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1954 Chevrolet Corvette - The Customizer's Touch

This '54 Vette Started Off As A Stocker, But It Couldn't Avoid...

John Nelson Mar 1, 2001
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Many, if not most, Corvette enthusiasts would consider it sacrilege to desecrate an original solid-axle Corvette with any custom touches. But this point of view, of course, came after the cars attained classic collectible status. It's almost a certainty that the first Corvette was customized shortly after the marque came into being, and we suspect the practice has never really stopped. It's re-emerged in the "recent" trend of uniting of classic Corvette styling and modern powertrain and suspension components, which you've seen in the VETTE features "Prescription for Fun" (Mar. '00) and "Modern Conveniences" (July '00). But hobbyists known as "custom rodders" have been doing this type of thing for years, while adding their own touches to classic bodylines as well.

Steve and Pat McCain of Summerfield, North Carolina, certainly fit that mold of Corvette enthusiasts and customizers. Steve is a member of the NCRS, but also belongs to Goodguys and Kustoms of America. With such diverse interests, it's only logical that Steve would covet a certain '54 Vette, which he first tried to buy in 1970. What he ended up with, though, was plenty of time to think about what he wanted to do with the car. You see, the owner was saving it for his six-year-old son, and would not sell. Fast forward to 1989; the son had grown and gotten married, and wanted to buy his first house. But to do that he had to sell the Corvette, so he called Steve to have him put it on the market for him. Steve immediately bought the '54 himself, and after five years of accumulating parts, began a three-year build-up process that would culminate in the completion of a custom Vette capable of grabbing your undivided attention-whether stationary or in motion.

To make Steve's long thought-out vision happen, major modifications had to be made to the chassis. The frame was modified to accept the complete front and rear suspension, brake assemblies, and independent rearend from a '90 Corvette, with a custom-built crossmember serving to locate the '90's upper and lower control arms. The chassis was then filled and smoothed for cosmetic purposes. The stock '54 Corvette antiroll bar was retained and Bilstein shocks were added at all four corners. A 944 Porsche steering box joins to the stock '54 Corvette steering column. To complete the rolling chassis, a set of 17 x 9.5-inch ZR-1 wheels wrapped in 275/40 Z-rated rubber were mounted at each corner.

Under the hood, Steve mounted a '93 LT1 between the newly refurbished rails using custom-built stainless steel motor mounts. The modern powerplant sports Street & Performance pulleys and exhales through Hooker headers, 2-inch stainless steel pipes, and Flowmaster mufflers. A 16-gallon stainless steel fuel tank feeds the LT1, and power is transmitted to the The real customizing fun, however, came when Steve and his friend Roy White massaged the fiberglass skin. The front was kept very simple in appearance, but is still noticeably modified. The crossed flags medallion was "frenched" into its original location, the valance narrowed, the cowl vent filled, the parking lights moved from the body to the lower portion of each outside grille tooth, and the bumper sections were removed. Under the hood the firewall was filled and the brake booster set into it, while the underside of the hood was smoothed and the hinges moved to the rear.

At the rear, the bodywork got a little more involved, but it's certainly the rear view of this '54 that's most likely to make passersby say, "Wait a minute, now...." Steve married the '90 Vette rear suspension assembly to the chassis without narrowing it, thereby avoiding any possibility of altering the ride and handling characteristics inherent in the newer system. But because of this decision it was necessary to widen the rear of the car from the doors back by 6 inches. To accomplish this, the body was split on both sides between the decklid and the raised portion of the quarter-panel, 3 inches were added to each side, and the work was blended in such a manner that the additional width is barely detectable. Then the original bumpers were removed and replaced by the front bumper ends, mounted vertically from the inside of the quarter-panels. A '57 Corvette decklid with a hand-built third brake light was installed for a smoother, more modern look. A super slick revolving license plate housing (using a headlight door motor for power) was built into the rear roll pan and '54 Buick taillights were used to cap the ends of the quarters.

After all the fit-and-finish items were dealt with to Steve's satisfaction, Roy sprayed the entire vehicle in a sparkling hue of DuPont tint base (#8275) over black. Bill Hampton added the Nissan Pearl White graphics and Jim Norris laid on the purple pinstripes, completing a flawless exterior.

After smoothing the dash and installing a set of Stewart Warner gauges, Steve called on the talents of Jeff McCain to make all the necessary electrical connections to bring the Vette to life. To finish up the interior, Don Clark carved out a set of bucket seats from foam stock, then covered them and the door panels he had created with tan leather, and also stitched up tan carpets for the floor.

It took the McCains three years to complete their custom '54 Corvette. And while you may not agree with what they've chosen to do to their car, there's no question that the first-rate customizing work is something to be admired. We see it as a unique ride built in the custom rod tradition, but for Steve McCain it's a matter of finally getting the Corvette he wanted-and it was well worth the wait.

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