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.”
After more discussions with Kustom Creations, Chwilka doubled down on the 25th Anniversary Vette, opting to replace the frame with an all-new one from Collier Technologies. Made of electro-polished stainless steel, this setup would ensure that rust would never again take hold. And since Chwilka was going as far as the all-new chassis, he simply wasn’t going to have the original, old-tech suspension components bolted to it. Instead, the OEM front coil springs and rear transverse leaf springs were ditched in favor of a contemporary coil-over setup at each corner. The stock recirculating-ball steering gear was also replaced with a modern rack-and-pinion system.
“It was a big commitment and an even bigger investment, but with all the work the car needed, it made sense to update it in all respects,” says Chwilka. “That discussion led straight into updating the exterior, too.” And that’s when things can get dicey when customizing a Corvette, because it’s easy to go too far and end up detracting from the car’s heritage. Chwilka and Kustom Creations did a remarkable job of crafting something totally unique, while retaining the Corvette’s character. The most dramatic styling change—and, frankly, the one that really piqued our interest in the car—is the incorporation of C6 headlamps in the front fascia.
“We talked about retaining the pop-up headlamps and upgrading them to LEDs, which steered the conversation into doing the C6 lights molded right into the body,” says Chwilka. Kustom Creations created molds of the stock C6 headlamp buckets and made fiberglass parts from them, then carefully blended them into the C3’s bodywork. It was a process that took months of painstakingly detailed work, but the result is nothing short of astounding. With the HID bulbs and complementing LED lamps, the car has a decidedly more modern presence that blends surprisingly well with the slinky curves of the C3 fenders.
The rest of the front end was revamped as well, with an aftermarket fiberglass 1980-82–style nose that was molded into the body and reworked to smooth out the license-plate area. The turn signals in the nose were also removed, as those indicators are included with the C6 lighting system. Additionally, the side marker lights were shaved and replaced with LEDs, while the rear fender flares were widened and the antenna was removed. A fiberglass 1980-82–style tail was also added and modified to accommodate a quartet of stainless exhaust outlets.
The rear fenders flares were necessary to accommodate the polished C7 Z06-style aluminum wheels, which measure 19 × 10 inches in the rear and 18 × 8.5 inches in the front, and roll on Hankook Ventus V12 Evo tires. They also contribute to the car’s cutting-edge ambiance, as does the custom Sherwin Williams tri-coat red metallic exterior color. Unfortunately, our one-dimensional photos don’t do the paint job justice. The shade shifts with the sunlight and viewing angle, taking on a nearly dark-orange hue. It’s much more dramatic in person.
Though there’s not a corner of the body that wasn’t touched in one way or another, the overall effect is commendably restrained. It still looks like a C3, but smoother and more muscular. And when it comes to backing up that stronger stance, there’s a supercharged LS2 under the hood generating 600 horsepower, effectively tripling the output of the original smog-choked small-block. To make that number, the engine wears a set of LS3 heads and an intercooled Edelbrock E-Force supercharger, and blows through a custom exhaust system. In keeping with Chwilka’s plan, it’s backed by a Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual trans. “The throttle response is remarkable, and the power delivery is something like a jet plane,” he says. “It just keeps pulling and pulling.”
Fortunately, the all-new coil-over suspension system does a great job at keeping those 600 horses connected to the pavement. “Handling and steering are as good as any late-model Corvette,” adds Chwilka. “Even with all that power on tap, I haven’t experienced any axle hop, and the car carves through corners with great confidence. It’s absolutely like having an all-new Corvette wrapped in a C3 body.”
When it comes to pulling the reins, a set of Baer brakes featuring six-piston calipers is teamed with a Hydratech brake-assist system. The latter replaces the large, vacuum-based brake booster with one that relies on hydraulic pressure from the power steering system. It’s a setup used increasingly on production vehicles and offers a number of benefits in older ones, not the least of which is underhood space. And because the boost it generates is the very opposite of vacuum, the Hydratech system offers stronger, more consistent pedal feel in all driving conditions.
The modernization theme carries over finally to the interior, which also borrows from the C6 for its instrument panel, steering column and console. Chwilka admits that adapting the late-model dashboard was probably the biggest challenge of the six-year-long project. Besides narrowing and trimming the edges of the instrument panel to fit the contours of the C3’s front-of-dash area, Kustom Creations spent countless hours wiring up the instruments and accessories. “It was months of work,” Chwilka says. “The C6 dash was probably in and out of the car 50 or 60 times until it was right, and there were a million details such as getting all the dash lights to work as they should. Even the defroster vents had to be reworked. They did a great job.”
It all looks remarkably seamless, with the shifter rising perfectly out of the C6 console, while a set of Auto Meter gauges replaces the original instruments in the C6 cluster. There are no airbags in this C3, so the C6 steering wheel was replaced with a suede-wrapped, flat-bottom wheel from Grant, while the original tilt-telescoping features are retained. A roll bar and a set of leather-trimmed Corbeau racing seats with Sparco harnesses round out the contemporized cabin.
This is one of those instances in which we’ve only been able to cover the highlights of a car’s reincarnation, focusing on the overall forest of accomplishment rather than the individual trees composing its endless custom touches. More than that, it elevates the long tradition of Corvette customizing by melding modern brand elements while retaining the classic profile of the original model. Such a feat has always been a fine line to walk—or a fine body line to modify—and Matt Chwilka’s ’78 succeeds like few others. Any customizer worth his fiberglass resin would surely agree.