After 30 years of continuously building, rebuilding, modifying, and tweaking it, Tommy Vinciguerra (known far and wide as Tommy V., for obvious reasons) is as close to his '61 Vette as a man and a machine possibly can be. But just because he loves his Pro Street beauty doesn't mean he's ever entirely happy with it. In fact, quite the contrary is true. Tommy V., master fabricator and owner of Super Pro Chassis, is driven to find new ways to continuously upgrade the car's total performance envelope, and the end result-thus far, anyway-is a first-generation Corvette that retains its classic looks but goes, stops, and handles like a modern supercar. For some insight into how Tommy V. has accomplished that often-elusive goal, we tagged along for the latest round of performance modifications to the suspension, steering, brakes, and driveline.
Difficult though it is to believe, the suspension design found in C1 Corvettes dates back more than 70 years. The front end relies on forged steering knuckles linked to pressed-steel A-arms via king pins, coil springs, and tubular shocks. At the rear, steel longitudinal leaf springs serve to both support and locate the axle housing.
Previously, there were a number of things you could do to improve the performance of the original C1 suspension-including substituting polyurethane bushings for the rubber originals and installing gas-charged shock absorbers-but in the end you still had an antiquated and fundamentally flawed design. To bring the car's suspension performance up to more-modern standards, you need to substitute a completely new system. Tommy V. did just that, installing a Jim Meyer Racing Products front suspension, a Wilwood Engineering disc-brake setup, and a Flaming River Industries rack-and-pinion steering system.
Although Tommy V. could have built his own front underpinnings from scratch, he found the Jim Meyer system to be of such high quality that it simply didn't make sense to do so. The kit includes custom tubular A-arms, custom hubs, and a fabricated front crossmember to anchor all of the pieces. This setup offers a number of important advantages, including improved suspension geometry, lighter weight, greater rigidity, and the ability to easily install disc brakes and a rack-and-pinion steering setup. Sound like a winning combination? Follow along as we take you through the highlights of the installation.
In order to install the new suspension system, you'll have to remove the original setup, which can be taken out as a complete unit. Remove the front antisway bar, take out the two bolts anchoring the radiator support to the third-arm bearing-mount bracket extension, and disconnect both front brake hoses. Separate the steering-box pitman arm from the drag link by pulling out the cotter pin in the end of the link and unscrewing the plug that holds two ball seats inside of it. With the screw plug out, the two halves of the ball seat spread apart, and the pitman arm's pivot ball will pull out.
The front crossmember is held to the chassis by eight bolts on each side. After supporting it on either end with a floor jack, remove the bolts and let the crossmember down slowly with your jacks. When you do so, you will discover a large, tapered aluminum shim on each side, sandwiched between it and the chassis. These were installed on all solid-axle Corvettes to increase front-end caster and will be reinstalled in the same position with the new crossmember.
After test-fitting the new crossmember, Tommy V. marked a few areas where it needed to be trimmed and relieved in order to sit flat on the chassis. Following another test-fitting to ensure that all was well, the crossmember, the control arms, and various other parts were sent to Action Powder Coating for a silky-smooth and super-durable semi-gloss black finish.
Once the parts came back from Action, the new crossmember was bolted up to the chassis using the bolts and locknuts included in the kit. The kit also comes with two steel brackets that bolt to the crossmember towers and are then welded to the top of the chassis rail. These provide much-needed extra rigidity for the towers.
Tommy V. installed the cross-bolts that hold each bracket to its tower and let the bracket sit atop the chassis. After notching the brackets where they contacted the factory mount bracket, he cleaned the area of the chassis to be welded with an abrasive disc and beveled the edges of the support brackets in order to achieve a better-quality weld. He then bolted the brackets back onto the towers and welded them to the rails.
Next, Tommy V. turned his attention to the Jim Meyer Racing Products lower control arms. He pressed in new ball joints and then installed the pivot shaft and related bushings. The lower control arms look nearly identical to one another, but they are side-specific (right and left). Each arm is on its correct side when the steering stop faces the rear of the car and the sway-bar bracket faces the front.
Tommy V. then installed the upper ball joints in the upper control arms using the included Grade 8 hardware. Next, he threaded the locknuts and super-strong spherical rod ends into the arms' tubes. The precision rod ends and spherical bearings, sourced from FK Bearings, reduce friction and will provide many years of trouble-free service.
As with the lowers, the side-specific upper control arms look nearly identical. If you look closely, you'll see that one tube of each arm is slightly longer than the other. The arms install so that the longer tube goes toward the front of the car. The arms are held to the crossmember with a bolt that goes through each rod end and threads into a sleeve in the tower. Each bolt gets a spacer sleeve and a number of washers that function as shims. By altering the number and thickness of washers from one side of the arm to the other, Tommy V. was able to adjust the wheel caster.
The Jim Meyer kit is designed to work with coilover shock and spring assemblies. QA1 supplied super-high-quality shocks, springs, and all related hardware in unassembled form. Assembly was accomplished by installing a spherical bushing in each end of the shock and inserting a retaining clip in the groove machined into the shock housing on either side of the bushing. Then Tommy V. installed the lower collar/locknut onto the shock, seated the spring onto the collar, placed a stainless-steel washer between the lower collar and spring, compressed the spring using a hydraulic press, and inserted the upper collar onto the shock to hold the compressed spring in position.
The position of the lower coilover collar plays a role in determining the car's ride height. QA1 suggests starting off with the collar positioned 3/4- to 1-inch up from the bottom of the threads. Tommy V. chose to go a little bit lower than this to begin with, in order to get the car lower to the ground. The kit comes with a spanner wrench that enables you to adjust ride height by turning the lower collar and locknut after the coilover is on the car.
With assembly complete, Tommy V. installed the coilovers onto the car. The upper mount bracket bolts to the crossmember tower using two hex-head cap screws. The coilovers then attach via a cross-bolt at the top and bottom. At the top, a thick washer needs to be inserted between the bushing sleeve and mount bracket on each side. On the bottom, the mount bolts get two long sleeves.
Perhaps the weakest link in a solid axle's chassis is its steering system. One of the many benefits of the Jim Meyer Racing Products front-suspension kit is that it's designed to work with a modern rack-and-pinion steering setup. The steering rack mounts to tabs at the front of the crossmember with a total of four bolts. A Cobra manual steering rack is standard with the kit, and a power-assist rack is available as an option.
The stock steering column does not interface with the new rack-and-pinion system, so you'll have to either modify your original column or install a new one. In keeping with his desire to upgrade every component in the steering system to today's technology, Tommy V. opted to go with a new column from Flaming River Industries.
Installation is pretty straightforward, with the most difficult part being removal of the original column. After pulling off the steering wheel and hub, you'll need to remove the turn-signal lever and mast jacket housing. Next, take the bezel off where the column goes under the instrument housing and unscrew the two bolts holding the column support bracket in the area beneath the housing. Remove the bezel from the firewall where the column passes through.
The steering box is held to the chassis by three bolts. When you take these bolts out, a spacer between the box and chassis rail will fall out, and a pitman-arm stop bracket on the inside of the framerail will also drop free. Remove the driver-side exhaust manifold and engine-mount bracket to gain added clearance, and then manipulate the column/steering box away from the frame and pull it out of the firewall.
The new Flaming River column easily slipped into position and bolted into place with new hardware. It mounted to the firewall with a universal swivel-ball mount, and Tommy V. connected it to the steering rack with a stainless-steel intermediate shaft and universal joint made by Flaming River for that purpose. The steering system was completed with a beautifully crafted, leather-wrapped steering wheel, also from Flaming River. The wheel features stainless spokes similar to those of an original C1 wheel, but the outer rim has a smaller diameter. While Tommy V. mounted his to a new Flaming River column, bear in mind that this wheel will also bolt right up to a stock C1 steering column.
The Jim Meyer kit is designed to work with '70-'81 Camaro spindles. Although these aren't included in the kit, they are readily available. In Tommy V.'s case, one call to Ken Roth at On-Time Auto Parts landed the needed spindles and ball joints. Corresponding Camaro brake calipers will bolt right up, but you can also utilize a number of aftermarket high-performance brake systems. Tommy V. chose to install a Wilwood four-wheel-disc system that offers far better stopping power than the stock setup, courtesy of 6-piston front and 4-piston rear calipers clamping down on 13-inch rotors.
The Wilwood system utilizes fabricated caliper-mounting brackets, which means that the original GM caliper-mount tabs had to be cut off of the spindles. Also, the original caliper-mount holes needed to be enlarged by drilling them with a 0.332-inch diameter bit and then threading the holes with a 3/8-16 tap.
The Wilwood kit comes with aluminum front hubs that have been machined for two different five-lug patterns (5x4.50- and 5x4.75-inch). All C1 Corvettes used a 5x4.75-inch lug pattern from the factory, so unless it's been changed along the way, this is the one you'll be using. After installing new wheel studs into the appropriate holes, Tommy V. installed the rotor onto the hub. The rotor bolts are drilled for safety wire, and it's important that they be correctly wired.
After attaching the caliper-mount brackets to the spindles, packing the inner wheel bearing with grease, and placing it into the hub, Tommy V. installed the rotor and hub assembly. In doing so, he made sure that the arrow on each unidirectional rotor pointed forward. He then packed the outer wheel bearing with grease and installed it.
Next, he mounted the brake caliper onto its bracket with the bleed screws pointing up. He then used the included 0.032-inch shims between the caliper and mount bracket to get the calipers centered over the rotors. For added security, he safety-wired the bolts, which come with the heads drilled for that purpose.
Tommy V. next turned his attention to the rear brakes. He removed the drum to unscrew the five nuts that retain the axle and brake-backing plate, then slid the axle out of its housing. Next, he reinstalled the axle in its housing and bolted up the rear caliper-mount bracket. The bracket is correctly installed when its slot is pointing up and its mounting ears are pointing toward the rear of the car. He secured the axle and caliper-mount bracket with the same hardware that originally held the axle and OEM backing plate.
With that done, Tommy V. bolted the rear hat to the rotor using the included lock washers and bolts, then safety-wired them with standard 0.032-inch-diameter stainless-steel safety wire. Next, he installed the rotor onto the axle and then temporarily mounted the caliper to its bracket with the bleed screws pointing up. Once again, he used the provided 0.032-inch shims to center the caliper. After flushing out all of the old fluid, he connected the brake lines to the calipers.
The original master cylinder must be replaced with a dual-reservoir unit designed to work with four-wheel discs. To ensure compatibility, Tommy V. opted to use a Wilwood master, which uses a standard-sized mount that works with a wide variety of cars other than early Corvettes. In order to mount it in the '61, an adapter that extends forward from the recess in the firewall was needed.
The final area Tommy V. upgraded was the drivetrain. A G-Force GF-5R five-speed replaced the OEM Warner four-speed. Besides being much stronger than a stock unit, the G-Force trans has a wide range of gear ratios available, so you can custom tailor it to your driving style and needs. It can also be configured to work with a large number of different bellhousings, and it easily fits into a first-generation Corvette, requiring only minor modifications to the rear mount bracket.
The five-speed G-Force sends the engine's twist to a Dana 60 differential. As part of this most recent overhaul, the Dana was fitted with ultra-strong Moser gears, axles, bearings, and wheel studs. A 35-spline Eaton Truetrac limited-slip unit filled out the beefed-up differential.
Tommy V.'s '61 Corvette has been a work in progress since the day he brought it home 30 years ago. This latest round of modifications goes a long way in bringing the classic ride's performance into the 21st century. With timeless good looks that date all the way back to the middle of the 20th century, it truly is a masterful blend of old and new.