1953 Chevrolet Corvette - Kool Kustom

Collector John Goodman Now Owns A True Piece Of Custom-Car History

Iain Ayre Apr 9, 2009 0 Comment(s)
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The customizing added drama and cleaner lines to a shape that was basically well-proportioned in the first place.

It would be unthinkable to chop and modify the only 77th straight-six '53 Corvette today, but in 1959 it was written off, valued at $75, and chopped up into a radical V-8 Kustom. Sometime between 1966 and 1989, it was stripped and dumped before being rescued and beautifully restored. The Kustom shown here has been featured in many major magazines in its time, although its biggest score was landing on the front cover of Motor Trend in 1959. Like many significant works of art, it speaks to new generations and is always worth revisiting.

The original customizer, Buster Dobbs, would probably have laughed his head off if anybody had called him a visionary automotive sculptor. It's true that he just cut up an existing crashed car and added a few bits and pieces of other cars to it, but the key point is that he added the right choice of bits in exactly the right places and transformed the '53 Corvette body styling from a mixture of slightly boring shapes and fussy detailing into a much cleaner and more dramatic look. I know I'm not supposed to say that about the treasured '53, but just look at the Kustom and a C1 side by side and tell me I'm wrong. It's a shame that General Motors didn't look at Motor Trend, track Buster down, and drag him into Chevrolet's styling department, but of course the next and much sexier generation of Corvette was well on the way by then anyway.

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These rear fins aren't quite as high or as extreme as the wild '59 Cadillacs', but they're not far off it.

The story of the Kustom Corvette begins in 1953, when Beaty Chevrolet, located in Knoxville, Tennessee, was having a hard time getting Corvettes off its forecourts, just like many other Chevrolet dealerships back in the day. Eventually one Joe Morris was offered a sweet enough deal and drove away in the white Corvette. It was probably a trade price, as Joe was a former Beaty employee and owned the Morris Pure Oil Service Station on nearby Henley Street. He must have liked the car, as he kept it and installed a 283 V-8 later in 1957. That was also when the hood got its scoop. The old Blue Flame engine was bought by Ed Cureton, who fitted a hot Howard cam, shaved the head to raise the compression to 9.5:1, and used it in his '52 Chevy race car.

In 1958, Joe traded the '53 in on a new fuel-injected Corvette, and the very same Ed Cureton bought it for $1,980. In 1959 Ed totaled the car in the wet as he "was driving careless and slid it into a wall." Corvettes are tough, but not as tough as walls-the car was written off and offered back to Ed by the insurance company for $75. He passed on it, and local body-shop owner Buster Dobbs bought it. Buster had seen another customized Corvette in Custom Cars magazine and used that as inspiration for creating his own piece of auto art.

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We don't know whether it was a happy coincidence that the right brightwork and lights were lying around Buster's workshop or whether he picked them specially, but the list looks quite contemporary rather than being old junk. The frenched headlights and surrounds are from a '58 Lincoln, probably a Continental or Premiere; the square radiator grille is from a '56 Studebaker Hawk; and the rear lights beneath the new tail fins are from a '56 Dodge, probably a Coronet or Royal. The Lincoln headlight surrounds are mounted at a more aggressive forward-facing angle compared to their vertical angle in the Lincoln, which could explain why spotlights have replaced the original conventional headlights, probably because the original headlight mounts wouldn't have been able to work at that angle. After its transformation, the car was painted flat white, and later sprayed blue and fitted with a rollbar.

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The Lincoln headlight surrounds are mounted at a more aggressive forward-facing angle compared to their vertical angle in the Lincoln, while spotlights have replaced the original conventional headlights.

Much of the research on the early part of this car's life was carried out by Byron Cooper, who, as an awestruck kid of 14, watched it being built. He finished up promoting the Corvette Expo in Knoxville, so the car obviously made a huge impression on him. The custom-car scene was primarily happening in California, so Buster was rather out on a limb in Tennessee and kept in touch by reading customizing magazines.

In 1963, Buster sold the by-now 10-year-old Corvette for $1,000 to Stanley Stevens, who had just come back from serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. At that point the Corvette was running an injected '57 Corvette V-8. Stanley already knew the car, as he'd previously worked at Rogers Cadillac in Knoxville, across the street from Morris' service station. He had sat in the '53 as a kid, caressing the steering wheel and gazing down the long bonnet at distant imagined horizons, then admired it rumbling down the street on many occasions, and finally he owned it. It would've been a moment of pure joy for any gearhead.

Stanley drove the '53 to Florida and used it daily for a couple of years, changing the injection system for a single two-barrel carb when it became troublesome. In 1966 he moved to Atlanta and sold the car in Charlotte for $1,200. At this point the car's history comes to an abrupt dead end-nobody knows what happened to it between 1966 and 1989, but none of it was good. It finished up wrecked, stripped, and abandoned with a bashed-in right-hand door and only a few remnants of its blue paint job still adhering to it.

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Can't help but think that this side view looks a lot better than the stock '53 Corvette, but of course another six years of progress in dramatic body styling had taken place by 1959.

As early Corvette values rose, Ted Harris of Harrisburg, North Carolina, rescued the remains and offered it for sale. East Tennessee Corvette Club member Wayne Pope went to look at it, but decided the $10,000-plus asking price was too high for a wreck. The word spread, and finally Steve McCain of Greensboro bought it with the intention of restoring it to stock. However, the car's character got to him, and he spent 6,000 hours restoring the car back to Buster's version of it. Steve probably put many more hours of work into the car than Buster, so he was entitled to rename the car "Harerazn" and to add a period-permissible caricature of Bugs Bunny on the trunk lid. Steve's months of labor paid off as the car won many awards and magazine articles, including Chip's Choice at Carlisle, Boyd's Pro Pick at Indy, ISCA Best Radical Custom, and Top 25 Customs of America.

The car then was sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction to Terry Michaelis of Pro-Team Corvette Sales. Terry in turn brought the car full circle back to the Knoxville Expo, just a few miles away from Beaty Chevrolet's original Knoxville location. Buster wasn't there to see it, as sadly he died in a car crash in Alabama in 1999. However, his daughter Tracey was presented with the three awards the car won at the Expo on its 50th birthday. She hadn't yet been born when the customized car was first sold.

The '59 V-8 engine and mechanicals were long gone, as the car reappeared in 1989 as a stripped wreck. The current engine is a 283 with three two-barrel Rochester carbs, which look absolutely right and make full use of the hoodscoop. The gearbox is a Muncie four-speed, and the axle is a '56 Corvette posi. The rest of the replaced missing parts are a mix of rebuilt original pieces and restoration replica parts. The interior in Shoreline Beige is brand-new, and as the car has only been driven a few miles since restoration and will only be driven a few miles a year from now on, it should remain that way. The Kustom and the other cars in John Goodman's collection are all started up at least once a month, although the fact that he races several of them means that concentrating on prerace maintenance and prep work cuts down the time available to be spent on the road cars.

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A brief ride down to the fish docks under the Ballard Bridge in Seattle in the Kustom was memorable. On the day of the shoot, the Corvette was reluctant to start but eventually fired up, spluttering and spitting as it warmed up. Keeping three carbs in tune is a pain anyway, and in a barely-used car it's worse. Triple SU carbs are one reason why so many E-Type Jaguars finished up with Chevy engines. The idle finally settled down enough to drive off, and the heavy clutch and gearbox and the large gobs of available torque are a disincentive to changing gears, so Second and Third did nicely. The ride is fairly stiff but still very acceptable even on some rough Seattle side roads.

If I owned this car, I would probably drive it everywhere, so it's probably for the best that John owns it instead. The thermostat may be sticky, as the very cool-looking temperature gauge suggests a rather uncool tendency to boil. Fortunately, the dockside location isn't far from the building that houses the Goodman collection, so the engine was switched off and left to cool down quickly as the photo session proceeded.

After a few hours of looking through a Nikon at the car, I still think it's more fab than the already-fab stock C1 Corvette. I will be gently pushing John to take it to a few shows next year so that more Corvette enthusiasts can get a look at it. Hopefully he can take a hint.

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