Time Machine

Back in the late ’70s, Eckler’s built a small run of modified Corvettes to showcase its burgeoning parts business, including a unique hatchback design—a Corvette first.

June 15, 2012

Also from Issue 75

  • 2003 Specter Werkes/Sports
  • 1970 LS5 Convertible
  • Buyer's Guide: C6
  • 1963 Coupe
  • 1966 L72 Convertible
  • Tech: Leaf Spring
  • Racing: The Turnaround
Buy Corvette_magazine-75-cover
Time Machine 0
Time Machine 1
Time Machine 2
Time Machine 3
Time Machine 4
Time Machine 5
Time Machine 6
Time Machine 7

If you’re looking for the automotive embodiment of the 1970s, look no further than this Eckler’s CR-II. The groovy stripes, the outrageously wide bodywork, the retina-searing yellow paint—they all scream ’70s. But to see this Corvette model as merely a period piece would be to miss the important role it played in Corvette history: It featured the first Corvette hatchback design. Yes, it was built by an aftermarket tuner, but the layout was soon adopted by Chevrolet, becoming an option in 1982 and standard on all coupes beginning with the ’84 model year.

Today, Eckler’s sells aftermarket parts for a variety of different models from different manufacturers, but back in the ’70s it was all Corvettes all the time. The Titusville, Florida company’s work was also on the radar of the national motoring press. Eckler’s hatchback conversion, which became available in kit form in the summer of 1976—“After extensive research and design testing…,” according to a period catalog—was a critical success. Calling it a “knockout,” Hot Rod wrote, “Late-model Vette owners already know about the problems with Corvettes: space, of which little has been provided by Chevy engineers…the hatchback-equipped 1968-’79 Corvette becomes newly livable for a long weekend.” Autoweek described it as a “needed conversion.” And Road & Track wrote, “there has been an amazing proliferation of small cars with backs that open for loading. Well, now Corvette owners can join in the fun with a kit from Eckler’s.”

Jesus Pina wasn’t concerned with utility when he went looking for his first Corvette back in 1990; the Southern Californian simply wanted something special and out of the ordinary. Initially, he was thinking of a vintage Corvette, and had come close to buying a ’59, but the deal fell through when the car’s originality came into question. Then he found out a financial planner he worked with had a unique ’75 Corvette for sale. The car’s bright hue was the first thing to catch Pina’s eye when the seller drove it up onto his driveway. “That color! I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. The hook was set when he found out about the car’s rarity: Eckler’s Corvette Custom Designs division assembled just 15 complete, turn-key CR-IIs featuring the hatchback conversion in the late ’70s. And the car was certifiably all-original— right down to its BF Goodrich T/A tires—and had just 21,000 miles on it. With little hesitation, he bought the Corvette.

Though Pina has driven the Eckler’s CR-II sparingly over the past 22 years, adding just over 9,000 miles to the odometer’s tally, the car has been an ongoing project for him—but not in terms of mechanical work. The Corvette has required only minor repairs, and remains unrestored, though Pina has replaced the front tires and a few other items, such as the air-conditioning compressor. No, the real work has been attempting to unravel this Corvette’s history, an undertaking that has taken decades, with some chapters still remaining unwritten.

The first years of this ’75 coupe’s life are a mystery. It rolled off the St. Louis assembly line with a standard L48 165-horsepower 350 cubic-inch V8, as well as a number of factory options, including an automatic transmission, air-conditioning and an AM-FM radio. That much is known. What isn’t are the identity of the first owner and the car’s whereabouts before it arrived in Florida for its dramatic makeover. Pina contacted various departments of motor vehicles and other governmental agencies to no avail.

The car’s paper trail begins with its build sheet from Eckler’s, which states that car #C0101 (it was the first CR-II) was built on July 4, 1978 for owner John Siroonian, and goes on to list 15 features that comprised a CR-II model. Seeing as how CR stands for “Cafe Racer”—a CR-I never existed—it makes sense that the bodywork pieces were inspired by Corvette race cars. The wide-body C3s built and driven by John Greenwood were the strongest influence, with the CR-II featuring similar fender flares, rear spoiler and raised hood. The CR-II’s fixed headlights with their plexiglass covers were also racing inspired, as was its prominent gas cap.

Other than wider BF Goodrich T/A radial tires on Autocraft Engineering wheels, this particular CR-II had no performance upgrades. Some apparently did, though such mods added to the car’s already stratospheric $28,000 price tag, which was nearly three times that of a standard ’78 Corvette coupe. While the build sheet includes a description of the car’s exterior paint (Dupont Yellow Code 52) and stripes (Dupont Red Code 75, Yellow Code 67 and Orange Code 88), it does not list its Recaro seats. These fancy chairs might very well have had the final sticker knocking on the $30K door.

There are a few odd things about this build sheet, however. Given the widespread observance of the Fourth of July holiday in the U.S., that build date seems a little fishy. The same applies to the name of the stated owner. According to Pina’s research, Petersen Publications took delivery of the car before Siroonian did; it was intended for Hot Rod editor Dick Day. Chuck Hansen, owner of Coast Corvette in Anaheim, where Pina has the Corvette serviced, was the West Coast sales rep for Eckler’s at the time and remembers delivering the car to Petersen in Los Angeles. Hansen also remembers taking the car from Hod Rod’s offices and driving it to Colorado Springs for a car show; along the way, he got a speeding ticket.

As it turns out, editor Day didn’t want the CR-II, and Petersen Publishing returned it to Eckler’s—but not before putting the car on the cover of a special imprint entitled “Chevrolet: By the Editors of Hot Rod,” published in 1979. Oddly enough, there is no corresponding feature story on the CR-II in this magazine. Perhaps Day didn’t have anything nice to say about the Eckler’s creation.

The most likely explanation for this strange first-owner situation is that the car was never registered by Petersen Publishing—no such records exists—and was still owned by Eckler’s at the time, to be used for promotional purposes. That explains why it went to Colorado Springs for a car show, and why it appeared in Eckler’s catalogs on more than one occasion. Indeed, the real purpose of the CR-II model was to help promote the sale of various Eckler’s parts; it was a showcase, as well as a test bed for new designs, such as the hatchback kit.

Interestingly enough, John Siroonian had promotion in mind when he purchased the car from Eckler’s. (That build date is more likely a sales date; after all, what better way to celebrate the Declaration of Independence than buying a wildly styled, bright-yellow Corvette?) As the founder of Western Wheels, Siroonian quickly pressed his new purchase into duty. After the Autocrafts were swapped for a set of Cyclone I alloys, the car was photographed for a Western Wheels catalog.

Over the next decade, Siroonian drove the CR-II rather infrequently. He owned several other Corvettes, as well as Fords from the ’30s and a stable full of other machines. He actually lent the CR-II to Harrah’s Automobile Collection in Reno, Nevada for a spell. The person Siroonian sold it to did not own it long before selling it to Pina.

Other Corvettes have come and gone from Pina’s garage, but the CR-II has remained. He sees himself as the steward of a small part of Corvette history, especially since this may be the only CR-II still in existence. “The car is a time capsule,” says Pina. With its wide bodywork conjuring up images of Greenwood racers ripping around road courses, its color scheme seemingly inspired by a “Charlie’s Angels” episode and its hatchback signalling a turning point in Corvette design, the car does indeed take you back to the ’70s.