Deadly Nightshade

Though influenced by racing, this 1958 Corvette is perfectly at home on the open road

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March 13, 2015

For a guy who had never owned a Corvette before, Brian Lamb of Houston, Texas, had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted from his custom C1.

First, he wanted an exterior that evoked the clean, stripped-down appearance of 1960s road racers. But he wanted more than just a speedy look. “I wanted a road-race-type ‘3g’ car—[capable of] a g of acceleration, a g of cornering, a g of stopping,” he says.

Oh, and he also wanted to be able to drive it every day.

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It was a tall order, but thanks to today’s extensive aftermarket support and a capable shop, he now has precisely that combination of virtues in his flat-black ’58 roadster.

Meeting all those objectives required radical surgery—in this case marrying an Art Morrison Enterprises GT Sport chassis to a heavily modified 1958 body, along with all the electronic comforts you’d expect in a new Corvette. Sounds straightforward enough, but it’s the details that always grind the proverbial gears in a project like this.

“Just about every part on the car has been modified, or the color has been changed,” says Jeff Snyder, owner of Jeff’s Resurrections in Taylor, Texas, where the ’58 came to life. “Virtually nothing was taken straight out of the box and put on. It’s been altered in one way or another, either out of necessity or a desire to stay within the theme of the cosmetics.”

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The project originally started at another shop, and when it arrived at Jeff’s Resurrections it was essentially a rolling chassis with just a few custom pieces completed.

“It was set up and mocked up, but it needed some final welding, and then to be blown apart and painted,” Snyder says.

The Art Morrison chassis was designed to deliver modern handling beneath the classic shape of the C1. It combines C6 suspension elements with a Strange rear end and Wilwood disc brakes, a far cry from the leaf springs and drums of the original.

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The chassis is also tailor made for installing a late-model powertrain. Lamb opted for a 7.0-liter LS7 crate engine with a “Stage II” cam, supplied by Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center. In keeping with the ’60s theme, the headers were given a white high-heat coating by KG Industries in Taylor, Texas. The pipes feed a custom 2.5-inch exhaust that exits via oval tips peeking through the rear bumper.

Thus configured, the 427-cube V-8 kicks out 513 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels. It’s backed up by a six-speed Tremec manual transmission, commanded by a shifter from a Ford Mustang application.

All those pre-engineered parts delivered a great foundation to build upon, but there were no such shortcuts available when it came to the body. Lamb had acquired the ’58 from Guam, enduring the multiple hassles of dealing with customs, shipping the car across the Pacific and transporting it from California to Texas.

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“It was in bad shape; I basically bought it to be redone,” he says. “In hindsight, I should probably have bought a car that was straighter.”

From a purist’s standpoint, there wasn’t much left to salvage. “It was like a sponge: it was so dry and brittle, you couldn’t tell the primer and paint from the fiberglass,” says Snyder. “It was all just melding together.”

Fortunately, there was never any intent to keep the body in stock form. Instead, the plan called for fitting fat tires appropriate for the power and handling goals, while also preserving enough room to keep the factory-style top. For those reasons, the only choice was to widen the body. “Narrowing the rear end and widening the inner fenders wasn’t an option. It had to go out,” Snyder says.

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“I wanted the look of the roadster, but I wanted to have a functional top too, because you just never know,” Lamb says. “In Houston I can go up to Memorial Park for a run, and by the time I’m [heading] back to the car, we’re getting a downpour.”

It’s a testament to the craftsmanship involved that the body was widened to such an extent, yet the first impression is still “stock.”

“The back…bodywork is widened nearly 11 inches—about four-and-a-half to five inches per side,” Snyder says. “In the front, [it’s] probably four to five inches.”

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To get there, the body crew crafted foam and wood bucks that were used to make the outside molds for the new fenders. “We took it over to a guy who builds fiberglass airplane parts, and he vacuum bagged the fenders. So they’re not just hand-laid,” Snyder says. That vacuum bagging process made the fiberglass thinner, stronger and denser.

The widening work wasn’t restricted to just the fenders, of course. Stretch one part, and the others have to follow. “Because of the modifications to the body, the bumpers had to be cut and sectioned, since they had to be wider in some areas and narrower in others,” Snyder says.

Even the non-custom pieces didn’t exactly go together easily. Due to the deterioration of the original windshield frame, a new one had to be cobbled together from three partial frames the shop acquired.

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Other alterations were made to maintain the clean look envisioned by Lamb. The ’58 hood and decklid, with their louvers and chrome strips, were replaced with the unadorned ’59-style pieces. While the inner fenders and firewall are factory pieces, Snyder notes that they were extensively smoothed prior to installation.

Even the front and rear Corvette emblems were taken apart, with the backing plates painted black to maintain the theme. (The ’58 crossed-flags emblems on the sides were among the very few parts installed unmodified.) The wheels, meanwhile, are custom pieces styled similarly to the “mag” rims of the 1960s, although no vintage racer ever enjoyed the rubbery grip of the Nitto 245/45ZR18 tires used here.

Some of the modifications are more subtle. The headlamps are Canadian-spec, ’80s-vintage pieces from a Jaguar XJ sedan, while the taillights and parking lamps use LED illumination.

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Tying it all together is the DuPont Rally Black paint, a coating whose application carried its own challenges. “The trickiest thing is, that’s a finish [where] ‘what you see is what you get.’ If you get a run or dirt, you’re re-spraying the entire car,” says Snyder.

The original chrome was in such bad shape that it allowed for some creativity in its reuse, and thus it was sprayed in a DuPont Imron gloss-black hue.

Since the car was destined for road use, all of these finishes were chosen with durability in mind. The same can be said of the wool carpets, the leather surfaces on the seats and console, and the Imron paint on the chassis.

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As noted earlier, Lamb’s other priority was the inclusion of the conveniences that typically come with new cars. Some, like the Vintage Air A/C, were obvious choices, but others had to be stitched into the very fabric of the car.

For example, at the time of purchase, the Art Morrison chassis did not come with power rack-and-pinion steering (new versions do), an omission necessitating still more custom fabrication. Snyder addressed the issue by crafting a remote reservoir, along with the requisite fittings and lines.

The car’s electronics were perhaps the second-biggest hurdle, after the bodywork, not least because of Lamb’s ambitious goals. “I wanted to be able to plug my iPhone in and get music and make calls, like a daily driver,” he says.

An 8-inch Alpine screen dominates the center console, which includes a very modern GPS system as well as a display for the back-up camera. There’s also an electric parking brake, a multi-speed windshield-wiper setup, a Guard Dawg pushbutton start/keyless-entry system, and enough anti-theft gear to deter even the most dedicated malefactor.

Car Toys in Houston handled the installation of the stereo equipment and radar detector, while Larry Drozd at Jeff’s Resurrections was tasked with making the custom components fit and work in harmony. He customized kick panels and door panels that both worked with the speakers and matched the interior.

With all the wiring and electronics tucked away, the next challenge came in making the interior match the look and functionality of the rest of the car. Drozd and Snyder fabricated a center console that met all the requirements of the disparate components. Among the trick details are the billet-steel cupholders that Drozd had machined by a local shop.

Drozd also found a solution for “loosening” the C1’s tight interior. Employing a flat-bottomed Grant steering wheel eased ingress and egress, but the racing-style wheel had no provision for a horn. To address this, he retro-fitted a 1970 Corvette horn button and assembly to the car’s Flaming River steering column. Add in a pair of red-leather-covered Corbeau seats—cut down to be flush with the deck—and the presentation was complete.

It’s a slick and comfortable package, which is a good thing considering that owner Lamb wasn’t kidding about using it as a regular driver. After taking delivery of the newly completed vehicle at our photo shoot (conducted at the Driveway Austin Motorsports Track and Racing School), he drove it to College Station that night, and then on to Houston the next morning—no trailer required.

“The car really drives nice,” he says. “Maybe not quite like a newer Vette, but a lot better than an old Vette. [It’s] very fast, as well. My teenage daughter giggled the entire way to school when I drove her there.”

Appearance notwithstanding, you’re more likely to spy this Corvette in traffic or on back roads than on the grounds of any car-show field. “I’ll drive it to and from work…and run it on errands. I’ll take my wife out in the country, and we’ll have some good barbecue and a good time.”

And if they happen to pass a racetrack on the way home, well, that’s probably OK too.

Also from Issue 97

  • C7 Z06 First Drive
  • Tech: Z06 vs. Stingray
  • Buyer's Guide: C5/C6 Performers
  • 1990 ZR-1 Autocrosser
  • History: Early ME Prototypes
  • 1969 L71 Driver
  • Supercharged Callaway Stingray
  • C2 Big-Block Duo
  • Racing: Season Opener
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