Authenticity is a wonderful thing. The violinist who plays a real Stradivarius, the art lover with a real Monet hanging on the wall, and the five lucky souls who own a real Grand Sport will all attest to that. But it's not everything, and authenticity has many levels. B.B. King's "Lucille" is actually the 13th Gibson guitar to bear that name, and I haven't heard anyone complaining that he or his playing are anything less than genuine. When our dates come to the door wearing costume jewelry, who among us decides to turn around and walk away? (No one on the staff of VETTE, that's for sure.) And would any of us walk up to a street rodder and tell him that his Deuce coupe isn't authentic, even though it may have been built entirely from reproduction parts?
The fact of the matter is, there are some things worth having, even if you have to copy the original. We're talking about the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" type of copying, not the "lets make a buck by counterfeiting" variety. Street rodders have taken this approach for years. It's not like there's a readily available supply of original T-buckets, '34 Chevys, and the aforementioned Deuce coupes sitting around. No matter-the intrepid enthusiast can build any of these rides, and others, without a single OEM component. The booming street rod component industry would seem to indicate that there's no issue with lack of authenticity.
Corvette enthusiasts have traditionally taken originality and authenticity very seriously, yet even our hobby recognizes that there are some things you just have to have, even if you have to copy them. Grand Sport replicas are well accepted, and if VETTE readers are any indication, so is Corvette Central's "Concept '57." And after reminding our readers that only 300 '53 Vettes were made (and only 4,640 Roadsters from '53-55), we'd like to submit another candidate for this group: This stunning '53 replica, owned by Lenny Chmaj (pronounced "Schmay") of Woodhaven, Michigan.
Chmaj has been into Vettes for over 20 years, starting with a new '77, which was replaced by a new C4 in the early '90s. Then came a '64 with a detachable hardtop, though he really wanted a '57 or a '62-or so he thought. All that changed during a trip to the Woodward Dream Cruise in 1997. Chmaj remembers the day well. "I saw a purple car in a parking lot," he recalls. "The closer I got, I couldn't believe it." Like many, he'd never been up close and personal with a '53, and he thought this one was real, albeit customized. No matter-he was hooked.
It's not a real '53, of course, though Chmaj isn't the only one who's been fooled. A company called Classic Sports Cars built this beauty, and Chmaj is quick to point out that its not a kit car. Rather, this re-make of the original roadster was marketed as an "E.C.", or exact copy, of a '53, and the builders only managed to complete 20 of the turnkey replicas before problems with GM shut the operation down. All were built with the classic white-on-red color scheme, and came with classic whitewall tires-as far as that goes, they were exact copies. The running gear, however, was not, though it did all come from The General.
The 102-inch wheelbase, 11-gauge, 3x4-inch box-steel chassis does indeed feature Chevy components, including the crossmember, but the rear leaf-spring suspension is from a '74 Nova, while the coil-spring front system came from a '72 Nova. Front and rear brakes are Nova drums, connected to an '85-vintage GM master cylinder, power booster, and proportioning valve by stainless steel lines. The steering column is also vintage '85, and a 14-gallon aluminum fuel tank rests behind the seats.
Another deviation from original Vette specs can be found under the hood. An '89, 325hp, 350ci powerplant provides a lot more go than the Blue Flame Six ever did. A Turbo 350 trans channels the power back to a 3.73:1-geared 10-bolt rearend from, again, a '74 Nova.
The body is indeed an exact copy-this replica perfectly duplicates the classic first-Corvette lines. In fact, the fit and finish surpasses that of those first Roadsters, which were mostly hand-built in a temporary facility behind a garage in Flint, Michigan. Overall, however, this one doesn't look much like it did originally. In fact, the potential for customizing is one of the things that attracted Chmaj to the '53 replica. "I get asked quite a bit why I don't have a real one," he tells us. (Though that's after they've been told it's a replica: most people can't tell the difference, telling Chmaj that he has "more guts than brains" for modifying a '53.) We'll look past the fact that owning a '53 is a financial impossibility for all but a select few, because Chmaj's reasoning is more down-to-earth: "You wouldn't want to drive a (real) '53. I couldn't enjoy it to the fullest, and I couldn't put my own touch on it."
Speaking of touches, the Roadster's previous owner, Ed Micol, had already done quite a bit of work on it when Chmaj saw it parked off of Woodward Avenue in 1997. Micol had lowered the car 4 inches, and replaced the original-size rolling stock with 205/55R16 (front) and 215/60R16 (rear) Goodyears riding on 16x7-inch Colorado Custom rims. He'd also done some work under the hood, adding a 600-cfm Edelbrock carb, Jet Hot-coated Dynomax shorty headers, stainless pipes, and Dynomax Magnum glasspack mufflers to improve the small-block's breathing capabilities. A Be Cool aluminum radiator and aluminum fan replaced the original units for better cooling. Micol also paid attention to appearances, adding a chrome alternator, valve covers, breathers, pullies, and air cleaner.
The interior got its own makeover. Ron's of Oxford sewed up a new white vinyl interior and black carpet. Billet aluminum was the material of choice for the dash insert and control panel-a set of Dakota Digital gauges fit in nicely, and a Colorado Custom billet steering wheel topped it all off. Micol also commissioned what is perhaps the faux '53's most striking feature: the rich coats of PPG Hawaiian Orchid basecoat/clearcoat paint.
In the three years since he made a deal for Roadster, Chmaj has added his own personal touches. Blue dot taillights and halogen headlights upgraded the lighting system, and Chmaj painted the mesh headlight shields to match the body. He also moved the grille in 4 inches, giving the front end a sleeker look. A custom-built fan shroud and battery and master cylinder covers now adorn the engine compartment. Chmaj then showed off his improvisation skills by heat-shrinking an aftermarket '56-57 hardtop until it fit the '53 body. It looks like it belongs there. And then there's that fence...
Fence? Yeah, there's a fence here, and there's sure to be Corvetters on either side of it. One side is reserved for purists, who Chmaj tells us won't even talk to him when he goes to Corvette gatherings, and the "gentleman" who yelled "Hey, that's a nice '53 kit car" from the side of the road. The other side features those who give this replica a thumbs-up and exclaim, "Wow, I've never seen anything so beautiful." It also includes the VETTE staff, any of whom would jump at the chance to build a '53 replica.
The bottom line is that it's not a real '53 Corvette. However, there are at least two things about it that are very real. One is that its exactly what Lenny Chmaj wanted: "A car I can enjoy." The other is that it's a beautiful automobile with some of the most classic lines ever built. Sounds pretty authentic to us.