to find Larry," said Joanne Stepien, Don Schlag's sister. "I received several phone calls [from people interested in buying the collection], so I took their names and numbers. I had about five different people to choose from." Stepien then researched the reputations of each party, and Fisette was the only person to come back with stellar credentials.
Once the deal was sealed, Fisette was ready to break down the doors of the trailers to see what he bought, and the first trailer he opened didn't let him down.
"I hadn't seen inside any of the trailers. I did it all on Donny's reputation," Fisette said. "The first trailer I opened had two [1970 Chevelle] LS-6s in it," he said. "It was absolutely total amazement." The Chevelles were parked bumper-to-bumper in the trailer, and the first he gazed upon was a gold four-speed, bench-seat car that Fisette soon realized was the LS-6 Chevelle his neighbor bought new. Fisette even remembers the day the neighbor brought it home from the dealership and showed it to him. Regardless of his memory of the car, Fisette prefers the Chevelle parked in front of the gold, four-speed car: a blue Chevelle with bucket seats and an automatic transmission, which he considers more driveable.
Unearthing the Yenko Camaro shortly thereafter was obviously an exciting experience for Fisette, but it was opening a trailer full of factory performance engines that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
"The most exciting moment was when I opened up a trailer and saw shiny engines up one side and down the other, and then two stacked shelves of them," Fisette recalled. More than 150 high-performance engines have been found, in addition to 14 nice, low-mileage cars, but the bulk of trailers contain parts. And lots of them.
Since finding the trailers, Fisette has organized the parts in a warehouse to best determine what he has. While looking down the line of engines, Fisette smiled at a complete engine for a 1969 Camaro Z/28 engine and asked, "Isn't that pretty? It's a DZ-302 that's complete down to the breather!" The Camaro 302-cid engine is one of approximately six such engines he's found, and he's hopeful that it and many of the other engines will land back in the cars they originally came from, right down to the cast-iron COPO 427-cid engine block he's found.
"I think it's going to give people a chance to make their cars correct," he said. One hobbyist has already contacted Fisette to ask if he has the original engine to his Nova, which was sold to Schlag many years ago following an engine transplant. Although Fisette plans to sell all of the parts in one lot, he said he would try to reunite the Nova owner with his car's original engine.
For Fisette, the hunt was more fun than the catch, and he wants to share that experience with fellow car collectors. Pointing to a 1958 Corvette radio, he said, "Imagine how happy this is going to make somebody."
A happy man himself, Fisette is thoroughly enjoying the challenge presented to him. "I've done nothing but empty trailers since September," Fisette said while surrounded by all the parts he's organized in his warehouse. "I walk in here and feel like Scrooge McDuck. I can remember as a kid thinking, ‘I'd kill for a four-speed.' Now look how many I have got!"
Finding such parts continues to be a treasure hunt in itself. Each time he opens a trailer, Fisette doesn't know if he'll find it filled cars or SS wheels hanging from the ceiling, engines lining the walls, and 55-gallon drums filled with performance heads and crankshafts. And even when he finds a trailer loaded with cars, he's never sure if he'll find another stash of fuel-injection units or Corvette knock-off wheels in the cars' trunks as he has on several occasions.
Regardless of his few interactions with Schlag, Fisette feels he's come to understand the man, and if he's right, there are more surprises great cars and parts waiting to be found. One of those potential surprises may be another Yenko car. Fisette has found a rust-free front clip for a Nova in one trailer, a hubcap center specific to a Yenko Nova in another trailer, and he's heard that Schlag owned a Yenko Nova with a damaged front clip. Combined with the fact he has a title and keys to a Nova, Fisette is confident he'll soon uncover another muscle car icon from the Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, dealership. "I've really got to know him through this puzzle," Fisette said.
Larry Fisette is a worthy caretaker to the cars and parts collected by Donald Schlag, because he'll make sure that the cars and parts end up in the hands Schlag was saving them for.