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Corvette Italia

Combining American muscle with Italian design flair

Robb Northrup - March 14, 2013 10:00 AM

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To me, when the C4 Corvette was unveiled in 1983, it was something of an enigma.

It had this incredible chassis just bursting with innovations. There were composite springs, forged aluminum control and trailing arms, and power rack and pinion steering with feel. This ’Vette’s chassis was truly world class, as evidenced by the accolades it received for its handling. No excuses here.

The body featured a perfectly evolved shape that was Corvette in spirit, but almost European in line. Jerry Palmer and his team pulled and stretched the Shark’s surface until it was just right.

On the other hand, the detailing of the car really disappointed. The smooth plastic on the dash and console, when combined with the digital gauges and molded door panels, had all the excitement and luxury of Tupperware.

The wheels were the far side of bland (who ever heard of bland wheels on a ’Vette?). The grille-less front bumper bore no resemblance to Corvettes past. The engine, too, seemed warmed over ’70s, what with two single-barrel throttle body injectors. A mere 205 horsepower was not inspiring.

When I first saw the C4, I immediately compared it to one of my all-time favorite Italian gran turismos, the Maserati Khamsin. Big, powerful, luxurious and fast, the Khamsin epitomized the best in Italian design, comfort and performance. I knew with the right tweaking, the new ’Vette could be in that mold.

With this paradigm, I initially conceived my own version of the C4 shortly after its release. It only took me a couple of decades to make it happen … over the years jotting down or sketching ideas until, in 1996, I bought a tired, 11-year-old C4 (with Z51 suspension) and began my work.

I began by gutting the car of its mechanical innards, carefully cleaning and painting every piece before re-installing it. The aluminum suspension pieces (really works of art) were bead blasted and then coated with a clear urethane wheel coating (simple Dupli-Color materials, available at the auto parts store) so they’d resist dirt and corrosion. Energy Suspension urethane bushings replaced the old rubber items and new wheel bearings and ball joints (supplied from Mid America Motorworks) completed the rebuild.

Brakes were rebuilt with new rotors while softer shocks were used to counter the Z51 springs (which were still in great shape).

I also installed a rebuilt power steering rack, along with a new pump, to restore the car’s accurate steering. I chose 17-inch MSW five-spoke alloys because they had a modern performance look without the usual design clichés.

While all of the mechanicals were off, I cleaned the underside and engine bay, sprayed paintable undercoating on the whole underside, and then painted the whole chassis with Eastwood’s chassis black paint. This has about 70 to 80 percent gloss for that OEM look. I also removed, de-rusted, and painted (in silver) the fuel lines.

A ’Vette is not really a ’Vette, of course, without some real horsepower. Although the 1985 TPI engine was a real improvement over the Crossfired ’84, 230 horses is now associated with low-end Buicks. That had to change.

Because America boasts the world’s biggest high performance industry, with the small block Chevy commanding a majority of the attention, go-fast parts were easy to come by. Summit supplied their excellent Trick Flow heads, Speed-O-Motive was the source for a steel crank reciprocating assembly and COMP Cams had the right roller cam, lifters, and stainless steel rocker arms. Lingenfelter provided a crowning touch with a new manifold, intake plenum, and 1,000cfm throttle body. This whole symphony, conducted by a TPIS Stage IV ECU chip in the original TPI computer, spewed out nearly 400 real horses on the chassis dyno at Corvettes of Dallas. The torque readings were a stump-pulling 462 lbs-ft.

The tires easily spin in the first four gears. As I intended this to be a road – not race – car, these numbers seemed adequate. To get all this power to where it needed to go, I installed a Richmond six-speed transmission, which is absolutely perfect for this engine. The overdrive sixth gear means it’s only turning about 1,800 rpm when you’re cruising at 70 mph.

For the body, I took great pains to smooth the lines by removing the side marker lights (do they really help?) as well as eliminating the seam at the joining of the rear bumper and the body. For this, I obtained a once-popular aftermarket fiberglass bumper from ACI that mimicked the later convex C4 bumpers while adding a hint of rear spoiler and C5 taillights. Floyd Kindhart at Larry’s Paint and Body in Lake Dallas, Texas, did an outstanding job of melding the body and bumper so it now appears to be one piece. Floyd also touched up cracks and blemishes on the rest of the car, and applied the deep metallic blue found on later C5s. Corvette Rubber provided the excellent reproduction weatherstripping.

The front is my interpretation of what it should have looked like, based on a grainy photo of a 1978 styling mock-up early in the C4’s gestation. I spent six months and several gallons of Bondo to mold and carve the shape I wanted. Then, with the help of a boat repair shop, I used the “model” as a plug and made a mold. The unique front bumper is the result. And it has that Corvette grille.

The piéce de resistance is the interior. No part of the C4 let it down more that the dash and door panels. I sketched and fiddled until I created a design that retained the original dash, but gave it a big dose of Italian style. Everything is leather covered and the dash features a tach and speedo from a ’75 Vette (it was a major pain to make the mechanical speedo work in a car designed for a digital dash run by a speed sensor!). Supplemental gauges are VDO “Cockpit”, which approximate the design of the ’Vette pieces. All instruments are housed in dash panels made with real walnut burl, and a glove box in place of that ugly “crash pad” completes the look. An ’82 ’Vette steering wheel, more in keeping with the Italian look of the interior, has replaced that bland two-spoke tiller.

So, there you have it. It’s one man’s vision of Chevy’s revolutionary C4. It was a good car then, but I think it’s a great car now. Its handling is above reproach and it cruises on the interstate without effort. Above all, it is extremely luxurious and comfortable in the Italian tradition.

Oh, and It’s blindingly fast.

Wanna race, paisano?

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