The Corvette hobby is an ever evolving entity. It ebbs and flows with the whims of automotive fashion, the economy, and the latest breakthroughs in automotive technology. The usual cast of Corvette siblings are present and accounted for, with some firmly entrenched at the top of the hierarchy, (mid-year, cough, cough) while others fall in and out of favor.
Take the C3 Corvette for example. Back in the late ’60s, it was the belle of the ball, all slinky curves, go-go boots and devil-may-care attitude. But over its 14-year run, it stayed a little too long at the party, got a tad sloppy, and was relegated to faded starlet status.
The ensuing years weren’t any kinder to the C3. Hundreds of thousands were built, and many were run hard and put out to pasture, literally, with trees growing out from their engine compartments where mighty mouse motors once roared.
Customizers didn’t help things, either, and really bad alterations were commonplace — from jacked up, “Joe Dirt,” rigs to hideously altered cars that pushed the boundaries of taste and decorum. For every original car, there was a disfigured twin. For every survivor, two chopped-up cars hit the junkyard. These were the dark years for Mako shark Corvettes.
Then springtime came to the C3 Corvette. A new generation of eyes saw the beauty in its arched fenders and pinched waist. New powertrain technology became plentiful, cottage industry chassis manufacturers sprung up, and the restomod movement was born.
Like any other high-strung beauty, the C3 ‘Vette can be “difficult.” Good looks can be tough to live with but the aforementioned restomod revolution was a like a trip to charm school for the prickly pin-up.
Crude suspensions and strangled motors could be fixed with a mix of state-of-the-art running gear and free breathing, fuel-injected powertrains. Frumpy old tech and trappings were broomed out, while the essence of Bill Mitchell’s wasp-waisted masterpiece was retained and buffed to a high luster.
A really great example of the C3’s catharsis via the restomod movement is Mark Garrell’s 1968 Corvette Roadster built by John Lyster at JBL Specialty Automotive out of Dulles, Virginia.
They took a rusty old ’68 roadster from Rochester, New York and like the scene from “The Wizard of Oz”– where the unlikely foursome are refurbished after they reach the Emerald City — this original red on red ‘Vette emerged with its late ’60s cool intact and a new lease on life.
As head honcho at JBL Specialty Automotive, John brings a very diverse automotive background to the table in his role as a C3 swami and talked with us about how he brought this redhead C3 back to life.
Early in his career, John was doing fiberglass work in Fairfax, Virginia when the opportunity of a lifetime came along. In 1976, he landed a gig as a body man for Group 44, a British Leyland backed racing team headed by famous driver Bob Tullius, that found great success racing Jaguar XJS’s and TR8’s. In fact, Group 44 won the SCCA Trans-Am Championship in 1977 and 1978 and took first place in the SCCA Manufacturers Championship in 1978 as well.
John was brought on to do fiberglass hoods, trunk lids, and flares. He recounts those years with fondness, and said, “It was the most professional organization I’ve ever worked with before or since, and a great learning experience.”
After wrapping his tenure with Group 44 in 1980, John had stints at a Saab dealership, teaching high school auto body, owned body shops with business partners, and eventually opened up JBL Specialties as a sole proprietor. He’s always been into Corvettes and has owned more than 100 of them. Now he says he only chooses only projects that are interesting to him.
Enter veteran Mark Garrell, who recently returned from a tour of Iraq with the U.S. military, and called on John to breathe life into his factory original, Prince-approved, red on red ’68 roadster. What Mark brought him was a tired, old, wrung-out car that had seen a hard life on salty, East Coast roads.
John didn’t realize just how bad it really was until he got it up on the lift. “It was really worn out. The frame was broken in two, the car had rust in the windshield and metal substructures in the doors,” he said.
But that wasn’t everything. After the body was sent out for plastic media blasting, it revealed the car had been hit both front and rear and new quarter panels were in order.
Undaunted, John and his crew went to work. They replaced the windshield header and associated rust and massaged the body back into better than new with tight tolerances and laser-straight bodywork. For the finishing touch, the car was sprayed out in red Glasurit paint, of which Lyster is a big proponent.
The guys weren’t adverse to bending some rules either, so they added a lower rear valance panel and body bracing from a 1969 model as well as LED rear taillights from Zip Corvette.
What’s notable here is what they didn’t do. No scoops, spoilers, flares, or flames to detour the eye, just a super smooth canvas of classic Corvette styling. It’s almost like they sprinkled automotive MSG on the car.
Next up, how to create a state-of-the-art foundation for the refurbished body. John was up to speed here because he’d been following the restomod movement as it gathered steam over the years. He went to local car shows and events and studied all the different aftermarket Corvette frame designs that had hit the market.
John aggregated the best practices of the current crop of builders and went to work. From an original C2 Corvette frame, he built jigs that “would pick up suspension points and engine and body mounts.” He bought a tube bender and began building his own frames.
For Mark’s car, John built a chassis employing two-inch tubing with three rails per side, adding C4 suspension, brakes, and steering. Other bits include a Wilwood master cylinder for the manual brakes and Bilstein shocks to handle the bumpy bits. A sharp eye will notice they’re mounted upside down to reduce unsprung weight.
Lyster had a specialty shop bend the exhaust system, though he says he doesn’t particularly like the sound of the setup. When we asked if they were too loud, John said, “No, not loud enough …” Fair enough, but we think Mark’s neighbors are probably grateful for it.
After the rock solid foundation was built and ready to roll, John turned his attention to picking a potent powerplant for the car. Along with ample performance, John wanted bulletproof mechanicals that could be easily serviced anywhere in the country. The idea was to build a car that wasn’t a trailer queen or shrinking violet, but one that could be driven and enjoyed.
John and his crew installed a warmed-up 525 horsepower LS3 V8 From Chevrolet Performance and a front accessory drive, wiring harness, and ECU from Jegs Racing. John mounted the ECU in the engine compartment behind the passenger side of the instrument panel, even though John said “there’s almost zero room there, but we made it work.” It’s estimated it weighs in at around 2600 lbs. and according to Lyster, “It goes like hell.”
John kept the four-speed manual transmission that originally came with the car, used a 621 bell housing and adaptor plate, and mated it to the LS3.
John and Garrell went with 17-inch TorqueThrust “M” wheels wrapped in BF Goodrich tires from the Tirerack, 9 1/2 inches up front and 10 1/2 inches out back, adding the only non-stock touch to the exterior. In fact, the wheels exactly match 1992 Corvette OEM specs.
Take a good gander at the engine compartment. Look carefully and you’ll notice the super clean install but may not realize why it appears so neat and tidy. Give up? The vacuum actuated headlights and all the attendant plumbing and actuators have been ditched and retrofitted with electronic units from a Ford Probe.
Same thing with the windshield wiper door. John custom-built brackets and a linear actuator and then had an electronics wiz make a box that would stagger the closing, giving just enough time for the windshield wipers to park.
Next up was tackling the interior. The minimalist interior of the first Shark was penned to mimic the cockpit of an airplane, and the interior of Mark’s car was restored to mirror that intention. Low-back seats, Comfortweave fabric, no map pockets, and 1968 exclusive door panels — all meticulously fitted together by JBL. John said they “Sandblasted the seat frames and took them up to Al Knoch to install new foam and seat covers.” Knoch also installed the convertible top as well.
Here at Corvette Online we’re huge fans of the C3 and request that anyone taking on a 1968-1982 project to carefully study this car. We say to each his own, and do what thou wilt with your own car, but we think this Lyster/Garrell 1968 roadster is the current benchmark for the C3 Corvette restomod movement.
Who’d a thunk that employing taste and restraint would create a stunningly beautiful and outrageous Corvette? Kudos to John Lyster, JBL Specialties and Mark Garrell.