It’s often been said that you can’t go home again. Well, actually you can in a classic Corvette, but it might not be everything that you imagined. And even if it isn’t, you can make it better — way better.
That’s exactly the case with Hugh and Sean Cassar. Drawing from their shared, longtime fascination with collecting cars, this father-and-son duo purchased an original-spec C1 in good running condition from an auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. But they ended up taking a slight — well, actually, a substantial — detour.
“It was sort of a heat-of-the-moment thing,” son Sean admits. After getting this classic Corvette back to their garage in SoCal, they discovered what many C1 owners already know — beauty runs only skin-deep.
“When we realized that the car in its original state was a bit underwhelming to drive, I decided to do the build,” he recalls. Not just any buildup, though. This restomod would go way beyond a simple engine swap, and become a whole new creation with prodigious performance.
“The original vision was to build a ’59 ZR1, exactly 50 years from the 2009-released ZR1,” he explains. Essentially taking the pinnacle of C6 production and melding it with a first-gen Corvette. Yet Sean had an even bigger vision in mind. Building on this theme, “I also wanted to incorporate race-design features from other supercars.”
Thus the ZR59 would be eclectic in design: old Vette blended with the new ZR1 Vette, all mixed up with the technology, feel, and rumble of other exotic modern-day performers. This concept was first put to paper by designer Gary Ragle, where the roadmap to a modernized classic would become clear. The rendition was tweaked multiple times, until determining the exact combination of technology, stance, and race demeanor, without losing the original feel of one of the most desired sports cars of the ’50s.
Integrating all these elements would first require replacing the antiquated foundation. Sean personally removed the body, leaving the 283 V-8 and four-speed in the chassis, which was sold to a Corvette restorer in Europe to help defray the cost of the project a bit. He then mounted the body on an Art Morrison chassis, fitted with C6 fronts and a Currie 9-inch rearend.
To achieve a more menacing, hunkered-down stance for contemporary cornering, Air Ride ShockWave units went on both front and rear, instead of coilovers, which Art Morrison traditionally uses. “According to Art, the chassis performed equally on the track with the Air Ride compared to the coilovers,” Sean says. Brakes are Wilwood six-piston calipers in the front and four-piston in the rear.
As for the body, after fitting it onto the chassis, Sean cut out the rear to fit the future wide tires. He also had to modify the center of the car to fit the larger Tremec T-56 six-speed transmission. In addition, the lines would be streamlined, with the air diffuser given the flow of a Ford GT, among many other exotic elements.
Yet it was important not to go overboard on all the mods — “We were very careful to make sure that we did not change the look of the car to the point where it was not easy to tell what year it was,” he emphasizes. “It is definitely a 1959, and if you know the car well, you can pick out all the custom-made parts. And if you don’t know the car to that level, it should just look like a really clean ’59 Corvette.”
Replacing the old lump was a 6.2L LS9 crate engine. This supercharged small-block fit right in, but did require an Aeromotive fuel pump and several custom touches: an aluminum Griffin radiator and long-tube, mandrel-bent headers from Art Morrison, along with custom mufflers from Borla. Alan Palmer of Palmer Customs finished out the engine bay by fabbing up custom components such as a fan shroud, smoothed-out firewall, power steering reservoir, throttle body adapter, and oil/water tanks with filler necks, along with making room for a larger radiator and intercooler. He also changed the hood so it lifts in front, and lowered the center of it so the GM-sourced Lexan window would fit closer to the top of the blower case.
Once the mechanicals were finalized, the output at the wheels dyno’d at 731 hp. (That’s more than triple the power delivered by the base engine back in 1959.) Harnessing that many horses required a McLeod Racing clutch for the six-speed manual tranny, fitted with a Hurst shifter. This setup spins a custom aluminum driveshaft into the Ford 9-inch with a 4.11 ratio, HD axles, and four-link configuration.
Why such a substantial chassis? “The most important part of this build is the fact that this car was built to drive,” Sean observed during the build process. “It is not a trailer queen, and will be pushed to the limits. The car will be track driven.” (In fact, it went on to participate in the 2014 Optima Challenge in Las Vegas, where it gave a good account of itself, winning Ride Tech’s Renegade Award, and Runner-Up for the Lingenfelter Design Award, second only to a winner of the Detroit Ridler.)
Guiding the chassis is a new rack-and-pinion unit with a much quicker ratio. After all, back in the ’50s there wasn’t much sport in America’s sports car, as the factory recirculating ball steering box was vague and unresponsive, with a lethargic ratio. The steering joints and rods for the ZR59’s new system are hardly visible. “We directed them into the fender near the driver’s wheel, and then the rod comes through the inner fenderwell at the last point, before terminating into the rack-and-pinion,” Sean explains. The original drum brakes were marginally responsive as well. That’s why Wilwood stepped up with a set of six-piston calipers in the front, four-piston’s in the rear, all to put a clenching grip on 14-inch discs. (In fact, Wilwood was so impressed with the final disposition of the ZR59 project that it was displayed at its SEMA booth, where it won a GM Design Award, as well.)
Fattening up the rolling stock with Hankook rubber was clearly needed for sharp braking and cornering, as well. The Nutek three-piece rims are wrapped with 245/35R19 rubber up front and 305/25R20 out back.
All these mechanical mods demanded a corresponding level of customization on the body. Palmer fabricated and fitted an extensive array of custom exterior components: front and rear steel bumpers, cast headlight bezels, grille mesh and surrounds, fender and door moldings, inner fenderwells, and windshield trim. The latter was a particularly difficult aspect, he admits, with the frame first cut down 2 inches and laid back by trimming the corners; and then a 1x2 solid aluminum frame shaped by hand, shaved, and bent.
Other painstaking elements, more than 100 in all made by hand, included the trim for the tonneau and tops of the fenders, along with brass accents in the coving. All of the moldings on the top of the fenders, the side door trim, and the two door spears on the outside of the doors and on the interior panels (not three like the original) were handmade out of solid brass by Lil’ Louie in Rialto, California.
No area was left untouched, including upgrades such as a front air dam, side rocker panels, rear air diffuser, and multi-angled exhaust tip inspired by Lamborghini. In the rear, the first thing to catch your eye is the huge bumper that stretches across the entire back of the car, and swoops around the sides to match the front bumpers. This bumper was a lot of work, but it really made the back of the car, Sean feels. For a striking tri-tone finish, Palmer applied PPG BMW Alpine White, Flat Black, and a custom mix for the brushed aluminum finish on the trim items.
The cockpit was equally embellished by Ron Mangus Hot Rod Interiors, with remarkably modernized touches to the gauge cluster and dash, center console, and iPad enclosure (which controls the audio and nav systems, and features an electric docking port designed by Sean to allow easy removal). Speed Hut Customs designed and painted the gauges, and supplied the GPS speedometer as well. Upholstery treatments included both red and black suede leather, plus European tweed carpeting. The Isotta steering wheel rim was custom painted by Palmer and wrapped by Mangus Interiors. ARC Audio’s amps power the Kicker speakers.
While the buildup went fairly smoothly for the most part, obviously it was very labor intensive. As Sean eloquently sums up, “When a hood is built from a plan; and the bumpers are made from scratch; when the trim is hand-bent, carved, and molded from chosen metals; when wheelwells are hand-shaped; and a tonneau cover is molded to encompass the handbuilt seats; when the entire original body of the Vette has been modified, smoothed, and lines changed just enough to notice, this is what is meant by ‘one of a kind.’”
No surprise, then, that Sean has no plans whatsoever to part with the car: “I don’t want to be a person who regrets selling it. It’ll still be a unique car 20 years from now.” After all, creating the baddest, one-of-a-kind 1959 Corvette ever built takes time, determination, lots of down-and-dirty hard work — and ultimately — a singular vision.