Economic downturn notwithstanding, it's clear that customized cars are currently all the rage. For evidence, just take a look at the popularity of Chip Foose's mind-bending creations, the late Boyd Coddington's SPEED TV show, or the hottest trends at the yearly SEMA spectacular.
The archetype of the custom Corvette has traditionally been a stock-looking late-model with its guts upgraded to deliver more horsepower, better handling, and superior driveability. Custom interior appointments and aftermarket wheels may have been part of the deal, but for the most part, the focus was on non-cosmetic upgrades. But another trend has been resurfacing of late, and '60s Corvettes are at its forefront.
You may remember what customizing meant in the '70s. It was all about flared fenders and custom paint-that is, aesthetic excitement rather than gripping performance. Everywhere you looked, you could see custom fiberglass molding, larger-than-life side pipes, and acres of metalflake. And a top candidate for this treatment was the '60s Corvette.
The two mid-'60s Vettes pictured here are prime examples of this customizing approach. One is a '65 model that has been fitted with front and rear flares and finished off with Plexiglas front headlights, instead of the standard flip-up lights. Other obvious deviations from stock include a molded rear ducktail spoiler and 17-inch Torq-Thrust wheels. The sole concession to mechanical modernization can be found in the drivetrain, which comprises an LT1 engine and 700R4 trans lifted from an early-'90s C4.
Unlike some customs, this '65 has also been treated to a number of interior alterations. Its original dash is now filled with digital gauges, while a billet steering wheel and shifter knob further contribute to the hot-rod theme.
Next to the '65 is a '67 Vette with even-larger front and rear flares. At some point it was finished without its factory front chrome bumper, though the rear unit was retained. Like most '60s custom Vettes, it also sports a set of outsize side pipes.
The '67's interior has been left mostly factory-stock, with a few additions such as a Hurst shifter. A set of 17-inch Compomotive wheels and 245/45-17 Sumitomo tires round out the presentation.
But where this car really differs from most of its peers is in its original 427/435 engine and four-speed transmission. A stock, matching-numbers car with this powertrain combo would command a hefty price in today's market. It's surprising, then, that the '67 has remained in its customized condition and not been returned to as-purchased form.
Tom Souter purchased the '67 at a recent Mecum Collector Car Auction. There were reasons behind his impulsive purchase. "I used to own a similar car-Marlboro Maroon with a white stinger and white interior. It, too, had a big-block and flared fenders. It isn't often that you find a car like that. I have fond memories of that car and the times spent cruising to car shows." With any luck, Souter will enjoy a similar run with his new custom. His plans? Take it to car shows and cruise nights, of course.
To get some perspective on the recent resurgence of '60s custom Vettes, we called upon some industry experts. Our first contact was Dana Mecum, impresario of the nationally held Mecum auctions. The company, whose slogan is "Nobody sells more muscle," reported record sales of $20,000,000 during last year's Kissimmee, Florida, event. With that in mind, we figured he was just the person to ask about the rising popularity of customized '60s Corvettes.
Dana Mecum, President, Mecum Auctions
I think there's a difference in the [terminology] of resurgence on custom '63-'67 Corvettes. I think the new word is "retro," instead of "custom." A lot of people want the vintage look with the modern drivetrain. In most cases, if a car is done today and it's a custom, it's usually because the car was in rough enough shape that it's easier and cheaper to refinish it custom-wise than it is to restore to original. This also falls into the retro category. Most retros start with a subpar car to build a great new retro ride.
The collectibility of custom or retro Corvettes is going to depend more on the quality of workmanship than it is in regular Corvette collecting, [where the focus is on] rarity, factory paperwork, etc. I also think in the majority of cases that's all they will ever be: collectibles, whereas an L88 restored to original reaches a plateau above collectible. It becomes an investment-grade car. Or, as we call it in the old-car business, a thoroughbred.
The buying trends in most cases [involve] people who want a car to drive. They want the car more as an everyday driver, rather than an investment, and they want that vintage look.
As an ending note, most older customs still don't fetch the big value. The one exception to the rule is that when an older custom was done for a movie or had some importance somewhere else, the reason for its customization has more merit than having the car restored back to original.
Hearing from one end of the spectrum is great; hearing from the other gives you perspective. So this time, instead of calling upon an auction house, we decided to get the opinion of Terry Michaelis, President of ProTeam Corvettes. ProTeam specializes in buying and selling some of the most elite Corvettes out there. Case in point was the "Last Corvette" (the last '67 Corvette off the assembly line), which sold at Barrett-Jackson last year for a whopping $600,000. Michaelis offered his feelings on the popularity of custom '60s Vettes and why they are resurfacing in the marketplace.
Terry Michaelis, President, ProTeam Corvettes
People are reliving their youth, and these cars were very popular back then. The customs that were remembered the most had trick taillights, flared fenders, custom paint jobs, no front bumpers, glassed-in headlights. So, you tend to remember the cars that were personalized or customized. The stock and totally original cars back then were all over the place. They were what was the most common.
Now, we've also got the "retro rods" or "resto mods," which means it looks factory but has been upgraded with a late-model driveline and new tires and wheels. So it's close to the stock look, but you can drive it with confidence anywhere you want. The original, untouched classics, which are 40-plus years old, could be less dependable.
The collectibility of custom '60s Vettes will pass, just like the Baby Boomers. As the Boomers go to their graves, that's when all of this trick stuff will pass. It'll be short-lived, maybe for 5 or 10 years.
The quality of the work that's been done to the car is also extremely important. A lot of the old customs had glassed-in headlights. They had been customized because they were hit in the front end, and this was a shortcut for fixing it properly. The true customs that people seek out are the ones where they took a good car and then customized it, rather than cars that had been damaged and were then customized to hide the damage.
The '60s customs and resto mods will be short-lived. If there's value to collecting 100 years from now, there won't be any value to customs.
So there you have it. The overall theme? You buy what you remember. But year to year, generation to generation, the cars that elicit fond memories change. So let's speculate: Could the next group of custom-Corvette owners be looking for '70s Vettes-those outrageous ones with molded, clamshell front ends? Or maybe they'll fixate on the aftermarket '80-'82 convertible conversions that were so popular in the absence of a GM-built droptop. We'll just have to wait and see.