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Vette-Rod Building Basics: Getting Started

What you need to know when considering a Vette rod

Rich Lagasse Jan 5, 2006
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There are many ways to enjoy the Corvette hobby today. It would be hardto miss the fast growing trend of modifying earlier-model Corvettes toimprove handling, braking, comfort, and performance, as well as toreflect your own ideas and style. The examples in this issue give anidea of the variety of approaches.

What follows is a basic idea of what is involved and the decisions youwill make when undertaking a similar project. It would take a small bookto detail everything involved, but we can give you some key factors toconsider.

Types of Vette Rods

Although there are many labels, such as resto rod, retro rod, Vette rod,pro classic, hybrid, pro touring, and more, they all have the commontheme of building a car to reflect the owners vision of an idealCorvette. At the risk of adding confusion as well as a little more meatto these terms, we'll take a stab at defining these terms.

Vette rod/retro rod: These are along thelines of a traditional street rod. It usually entails changing the maincomponents, including the installation of a performance engine, customwheels and tires, possibly a conversion to a stronger differential, abrake conversion, upgrading the interior, changing the paint,accessories, and more, and often includes body modifications. It'sanalogous to the traditional approach of building a street rod, but witha Corvette as a base rather than a '30s-'60s vintage car, for example.

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Pro classic: This type uses the modernCorvette drivetrain, suspension, and brake components to improve ride,handling, braking, and comfort while retaining the integrity of theoriginal design. These often use late-model Corvette EFI engines andcomputer systems but seldom include major body modifications. Theobjective is to combine the best elements of the classic styling withthe latest mechanical and electronic components.

Replica cars: These cars are in thecategory of kit, replica, or composite cars. Similar in most respects tothe many replica builders, the term Vette rod is broad enough toencompass these cars. Some feel these are not Corvettes except instyling, however, consider the difficulty in finding an original carthat is a good candidate for a Vette-rod project. Builders may offereither a turnkey car or a kit for you to use. These cars face the sameissues as any composite car when it comes to registration, inspection,and insurance. Each state has different laws defining the specificrequirements. Research each company offering Corvette replica cars sincethere can be differences when compared to starting with an original car.

It really doesn't matter what you call it. Regardless of the label, thecommon objective is building a car that is fun to drive.

What's Involved: Decisions, Decisions!

There are many considerations and up-front decisions to make whenconsidering a Vette-rod project. The first step is to decide on yourprimary use for the car, i.e., street, show, or a combination, and layout a basic project plan. Next, determine the type of components youplan to use, then choose who is going to do the work, and find thesources for the necessary components. Finally, evaluate how much youwant to invest in terms of dollars as well as time.

Primary Use: Research and Project Plan

It might seem obvious that determining the primary use of the car shouldbe the first step. All too often this issue doesn't get enoughattention. As a crucial early decision, it will heavily influence whatcomponents are used, the level of finish, and ultimately, the totalcosts.

Researching component suppliers is also best done early in the project.The resource list in this issue of Corvette Fever is a good place tostart, but check with the many chassis builders out there, as well aspeople who've already built their own cars. With the popularity of thesecars expanding exponentially, there are many Web forums, such as theCorvette Forum at, the Corvette Action Center at, and LS1 Tech at There'sno sense in reinventing the wheel and most of the people on these siteswill be more than willing to share lessons from their own experience.

Remember, planning (covered in the Dec. '04 issue) is crucial tobuilding the car you want.

Major Components

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The many choices in regard to major components such as suspension,chassis, and engine/drivetrain, will heavily influence your costs. Thesedays many are opting for the current generation of Corvette engines suchas the LS1, LS2, or LS6. While these engines involve more work toinstall, e.g., ECU, wiring harness, instrumentation, fuel and coolingsystems, there are also after-market suppliers for these components. Theresource list in this issue has many of them.

The major cost components include:

* Project car itself -- Prices vary considerably for decent C1, C2,or C3 cars with a good body and frame, and it can take some time tolocate a good one. Ideally you want to look for a non-matching-numberscar, without an engine or transmission. Be very wary of a "basket case"since you often won't know which components you have.

* Chassis conversion -- The main choices are converting a stockchassis, having a custom tube frame built for a modern Corvette, orinstalling after-market suspension components to a stock chassis.

* Suspension components -- Front and rear suspension, brakes, shocks,springs, tires, and wheels.

* Body and paint work -- The cost for this work usually runs muchmore than a steel-bodied car and depends on the condition of the body.

* Engine, transmission, differential -- The cost depends on what youselect and whether it's new or used.

* Interior -- Reproduction or custom interior.

* Instruments -- Most EFI engines require adaption to the electronicoutputs/sending units or converting to electronic gauges.

* Chrome/Polishing -- Replating bumpers, polishing stainless trim,and so on.

* Engine Accessories -- Headers/manifolds, exhaust system, intakesystem, alternator, P/S and A/C systems.

* Engine Wiring and ECU -- Custom engine-wiring harness and ECUprogramming.

* Body Wiring -- Replacing the original wiring is a good idea.

* Cooling System -- A new radiator built with the right inlets andoutlets and new hoses.

* Fuel System -- EFI engines require high-output fuel pumps, pressureregulators, and usually a main and return line.

* Miscellaneous and Custom Components -- It would take a long list tocover all the odds and ends that could be required, such as switches,body mounts, brake and fuel lines, miscellaneous body and interior trimpieces, glass, weather stripping, wheels and tires, and so on. Giventhat these cars are 40-plus years old, count on having to replace orrestore most of these components to have a reliable car. As with anycustom car, you will run into various components which have to bemodified or adapted, and you may also have to do some customfabrication. But, coming up with your own solution can be a fun part ofa project.

Do-It-Yourself vs. Outsourcing

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The cost of outside expert help can add up quickly, so how much you doyourself is a major cost factor. Most individuals will need some help inthese projects. Identifying reliable sources for the work you don't doyourself can take a bit of research but is a good investment of yourtime.

Also, don't underestimate the time involved in laying out your plan andmanaging the project. You'll be spending a lot of time sourcing partsand keeping tabs on how the outsourced work is progressing. The more youcan do yourself, the more control you have over costs and the timeframefor completing the project.

Project Costs

Each car of this type can be finished to an endless variety of levels,so the cost of someone else's project won't necessarily berepresentative of what your car might cost. Projects usually fall intoone of three categories with escalating costs. The first is where you doall the work yourself; the second is you do some and outsource otherwork; and the third is a turnkey car.

One of the most important component cost drivers is the condition of thecar you use. For us, the ideal car for this type of project is anon-matching-numbers car with a decent body, the majority of its trimpresent, and without its engine. In this type of project, you are reallyundertaking two projects at the same time. The first is the restorationof the car itself (body work, paint, interior, wiring, chrome, andmore), and the second is the cost of the new components (drivetrain,suspension, brakes, cooling system, computer and wiring harness, wheels,and so on).

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Also, don't overlook the cost of the tools you will need. You may havethe basic tools but there are always others which will be helpful, andshould you need a good reason to rationalize getting them, this is yourchance.

There is no accurate way to estimate what building a car will costunless you factor in all the variables of your plan. Even ballparkfigures can be misleading since there are so many variables. Once you'vedecided who will do the work, to what level you want to build the car,and you've identified all the components for the exterior, chassis,suspension, drivetrain, interior, and so on, you can research thevarious sources and estimate the costs for the components and labor. Youcan offset some of the costs for the new components by selling parts youwill not use. For example, if using a new chassis, selling the originalrolling chassis (if in good shape) can help offset much of the costs ofa new frame.

Once you've tallied the costs of parts and labor, deduct any amountsyou can make from selling. Then add another 30 percent for those thingsyou can't anticipate in advance. Whether it's building a car of thistype or a restoration, it will usually cost more and take longer thanyou thought.

A Pessimistic View of Car Project Phases

The importance of planning and research to a successful project can't beoverstated. Here, in chronological order, is a humorous view of whatcould happen without planning and research:

* Bright Idea and Planning Phase: Excitement and enthusiasm overcomelogic, reason, and advice of others, but you have a concrete plan andbudget laid out.

* Search for the Holy Grail Phase: Reality begins to set in asfinding the right car is more elusive than you thought.

* Car Acquired Phase: Beginning of realization that what you boughthas no resemblance to what it looked like when you bought it.

* Reality Check No. 1 Phase: Concrete plan shows first signs ofcracks, rethinking what you have gotten yourself into, double timeframeof initial plan, double initial budget, attempt to pump up enthusiasm.

* Fresh Start Phase: Based on new plan and budget, begin to questionsanity, alter components, modify plan, and second-guess your reasoning.

* Determination Phase: Ignore all obstacles, press forward withrevised plan, and try to enlist others to help and share the pain.

* Reality Check No. 2 Phase: Having found few willing to share thework or the pain, broaden search for anyone who is willing to take yourmoney.

* Disassembly Phase: Disassemble entire car, lose track of criticalparts, fill basement, garage, attic, and dining room with greasy pieces.

* Construction Phase: First attempt to bring all the old and newparts into harmony.

* Reality Check No. 3 Phase: Failing to achieve harmony, beginseeking professional help to achieve a drivable car.

* Marriage Counseling Phase: Try to repair damage to familyrelationships and reacquaint yourself with the kids and dog.

* Vacation Phase: Things have got to look better after a long cruise.
* Reality Check No. 4 Phase: Things really don't look any better, butyou've invested so much in the project that you might as well get backat it--or sell it.

* Placing Ads for Unfinished Project Phase: You decide to get a boatinstead and sail away into the sunset.

Final Thoughts

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One of the driving forces behind the interest in these cars is the loveof the classic styling and the desire to enjoy the performance andcomforts we sometimes take for granted with modern cars. Whichever typeof car you choose, the lasting appeal of the hobby will includeenjoyment of the new friends you make at the many events and shows heldthese days. While the cars may be the common point of interest thatdraws individuals together, it's the people you meet and new friends youmake that will keep your interest.

These can be involved projects, but if you are looking to express yourown idea of an ideal Corvette, it can provide you with a car that meetsyour standard as well as provide the fun of building it. The good newsis that we have more choices today than ever before. The bad news isthese choices can make our projects more complicated. But with a littleresearch and thought in the beginning, we can make choices that willlead to just what we're looking for. Best of luck!



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