In August 1967, the all-new '68 Corvette was shown to the automotive press for the first time. Loosely modeled on GM Styling Director Bill Mitchell's Mako Shark II show car, the '68 Vette was a radical visual change from the classic look of the '63-'67 "midyear" models. Thanks to its resemblance to Mitchell's masterpiece, the '68 quickly became known simply as the "shark."
Public reaction was upbeat. Sales climbed to 28,566 units, up nearly 6,000 units from the previous year and a good indication that the new exterior design had made an impression in the heavily contested muscle car market. Priced at what now seems a ridiculously low $4,663 (coupe)/$4,320 (convertible), the '68 Corvette came standard with a 327 small-block, a Turbo-400 automatic, vinyl interior trim, and, in the case of the convertible, a soft top.
Underneath its sleek and sensuous fiberglass body, the '68 Vette boasted an impressive list of engine options. Two small-blocks and four big-blocks were available, ranging from the 300hp base mill all the way up to a 435-horse 427. It was clear Chevy aimed to give car buyers of all incomes a way to indulge in their need for speed while looking good in the process.
The shark body style was so popular that it continued for 15 years, a lifespan that has not been duplicated since in Corvette history. To this day, many C3 owners will pit their generation of Vette against any other in terms of performance, style, and technological innovation.
Brent Lockton, an auto electrician in Narooma, Australia was bitten early by the shark frenzy. "I have always liked Chevrolets, especially the shape ofCorvettes," Lockton says. "My first Chevy was a '56 four-door, which I sold to buy my first Corvette--a red '79. I always wanted a steel-bumper Corvette, so when the opportunity to buy this one came, I couldn't pass it up. I sold the '79 and started building the '68."
To find, buy, and restore his shark, Lockton turned to Corvette specialist Miles Johnson of Thunder Road Restorations in Melbourne. Johnson has performed hundreds of muscle-car and hot-rod restorations and has more than 40 years of experience in fiberglass work. "I've been building cars since the very early '60s, mainly of the hot-rod and custom theme," Johnson says. "My personal love affair with the Corvette started, like so many others, with the TV series Route 66 and its two main characters, Buzz and Todd. There was no going out on a Friday night until the show was finished.
"I purchased the '68 in damaged condition from its registered owner, Dean Toovey of Canberra," Johnson continues. "Toovey, like so many of us, always wanted to own a Corvette. He felt the car was a symbol of success and suited his lifestyle. His story was uneventful until he engaged his local Canberra-based tune shop in regard to an idle and overheating problem. He was assured they would be able to fix it."
According to the story Johnson heard, one of the shop's mechanics took his lady friend out for a spin on his lunch break and had a smashing time--literally--losing control of the Vette in a light rain and colliding with a reinforced road barrier. The battle of fiberglass vs. steel was no contest; Johnson was called in to assess the damage.
"It was my job to quote Toovey the cost of the Corvette's repairs, as the insurance was planning a payout," Johnson says. "I agreed to undertake the repairs but cautioned him that it would be expensive and time consuming. Several months later, he decided to sell the car to me."
At the time, Johnson was working on a frame-off restoration of the only ZL1 Camaro to race in Australia in the early '70s. As a result, the Vette was relegated to the "some day" section of his shop. Meanwhile, he made it a point to tell his friend Wayne Lockton about his new acquisition. Lockton, in turn, told his brother, Brent, who was interested in acquiring the shark in spite of its calamitous condition.
Before long, Johnson and Lockton had struck a deal, and a 1-year restoration was planned. "Brent suggested that I `repair the Corvette, etc., etc., etc.' I told him `etcetera' was a small word with a large horizon," Johnson says.
The project began by stripping the Corvette to its frame, at which point it was determined that the car had been wrecked not once, but twice. "When Johnson pulled the front clip off, he saw that it had been repaired using chicken-wire aluminum strips and papier-mch," Lockton says.
It was then that both men decided to take on the shark and win.
"Building a street-driven, show-standard Corvette requires planning regarding driveability and dependability," Johnson explains. "With the Corvette stripped to its frame, I began with suspension reconditioning, followed by a gasket overhaul on the [previously built] 350 engine. This is where the picture started to come into focus." Which is not to say that the two immediately agreed on every facet of the resto. "When I told Brent I had painted the engine yellow to match the plug leads I bought, the phone went quiet on the other end."
"Yellow? Bloody yellow?" Johnson recalls Lockton saying.
"You'll love it," Johnson reassured him, buttressing his argument by e-mailing Lockton photos of his progress. "We were then on a mission," the car builder says.
Johnson then turned his attention to the body, starting with the firewall. After a thorough detailing, he commenced creating a full complement of custom body work. The modifications involved accentuating the styling lines to improve their visual flow and equaling out the body gaps and radii to create a correct reflection angle. With that done, Johnson reinstalled the body on the frame, pre-installed the engine, gearbox, and chrome accessories, and installed an aftermarket front clip.
Traditional body prep and paint followed. Johnson used PPG products, starting with a high-build undercoat and following it with a four-step base/clear system. The finish consists of a direct-gloss solid color called Medium Gray, a metallic Mercury Silver basecoat, three coats of clear, and, after 12 hours of drying time, a final "flow coat" of clear reduced by 10 percent for a smooth gloss finish.
"Brent's concept of a classic Corvette with a hot-rod engine was very straightforward," Johnson says. "I was respectful of the effort the original Corvette team made, so I worked on the idea that since [the car] was originally silver, a modern silver would retain the classic look."
Lockton offers another reason for the color selection. "I had a red Corvette before, and the police constantly hassled me. In addition, I nearly owned a silver '69 L88 many years ago and am still kicking myself that I never bought it. I've wanted a chrome-bumper silver Corvette ever since," he says.
Final assembly was next. Johnson began with the engine-bay accessories, followed by grilles, bumpers, headlight mechanisms, door handles, window glass and mechanisms, front windshield, and stainless moldings.
John then turned his attention to the cabin. Luckily, former owner Toovey had already installed a full interior kit, so it was a simple matter to reinstall it and detail the passenger compartment. To keep the look classic, Johnson spent countless hours hiding the CD changer in the jack housing behind the right seat. He then enlarged the battery compartment to create a new home for the jack.
In March 2008, the shark was finally ready to be delivered to its excited owner. Stockton's first drive in the freshly rebuilt car was down the coast to Canberra. "I was ecstatic when the Corvette was completed. It drove beautifully," he says.
Since then, he's tallied a three-for-three record on the show circuit, winning the Best Convertible award at the South Coast Nationals (2007, 2008) and Best Corvette at the Canberra Chevy Nationals(2007).
"Brent stated from day one that he wanted a Corvette people would enjoy. He required class with attitude, a Corvette that would cause people to look twice but retain its original design integrity. It took approximately 5 years, but we never lost sight of our final goal--a smile on the owner's face," Johnson says.
"I still haven't stopped admiring my Corvette," Lockton says. "The job was fantastic. Every day I still find parts that are completely rebuilt and improved on over the standard Corvette. When I compare it to other Vettes, I keep thinking to myself, `The wait was definitely worth it!' I try to drive the car every opportunity I get. The next trip will be to Canberrafor the 21st National Corvette Convention. I can't wait."