The old adage “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” is frequently used with respect to the automotive industry, and styling is typically high on the list of gripes that enthusiasts have when longing for cars of the past.
The 1950s and ’60s are often considered to be the high watermark for aesthetic design for the Big Three. Although the technology, performance, safety and efficiency of automobiles has improved dramatically in the ensuing years, when it comes to the more subjective discussion of style, many would argue that we’ve yet to surpass that golden era of automotive design.
While it would be easy to point the finger at designers themselves, and argue that they’re lacking creativity, or perhaps courage, the truth of the matter is that in the decades since, automakers have had to contend with a wide array of new regulations that have a profound effect on car design, much of which limits what can and cannot be done aesthetically.
At a glance, you'd probably be forgiven for mistaking this for a genuine C1, but underneath the skin is a C5 roadster that's been thoroughly reworked. CRC points out that all the factory options of the donor car will remain functional after the conversion is done, and even the trunk space of the donor car is not altered in any significant way. That means that CRC's Retro-Vettes retain all the performance, reliability, safety and efficiency of a modern-day Corvette while boasting style inspired by the golden era of GM's design studios. Images: CRC
However, modern Corvette owners who’re looking to inject the iconic style of the first- or second-generation of Chevy’s sports car into their C5 or C6 can do so with the help of Classic Reflection Coachworks. We sat down with the folks from CRC to get some backstory on how these conversions originally took shape and to get a better sense of the build process behind these unique Corvettes.
The Advent Of the CRC Retro-Vette
Based out of Lakewood, Washington, CRC has been churning out retro-fied Corvettes since 2004, but the origin story of Classic Reflection Coachworks dates back much further than that. “Doug Graf is the founder and designer of the CRC Retro-Vette – he started this business as a retirement project after running a Budweiser beer distributorship,” says Julie Stacy of Classic Reflection Coachworks.
After purchasing a salvaged ’93 Corvette, Doug Graf modified the car’s chassis to accept body panels from a ’62. Though he initially took on the project simply for fun and to see if it was feasible, the interest generated by his experiment inspired Graf to pursue the idea in greater depth years later when he purchased a then-new C5 Corvette and proceeded to dismantle the bodywork of that car to determine how to get the proportions right using a combo of 1962 Corvette body panels, metal fabrication, and modeling clay. Image: CRC
“Back in 1994, he purchased a wrecked ‘93 Anniversary Corvette and modified the chassis to fit a stock ’62 body. Although he didn’t have a background in the automotive industry at the time, he had an engineering background and had been tinkering on cars since he was able to hold a screwdriver. The project took him about five years to build, and when it was complete it got a lot of attention, as cars like these were not really made this way back then.”
Graf would bring his 62-bodied C4 to car shows, where the C1 body style paired with the far more modern power train, rolling stock and interior would capture wide attention and no shortage of questions from curious show goers. Though he’d built the car as a one-off for fun, the amount of interest it generated convinced Graf to consider expanding upon the idea.
After retiring a few years later, Graf purchased a 2001 Corvette and proceeded to dismantle the factory body, crafting and reassembling one side of the car using a combination of stock ’62 Corvette panels, metal pieces and modeling clay until he was happy with the proportions.
Though Graf’s ingenuity and determination to get the idea “right” had helped to bring his two prototypes to fruition, he also knew that developing the conversions by hand using real-world donor cars was costly, time consuming and not the most efficient way of getting there. After getting in contact with Boeing, the engineering firm brought out scanning gear and helped Graf create a 3D rendering of his concept so he could make his tweaks in the software then apply them to a prototype – a much more effective process than the presumed trial and error involved when mocking up conversions on actual vehicles. Image: CRC
Word of his new Corvette project made its way back to the folks at Boeing, who met with Graf and subsequently came to his garage with an array of cutting edge scanning equipment that allowed him to create a computer rendering of his project. This in turn provided him with the ability to make changes to the design without the time consuming process of making changes to the body of the actual car to do so. “With the 3D model of the car, it allowed Doug to morph the project into his vision of what is now the Retro-Vette,” Stacy adds.
Three years after Graf purchased that 2001 Corvette, the first official CRC Retro-Vette was completed and sent off to the 2004 SEMA show to make its official public debut. “Doug thought there would be a small amount of interest in this, and he would be able to perhaps build one or two out of his garage a year,” Stacy explains. “We ended up with 43 orders though.” Lacking employees and a shop, it would take Graf about eight months to ramp up his business to meet customer demand. “We’ve been in production ever since,” says Stacy.
Leading up to the original CRC Retro-Vette's debut at the 2004 SEMA show, Graf had expectations of niche interest, hoping he could keep himself personally busy in the garage building a car or two per year. When more than three dozen orders poured in following the debut, he spent the next several months building up a proper shop, techs, and supply chain to meet demand. More than 15 years later his company is still going strong, offering conversions for both C5 and C6 Corvette roadster, with the latter having the option of either C1 or C2-style conversion. Images: CRC
Doug thought there would be a small interest in this and he would be able to build one or two out of his garage a year. We ended up with 43 orders after the SEMA debut. -Julie Stacy, Classic Reflections Coachworks
More than a decade and a half later, CRC’s Lakewood facility boasts cutting edge design and production equipment, allowing them to offer their services to any Corvette convertible owner looking to transform the look of their C5 or C6 into that of a 1958 – 1962 Corvette, while the ’67 Stingray conversion is exclusive to the C6.
The Retro-Vette Makeover Process
To get the Retro-Vette conversion started, customers supply Classic Reflection Coachworks with a donor car to go under the knife (CRC will also help customers find a donor car, if needed). Far more than simply swapping a few body parts, every panel on the vehicle is replaced with a computer engineered, vacuum-formed component, and each individual part is made without seams to prevent printing on the outer surface. The rear section of the car is permanently attached to the frame and all other parts are attached using removable fasteners.
“We manufacture all the parts here in-house in our Lakewood facility,” Stacy tells us. “They are made from CBS carbon fiber, which is shipped to us frozen from the UK. The three layers are rolled together and then cut into the correct part shape. We use a surfacer in the mold first, the layers of carbon/resin/glass are put in there. Bagged and vacuumed the parts are then baked in a large oven to cure at high temperature. The parts come out of the molds pretty much ready to go aside from a bit of edge trimming.”
Once the customer-supplied donor car has arrived at CRC's Lakewood, Washington facility, the process begins with a teardown of the factory bodywork so the new pieces can be fit to the car. After the parts required for a particular conversion are identified, carbon fiber is placed into molds, vacuum bagged and cured at controlled temperature cycles in a large oven at CRC's composite shop. From there, the bodywork is fitted to the car, painted, and the upholstery is installed. Once that's completed, final assembly and hand sanding and buffing are performed to prepare the car for the customer. The entire conversion process takes roughly 900 man hours to complete. Images: CRC
Each conversion is done by hand, requiring over 900 man hours from start to finish. The process starts by removing the door panels, then modifications are made at the mounting points for the CRC parts to go on. “Our carbon fiber body panels are fit and trimmed to each specific car, and all chrome trim and exterior trim is also fit to the car so there are no surprises during final assembly after the car is painted,” says Stacy.
Once fitment and gaps are adjusted to meet CRC’s quality standards, the rear end of the car is attached and the panels are painted, after which the painted parts are put back on the car for final assembly before the interior is installed and the car gets one last cleaning and buffing. “The customer is getting back basically a new car,” Stacy adds. “We do a lot of cutting and buffing on the paint to match a show quality finish with absolutely no orange peel.”
Along with the customer's choice of color combinations, a number of additional options are available for CRC's Retro-Vettes, including a full custom-dyed interior, a custom Billy Boat exhaust system that exits through the rear bumpers like the 58-'60 factory Corvettes (or an optional dual-mode side-pipe exhaust system for C2 conversions), period-correct style wheels, and a number of other aesthetic tweaks. Images: CRC
In terms of the hurdles involved in making these conversions work, it turns out the most significant ones stem from the business end rather than the engineering side. “The biggest challenge for our conversions is something Doug tried to curb before we even started,” Stacy explains. “He decided not to worry too much about how much this would cost to create and build because he wanted the lines to look right and as close to the original as possible, otherwise why build it?”
What started as a pet project more than two decades ago for Graf has become an entity all its own, and hundreds of CRC Retro-Vette conversions are now on the road today. Though the company currently only applies their conversions to C5 and C6 roadsters, coupes may be added the mix in the future, and the team is already working on conversion options for the C7. Image: CRC
But of course there are some tricky elements to the conversion process itself as well. “The 58-61 models are 4 inches wider and 2 inches longer than originals, and the ’67 is 6 inches wider and 8 inches longer than an original ’67,” she says of the converted car. “This was the challenge – to make sure we could make them look proportional and have the right lines. This is where the scanning technology came in – basically reverse engineering. Designing in software was a better way to ensure a Class-A surface and perfect proportions. We now have our own scanner and CNC machine so we do not have to contract out when we design a new model or want to make a new mold.”
So what’s next for Classic Reflection Coachworks? “Right now all models are convertible but you never know what might be next!” Stacy says. “And C7 conversions are definitely in our future as well.” Looking to add some retro flair to your modern Corvette? Give the folks at Classic Reflection Coachworks a buzz and see what’s available for your ride.