Corvettes have been customized since the very first models rolled out of the factory in June 1953. The personal nature of the car and the plasticity of its fiberglass body mixed like the epoxy many would-be Ed Roths used to flare the fenders on their C3 or add an extra pair of taillights to their C2.
But while customization is a tradition spanning the Corvette’s entire 65-year life span, the pursuit has always been something of a tightrope walk, balancing creativity with style. In the early years, when C1, C2 and C3 models were little more than used cars, outlandishly modified Corvettes were artistic centerpieces of the show-car circuit, while the previously mentioned flares and other bespoke touches were commonplace on street cars. It was self expression delivered with a chopper gun and resin.
The reverence for vintage Corvettes today, particularly those that have survived largely untouched for the past four, five or six decades, adds a tinge of controversy to the prospect of cutting into one. Fortunately for those with a yen for personalization, there are still plenty of previously modified cars and lower-range, non-original models to use as fiberglass canvases. And let’s be honest: Is anyone going to shed a tear for a well-used, late-C3 Vette that veers down the customization path rather than the restoration route?
That was pretty much the case with Matt Chwilka’s 1978 Corvette. A longtime fan of the C3’s flowing lines, he had his eye out for one when this car, which belonged to a family friend, became available. Chwilka quickly struck a deal for it, and while he didn’t necessarily regret the purchase later, the car didn’t exactly live up to his expectations initially. “It ended up being in rougher shape than I thought, but I was happy to have a classic Corvette,” he says. “I drove it as much as I could, but I kept having issues with the car. It wouldn’t start sometimes, and there was always a new fluid leak to contend with.”
Faced with a “fish or cut bait” scenario, Chwilka headed for deeper waters with the intention of simply enhancing the reliability and drivability of the car. The plan involved ditching the lackluster L-82 350 engine and four-speed manual transmission in favor of an electronically fuel-injected mill backed by a modern six-speed gearbox.
With a plan established, the car was sent off to Kustom Creations, in Sterling Heights, Michigan—a shop that not only builds hot rods and show cars, but also movie cars for films such as Transformers 5—for the powertrain swap. The project didn’t get very far before the shop called with big, expensive news: the frame had a terminal case of Rustbeltitus. It’s a condition that often goes long undiagnosed in Corvettes of the Midwest and East Coast, thanks to the comparatively healthy appearance of the corrosion-defying bodywork that covers it. “It was a real kick in the gut,” says Chwilka. “It was another big decision on whether to continue with the Corvette, but the solution would take the project to an entirely new level.”