As Rolling Stone Keith Richards said after last year’s tropical tumble, “It’s good to be here; it’s good to be anywhere.”
And anywhere behind the wheel of this Panama Yellow 1958 Chevrolet Corvette is the place to be.
Though many 1950s classics turn heads, they’re tedious to drive in modern traffic. This one is very different after being reinvigorated by modern technology.
Five years after its unsteady birth in 1953, the Corvette was beginning to be taken seriously. An all-new fibreglass body with more integrated styling in 1956, and the option of a fuel-injected 283 V8 with 283bhp the following year, had boosted sales.
But it was the heavily-revised 1958 Vette with its new four headlight styling and even more muscular 290hp fuellie option, that attracted nearly 50 per cent more buyers.
Melbourne’s Rob Reeves, like many Baby Boomers, lusted after one as a boy, but it wasn’t much later that time and money allowed such an indulgence.
In 2000, Reeves, a director of a successful publishing business, was looking for a hobby car. His interest intensified after his maintenance manager Jeff Milsom helped a fellow director restore an early Porsche 356.
After discussing the options, Reeves decided on a Corvette.
They found a left-hand drive ’58 model advertised in Unique Cars.
It was “pretty much a basket case,” Milsom said. “Just about every panel had some sort of damage and there were about 25 coats of paint on some.
The engine and chassis numbers didn’t match and the interior was upholstered in a nasty diamond- and chassis numbers didn’t match and the interior was upholstered in a nasty diamond-stich vinyl.”
But with most of the parts still there, it was a good start.
The lack of matching numbers wasn’t an issue for Reeves. He wanted the Vette’s classic good looks preserved, but its 1950s technology should be updated.
For an enjoyable and useable classic, it had to be thoroughly modern underneath its charismatic fibreglass skin.
Out went the Ute suspension, the vague bell crank steering, and the three-speed manual transmission.
In line with that philosophy, Milsom, who had previously worked on Holdens and Chevs, including a 1975 Corvette, was able to suggest and implement solutions within a realistic budget.
The idea was to create a great-looking car that looked like a ’58 Corvette, but drove like an early-1980s C4 model.
Choosing the C4 for most of the donor mechanicals was logical. Corvette values slide away rapidly for 1970s and ‘80s models, and parts for the fourth generation model (C4) is relatively cheap and plentiful.
The C4 suspension and steering and much better brakes provided a simple underbody update.
The body was removed, bead-blasted, then mounted on a rotisserie to complete the necessary repairs and convert it to right-hand drive.
Milsom stripped the chassis of its ’50s technology and fitted a 1985 C4 rear -end, but there were problems with the front. “The (1958) cross member was too big and ugly.”
Milsom built a new one and hung the C4 suspension on it, with coil-over shocks and springs all-round.
An inverted (for right-hand drive) C4 power steering rack and an update C4 brake package with four-pot pistons, big pads and 13-inch discs, power-assisted by a Holden Gemini booster, completed the chassis.
Engine choice was easy. A 350 Chev V8 intended for a 1952 Chevrolet Ute Milsom was building, was diverted to the Corvette.
The new 350 four-bolt block with alloy heads was sent to Chevrolet Off-road & Marine Engines (COME) in Melbourne to be fitted with forged pistons and a special camshaft.
Hand-fabricated TRY-Y design extractors led into a 2.5inch mandrel-bent twin system.
After being HPC ceramic coated, COME matched the exhaust to the newly posted heads and balanced the lot. On the dyno it produced 355bhp – 65 more than any production 1958 Corvette V8 – and 545Nm of torque.
Milsom discounted using a C4 gearbox. To cope with the extra power he chose a twin turbo Toyota Supra five-speed that was built to take up to 500bhp.
Originally he had hoped to adapt the car’s original steel wheels, but the much larger C4 disc brake rotors wouldn’t fit without excessive spacing.
After checking out aftermarket wheels, Milsom and Reeves decided to make their own, based on the style of a vintage Corvette racing wheel. Neil Stamp in Bendigo turned the centres out of a 45mm thick solid billet and pressed them on to spun eight-inch by 17-inch aluminium rims.
Reeves wanted the cockpit to have an authentic ’58 Corvette look, but with higher quality materials. The original seats were re-shaped for better support before being upholstered in tan leather. Matching Mercedes-Benz carpet lines the cabin and boot.
The dash remains original in virtually all respects, with the trademark big speedometer marked to 160mph. All the gauges are original, albeit with new faces and lenses, while the door trims are brand new reproduction items, imported from America.
The final touch was restoring the original hardtop using an imported kit. The softtop and its bows are brand new reproduction items.
Only a diehard Corvette fan would pretend that a ’58 model in original condition is a realistic daily driver, but Rob Reeves’ Vette can wear that title proudly.
Despite running on carbs, not injection, it fires easily from cold with a couple of jabs on the throttle and quickly settles into a smooth idle. The Supra ’box is a little sticky until its oil warms up, but then it’s butter smooth.
A Corvette cockpit with the original big diameter steering wheel is a little cramped around the knees, but Reeves has fitted a slightly smaller leather-clad three-spoker in the correct style to solve this problem.
And the seats, on which you’d usually slop about like oil on water, give reasonable rear-end grip – just as well, as the modern low profile rubber sticks much better than anything built in the ’50s.