Few car enthusiasts, whether they're casual automotive buffs or died-in-the-wool Corvette fanatics, would regard the first-generation, '53-62 solid-axle Corvettes as anything but highly significant automotive milestones. The Corvette wasn't the only American automobile manufacturer's attempt to break into the surging sports car marketplace, which was dominated by European marques (MG, Jaguar, Porsche, Triumph, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and Ferrari, among others) in the early '50s, but it was the only attempt that proved to be a success. The Nash Healey was fading away by the time the first Corvettes were being produced in Flint. The Kaiser Darrin disappeared almost before it appeared, with just a relative handful of '54 models built. And Ford's Thunderbird, based (as were the early Vettes) on full-sized passenger car components, sold well from 1955 through 1957, then ballooned into a bulbous four-passenger "personal" car.
By the time the two-place T-Bird went away, the Corvette was well-established, and well on its way too becoming America's Sports Car. With a cutting-edge V-8 under hood, linked to the optional Borg-Warner T10 four-speed manual gearbox and Positraction rear axle, along with sleek, streamlined fiberglass bodies, the first-gen Corvettes were true torchbearers for the era and have become highly sought-after and very valuable collectible cars today.
The inevitable passage of time, however, has taken its toll on many of these classics. Combined with relatively low production numbers (a total of 69,015 solid-axles were manufactured during the first-generation's 10-year production cycle, and annual sales didn't top 10,000 units until 1960), one rarely steals a glimpse of an early model simply out and motoring along the thoroughfares of modern-day America. That's not to say that these vintage Vettes have all become trailer queens or garage furniture; a great many owners of vintage Vettes drive their prizes to events, but most who are lucky enough to own a pristine original would almost prefer driving a Geo Metro than risk getting into an altercation with an errant SUV in commuter traffic.
There is a finite supply of first-generation Corvettes, and that supply represents just a fraction of the original quantity produced. Meanwhile, the popularity of-and resulting demand for-these classic Corvettes is exceedingly high. Relatively solid examples are highly sought after by restorers. At the same time, solid-axles are extremely hot items with the "restification" crowd. Unlike steel-bodied cars, old Corvettes aren't prone to cases of body-rot, and as long as metal corrosion hasn't attacked the steel inner body structural supports, an elderly but battered Vette body shell can be brought back to life fairly easily. The old stamped steel frames are another story.
A good, original frame is an absolute must when you're restoring an older Corvette. If you prefer the restified approach, where you combine the looks and character of a vintage Vette with modernized underpinnings, well, a frame is still an absolute necessity, but does it have to be an original Corvette frame?
It depends. Are you starting off with an intact and solid, but non-numbers-matching car? Do you simply want a cruiser, a solid-axle with disc brakes and a more modern small-block? If the primary use of that lightly "rodded" solid-axle is to go out for an occasional weekend drive, and the early '50s Bel Air-derived suspension and steering don't phase you, cool. On the other hand, you will be driving a Corvette that is basically a stiffly-suspended '53 Chevy, which is not exactly the epitome of ride or handling quality.
If you want more-a lot more-handling prowess, along with precise steering and modern braking abilities, then the (by contemporary standards) archaic chassis of '53-62 models has to go. Over the past several years, shops like Paul Newman's Car Creations in Templeton, California, have perfected the process of adapting complete late C4 Corvette suspension systems, including the four-wheel disc brakes and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, onto solid-axle (and up through '72) frames. Two "Newman cars" have been featured in VETTE (Dr. Barry Long's black '58 in March '00, and Bill Verboon's red '62 in the July '00 issue) and we were highly impressed with the driveability and workmanship of these cars.
However, a solid and straight original frame to build from is mandatory for this sort of conversion. The conversion requires exceptionally precise work that's performed on frame jigs, and it is quite labor intensive. But it is a comprehensively re-engineered chassis system that rolls out of the shop. Unfortunately, if that solid-axle project car has a damaged and/or weakened frame, whether from years of exposure to salt and moisture or from collision(s), a replacement stock frame-at a cost of several thousand dollars-will be required before the multi-thousand dollar conversion process can be inaugurated. Or, quite possibly, you have a nice driver-quality solid-axle and you want substantially more driving prowess than can be achieved with any sort of reworking of the original suspension and steering, yet you don't necessarily want to permanently and extensively alter the car. There is an alternative-a direct replacement custom frame, specifically fabricated to be equipped with a late C4 suspension system and to fit exactly in place of a stock '53-62 Corvette's frame.
A Thoroughly Modern ChassisWhat was once restricted to a mere dreamscape is now a Vette-lover's reality, due to the efforts of companies like Fife, Washington's Art Morrison Enterprises. A legend throughout the highly competitive world of drag racing, Morrison has recently looked to expand their expertise in chassis engineering to the street rod and street machine hobbies with their highly touted Max-G chassis
The Max-G chassis is aimed squarely at the street performance enthusiast who desires classic lines and styling (such as with the early Corvette) wrapped around a 21st Century-type handling package.
"Each chassis is CAD-engineered to the exact year, make, and model of vehicle in question," said Morrison's Steve Brownsfield, making it clear that while the Max-G chassis system is not a generic chassis that one just "slaps" a body onto before hitting the streets, the package can be configured to fit a wide array of cars. Most importantly, AME offers a first-generation Corvette-specific Max-G frame.
"The chassis will fit virtually any model that measures at least 38 inches in the rear. It's really a tire selection issue more than anything else," Brownsfield said. That means that a genuine '53-62 Vette body will fit like a glove, as, for example, will an exact replacement body like Corvette Central's "Concept 57."
Three major areas of concern were addressed with the Max-G chassis: ride height, chassis flex, and suspension design. A lower center of gravity provides increased stability in extreme handling situations, though this revealed a number of other potential mishaps that Morrison had to address. Among those concerns was ground clearance for the exhaust system and driveshaft. The solution was to cut passages for both the exhaust system and driveshaft directly into the main chassis X-brace, emanating from the midpoint of the Max-G chassis, providing ample ground clearance while maintaining a low ride height.
The X-brace itself contributes critical support and torsional rigidity between the framerails, an area where, if unsupported, the dynamic opposing forces of engine, transmission, and rear suspension system can cause disastrous buckling under heavy load. Morrison's platform is further bolstered by the addition of both front and rear stabilizer bars, heavy-duty units which virtually eliminate lateral suspension movement or roll.
As far as suspension is concerned, Morrison can deliver the Max-G with any one of several distinct trims. Front-end packages begin with the Deluxe Independent Front Suspension system, a Morrison staple which draws heavily from the Mustang II-influenced street and custom rod vein. Morrison fabricates the heavy-duty tubular upper and lower control arms as well as the spindles in-house; these work in conjunction to support a complete Wilwood disc brake system utilizing fully vented rotors. Steering input is provided by a late-model Fox Mustang manual rack-and-pinion (a power-assisted version is optionally available), with Aldan coilover shocks and springs cushioning road abnormalities. "The Deluxe IFS is our standard front suspension, our bread and butter," Brownfield said.
For traditionalists who want (or need) a new frame for a first-gen. Corvette restification project, but who favor a solid-axle rear suspension there's AME's Triangulated Four-bar Clip arrangement. This system utilizes twin 1 3/8-inch lower control arms working in conjunction with matching diagonally mounted uppers to positively locate the axle housing against both twist and lateral movement during hard acceleration and cornering forces. The addition of adjustable tie rod ends along with Aldan coilover shocks and springs provide some control over pinion angle and ride quality. Traditionalist or not, the AME Max-G frame for '53-62 Corvettes comes with frame bracketry in place for any "side-mount" Chevy small-block or big-block, as well as transmission mountings as specified.
When is a Solid-Axle Not a Solid-Axle?For the pinnacle in street/open road course handling, Morrison can outfit the Max-G with all mounts, trim and support pieces necessary to adapt late-model C4 Corvette suspension and braking systems. This upgrade, the Independent Front Suspension Frame, closely mimics the '84-87 Corvette's suspension and pickup points, including its upper control and lower A-arms, spindles and brakes (which must be obtained from a donor car or other aftermarket source), though the C4's factory composite monoleaf springs and separate shock absorbers have given way to the ubiquitous Aldan coilover units.
"The shocks, springs, mounts, and a stabilizer bar are provided," Brownfield revealed, "though the customer must supply the C4 suspension pieces themselves." Steering options remain the same, with either a Fox Mustang power or manual rack-and-pinion unit bolted in place.
The Max-G frame is also available pre-fabricated to accept a late-model C4-derived independent rear suspension system. This package allows enthusiasts to take full advantage of the C4's superbly engineered independent rear suspension, with its modern vented disc brakes, forged aluminum control arms, and superior geometry. Morrison has opted to take this well-balanced system one step further in the quest for the ultimate handling classic first-gen, street Corvette by replacing the C4's transverse-mounted, composite leaf spring with, what else but fully adjustable Aldan coilovers
Two questions spring to mind: How much? And how easy? The suggested retail price for the '53-62 Corvette chassis pictured here, with upgraded C4 front and rear suspension systems, is approximately $9,000. You will, of course, still need to acquire the appropriate C4 suspension bits and pieces before slipping this all-new platform beneath the sinuous shell of your vintage Vette. The only difficulty that you may run into when fitting this 100-percent new frame and late Corvette underpinnings beneath a solid-axle will likely occur around the C4 rear suspension, with which there is some interference with the spare tire well in the trunk. The alterations are fairly minor and, of course, the fiberglass floor can be returned to its original configuration at some undetermined time in the future, should you or a future owner so desire
What we have here is a fresh and well-crafted alternative for owners of '53-62 Corvettes who want the benefits of modern suspension, steering, and brakes, and either don't have a useable original frame for modifying, a la' Car Creations, or don't wish to permanently and extensively modify a good original first-gen platform. And, you'll end up with the best of both worlds-the marvelous looks of a classic '53-62 Corvette artfully blended with modern Corvette engineering.