When Marc and Vanessa Halphen of Spring Hill, Florida, decided to create a custom Corvette, they knew it would take more than a tape-on graphics package to make the sports car look hellaciously hot. "I wanted to do a car up with my own design," Marc tells VETTE, "and I liked the way real fire looked."
Flame graphics on Corvettes are nothing new. In fact, the first Vettes to receive the treatment appeared way back in the '50s. According to Mike Yager, owner and "Chief Cheerleader" of Mid America Motorworks, "A custom-painted Corvette back in the '60s was cool, but to have the front end on fire was awesome! I can remember attending shows, and if a Corvette had flames, it had a crowd.
"During the Corvette Challenge of 1989, the No. 10 and 11 Corvettes had flame paint jobs. It was very cool-looking on the track. They were crowd favorites, and are favorite collector cars of choice from that vintage series. Our Corvette Funfest brings in a lot of custom Corvettes, and it is amazing to see some of the flame jobs nowadays. It is a style that will never go away."
The Halphens began their project with a black '06 Corvette coupe purchased in Atlanta. It was 100 percent stock, with 385 miles on the odometer, and ready for the husband-and-wife team to sketch out its custom plans. Surprisingly, they didn't even wait to get outside of Atlanta's city limits before the work began. "I installed a shark-tooth grille on the front fascia for the vehicle's maiden journey down to Florida," Marc says. "If I'm driving a Corvette, it's got to be custom, even if I have to stop at a rest stop and add stainless trim to it."
Once back in Florida, the couple delivered its Vette to Jaymz Air Studios in Hudson for graphic design and paint. Marc had admired owner James Kunzinger's previous work for clients such as the New Jersey Nets and the New York Plaza Hotel, and he and his wife were certain they picked the right studio to customize their C6 in airbrushed flames and skulls.
Kunzinger started with a fresh, custom-graphic design for the Vette, followed by 60 hours of prep, airbrush, and detail. "Marc had originally shown me a few images of skeletons and skulls he had found to ensure that we were on the same page as far as the artwork style was concerned," he tells us. "After that, I was given free rein. And for me, that's always the way I do my best work."
Using the hood as a starting point, Kunzinger laid out the diabolical artwork, working a pair of skeletons into full detail using House of Kolor urethane whites, grays, and blacks. Once these were done, he began to freehand the realistic fire using the skeletons as a center point, working backwards down both sides of the vehicle. "The fire effect is a lot of back-and-forth color work," he explains. "I used House of Kolors Molly Orange, Lime Gold Kandy, Tangerine Kandy, Apple Kandy, and Passion Purple Pearl to achieve the realistic fire effect."
One key aspect of the graphic design is the nearly invisible Corvette logo on the hood. Sometimes you see it, and sometimes you don't. "I achieved the look by cutting the logo on my vinyl plotter and weeding the decal in reverse, creating a spray mask out of Low-Tac vinyl," says Kunzinger. "Once the paint mask was in place, I simply sprayed two light dust coats of House of Kolor Snowhite Pearl through the mask, creating a subtle 'see-through' image. It's like a ghost logo, except this ghost only shows up in the bright sunlight."
Using the same color-layering process, Kunzinger next added smaller skeleton graphics on the roof and rear of the Vette. The entire vehicle was degreased to remove any impurities, after which several coats of Matrix MS-42 high-solids clearcoat were applied to seal the artwork.
The next chapter of this story begins with the plan to customize the engine compartment. The Halphens called upon American Car Craft (ACC), also of Hudson, and asked owner Rick Rivera to design and install an underhood package that would make the Corvette a stainless-steel-clad show-stopper. "I fabricated the engine dress-up components from 20-gauge 304 'black chrome' stainless using laser-cut flat sheets, and then bent and shaped them by hand," Rivera tells us. "These pieces included fender caps and covers, a full engine shroud, air-tube and throttle-body covers, two-piece hood-panel inserts, and a radiator cover."
Marc and Vanessa delivered the stainless to Jaymz, commissioned more flame- and skull-themed airbrushing, and then returned to ACC with the completed pieces. Strangely, Rivera wouldn't allow the couple to watch the installation. "Please don't stop by here until I have completed the car entirely," he told them. "I want you to be really surprised with the results."
ACC reinstalled the accessories, making certain the artwork and the stainless pieces themselves weren't scratched. Then it designed and installed a special LED light system for the Corvette. The most impressive portion of this system is in the fender liner and features super-thin, super-bright LEDs. These lights are a stealth application: They're completely invisible unless illuminated. Once switched on, they dramatically change the appearance of the engine compartment, making the underhood area and its airbrushed stainless look like they're actually on fire.
Rivera also designed and inserted fiber-optic lighting between the hood's frame and pane. When lit, it gives the impression of real flames emanating from the bottom of each hood panel. Both lighting systems are activated by a hidden switch in the battery area. Using extremely low voltage and a miserly 3-amp draw, Marc can run them for hours at a time without any noticeable drain on the battery.
ACC's final steps were to hand-etch the side windows and hatch glass with tribal-skull and flame graphics. It also fabricated and applied stainless-steel emblems to both the taillights and to a perforated exhaust-port filler panel designed for C6 Corvettes.
Considering the flamed Vette's intended mission-torching competitors on the show field rather than the dragstrip-it's not surprising that the car's only aftermarket performance mod is a B&B Route 66 exhaust system with four polished tips. The factory six-speed automatic remains similarly stock, as do the C6's eminently capable OEM brake and suspension components.
Marc says he was genuinely shocked when he took delivery of the freshly modified Corvette. "I walked in, they opened up the hood, and I couldn't believe it was my car. I almost felt faint. It was beyond my wildest expectations." Still, it wasn't enough to satisfy the customizing-crazy Halphens. Marc took the Vette home, unbolted the interior gauge bezel, center console, shifter knob insert, A/C side vents, and kick guards, and sent them to Kunzinger for airbrushing. Finally, he added a Lloyd's cargo mat and floor mats from Fast Vette Accessories to complete the project. "Only then was I satisfied that we had created exactly what I dreamed," he says. "It's a crowd magnet wherever it goes."
Showgoers apparently agree. Marc and Vanessa's Corvette was featured in the American Car Craft booth at the Eckler's Reunion in 2007 and shown at numerous other car shows in Florida. These include the Chasco Fiesta in New Port Richey, where it won "Best Custom Corvette," and the October Vettes at Old Town, where it earned the "Eckler's Pick Award."
In October 2007, the couple finished its third custom Corvette, an '05 LeMans Blue convertible based around a similar, flame-intensive theme. Currently, the couple is looking forward to its fourth Corvette project, which will involve a black C6 coupe with a wide-body conversion kit, a high-rise hood, and a radical graphic design blending checker flags with-you guessed it-fire.
"The overall appearance of the Corvette was well thought out between James, Marc, and me," says Rivera. "Our goal was to display a very 'live' attitude-that is, to make the car look like a living creature. Between the shark-tooth grille, [headlight] eyebrows, and the way the flames are arranged, I feel we really succeeded in creating a custom Corvette that says, 'Move on over, I'm coming through.'
"There are a lot of flame jobs that have been created over the decades, and this particular arrangement was extremely successful in achieving a very tasteful result, without overdoing the theme. When you combine the flame work and the stainless accessories, we really ended up with a special Corvette."