Nostalgia can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we reminisce about the good times gone by, wistfully noting how, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing — at least when it comes to C1 Corvettes. After all, their live axle suspension and drum brakes were barely adequate, and clearly antiquated by today’s standards.
So the driving experience can be described as unnerving at best, and the performance-oriented cerametallic brakes in the heavy-duty package tended to pull the car to the side until they warmed up. Corvettes delivered with this package even had a sticker on the windshield that warned, “This car is not for street use.”
Yet that didn’t stop Roy French from trying to revisit his salad days. “Old cars, especially those from the ’50s and early ’60s have long held a fascination for me,” he notes, while admitting to that all-too-human tendency toward nostalgic reflection: “No doubt a consequence of the ‘cars of your youth syndrome.’”
After all, who wouldn’t like to be young again, turning back the clock to when Elvis was still a fresh-faced, rising star? For French, that meant tracking down and restoring a 1958 Corvette. But rather than merely reliving history, he would eventually rewrite it, too.
Looking back on this idyllic era of the C1, “My ‘58 was originally built several years before I reached driving age,” he recalls. “ Nonetheless, the ’58 to ’60-style, first-generation Corvettes were still very much dream cars at the time I pocketed my first drivers license. Having been raised on a farm near a very small Missouri town, the chances of actually seeing a Corvette were pretty much zero. That, however, did not prevent me and my contemporaries from lusting over magazine photos of it.”
Remembering those youthful yearnings, and imagining how life could have been different, is a familiar tale. How many times have you wondered how your life would have turned out if you had taken a different path, the “road less traveled” as the poet Robert Frost once mused. The thing is, French figured out a way to do it with this ’58 Corvette, and at full throttle! That’s because it’s not only a time machine, but also a game-changer, thanks to some innovative engineering from Newman Car Creations. Before digging into the performance details, though, we should take a look at what led up to this reworking of a classic Corvette.
Prior to this ’58 project, French attended a lot of old car auctions, and developed an admiration for ’50s-era Ford Thunderbirds (recall that T-birds were Ford’s response to GM’s groundbreaking Corvette design, so the two are historically linked by this initial rivalry). French ended up buying a yellow ’56, but taking that particular trip down Memory Lane proved to be a bumpy ride and ultimately unsatisfying.
“I bought and enjoyed the styling of that car for a couple of years,” he relates. “Driving it, however, provided me less enjoyment than I had expected” (no surprise here), “Having grown accustomed to modern cars, I had underestimated the advances in drivetrains, suspensions, and fit/finish that had accumulated over the last four to five decades. So, I sold the yellow T-Bird to a good friend who put it in his own private museum. It was a perfect restoration, and I was very pleased that it had found a good home.”
Wiser for the experience, French charted a different course, following his fascination with early Corvettes. While the ’57 model is generally valued more by collectors, he kept to his own preferences, despite their criticisms of certain styling elements of the ‘58 model.
“The styling of the 1958 Corvette had always appealed to me. The fake vented hood and trunk spears that so many purists found unappealing, appealed to me a great deal. To me, chrome and a little ‘foo foo’ was iconic of the period.”
Trouble is, when you take a closer look, you realize that doing things the old-fashioned way just doesn’t cut it anymore. Which led to French’s epiphany on what he really had in mind: “The bottom line was that I wanted ’50s charm, but with real drivability. When rounding a corner I didn’t want to experience the ‘lean’ typical of cars from that time. Nor did I ever want to sit in traffic and worry about an overheating engine.”
Makes perfect sense to us — unless you plan just to sip wine over a “trailer queen” classic. Last we heard, cars are meant to be driven, not merely looked at like a pretty vase of flowers. So when French came across an article about how Paul Newman (not the actor) of Newman Car Creations was putting a modern Corvette suspension and drivetrain in a C1, he sat up and took notice. After making the call to Newman, the wheels in his head really began to spin. Only one simple thing was missing: a car.
Newman recommended contacting Joe Calcagno at R.A.R.E. Corvettes in Soquel, California. He specializes in C1 Vettes, many of which are project cars. After some discussion, Calcagno and French made a deal on a project car in November 2005. Based on his research, French shares a few pointers about doing a restomod.
“When launching a Vette modernization project, you certainly don’t want to pay for a numbers-matching car,” French advises. “It is best if the car is lacking an engine and transmission.” The car he bought from R.A.R.E. Corvettes had neither. That way, he wasn’t ruining a vehicle with some inherent value. Although the body was in pretty good condition, he did have to replace the front clip with a reproduction piece. But most of the exterior chrome and interior hard trim was intact.
French found that there’s a waiting list for this sort of project (again, no surprise to us here), so it was several months later before his slot opened up at Car Creations and the modernization could begin. Once Newman got busy, though, the suspension and the drivetrain was completed in about a month.
During that time, Newman modified the original by slicing off the front suspension and carefully integrating in a new C4 (’85 to ’87) setup, including the brakes. The steering is a power rack and pinion, but actuated by the original ’58 column on French’s car. Newman also welded mounts for a C4 rear suspension and differential, adding a torque arm, secured to the differential’s “batwings.”
As Newman points out, “This arrangement minimizes wheel hop under hard acceleration, and is a real important part of system due to switching to the independent rear suspension” He adds that C5 and C6 parts don’t fit, since they’re too wide, and if cut up, require too much modification, and don’t work as designed.
In response to increasing demand for this upgraded suspension, Newman now makes a completely new frame designed to handle the higher torque loads of LS engines. The steel is thicker and taller on his box frame, and X-member relocated for access to a six-speed tranny. A pricey but popular option is carbon fiber axles and driveshaft, which are much stronger and lighter than aluminum.
Speaking of weight, it’s actually slightly less than the 3,000-plus pounds of the original ’58, but it has far more stuff packed into it. With these sorts of upgrades in place, a much stronger powerplant could be put in place. French opted for the 6.0-liter LS2, backed by a 4L65 transmisson and a Dana 44 differential, rebuilt with a 3.45:1 ratio. Delivering around 400 horses, (compared with 270 to 290 hp max previously, in the high-compression version with the Duntov camshaft and fuel injection — and those figures were measured with a different method back then), that’s more than a 30 percent gain!
Looking at it another way, the original’s weight-to-power ratio was around a lumbering 10:1 at best, while this restomod achieves much friskier 7.4:1. Sounds like a whole lot more fun, doesn’t it? (and certainly more in keeping with the performance of later-model Corvettes).
But engineering alone doesn’t make a cool Corvette. For the finishing touches, French went to GTS Customs in Simi Valley, California. Greg Thurman and his GTS team specialize in C1 and C2 restorations, especially those that have benefited from modernization.
“In my opinion, nobody is better at taking fiberglass, chrome and paint to show quality,” French says. Looking at the completed car, we’re yet again not surprised by this comment.
He shipped the car to Thurman in May, beginning thorough restoration that would ultimately take a couple years. Why so long? “What I asked GTS to do was different than their usual modernization customer,” French explains. “I wanted a modern driving experience, but I wanted the car’s appearance to remain very original.” Newman recalls how meticulous French is in this regard, a dramatic counterpoint to the approach of some restomod builders.
That meant accommodating original-style 15-inch wheels and wheel covers. Note that many Corvette modernization projects use modern alloy wheels, but for French, “Modern wheels significantly decrease the iconic ’50s look.”
So, he went to the extra effort and expense to have 15-inch rims made by Wheelsmith in an eight-inch width, as the original rims were only five inches wide. In order for a 15-inch rim to clear C4 brakes, the company uses a Camaro rim with a shape that doesn’t drop down as much. This custom rolling stock allowed him to use original wheel covers, along with wide whitewall tires. The WWW Diamond Back rubber measures 255/60R15.
In keeping with this theme, GTS began developing a list of components needed to bridge the worlds between modern mechanicals and original appearance. For example, the shifter linkage had to be fabricated for hooking up the 4L65E to the original shifter position, and with original trim (but a new gear pattern, of course). Gauges were recalibrated for the LS2 as well, and the clock upgraded to a quartz unit (as a side note, that change wouldn’t come from the factory until 1981, along with computer controls for the fuel system).
Also, the crew at GTS designed a hidden mechanism that swings from under the dash to reveal satellite radio and iPod controls. Other electronics include a keyless entry and phone/Bluetooth operating through the sound system. The speaker screen and bezel have an early Corvette style as well, and the dash and kick panels carefully conceal additional speakers.
Many other components were crafted to aid in retaining the original appearance, such as a leather interior with a ’58 stitch pattern that really looks like the authentic item, only newer (even the visors have the same leather covering). The steering wheel is a 15½-inch custom piece. To match the brilliant crimson interior and Daytona-style carpeting, the generously applied paint is two-stage Signet Red, accented by a Snowcrest White in the cove.
By the time all this detail work was done, French’s right foot was getting real itchy. What’s it like to stomp on the loud pedal? “An absolute pleasure,” he enthuses. “Whether cruising or stretching the Vette’s legs, it drives straight and true. Body sway simply does not exist.”
The LS2, coupled with eight-inch tread, provides exhilarating acceleration. And since the 4L65E divides up the powerband with overdrive, at 70 mph the tach shows only 2,400 rpm. No buzzy low gearing to drive you batty, so the drivability in general is far better.
“I never worry about overheating, or whether my car will start,” French adds. “Twisting the key ignites a wonderful exhaust tone, and Elvis begins to immediately belt out a golden oldie.” And that sums up the whole approach here. French has put a new twist on an old favorite.