Sometimes the most basic gesture can maintain a hold on you from childhood. In the case of Joe Palka of Flemington, New Jersey, it was the simplest of all gifts, a Corgi die-cast 1963 split-window Corvette that was given to him by his dad. The car possessed all of the finest design elements he had ever seen and to his young mind this was a building block for his future. Growing up in the quaint little town of Martinsville, the youngster earned his first set of real wheels at age 5 when he was surprised with a go-kart. The kart not only raised his adrenalin levels but also got him involved in understanding the mechanics of a piston-driven engine. He later progressed to mini bikes and dirt bikes to fuel his passion. It wasn’t long after that he became a regular helper in the home garage working on the family’s daily drivers, raising his mechanical aptitude with every job completed.
As the years passed, it wasn’t long till he earned his first real ride at age 16, a hand-me-down 1966 Plymouth Valiant coupe that he wasted no time in hopping-up to squeeze every cubic-inch of power out of it. At the same time he and his pals began to frequent Flemington Speedway to catch the Dirt Modified races as well as hang out at Englishtown (Old Bridge) Raceway Park watching the likes of Jungle Jim and the Ramchargers burn nitro as they tore down the track at full-tilt. Englishtown was also the place where he would run the Valiant down the track on a regular basis. The ’70’s scene was happening with an endless stream of steroid-infused muscle cars dominating the main strip which Palka experienced firsthand, especially since he pumped gas at the local service station till he was in college. A stream of Mopar muscle cars made their way through his shop, including a pair of Dusters and a 1970 Challenger R/T, but somehow something was still missing.
Having wanted a C2 Corvette since he was a youngster, it was finally time to begin a search for just the right car. The original intent was to purchase a driver-level car and after using it for a short time, make a decision to either restore or modify it in its next iteration. His extensive online search led him to what appeared initially to be a decent 1965 model located in Virginia. The car had gone through its second restoration in the ’90s and seemed to be complete with a non–numbers-matching 327ci V-8 linked to a Muncie four-speed with the body sprayed in Goldwood Yellow. A deal was made and the car was transported to New Jersey. Palka registered and began driving it regularly, noticing early on that something just wasn’t right about the car. Research proved that there was a weak frame under it, which attributed to both sloppy handling and body shift. It appeared that at some point the car was crashed along with its engine being blown before being laid to rest, awaiting the second, now confirmed amateur restoration. A decision had to be made if he was going to formally restore the car with a new stock chassis or up the ante and with a new-generation spine and a hot, injected small-block.
Palka had visited a number of national events, studying restomod styling to determine what elements he would infuse into his new build. Once he had all of the ideas in place he met with Brian Semancik of Speedo’s Paint & Body in Staatsburg, New York, who he had worked extensively with before on the restoration of his Challenger. The pair shared a common thread of just how the car should look and handle, and without wasting any time got started on a full teardown. Palka, being a hands-on owner, started spinning wrenches with his son Joseph till the car was picked down to bare bones, exposing many of its faults. They determined what would be salvageable and delivered the pile to Semancik to get started.
For a rock-solid base to give the car razor sharp handling, a call was made to Street Shop, Inc. in Athens, Alabama, to fabricate one of their custom C2 replacement chassis featuring mandrel formed framerails constructed from 4x2-inch, 0.120-inch wall steel tubing. The chassis is designed to bolt directly to the C2 body without any modifications, is lighter than stock and resists flexing or twisting. Out back, the upgraded C4 IRS includes a Super Duty Dana 44 rear filled with 3.50 gears linking to heavy-duty 3.5-inch axles combined with Street Shop’s custom billet aluminum rear web and control arms. It’s deftly matched to a pair of QA1 single-adjustable coilover shocks, capped with Hyperco springs and a Street Shop offset sway bar. Up front, a refreshed C4 suspension features a Street Shop antiroll bar and QA1 single-adjustable coilover shocks wearing Hyperco springs. If you’re going to hustle speed you’d better be ready to stop on a dime. A Wilwood dual master with a Hydratech braking system pushes fluid through stainless lines to 13-inch C6 Corvette Grand Sport cross-drilled rotors at each corner with four-piston Wilwood calipers out back and six-piston models up front. Bringing it to the pavement, a set of custom-made HRBB model HR-99 wheels sized 17x7 front and 18x9 rear wear Bridgestone Potenza RE760 Sport ultra-high performance, low-profile radials.
Seeing the car was going to see plenty of duty on the street, Palka looked at all the options available for small-block offerings. The V-8 would need to have seamless power coupled with plenty of torque and flawless dependability. The path led him to Chevrolet Performance for one of its scorching hot LS376 crate engines. Filled with all the right bits out of the box, it features a cast-aluminum block with six-bolt, cross-bolted main caps filled with a nodular iron crank linked to powdered metal rods wearing hypereutectic aluminum pistons. Thump comes from the race-inspired LS “Hot Cam” with plenty of power generated from a pair of rectangular-port L92-style aluminum heads, topped by a well-balanced factory EFI system. Semancik and Palka then got busy detailing under the hood with a number of tricks, including a modified Spectre Performance air intake system, custom designed engine cover and sheetmetal inner fender covers. Spent gasses dump through Street Shop headers connected to Allen’s Stainless Exhaust side pipes. A Tremec TKO 600 trans packs Science Friction clutch parts from American Powertrain linked to a seamless driveshaft to move the goods. The engine dynoed at a stout 484.2 hp to the rear wheels at 6,000 rpm.
When it came time to addressing the body, it was stripped and then research determined the car was originally delivered in New York, thus confirming why the birdcage was rusty and one of the worst parts of the car. Oh, it was also riddled with sheetmetal, pop rivets and plastic filler. In fact, Palka would get shocked regularly when driving the car in the rain whenever he used the horn, not something you want to make a habit of! This is where Semancik flexed his creative talents, making all the required repairs to bring the tired body back to life. A 1965 big-block hood from Sermersheim’s was added to the mix along with LED halo headlights from Octane. The body was then gapped and blocked to perfection to prepare it for paint. This is where Palka went deep searching for a dramatic hue lending to the car’s name of Shadowfax, the mystical horse owned by Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings books. He settled on a PPG vibe called Palladium Silver, which offered perfect color variations reflecting on the character. Semancik filled his spray gun and laid down a lustrous coating, bringing the project to life, accented by custom stripes inspired by the C2s of Harley Earl and Bunkie Knudsen.
In completing the build, the interior had to possess plenty of details, as did the rest of the car. To add comfort and style, 1994 Dodge Stealth seats were selected and delivered to Gillin Custom Design in Middletown, New York, to rework and cover in Smoke Grey leather. They also wrapped the stock dash, fabricated a custom console along with door and kick panels. The floors were then accented in complementing square weave carpet. To monitor the vitals, the dash was packed with custom-faced All American Nickel gauges from Classic Instruments, accented by carbon-fiber inserts from D.B. Graphics. A Momo Millennium steering wheel plots the course while tunes from an Antique Automobile Radio kick through Kenwood speakers via a Rockford Fosgate amp and subwoofer, also installed by Gillin. Cool breezes move through a Classic Auto Air system when the Gillin custom convertible top is up. Wiring by Semancik completes the job. This is one bitchin C2 that sounds wicked and has plenty of bite as it sears across the asphalt.