It started like a lot of other Corvette restorations these days. A friend of Jeff Barnett's had bought a rough-looking '68 roadster, and planned on slapping on a new coat of paint and selling it at a profit. While there's nothing new-and nothing wrong-with the idea of making money off of classic cars, the astronomically high prices you see for some vintage Vettes have made it seem like a great way to turn a quick buck. But this isn't a get-rich-quick story, and Barnett, who was told he could buy the car after it had been painted, wasn't interested in being part of one.
After his friend put it in the body shop and "kinda tore it apart," the '68 turned out to need much more than a paintjob. "I don't think anything worked," Barnett told me when we talked about the car. Nonetheless, having fallen in love with a neighbor's yellow, chrome-bumper shark when he was in high school, he had always liked the body style and had always been intrigued by custom cars. A deal was struck in the due course of time, and Barnett bought the car in mid-project stage.
And "project" is just the word: There were no door panels, none of the gauges worked, and half the interior was out. An L88 hood covered the 350 that had replaced the blown original engine, several body panels needed replacement, and underneath it all was a frame that was rusted and broken. Not a job for the faint of heart, but also not a task beyond the abilities of Walt Hutcheson, a Corvette guru Barnett met while buying parts out of the newspaper.
Hutcheson, who is well into his 70s, started his career working on boats and moved into Corvettes in the 1960s. He's stayed a Corvette fanatic since then, and the early Vettes are still where his heart lies. "I knew I wanted it done right," Barnett says of the project. "I got lucky when I met him." Barnett, a carpenter by trade, traded out labor with Hutcheson, who did the lion's share of the work on the '68. Like most full-house restorations, it was a long-term project, taking about eight years to complete.
In addition to the substantial bodywork, there was the matter of finding a new frame to replace the original one, which was broken on the passenger side at the rear kickup. Instead of going with a '68 or '69 frame, though, Barnett began looking for one of the later frames that had the diagonal reinforcements that were added to the kickup area in mid-1970. After "a lot of phone calling," Barnett found two: one in St. Louis from a car that had burned, and one in California. After contemplating the temperatures at which fiberglass burns, Barnett opted for the other frame, and had it shipped in from the West Coast.
The frame got an upgrade in the form of an F41-style Gymkhana suspension, with 550-pound front coils and heavier sway bars. In addition to holding the road better, the stiffer front springs also helped carry the added weight of the new engine, a ZZ454 from GM Performance Parts. Making somewhere in the neighborhood of 440 net horses and 500 lb-ft of torque with a fairly mild 9.6:1 compression ratio, the big-block ZZ lays down more power than most of the factory big-blocks that came in sharks originally (remember, they were rated by gross horsepower, not net), with all of the grunt and snarl that made those engines icons of their time.
In the case of this particular shark, the 454's hammering thunder comes to you through Jet-Hot-coated Hooker side-pipe headers, and the power gets to the rear tires through a Tremec five-speed that took the place of the factory four-speed. The differential houses a highway-friendly 3.36 gear, and the stock 15-inch steel wheels were replaced by 17-inch aluminum rims from Billet Specialties. The front 8-inch-wide wheels are covered with BFGoodrich g-Force 245s, while 285/40s wrap around the 91/2-inch-wide rears-a much-appreciated improvement over the high sidewalls and narrow tread of the factory 215s. Go-fast cars need stop-fast brakes as well, so the factory iron four-piston calipers were replaced with polished calipers from Stainless Steel Brakes and paired with new slotted rotors.
So far, though, we're still in fairly familiar territory for modified C3s. No doubt, the powertrain and running gear are impressive, but the truly impressive part of this Corvette isn't what's under its skin, but what's on its skin, and inside its passenger compartment. The L88 hood that came with the car was replaced with an aftermarket C2-style Stinger unit, which had to be raised 11/2 inches or so to clear the Billet Specialties air cleaner on the 454. Hutcheson took a circular saw to the hood to raise the center panel, but you'd never know it. The fiberglass is blended seamlessly back together, and both the Stinger and the raised panel are painted an even black that contrasts nicely with both the orange line that borders it and the metallic silver on the rest of the car. While Hutcheson did the prep work, the paint itself (a factory silver for the GMC Denali) was laid on by Mooney's Collision Repair.
As the other body panels were repaired-or replaced, as each one warranted-Barnett and Hutcheson shared ideas and came up with the idea of a completely shaved body. From the door handles to the emblems, everything was removed. Logos-such as the crossed flags on the hood-were instead painted on by Grinlinton Studios in Blue Springs, Missouri, including the anachronistic "Stingray" above the front gill slits. The rear "C-O-R-V-E-T-T-E" letters were also omitted, replaced with a light gray "Corvette" spelled out in C5 script. The effect is subtle, but impressive; you don't realize at first that you're not seeing the customary flash of chrome. And that's the true genius of good custom work: You can tell immediately it's not stock, but it takes a second to register exactly what's been changed.
The interior, while a little less understated, also shows the work of the capable hands at Grinlinton Studios. Carrying on the orange accent line of the body (orange is a favorite color of Barnett's wife, who drives the couple's other Corvette, a '99), custom aluminum door-panel inserts are emblazoned with a bold "ZZ454" and encircled with an orange line. A similar custom console is painted with generation-correct crossed flags and a five-speed shift map; it also contains the Kenwood radio and the controls for the Vintage Air A/C. The stock gauges were replaced with factory-style white-faced units from Corvette Instruments, and the polished Flaming River steering wheel and column add a bit of flash which goes well with the chromed rollbar-like hoops behind each of the C5 seats.
As anyone who's ever really laid into a C3 on a curvy road knows, the factory seats offer exactly zero lateral support, and it's extremely hard to put a car through its paces when you're about to get thrown out of the seat. The C5 seats that Barnett selected, however, offer both more comfort and more support than the originals, and their black-leather covers were modified with the addition of an orange accent stripe and orange crossed flags stitched into the headrest. All in all, it's a beautiful package, well thought out both in terms of performance and presentation.
Perhaps that's what made it catch the eye of Editor Jay Heath at this year's Funfest, where he selected it to receive a Celebrity Choice award. It definitely caught mine as I walked among some of the 15,000 Corvettes that usually come to the annual customer-appreciation party thrown by Mid America Motorworks. Barnett had picked it up the Wednesday before the show and brought it the 300-some miles from Kansas City to Effingham, Illinois, that Friday.
"I didn't know at first if it would be worth it," Barnett told me. After seeing that drop-top '68 brought back from the dead and parked on the Field of Dreams at Funfest, I think we know the answer to that question.