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Corvette Collector

Broadcast dates : 23rd October 2005
29th October 2005

One of the rarest sports cars in South Africa is the first-generation Corvette. Only a handful of the 1957 and 1958 models were imported here, and today only about half-a-dozen known examples of these beautiful art deco machines are in the country.

The first-generation cars were built between late 1953 and 1962, and at first the Corvette was seen as a failure.

It used wheezy six-cylinder engine and it wasnít until 1955, with the introduction of the famed small-block Chevy V8 engine, that the Corvette was taken seriously as a sports car.

This 1961 example, owned by Anton de Lange of Pretoria, is the only one known to be in the country, having arrived from Zimbabwe a number of years ago.

Anton owns three Corvettes and all of them are in concours-winning condition, thanks to his amazing mechanical abilities.

The last of the Corvettes to be imported here was the so-called C5, or fifth-generation Corvette.

Our difficult-to-understand laws preventing the importation of left-hand-drive cars means that no new C6 Corvettes are allowed in the country.

The C5 however, such as this 1999 model, is rated as one of the best Corvettes of all.
The continual development of the small-block V8 into a sophisticated fuel-injected engine has meant reliable horsepower for the Corvette, to the tune of some 300 kiloWatts.

The C5 chassis is up to European levels in many respects, and these cars are fetching very good prices as true exotics, especially as they are so rare in South Africa.

But for sheer charisma, youíd have to go a long way to beat the 1957 fuel-injected Corvette, the first American car to be so equipped.

This was one quick machine, with a 0-100 time in under 7 seconds and a top speed of over 200 km/h. Back in í57 that was Ferrari-league performance.

The styling was inspired by jet aircraft and even rocket ships in those days of the space race to the moon.

The exhausts exited through the rear bumpers, and as for the scoops, faired-in taillights and chrome detailing, this was comic-book fantasy come-to-life.

Anton discovered his í57 Vette in a barn on the East Rand and, as he recalls, it was in a sorry state when he found it.

The transformation of a badly-modified wreck into a concours-winning beauty has taken two years and many thousands of Rands.

Virtually every single trim item has been replaced by reproduction or New Old Stock parts

You can identify a 1957 model by its single headlight clusters. From 1958 onwards all American cars switched to quad headlights.

But in case you were wondering about the non-standard wheels, a peek beneath the bonnet reveals an even bigger surprise.

Yes thatís a 2004 Corvette LS1 engine and further examination reveals that all the running gear is from a 1996 model, including the wheels.

The blue 1957 model was still a few weeks away from completion when Car Torque visited Antonís workshop.

The idea behind these hybrid cars is that the bodywork is not changed in any way. But the car should drive and perform like a modern Corvette.

The hybrid movement is a new branch of hot-rodding, and importantly the car remains a pure Corvette.

Only a few changes to the instrument cluster and fitment of minor accessories is endorsed by the strict hybrid school of car building.

The end result is a brand new Corvette, and in this case, with a 1961 body.

Clues to its 1961 identity are the slatted grille in place of the original sharks-tooth design, and a more pointy tail section.

The 1961 model was also the last to include the trademark side scallops or clam shells on the flanks.

As for the body, it was completely re-built to its original Corvette specification after a botched conversion attempt by a previous owner.

When it was found, it was barely recognizable. The first thing Anton did was chop the front off the car.

At the heart of a hybrid conversion is an American-built tubular chassis, designed to accept the original body, but to also include the latest Corvette running gear in its entirety. What a brilliant idea!

Itís pain-staking attention to detail like this that makes the hybrid Corvette such a unique sports car.

This includes all the under-bonnet ancillaries like the master cylinder, the radiator, the hosing and wiring.

Inside, Antonís approach was again to replace every single worn trim item such as seats, carpeting and panels with brand new parts. So this is a brand new car in every respect.

The gauges are a nod to modern technology with a racing feel, and so is the smaller steering wheel.

But these could all be considered period accessories true to the hybrid theme.

On the road, the car starts, accelerates, turns, brakes and corners like a modern thoroughbred. Remarkable!

On the highway, the car is happy at speeds that were unthinkable in a 1961 Corvette. For this reason, hybrids are deemed more valuable than the restored originals.

And so we get to the heart of the matter.

This chassis is based on NASCAR racing technology. Not only is it about twenty times stiffer than a 1961 Corvette chassis, itís more sophisticated, in terms of torsion rigidity, than anything the Corvette factory has produced to date.

Anton fitted stock Corvette suspension but with adjustable coil-over springs and dampers at each wheel.

So the ride height and the handling characteristics are fully adjustable, just like a racecar.

And as with the rest of the car, the attention to detail is mind-boggling.

Since receiving the De Lange touch, the suspension looks better than anything to come out of the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Every wishbone and control arm is polished, every nut and bolt has been re-plated.

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