Of all the Corvettes, it is the midyear models that represent the most successful blend of elegant, sensuous curves and raw, exhilarating power. Unfortunately, with their unpredictable rear suspensions, springy frames and razor-thin tires, these Vettes fall well short of perfection when judged by contemporary performance-car standards. The result has been the rise of the resto-mod movement, whose adherents remove factory parts in favor of modern replacements, while leaving the basic framework of the car-ironically, its chief performance limitation-unaltered.
It was with this in mind that NASA engineer and road racer Jim Durham founded Nu Vintage Corvettes and created the deceptively modern Torch Red '67 you see in the accompanying pictures. Durham had previously owned a pair of C2s. It was his last one-a matching-numbers '66-that brought him to the breaking point. "You'd have to tune it up every time you drove it," he said of the factory-air small-block, which, although an excellent specimen of the breed, proved far from ideal as a daily driver. Folks, this is the truly sad part about the older-gen Vettes: If they were that good, they'd still be making them that way.
While Nu Vintage can rebuild any Corvette constructed during the car's first 30 years of production, this '67 is a fairly good example of how the process works. By the time Durham found it in Arkansas, the titled-as-a-'64 coupe was nothing but a shell of a body with a badly damaged front end. The body was transported to his shop just outside of Huntsville, Alabama, where it was carefully rebuilt-'67-style. Daniel Hestand of Nu Vintage put in hours of pain-staking fiberglass work, including the installation of a brand-new, jig-built front clip. With the car finally prepped, Darrin Wood of Wood's Body Shop did the block sanding and laid down the RM Torch Red paint that would give the car its glowing, smooth-as-glass finish.
While Hestand and Wood were busy with the body, a brand-new frame was being built at Tray Walden's Street Shop, Inc. in nearby Athens, Alabama. Unlike the long-gone factory frame, the gleaming, black-powdercoated Street Shop chassis is built of mandrel-formed 4 x 2 x 0.120-inch steel tubing and is designed to accept late-C4 suspension and brake parts. It's also a straight, drop-on fit, with no cutting required. But for all the thought that goes into the Street Shop frame-heavier gauge steel, with gussets on the frame corners (a la the Chevy Power Manual of old)-it's the C4 suspension that makes the biggest difference in the way the car handles.
While the C2/C3 independent rear was light-years ahead of the solid-axle design it replaced, one of its fatal flaws was that the floating-axle halfshafts formed the upper of the two links between the differential and the rear wheels. In short, the tires' rear camber depended on the amount of play in the axle stubs-not a good idea. At best, a driver had to make sure the car was "set up"-usually by putting lateral load on it before going into a curve-so that there were no nasty surprises. Fail to do so, and the results varied between a mild loose feeling and snap oversteer.
The five-link C4 "batwing" suspension, however, adds another link to reduce the halfshafts' input on handling and replaces the single trailing arm with a pair of much-lighter links. While there are plenty of stopgap measures that can be bolted onto a C2/C3 frame-poly bushings, bushing compression plates, and heim-jointed links instead of the cam-controlled ones-the suspension's fundamental design is the chief limiting factor. Even the best complete conversion kits, such as the Guldstrand five-bar, are still hamstrung by the factory frame-the flexibility of which limits the effectiveness of substantially stiffer suspension components.
Once the frame for Durham's Vette was welded together on its jig and prepped for assembly (performed on-site by Street Shop), lines were formed and installed for the ZR-1/J55 brakes. Aside from the obvious stopping-power advantage, using the aluminum C4 calipers in place of the stock cast-iron ones reduced unsprung weight, making the car more responsive to changes in the roadway. Aluminum A-arms and hubs didn't hurt, either. Other handling duties were picked up by adjustable Aldan American coilovers at all four corners and a Fox Mustang power rack-and-pinion unit. Compared with a bare stock frame, the stripped chassis itself miraculously shed some 50 pounds, bringing the estimated weight of the finished car down to around 2,850 pounds.
Trying to maintain the spirit of the Corvette itself, even while dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Durham selected an LS2 crate motor to power the little red rocket he was creating. Factory-stock and still under GM warranty, the 6.0-liter LS2 pumps out a healthy-but-controllable 400 hp while offering fuel economy (about 22 mpg on the highway in the 3,200-pound C6). That would scarcely have been believable back when midyears were still rolling off the production line. After all, despite its far-ranging performance enhancements, the Nu Vintage car was also intended to offer a dramatic improvement in the car's overall driveability.
A FAST engine-management system and wiring harness were installed to serve as the brain for the LS2's sequential fuel-injection system. A five-speed transmission was modified to fit the factory shifter location, then linked to a custom-length driveshaft and a Dana 44 rear loaded with 3.45 gears. Factory exhaust manifolds take burnt gasses from the aluminum heads to the 2 1/2-inch pipes, where they go thundering out the rear through dual Magnaflow mufflers.
Inside the passenger compartment, there is little to hint at what lies beneath the Vette's misleading "427"-lettered hood. The visceral feel is the same, fed by the engine's bellicose, snarling idle and the rocking vibration to which we're all accustomed. In fact, except for the well-hidden Classic Air A/C, the stock-looking five-speed shift map and the seats-'98 Vette thrones with customized Al Knoch covers-the car could be any other freshly restored midyear. Then the moment of truth comes: The chrome shifter with the non-functional reverse lockout clicks into First, the clutch eases out, and the engine goes from a snarl to a scream, slamming you back into the leather seats. Second keeps you pushed back hard in the seat, then Third and Fourth, each shift making the Sumitomo 255s cry out for mercy as they claw for traction they just can't find.
It's what Corvettes are for, folks, and by the time Durham was finished going through as many gears as we could safely access on a public road, he and I were both laughing like a couple of schoolboys. It's true: The worst day with your Corvette is better than . . . well, most other things.
While the Nu Vintage '67 wasn't the first fire-breathing midyear into whose seats I'd dropped, there was a profound difference between it and the others. Where most early Vettes have a tenuous, wandering feel-the sensation of just barely being on top of something raw and powerful, but only nominally in control of it-from the passenger's seat the Nu Vintage car felt solid, as though it were well and truly connected to the ground. In the place of the chassis flex you would expect, it felt flat, firm and responsive. Power delivery was instantaneous and seemingly endless, while braking was controllable and certain.
In short, the car delivered everything you would expect from a Corvette made in the past 10 years. This is the paradigm shift that Nu Vintage represents. The resto crowd carries the tremendous burden of keeping our history alive, while also ensuring there's enough of a market to keep factory-spec Vette parts in production. But that's not for all Corvettes, and it's not for all Corvette owners. Some cars are simply too far gone-too damaged, customized, or just plain deteriorated-to be candidates for a code-correct rebuild, and many Vette owners don't want to incur the risk of using a pristine showpiece as a daily driver.
The Nu Vintage approach, meanwhile, represents a respectful way to bring older-generation Corvettes up to modern performance levels, ensuring that the can not only can be owned, but also enjoyed, well into the future.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see their LS7-powered '65.