Robert Paglia of Freehold, New Jersey, remembers the stories his father told him while growing up in the suburbs. “He was a hot rodder and a street mechanic that had a ‘badass’ reputation, and he drag raced on the street back in the days when that’s what most car guys did for fun,” says Robert. It was these accounts of his dad’s life as a street racer that lit a fire in young Robert’s heart, and helped make him an active participant in the collector car hobby.
Since the time he could sit him up in the engine bay, Robert’s been helping his dad out in the garage. And following in Sr.’s footsteps, Robert was quick out of the gate, purchasing his first ride when he was only 10 years old. It was a 1972 Vega, and he financed it solely with his own communion money. Right away the twosome started to modify the Chevy compact, putting in a trick small-block Chevy and adding a nice shine to the street ride. His mom drove the hot compact until he turned 14; and then suddenly something else caught his eye. It was a 1967 Firebird 400 convertible, which soon became his next possession. The teenager worked on the Pontiac pony steadily over the next months until he earned his driver’s license and was able to put it on the street himself. Not a bad way to get introduced to the freedom a hot ride and some open road can give you.
Soon, Robert started to key in on Corvettes. Out of all the cars his dad built over the years, none were more “mind blowing” to him than his dad’s 1957 Vette, aptly named the Little Black Coffin. Though Robert never got to see it in person (it was sold off to fund his parent’s engagement party), his dad’s stories and photos of the Corvette left a lasting impression on young Robert. The narratives of how the Coffin dominated the local street racing scene with its tricked out 409ci and 4.88 gears kept the young hot rodder’s mind pointed toward Chevy’s plastic sports car, and veered him toward a life of Corvette nirvana of the highest level.
Over the following years Robert himself built numerous award-winning Vettes. And he knew that one-day, when the time was right, he was going to build his own ultimate dream ride: a C1 with a potent, modern Chevy drivetrain under the hood. But he took his time, knowing well that you just don’t customize a perfectly good original. He would wait and take his time looking for a needy ride to tear down and put his personal touches on.
A few years back, Robert came across a want ad automotive publication while hunting for a cooking magazine for his wife. While thumbing through the classified, he found an ad for a project 1956 listed for a very reasonable price. He contacted the seller to find that it had been sold but not picked up. Robert asked to be contacted if the deal was not consummated. The seller agreed.
A few weeks later he got the call he was hoping for. The deal fell apart. The car was his for the taking. Only problem was that it was 1,100 miles away in Iowa. Well, for some people that would be a hurdle, but Robert took it in stride and set out to the heartland to pick up his new project. And what a project it would become!
The last owner was partway into a restoration of sorts of the 1956. He was trying to keep the car OEM stock but had a non-matching 265 engine under the hood. The man finally just lost interest in the project and went in a totally different direction. This was the project ride that Robert had been searching for. So, along with the chassis and body, Robert inherited plenty of boxes of parts that were original to the red exterior/red gut car.
So Robert set forth to the build the Corvette he always wanted. Not only was the goal to build a high-horsepower C1 Vette with all the go-fast goodies encased in a vintage package, but most importantly it was to be an adventure with his dad. And not only did he want to build a ride in the style of his pop’s killer old-school hot rod Little Black Coffin, but he wanted to make a step above that: better, stronger, faster than the Coffin. With his dad by his side he knew he could achieve his goals. He just needed a game plan.
He thought about first making a visual clone of his dad’s main squeeze, but hacking up a low production, vintage car to replicate his dad’s hot rod was out of the question. So he drew up a recipe for the ultimate Corvette in his eyes; one that not only kept the vintage styling and overall appearance of the original design, but also a ride with performance to spare. With that thought the build commenced.
Robert’s cousin Henry is a big LS guy and he touted the use of using that series engine in the 1956. So he chose one of the baddest Corvette engines ever built: the LS7. Sure, he could have gone with the more potent LS9, but hacking the car up to fit the bulky engine wasn’t a thought he would ever entertain. He figured with a nice tune, and with no cats out back, the powerplant could achieve his horsepower goals, be environmentally friendly and keep the stock look of the 1956.
Robert further solidified his goal of keeping the Corvette as stock appearing as possible by reusing the original issue full X-frame as the backbone of the build. This would turn out to be no easy task as at the time, as he could find no information on how to stuff an LS7 into the stock C1 frame and body. So young Robert was on his own with his custom drivetrain, and well, he was up for the challenge ahead of him.
So Robert grabbed up a brand-new LS7 from Street and Performance out of Mena, Arkansas, and got to work. He first had to mock up engine mounts for the crate engine. The original 265 that came in this 1956 had an engine mount at the water pump, which of course, was of no use here. Once a dummy block was mounted up and the correct configuration was calculated, a pair of small-block mounts were installed. It’s the only modification that was made to the frame and one that could be easily reversed. He then purchased an LS-to-small-block conversion mount to finish off the correct fitment. To shift this bruiser of a Bow Tie, a TREMEC TKO five-speed with a hydraulic clutch was installed to handle the duties.
With all that power headed out back, Robert realized he’d have to make a lot of changes to the Vette to make it drive and handle like he wanted. First off, he bolted in a Jim Meyer rack-and-pinion front end. QA1 adjustable shocks handle the suspension duties up front. Robert built up a bulletproof Dana 60 limited-slip rear to handle the power this ride was going to make. Bilstein shocks and original style performance leaf springs handle the ride out back. For stopping power there are modern Wilwood two-piston power disc brakes at all four corners. Custom brackets were made out of box steel to help the stock emergency brakes work with the new setup.
Since tubbing this iconic Vette was never an option in Robert’s eyes, he added some necessities to better grip the road. First off, a set of classic 17x7 Cragar SS rims shod in sticky Michelin Pro Super Sport tires, 205/45R17 up front and 225/45R17 out back, were installed at the corners. Next, a set of old-school CalTracs bars were mounted up to help the rear meats grab the road and put the ample power pushed by this drivetrain to the pavement.
To get rid of the spent gasses, custom headers were designed and built by Robert and his dad. A series of bent tubes were tack welded in place, in a unique design to traverse the body and frame. The finished goods were ceramic coated inside and out for looks and heat reduction. These lead into a MagnaFlow stainless H-pipe and mufflers. Lastly, all this tonal goodness is sent out back through a quartet of custom pipes and tips, exiting the car just under the bumper.
To keep the engine cool even on the hottest Jersey summer days, a Griffin radiator handles the chores, aided by an electric fan. Robert also installed a conversion kit to run the wipers from inside the kick panels, eliminating the original piano string style pulley system.
As far as the interior goes, Robert loved the look of the stock components so he did his best to keep it looking as original as possible to the casual observer. However, some subtle changes were done. The interior has the look and feel of the original with modern Auto Meter gauges that look nearly identical to the OEM set. Another “under the radar” change was to the seats. “I did exchange my seat frames for a 1958 because they sit a little lower for more head clearance. The Waffle seats are cool and stand out cause the pattern wasn’t used very long, which makes it so unique,” says Robert.
An interesting upgrade was adding an ididit steering column, which was topped off with a period correct wheel. Underneath the carpet is Dynamat to keep the interior cool and the noise levels low. To keep himself and his passengers safe, a set of shoulder harnesses were installed, all put together with custom brackets made in house.
Paint on this here 1956 is Venetian Red. Robert wanted to break up all that crimson on this ride so he added white coves on the exterior and the same hue on the dash in the cockpit. Robert also found that some new repro parts didn’t fit well to the stock body so adjustments had to be made. Also, some parts like the bumpers are not re-popped so finding a set became a chore. In those boxes of parts, he soon realized there were a few key pieces missing. But the duo forged on, sourcing OEM parts and restoring every nut and bolt on this killer Corvette.
After two years of long nights and hundreds of hours in the garage, the car emerged as a stunning example of a blend of old and new school. “The whole idea from the start was to make an incredibly fast car that would be reliable and maintain the original look of the iconic design,” states Robert. “The car literally throws you back and pins you to the seat with the lightest touch of the gas,” he continues.
And, of course, it’s no trailer queen for sure; it was designed to be driven. And driven it has been. Robert’s not afraid to take it to the local cruise nights or a day trip to a major car show. And to Robert it’s worth all the effort the twosome put into it. “The time spent with my dad, cruising with family and friends, and the great conversations about her, make it all worthwhile,” Robert adds. “And now, I fulfill another dream; having my story told in Vette magazine!” Robert would like to thank all his family and friends for making this dream become a reality, and his wife, Jennifer, for her love and support during the long build.