As newborns, we were given car-shaped teething toys. By the time we were 3, we were pushing around an armada of hazard-yellow plastic trucks, and by 5 we had a collection of die-cast models that would rival any real car collection. But we're older now, and our automotive entertainments have to offer more than just four tiny rubber tires.
Fortunately for us, something new and spectacular has been afoot in a large tent on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge, California. Each week, the lights go dim, smoke billows from state-of-the-art paint booths, and red and blue lights glisten off of chromed-out stroker engines.
It might sound like a car guy's (or gal's) dream, but this is reality.
This is Car Warriors, SPEED's new one-hour weekly series. The show features a hand-picked, eight-person team taking on a real-life shop in a pressure-packed, 72-hour restoration project. Once complete, the resulting creations undergo performance testing and are awarded points for their handling and driveability. If the challenging team wins, it gets to keep both cars.
One of the show's early matchups will feature a pair of automatic C3 Corvettes—one a '76 and the other a '77. Despite the truncated build schedule, the cars represented complete rebuild projects: The brakes didn't work, the engines smoked, the weatherstripping had deteriorated to slivers, the seats were cracked in a million pieces, and the headlights hadn't opened under their own vacuum for years. They didn't just need restorations; they needed resurrections.
We were given complete access to follow the build-ups in real time, talk to the builders, and get the inside track on how they planned to create their own visions of the ultimate C3.
The Challengers for the Corvette episode came from Sacramento's Gearhead Garage and were led by Jason Walroth. The rest of the team comprised Dave Fonts (fabricator), Merton Perkins (mechanic), Jonathan Lucich (mechanic), Derek Carlson (painter), Mike Sparman (fabricator), Shawn Katt (interior), and Brandon Boarman (paint).
The All-Star team consisted of a "who's who" in the car industry, each member with his or her own specialty. Nominal team leader Rich Evans owns his own shop and has built rides for SEMA and various celebrities. Ian Roussel, often referred to as the "Mad Scientist," was the team's metal mastermind. The exterior paint was handled by Ryno, whose name may ring a bell from his many seasons on Trick My Truck. The fourth team member, who went by the nom de auto Itchy, won the 2009 Von Dutch Pinstriping Award. Nicole Lyons has a history with car building and racing in both the NHRA and NASCAR circuits. Tina Sharp was the backbone of the interior team, while Scott Owens was the sound man, holding the world record for the car stereo system with the highest decibel reading. The eighth member was Joel Hoffman of JandH restorations, who has also built cars for SEMA and for a number of pro athletes.
Once the clock hit 72 hours, the build stopped and the judges took over. Leading the lineup was none other than self-proclaimed "King of Kustomizers" George Barris, known for his wild show-circuit creations of the '70s, as well as for such legendary movie and TV cars as the original Batmobile and the Munster Koach. Next up was Jimmy Shine, lead builder at the world famous SO-CAL Speed Shop. Rounding out the lineup was Mad Mike, known as a wiring magician at Galpin Auto Sports and from the TV series Pimp My Ride.
The points breakdown was pretty simple, with a maximum allowable score of 100. The exterior and paint were graded on a total of 25 points, the engine bay and the integration of performance parts a total of 25 points, the interior a total of 25 points, and handling and road performance a total of 25 points.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The Corvette builds started out with a test to determine which team could remove its car's engine first. The winning team would be given the chance to pick which new engine would power its build.
As quickly as the challenge started, the All-Stars had removed their Vette's motor and won. Without hesitation, they picked a Hawaii Racing–built, tunnel-rammed 383 with 483 hp over the milder, 425hp version.
A mad race to the parts cage then ensued, with each team grabbing whatever parts it wanted. Zip Corvette's array of fiberglass body panels and a set of Hooker side pipes were the first things to be grabbed. A gentleman's discussion ensued over the wheels, as each team grabbed a portion of a matched set of 20-inch Helos. But as it soon became clear, there was much more planned than the addition of simple bolt-on parts.
As the hours proceeded, the cars began to take on lives of their own. Neither Corvette was looking anything like a standard restoration. Rather, both were becoming completely custom rides. Two-part foam was used by the gallons on the All-Stars' side, to give America's Sports Car a wild stance and an all-new front-end appearance.
The challenging team, Gearhead Garage, opted for a unique approach by removing the rear tail panel of its car to give it a more "vintage" line. Additionally, the team decided to use the previously removed taillight buckets as headlight housings.
"Originally, we planned to change the factory-style headlights out for a more modern setup, then incorporate clear Plexiglas covers similar to the new ZR1," said Mike Sparman. "As the project took on a life of its own, we realized that 72 hours was not a lot of time! After considering a GT-40–style light setup, Jason and I came up with the idea to fab the rear taillights and bumper into the front fascia—no small task." It took a bit of fit and finish, and to a non-Corvette enthusiast, the subtle touch could easily be overlooked.
The All-Stars went a different route with a totally custom front end, with the result—essentially an elongated cylinder with four light holes in it—resembling an oversized phone dial or a missile launcher.
Because of the Corvette's leaf-spring rear suspension, no one truly believed that either of the builders would opt to use the available Universal Air Suspension air-ride system. But the All-Stars did, removing a few of the leaves and "bagging" their C3.
"Ian and I had never seen [airbags] done before, and figured that there had to be a way to do it," said Joel Hoffman. "So we came up with the idea to just start taking the suspension apart and using trial and error. After the first go around, we had to make some plates to hold the rear airbags in place. Up front, as is the case with A-arm suspension, we had to cut the pockets a little bigger to hold the airbags correctly."
As the cars entered the paint phase, it was anyone's guess what schemes would be utilized. Ryno, the All-Stars' painter, opted to attack the finish in a very flamboyant fashion, using House of Kolors silver to paint tribal-style patterns across the black-cherry exterior. If the points had been tallied at this point, it seemed, the All-Stars had taken the lead.
The Challengers' paint theme went along with the team's previously mentioned styling cues. They used a simple red, gray, and black color scheme, along with their version of a painted "stinger."
"Our theme was heavily based on our build style," explained Sparman. "Our goal was to integrate all aspects of the Corvette—new and old—inside and out. The car was a blend of a '69, a new ZR1, a mid-'70s classic, and what we thought a Corvette designer would have envisioned. We knew the All-Stars had a wild build style. With a focus on styling, performance, and overall integration, our goal was to beat them at our game, not theirs."
As the clock neared zero, both teams were scrambling to complete their last-minute touches. At the 00:00 mark, the workers stepped away from their cars to face the jury.
Both cars smoked their tires easily and handled the slalom course well, but it was clear that a few final details of the All-Stars car were giving the judges pause. The telescopic steering column hadn't been repaired, so it kept moving in and out as they drove. The seat mechanism was also broken, so the seat slid forward and back in rhythm with the car's braking and acceleration.
It was going to be interesting to see if the exterior "wow" factor and fabrication work of the All-Stars' car would tip the balance, or if the design flow of the Challengers' car would give it the upper hand.
In George Barris' words, "The All-Stars' car was a wild design; however it was out of proportion with the character of what a Corvette should look like." In reference to the Challengers' car, he added, "Although not wild in design, it was unique and enjoyable, and the workmanship was...very nice."
Hours later, the judges' votes were tallied.
In true warrior fashion, someone had to win, and someone had to lose. Both teams built the best C3 Corvette they could in only 72 hours, working in a shop that was not their own, and on a car model that might not have been their specialty. As the cameras rolled and the envelope was opened, every team member stood at attention. Slowly the words were spoken: "And the winner is Gearhead Garage." The Challengers had prevailed, knocking off their heavily favored opponents and netting themselves a pair of cool custom Vettes in the process.