1975 Chevrolet Corvette Can Am - Can Amnesia

Thanks to Jeff Plotkin's Handy Kandy, the Eckler's Can Am C3 lives on

Christopher R. Phillip Apr 5, 2007 0 Comment(s)
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Thirty-one years is a long time to remember everything about anything. Sure, most of us can remember who was president of the United States at the time or that the No. 1 show on American television was Happy Days. But how many people remember the shoes they wore that July 4 or the dinner they had that Labor Day? After thirty-one years, it's easy to come up with amnesia.

The same holds true for custom wide-body C3 Corvettes. Most Vette aficionados can recognize a '73 dual-bumper model or a silver-and-black '78 pace car, but how many people remember the Eckler's Can Am Corvettes? Thankfully, our case of "Can Amnesia" was cured when Jeffrey Plotkin of Amboy, New Jersey, sent us the details of his '75 Can Am coupe.

The '70s saw the birth of wide-body C3s from body-kit manufacturers Eckler's and Greenwood. Eckler's, owned by Ralph Eckler and based in Titusville, Florida, was a leader in fiberglass moldings for the Corvette. Greenwood and Eckler's both began designs on wide-body Vettes in 1974, with street versions available soon thereafter.

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Motivation is provided by a mildly reworked ZZ465 crate motor from Texas-based performance-parts vendor Scoggin-Dickey. Thanks to a few tweaks by owner Jeff Plotkin, the iron small-block makes well over 465 hp on 93-octane pump gas.

At first, these Corvettes were created exclusively in Eckler's Titusville shop, but word quickly spread, and soon customers were calling from across the U.S. in the hopes of converting their stock Corvettes into the widened Eckler's version. Eckler's began selling custom wide-body parts-fenders, flares, and hoods-as well as full body kits for installation at shops and in home garages. Famous custom shops from New York to California began to turn out wide-body Corvettes. Customers called the kit "Can Am" after a then-popular SCCA race series.

Many people feel these Can Am Vettes perfectly embody the zeitgeist of the era. There is no doubting the visual impact the cars had on late-'70s and early-'80s American culture. Like bell-bottom pants and knee-high Adidas socks, they continue to stand proud as a testament to the times.

Jeff's Can Am story begins in 1975, when the then-21-year-old car buff bought a '73 Corvette coupe. One night, Jeff, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, left his Vette parked outside. Well, as the story goes, thieves stole the hubcaps ... and the Corvette they were on. Jeff longed for a second Vette, and in 1976, he bought his second coupe-a '75 model-from a friend.

Every big city has its own "most famous Corvette shop in town." At that time in Brooklyn, it was Zaino Brothers Corvette Shop. Jeff was friends with Tommy and Sal Zaino (creators of the famous Zaino car wax and polish products) and knew he wanted his Vette to go to their shop for its customization. Zaino Brothers was already ordering fiberglass from Eckler's on a weekly basis and was familiar with the parts. The brothers ordered the full-body Can Am kit, intending to turn Jeff's Corvette into one of very first kit Can Ams built outside of Ralph Eckler's Titusville shop.

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Jeff chose '80 Corvette Oyster White leather to offset the car's custom-mixed, Candy Apple Red paint scheme. Note the prosthetic rubber hand-from which the car takes its nickname-adorning the emergency-brake handle.

Jeff Plotkin was now 24 and a buyer for an electronics firm in Brooklyn. He spent many days and nights at the Zaino brothers' shop, watching his Can Am take form. "The Can Am took forever to build," Jeff says. Its intensive body change took "a year of dedicated labor from Zaino Brothers" and between $12,000 and $15,000 of Jeff's hard-earned money. That's an incredible amount of cash to put into a custom conversion considering the MSRP of the '75 Corvette was $6,810. Jeff says he wanted the best work in the nation, and although it was expensive, it was worth it.

Zaino Brothers prepared the Can Am to feature a stock rear window and a four-taillight bumper with air vents on either side. The front fenders, rear flares, and high-rise hood, however, were from the Eckler's kit. Thus configured, the car resembled a Greenwood wide-body and was often mistaken for its like-minded competitor. Make no mistake, though: Jeff's Vette is 100 percent Can Am.

It was painted Candy Apple Brandywine over a Black Pearl base using special-order paint from House of Kolors.

Jeff caught the show bug immediately and rushed to enter his first competition, the '77 ISCA Custom Car and Motorcycle Show at the New York Coliseum. He took home a First Place award the weekend before Thanksgiving.

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In 1981, Jeff wanted a new look for his Can Am. He felt a rework of the paint color would bring terrific results, so he took the car back to the Zaino Brothers Corvette Shop. Sal Zaino decided to also work an Eckler's fastback window and a six-taillight rear bumper into the Can Am's revised design.

While he was at it, Jeff decided to swap out the interior. He wanted a color contrast to the car's show-stopping exterior, so he chose '80 Corvette Oyster White leather. Tommy Zaino then stripped the paint, and a gold base was shot onto the body, followed by the same Candy Apple Brandywine color. The result was a Candy Apple Red deeply layered in 75 coats(!) of hand-rubbed lacquer.

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This 1/25-scale model was crafted by a Hollywood set-and-scene painter and features all the custom details of the full-size version.

Jeff describes the resulting look as "mouthwatering." The lacquer paint still wins awards at shows more than 25 years after its initial spray. At the '06 AACA show in Staten Island, Jeff's Can Am beat out all other cars in the Modified class to win Best Paint in Modified. "Handy Kandy," as Jeff had taken to calling the car, saw only light show use during the '80s and '90s. It never retired; it merely rested more often as Jeff's family took priority in his life.

Fast-forward 23 years to December 2003. Jeff was ready to return to the show circuit, but he felt the Vette's stock L82 engine wasn't up to the standard set by the rest of the car. He contacted Scoggin-Dickey Chevrolet in Lubbock, Texas, for a wild small-block assembly to power his Can Am Corvette. Jeff chose Scoggin-Dickey because it was the country's largest seller of Chevrolet performance parts and had a machine shop dedicated to custom work on GM performance engines.

Tim Cooks at Scoggin-Dickey tells VETTE that Jeff ordered one of the shop's ZZ465 crate-motor assemblies. This iron-block engine features a 350ci displacement, a 9.6:1 compression ratio, and an output rating of 465 hp and 440 lb-ft of torque. The heads are GM Performance Parts Quick Burn aluminum, while the hydraulic roller camshaft gives 0.575-/0.595-inch lift, 234-/242-degree duration, and a 112-degree lobe centerline. The Edelbrock Performer RPM Air-Gap intake manifold is topped with a modified Barry Grant Demon rated at 750 cfm.

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This photo shows the interior of the Eckler's fiberglass-molding facility where the original Can Am kits took shape.

Apparently not satisfied with a "mere" 465 hp, Jeff turned his engine into what he calls a ZZ465++. He swapped out the GM pistons, crank, and rods for a Lunati assembly that was recommended by a friend. He tells us he also milled the heads slightly but says that to disclose any more information would compromise his motor's secrets. "After all," Jeff says with a laugh, "in Brooklyn, you never say how big your motor is."

Jeff did allow, however, that the compression of his ZZ465++ is 10.1.1, and its Lunati cam yields 0.592/0.613 lift and 237/244 duration. Engine exhaust exits via ceramic-coated Hooker headers mated to side-mounted Spiral Turbo Specialties baffles.

Jeff chose a March serpentine-belt conversion to replace the factory's V-belt pulley system. He loves the way the March setup, with its chromed water pump and alternator, complements the incredible paint and bodywork on his Can Am. "I like the polished pulleys," Jeff says. "They give the engine compartment a clean look from a show-car standpoint."

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A C3-specific Griffin aluminum radiator also lends show-car pizzazz to the engine bay and keeps the Can Am cool as ice on hot, temper-flaring New York summer days. A 7-quart Milodon oil pan with side kickouts (upgraded from the 5-quart stocker) gives Jeff a feeling of safety when he pushes the upper limits of the engine.

Jeff added a Keisler Engineering/Tremec five-speed conversion kit to replace the OEM Borg Warner T10 four-speed. "I kept reaching for a Fifth gear that wasn't there," he says. A Ram Super Duty clutch and a Hurst shifter round out the drivetrain. Inside the cockpit, a five-speed shift plate replaces the stock plate to provide a factory look.

The engine and transmission installations were performed by TJ's Automotive in Brooklyn. Jeff also had Auto Meter gauges installed for an "in-your-face" look, including a 5-inch tachometer on the steering column and 2 5/8-inch oil-pressure, coolant-temperature, and gas gauges on top of the tachometer.

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This silver Can Am Vette is more representative of what one might have seen back in the '70s. It lacks Handy Kandy's custom paint and exposed side pipes, among other details.

Jeff's next step was to have Farks Supercars, also in Brooklyn, install a six-point rollbar with door swingouts and a Simpson five-point harness. These gave the Can Am a track-ready look and provided fresh eye appeal for the '05 show season. Fat BFGoodrich Radial TAs, mounted on 15x8.5-inch front and 15x10-inch rear Western wheels, also contributed to the Can Am's classic race-car appearance.

But "classic" isn't the only look Jeff was after. He wanted something futuristic-or "radical," as his son Matthew put it. So, Jeff opted for a popular 21st century custom feature: Lambo-style doors. It took Matthew's online search skills to find Dream Car Customs, of Augusta, Georgia, which offered a suitable vertical-opening door kit for the C3. The installation was once again handled by Zaino Brothers.

After 30 years of modifications and customizations, Jeff now considers his Corvette the perfect show car. And what do you do when your Can Am is perfect? Why, you build a perfect replica-in 1/25 scale, of course.

In homage to the Can Am's gracious lines, Jeff enlisted the help of Pete Altamore, a Hollywood set-and-scene painter. Pete spent a year building a Can Am scale model, including all of the custom features of Jeff's full-size version. Look closely and you can see details such as the five-point harnesses, wood grain on the console, Auto Meter gauges, and a three-spoke steering wheel. We were not all that surprised, then, when Jeff told us the cost to make the custom model was around $8,000.

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Before our story concludes, we must share the anecdote behind the nickname "Handy Kandy." Jeff tells VETTE that every car at a car show needs a gimmick to attract the attention of adults and kids alike. Knowing this, Jeff began putting fake rubber hands in and around his Can Am and saw instant success from the results.

The hands are everywhere-on the hand brake (see accompanying photo), in the engine compartment, in the exhaust pipe (for show only, naturally), and anywhere else he can find a place for them. Jeff tells us the hands are the perfect addition, bringing people right up to the car and giving Handy Kandy the gimmick its name deserves.

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While it's already spent 29 years on the show circuit, Handy Kandy is sure to figure prominently in many more show seasons to come. Jeff is confident that his son Matthew-already a car-show veteran and Corvette-trivia expert at age 13-will continue to campaign the car when he ultimately inherits it.

It looks like Jeff Plotkin was immune to this case of Can Amnesia. His Can Am Corvette's creation spanned six presidents and 27 years, outliving the culture of the era in which it was born. Maybe we're glad we can't remember those bell-bottoms and Adidas tube socks, but we're grateful for this reminder of a very special era in Corvette customization. The next time someone asks us, "What's a Can Am?," we'll send them to this story of Jeff Plotkin and his Zaino Brothers-built, Eckler's-based Can Am Corvette-and in turn solve yet another mysterious case of Can Amnesia.

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