The Pilgrimage. Great drives to meet marque gurus. ‘The C1’s suspension allows you to chuck it around’ We pilot the first of the twin-headlamp Corvettes to Britain’s top guru via the birthplace of British aviation in remote corner of Kent. Words Russ Smith. Photography Charlie Magee.
Russ Smith hits the highway in a Chevrolet Corvette C1 and finds the American midwest in deepest Kent, before visiting marque specialist Claremont.
Imagine, if you will, the attention that would be generated by Benedict Cumberbatch and Beyoncé driving a neon pink Lamborghini roadster down Oxford Street. That’s about the level this Corvette achieves on its own. It’s quite embarrassing. I’m used to cars attracting the standard British appreciative thumbs-up, or people sidling up for a chat when you park, but we’re getting hooted at – frequently – and heads are poking out of cars and lorries for a better look and shouting compliments. And we’re always waved out of side-turnings. It seems an American car incites American behaviour, even if we are only just off the M20 in Kent. Then again, you have to admit that it does look sexy in triple black – body, top and interior – with more chrome than a Las Vegas amusement arcade.
All this and we’ve only driven the mile to the petrol station in Snodland. I need to find a suitable landscape to experience this car – somewhere with a dusty, period Midwestern look. The Isle of Sheppey it is, then. Time to take the back roads. But we start with something brand new, crossing the justopened Peters Bridge across the Medway to the new Peters Village development – 1000 homes being built on the site of an old pit. The road through and out of this – yet to be beaten into submission by construction traffic – is possibly the smoothest I’ve ever driven on. Even with its fairly crude 60-year-old suspension design the Corvette rides like a Citroën here. But the open, sweeping blacktop is the perfect place to get the measure of the car. To begin to prove or dispel all the demeaning comments I’ve read in the past about the Corvette C1’s dynamic shortcomings. All of which should be very much to the fore here because our car has the base-spec 230bhp V8 coupled to the so-unsporting-I-hardly-dare-mention-it two-speed Powerglide automatic gearbox. And now I shall risk my hard-won credibility as a petrolhead by saying that it doesn’t matter a jot. In a car this light and with this much low-revving torque, that muchmaligned gearbox is just fine. Now I’ve driven it, I believe the secret to enjoying a ‘Vette C1 is to realise that it’s not a sports car – not by any familiar European measure anyway – so get over it.
The trouble is down to the car’s jet-age looks again, aided and abetted by the rumbling thunder of the small-block V8. Despite the clue in those whitewall tyres, it’s hard not to think of the Corvette as a thoroughbred that should be chasing Ferraris, whereas it really bears more relation to a V8 MGB, similarly saloon-derived. Once you can hold that thought it all falls into place. The saloon-based suspension is actually both competent and forgiving, allowing you to chuck the ‘Vette around roundabouts with some enthusiasm, if you choose. The engine just pulls and pulls, and only the brakes disappoint, though not as much as I expected from an all-drum set-up. Later Corvettes might lap Laguna Seca more quickly, but this is still no dummy. Certainly not as a road car.
‘In a car this light and with this much torque, the much-maligned Powerglide gearbox is just fine’
Covette’s interior has an arcade’s worth of chrome. Chance encounter with 1942 Chevrolet truck adds period detail to Russ’s day.
Rejoining more normal roads now I take a short stretch of the historical Pilgrims Way (and will bag some more later) before dropping down a mile of A229 then turning left for Sandling, from where I head north over the M20 on Boxley Road. This winds and climbs entertainingly roughly north through the farmland and woodland for which Kent is famous and which you miss on the busy main roads. The Corvette takes all this in its stride and is small enough, even with left-hand drive, not to feel vulnerable on country lanes. I do have to stop to replace the throttle pedal, though, something that will become a regular part of our trip. The plastic floor-hinged part upon which you place your boot is pushed on to two round metal pins. Specialist Tom Falconer later admits that it’s a flawed piece of design that doesn’t hang together well. It’s irritating but only takes a couple of seconds to pop back into place.
The road’s name changes regularly, but I stay on it for several miles until just before the M2 where, to avoid heavily populated Rainham I take a right onto Dunn Street Road to Bredhurst. Then it’s right again on to the even smaller Kemsley Street Road and Matts Hill Road which winds along roughly parallel to the M2 before crossing it at Medway Services. I grab a quick burger here and learn that the now rather shabby services first opened in November 1963 as Farthing Corner and went on to become a popular late-night meeting place for Sixties motor enthusiasts.
It’s a good time to eyeball the Corvette, too. 1958 was a big change year for the styling, marked out most obviously by the twin headlamps. At the time Road & Track found the new look too fussy and mourned the loss of ‘elegant simplicity’. But to my eyes it’s those lights, the partly filled side coves and one-year-only details like the washboard bonnet and chrome boot strakes (both done to reinforce glassfibre panels, but found to be unnecessary and so dropped for 1959) that make the ’58 the most desirable of all Corvette C1s and deserving of all of the attention it attracts.
Time to slip back into the driver’s seat, which to be honest is the least appealing feature of the otherwise wonderfully jukebox interior – black vinyl with heat-formed fluting, too flat to offer much support in corners. In balance though, I do love the interior door release. A smaller version of the white cue-ball gear knob, it looks like it should open the hatch of an early Apollo space capsule. More near-empty lanes carry us to Upchurch and a right turn in to the increasingly desolate marshlands that border the Medway estuary.
‘Open, sweeping blacktop is the perfect place to get the measure of this car’
Original 1958 engine runs better thanks to modern distributor and manifold. Current Claremont project blends Sixties looks with Nineties running gear... and up to 600bhp. Just a fraction of Toms collection of used “Vette Parts”
The ‘Vette looks much closer to home here against a backdrop of big skies, flat emptiness and occasional abandoned industrial units. Then the skyline becomes dominated by the 35-metre high Sheppey Crossing, opened ten years ago to improve traffic flow to the port at Sheerness. But I’m taking the old-school route across The Swale to the Isle of Sheppey – the Kingsferry Bridge, which sits below the newer structure and is roughly the same age as the Corvette. It still works well too – it carries trains and cars and has the technical excitement of a vertically lifting centre span to let ships through.
I shun the busy-ness of Sheerness and head for the holiday attractions of Leysdown at the far end of the island. There used to be Fifties chalets here that might provide a fitting backdrop. But times change and what I find is a road of amusement arcades and lots of mobile homes, so I burble onwards to the very end of the A2500 at Shellbeach. Gold dust. Not only does the road peter off into a dirt track that looks like Oklahoma circa 1958, complete with ancient wind pump and crooked telegraph poles, but this turns out to be the birthplace of British aviation – the Cape Canaveral of its day. In the middle of nowhere I find a statue of the three Short Brothers – Oswald, Horace and Eustace – who were the first volume producers of aircraft and built their first factory right here in 1909. Sadly it’s now the site of a load of chalets, as a passing dog-walker explains once I’ve told him enough about the Corvette. A plaque describes the Shorts as, ‘Magnificent makers of flying machines’, though something about their sculpting and arms-aloft pose puts me more in mind of what an Edwardian version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video might have looked like.
Tom explains to Russ how he rescued this 1973 Corvette concept car from the Bedford factory in 1983 just before it was due to be crushed.
Planes weren’t just made here – this is also the site of the first powered flight by a Brit – JTS Moore-Brabazon on May 2 1909. It luckily ended well – he would later become transport minister Lord Brabazon and give his name to the Bristol Brabazon airliner. He also had something of a sense of humour and later in 1909 took his plane up with a small pig in a wastepaper basket attached to a wing strut, ‘to prove that pigs can fly!’ Different times.
I refit the throttle pedal for the umpteenth time and fire up the ‘Vette again. Despite much stopping, starting and shunting around it continues to behave impeccably. Chevy V8s are renowned for being the heartbeat of America, and this one’s assisted by a new Holley carburettor and a modern distributor. I leave the Isle of Sheppey behind, this time by the new bridge, and continue along the A249 so the car can stretch its legs a bit. It proves to be a comfortable cruiser on open roads, and I’ve even come to terms with the reversed shift pattern of this era of Powerglide gearboxes that has Park by the seats and Drive next to the dashboard.
I take a diversion via Bicknor and Hollingbourne Hill to have a run on another section of the Pilgrims Way across to Detling, then finish off with a blast along the M20 to the A228 which takes me into Snodland and my destination at Claremont Corvette, the marque’s British home for the last 30 years.
Appropriately for a pilgrimage, this shrine to Americana is housed in a converted church. Though now it is painted white and has no steeple; only the building’s tall, arched windows hint at its past. Within, it’s all parts, memorabilia and Corvettes of all ages, here to be repaired, restored or sold. Taking pride of place is XP-897GT, the mid-engined twin-rotor 1973 Corvette concept car. Tom Falconer rescued it from the roof of the Bedford commercial plant in Luton 33 years ago, following a tip-off. It was about to be crushed but he persuaded Chuck Jordan – GM’s head of styling – to let him rescue it. It has a steel body built by Pininfarina, so needed plenty of work. It was engineless when I last saw it 16 years ago, but Tom has since installed a Mazda rotary engine and shown it at the Cartier concours.
He also has the rolling chassis GM displayed at the 1982 Frankfurt and Geneva shows to preview the all-new C4 series of Corvettes that debuted two years later. Tom proudly points at the tyres. ‘They are the original one-year-only Goodyear Eagles that have an inset rather than raised script on the sidewalls. Concours guys in the States will pay $6000 for a set of those.’
Tom then shows me his normally out-of-bounds hoard of used parts that takes up much of the building’s first floor. ‘I hadn’t thrown anything away for 40 years, but for the last four years I’ve been steadily selling it off via a dedicated online shop.’ It’s hard to imagine what it looked like four years ago because the shelves, floor and ceiling still look full. He indicates a pair of cylinder heads with ‘1955’ marker-penned on the ends, ‘You can swap those with any small-block Corvette built up until 1985 – tell that to Jaguar.’ A lot of our tour is educational like that. Tom knows every item, what year it came from and what makes it different from other years. It’s fascinating – and great that there are people like this to make running or restoring a Corvette that much easier.
Outside is an almost identical ’58 car to ours that’s just had an electric power steering conversion. Tom says, ‘That’s now become very popular and we can do it for £2750. Take it round the block and see what you think of it.’ I do just that and return impressed by how much easier it makes the car to manoeuvre without losing much in the way of feel. It’s all out of sight too.
Rather more visible is the 1962 C1 on American Racing alloys that Claremont has built up for a customer. At the other end of the scale from our very original car, it has been backdated to look like a ’61 model and fitted with 1996 C4 running gear, a special chassis and right-hand drive. ‘It has 400bhp, plus another 200bhp from nitrous oxide injection,’ says Tom.
It’s time for me to hand back the keys to the Corvette, something I do with genuine reluctance. The seat and throttle pedal issues – not to mention all that being hooted at by other drivers – have shrunk to minor irritations that I’d happily put up with because this Fifties Corvette has thoroughly exceeded my expectations. I truly want one, and would go so far as to add it to my top ten list of dream cars. It really is that good.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1958 Chevrolet Corvette C1
Engine 4638cc (283ci) V8, ohv, Carter WCFB S-2669 four-barrel carburettor
Power and torque 230bhp @ 4800rpm; 300lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Two-speed Powerglide auto, rear-wheel drive
Steering Saginaw steering box
Front: independent by upper and lower A-arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, leaf springs and telescopic dampers
Brakes 11in drums front and rear
Weight 1399kg (3080lb)
Performance Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph: 8.2sec
Fuel consumption 16mpg
Cost new $3591
Values now £32,500-£75,000
The Guru – Tom Falconer
There may be more knowledgeable people in America but as far as we are concerned Tom Falconer is Mr Corvette. He has written ten books on them and owned more than 900 since buying his first – a 1966 327ci Convertible – from the Animals lead singer Eric Burdon in 1970. Tom studied architecture at university, but that early exposure to Corvettes turned his head and he started buying and selling cars and parts from a historic windmill on Claremont Road in Newcastle – which gave the company its name – in 1977. Despite all that he cycles to work, ‘Cars and roads have been hijacked by commuters who mostly don’t even enjoy driving.’
OUR TEST ROUTE
Getting across Kent whilst avoiding its web of motorways takes some doing but is well worth it for the driving enjoyment of those back lanes. Starting and finishing in Snodland, our winding route took us to the navigable limits of the Isle of Sheppey.