Explore the 80s customs culture with Vette Vues and get a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to create C4 Corvette Body Kits! From aero kits to full body mods and more, we’ve got lots of photos to share. BY: Wayne Ellwood.
As we continue to delve into history, Vette Vues aims to explore what was happening back in the 80s with the C4 Corvette when America got its taste of the customs culture – something that has stuck with us before and after. In order to reach out and update long-time viewers, we’re giving everyone a peek at what it took to make C4 Corvette Body Kits and Customizing the rage – from the right parts for their project car all the way down to details of what they did! We have lots of photos to share from that era.
At the end of this article are links to the other Corvette Body Kit History articles.
Photo credits: General Motors, Burt Greenwood, Rudy Arias, Mike Roberts, Geiger GmbH, Lister, Kris Pittack, Lingenfelter Perf. Eng., Tim Wilson, American Custom Industries (ACI), Wayne Ellwood, Facebook, and others.
C4 Corvette Body Kits – Generation Four Vettes
The introduction of the new C4 Corvette sports car was a landmark in Corvette history. Its new chassis, suspension, electronic engine management, and advanced fuel injection were ground-breaking. But not so good for the aftermarket. There was some catching-up required.
For the initial period (1984-87 model years), the main items included various aero kits, Greenwood convertible conversions, and Guldstrand’s GS80 special edition. In Europe, the Geiger body kit sold well enough. And about 20 Lister-style conversions were completed.
As that year group matured in the early 1990s, the custom scene became more sophisticated. Greenwood’s research program into chassis development culminated in the G-series cars (see earlier articles in VETTE VUES). Subsequently, Guldstrand introduced his GS-90 ZR-1 (and Nassau LT-1) cars. Larry Shinoda brought out his Shinoda-Williams body kit, and Lingenfelter and Callaway also jumped into the customization game.
Customs created by smaller shops (or individuals) did not seem to be a major topic in the media….at least not until the 2000s when older cars became a cheap foundation for owners to express their individuality.
Corvette Sports Car Early Custom Kits
The significance of “aero” devices for performance enhancement and/or fuel economy had been well-established in the preceding years. For the C4 generation, it had become a mandatory consideration for G.M. and other manufacturers. The ability to use aero devices to enhance or personalize a car’s style was also evident to the major players in the custom world. Ideas ranged from mild to wild, but there was absolutely no doubt that if you were looking to make a statement, you had an aero kit on your car. Nor did this trend escape G.M.’s notice. G.M., Greenwood ACI, and others introduced their aero variants as quickly as possible. Finally, each of these companies continued to evolve their kits as they saw opportunities to keep up with trends in the marketplace.
Another idea that seemed to emanate almost exclusively from Greenwood was the development of a convertible conversion kit. Greenwood’s prior custom activities also included the Camaro, where he had developed the knowledge for these conversions. In addition to the actual conversion, Greenwood offered an exposed headlight kit, upgraded stereo packages, and other convenience items well-suited to the convertible conversion. Unfortunately, G.M. ended this game when they re-introduced the convertible in 1986. As a small point of interest, the new Corvette convertible needed a hardtop. This wasn’t a “custom” item, but ASC stepped forward to provide the factory hardtop. It was an instant hit.
The featured “aero” C4 Corvette Body Kits by GM, Greenwood, ACI, and others:
More sophisticated C4 Corvette Body Kits were developed as the aftermarket became more familiar with the C4 and what could be achieved. These varied from widebody kits to full body mods that targeted entirely new looks. As an aside, I should point out that not all offerings had “style” at their core. The Guldstrand GS80, for example, was almost exclusively focused on performance. So, we’ll stick to those examples that are more directly classed as customs or personal statements.
American Custom Industries (ACI) introduced their “Stalker” body kit, which mated to the updated Corvette body, introduced in 1991. The full Stalker kit included a full set of side panels and bumpers, but the individual pieces were often purchased for a specific look. The strakes which were incorporated in these side panels were reminiscent of several Ferrari models and were popular as a dress-up. Also, as mentioned in the introduction, the Stalker kit was also a popular base point for wilder customs that can only be classified as full show cars. The WARSHIP was a classic example that was seen at many shows over five years.
ACI also introduced a C4 rear bumper (in the C5 era) which utilized the C5 taillight configuration…make your C4 into a C5. This was a bit of a play on the resto-mod theme but with a forward look instead of looking back.
C4 Corvette custom body kits became more complex as the series progressed.
Larry Shinoda thought the C4 sports car could be improved upon. Early in the game, he set about finding some partners in this project and eventually contacted Jim Williams. Rick Mears was present at one of their meetings and expressed an interest in such a car. He agreed to the use of his name. With this deal in place, Larry returned to Detroit and set the process in motion. He designed the “Rick Mears Special Edition” Corvette using Jim Williams’ own 1986 Pace Car. He modeled the full-scale panels in clay. High-temperature epoxy molds were drawn from the clay mock-up, and these were used for both the rigid prototype panels used on the yellow car for the 1990 Los Angeles Car Show and the production panels. Shinoda also managed to get some time at G.M.’s wind tunnel. He had to validate his intuitive understanding of the changes he was proposing in a more scientific way if the ultimate customers were to be satisfied with the end product. Wind tunnel tests indicated that the design had some features which were considerably better than the production Corvette.
The Shinoda-Williams car was originally designed for the standard C4, but as the existence of a ZR1 model began to hit the streets, this option was also considered. The first cars were marketed jointly under a company set up by Larry and Jim Williams. A completed car could be purchased from the Shinoda-Williams Design Inc. (Arcadia, CA), or kits could be purchased for installation by a local shop. Both the standard kit and the ZR1 kit include eleven separate pieces. The ZR1 package had a fiberglass rear bumper, while the original standard Corvettes used received the modified tail in the same urethane material and injection process as the stock bumper. The ZR1 rear bumpers were constructed in two pieces, and installation required removing much of the impact-absorbing material on the car. Both kits served to eliminate the standard Corvette rub strip at the beltline, just as Shinoda had wanted.
The creation of the Larry Shinoda “Rick Mears SE” marked a new design theme.
Lingenfelter introduced a widebody kit for the ZR1 in 1993; it was the first ZR1 widebody kit to hit the market. It is no surprise that a wider body would be required to mount even larger tires to accommodate the new levels of power which could be expected from their LT5 upgrades. The revised LT5 displaced 415 cubic inches and produced 610 HP @ 7000 rpm; torque was 520 ft/lb @ 5200 rpm. The body kit included a revised front fascia, side skirts, custom hood, and revised rear fascia with the Lingenfelter logo. The exhaust had a custom-controlled variable back pressure system incorporated.
Lingenfelter’s ZR1 widebody was the first body kit built specifically for the ZR1. It pre-dated Shinoda’s work
Meanwhile, in Europe, Geiger GmbH produced a widebody kit that sold well in that region. Of course, the European sensibility regarding “style” is different from our own, so sales in the USA were not extensive. And another European-based company, Lister, produced a highly styled Corvette produced in the U.S. by a licensee. About 20 kits were built.
European kits had a different flavor. Lister and Geiger kits displayed the Euro zeitgeist.
The trend to ever-more-complex custom features for the C4 is evident. But there is one more level of sophistication yet again. We can see that the idea of re-creations is a thing of the past. But, in their place are the cars that really move up to the highest level of sophistication. These are the best-customized Corvettes that you could purchase without going into a full custom build. Reeves Callaway called them “bespoke,” but I’ll just call them serial-built but well beyond the average consumer.
Callaway began creating turbocharged cars in 1978. Samples ended up at General Motor’s Milford proving grounds and mightily impressed Dave McClellan’s Corvette development group. In 1985 Callaway received the official corporate blessing to list his twin-turbo application as RPO B2K.
The Callaway twin-turbo was updated several years after its first appearance; from 1991, the LT1 became the base platform. The mandatory options that a customer would order from G.M. included the 6-speed, 3.45:1 axle ratio, heavy-duty cooling system, extended air dam, ZR-l brakes, and power steering fluid cooler. Callaway removes the engine, and transmission is removed for significant work on their internals. The car’s structure is reinforced with a supporting front chassis member called the “wonderbar.” Sheets of pre-formed stainless steel and aluminum are fitted in key places to protect the structure, wiring, and other heat-sensitive items from the heat. Externally, the hood is now fitted with a twin scoops duct in the fresh air to both intercoolers. (Callaway ceased using NACA ducts in 1987.) When all is complete, the most visible objects in the engine bay are two shiny aluminum intercoolers and the contrasting black crackle intake runners and plenum.
The next innovation was the introduction of the aerobody, penned by designer Paul Deutschman. The aerobody itself was a spin-off of the Sledgehammer. The big visible feature for the Callaway Twin-Turbo Speedster is the unique low-cut wraparound window system, including windshield, side glass, and extensions that wrap into the driver and passenger headrests. The backlight is a slanted affair that manages to snuggle between the faired-in headrests. Libby-Owens-Ford will custom-produce the vehicle’s windows. The Aerobody rear (bumper) panel differs from the production car in that it features a center-mounted dual exhaust outlet. Ten were built, with two more being ZR1-based Super Speedsters.
Callaway twin-turbo, aerobody, and speedsters showed concern for integrated packages which could radically scale up overall performance and style
By the early 1990s, the major magazines began to showcase the idea of a Greenwood “G Series” of C4 Corvettes, starting with a Supercar. The Supercar dream rapidly sunk under its own brilliance. Even the fall-back G572 big block was abandoned in favor of a simpler approach. Two primary models came to pass. The first was a G350sc (Vortech supercharged) and the G383 (Lingenfelter 383 normally aspirated).
John developed the structural re-design, and Burt Greenwood designed the bodywork and aerodynamic appliances. The start point for the new G-series body panels was, of course, the aero kit and “motorsports” kit from the 1984-85 timeframe. The new features included new side panels (below the beltline) manufactured from lightweight composite and incorporating an electro-luminescent panel with the Greenwood name. The rear bumper featured a four-strake design for a very bold diffuser. The space between the strakes provided outlets for the exhaust system. The rear wing was designed in two alternate styles. A “high” and “low” wing-style were both considered. The high wing had been designed primarily to complement Sean Roe’s Bridgestone Challenge Car. For the street, a low wing was created in two alternate widths. Each would serve the client’s specific end-use.
The overall design received a mixed response from the public. Some found it to be a little radical. But, with time, it has become much more widely appreciated. It is still “current” in design language, and its air management features are considered to be very effective, even by today’s standards.
GREENWOOD 383 SERIES – The Greenwood G series was created as a step-wise progression to a supercar. The G383 model with a modified 383 engine stalled on emissions issues.
A new Guldstrand GS90 was introduced in January 1994 in Los Angeles, CA). The GS-90 Corvette is based on the Corvette ZR-1 with an aerodynamic body designed by Steve Winter. The GS90 was Dick’s car most elaborate and expensive specialty Corvette ever built at that time. It carries a 475 horsepower LT5 variant from D.K. Motorsports and a Guldstrand-modified suspension. The styling of the car reflected the 1963 Ferrari GTO. The only stock Corvette body parts were the windshield and side windows. Goldie threw every trick he knew into the GS90, from thicker anti-roll bars to coil-over shocks replacing the stock mono-leaf sprint. Then he capped it all off with 18-inch aluminum wheels from O.Z. in Italy and a Nassau Blue paint job with a single bold white racing stripe. Performance was stunning, with 0-to-60 in the low 4-second range and a top speed of over 175mph.
Interestingly, while the price of the GS90 (based on a new ZR1) could close in on the $200 K mark, it is no accident therefore, many of the six GS90s eventually built were insurance jobs. Under those circumstances, owners of existing cars found the price to be more tolerable.
Designers Point the Way
A couple of other cars coming directly out of G.M. are worth a quick look. In their own way, they pointed both to a resurgence in factory-sponsored racing (circa 1984) and to new directions for the styling and customization of privately-owned Corvettes.
By 1990, the new ZR-1 was on the market. Inside G.M., many ideas were tested to help keep Corvette within fuel economy regulations and assess new directions for future cars. One of these was the ZR1 Snakeskinner. At its core, this was an effort to see where (and how much) weight could be removed from the Corvette. The idea was valid in its own right but was also an insurance policy against the need for some kind of response to the impending Dodge Viper. Some of the styling cues were adopted for the Tommy Morrison ZR1 race cars for the 1991-95 MSA and Trans-Am race seasons. The full Snakeskinner kit was a bit more elaborate than the engineering car called Snakeskinner but clearly rooted in that car. What translates to racing can also translate to the street. Following the Greenwood pattern of taking race car cues and turning them into revenue, the body style was soon offered to Corvette owners by Tommy Morrison, who brought both race-approved and street legal Corvettes in the style of the Snakeskinner to market.
There were many other variants on the ZR-1. The car itself begged to be used as a foundation for stylists and racers’ wildest and most innovative ideas. In my mind, there were two cars in particular that were developed. The first was the 1989-90 ZR1 speedster offered by American Sunroof Corporation (ASC) for show purposes.
Then John Cafaro offered his own speedster variant closer to the end of the C4 run. The Cafaro speedster was offered under the Skunk Werkes title and, it also carried a cut-down convertible top, as per the original Porsche 356 speedsters. Only a limited number were sold, but the developmental work that went into these cars was not far removed from the development of the C5 and C6 Z06 convertible conversions by John Caravaggio.
Some ZR-1 “specials,” including the famous ZR1 Snakeskinner, ASC speedster, and John Cafaro speedsters.
Another car that I see as being critical to the evolution of design for the Corvette was the Stingray III concept car from 1993. While a bit radical for the average Corvette customer, it pointed to a future that people like John Cafaro envisaged. Only a few people saw the gem hidden in plain view. In case you didn’t notice, many of the design touches appeared in the Camaro, and other details, such as the taillights and badging, appeared on the new C5 Corvette. Maybe not a custom car in the sense of this article, but pure design in the intellectual context.
The Stingray III
Translated to the Street
So far, this review of the C4 era has covered the work being done inside G.M. But, like the evolution of customization for the C3, the number of “private” customs increased as the C4 model aged. In fact, it had two specific explosions. First, some ideas started to emerge just as the C4 was nearing the end of its production run. And there has been a subsequent explosion in the 2000s.
A car that originally twigged me to this revelation was one created by Dean Kaliakmanis (Chicago area) in the last ten years. Dean has a couple of C4 Corvettes. His interests run to speed and track events, so he has developed their own pieces to improve aerodynamics and add to their cars’ overall style. Dean’s blue C4 carries a basic set of aero pieces to lower the front and rear bumper and to provide control of air tumbling under the car via side skirts. He has added a carbon fiber (style) splitter, a rear diffuser, and a wing for more substantial aero effects. His black Corvette carries fewer parts, but the front splitter looks a whole lot larger.
Once sensitized to the fact that there was a trend going on, I couldn’t help myself. So, I began to notice that very individualistic cars were popping up everywhere…or, so it seemed.
A deep insight into the current trend to customization reveals a couple of things. The first is no surprise…. The cars had decreased in value, they are out of date in technological terms, and the range of custom body panels and the technologies to perform basic bodywork have evolved. Add to that, people are enjoying the improved economic status, and they really want to break away from what has become known as the jellybean look that comes from cars massaged in the wind tunnel.
But I want to add some complexity to this equation. And, to do this, we have to look west….to Japan.
At the turn of the century, Japanese owners were becoming more active in customizing their domestic cars…JDM. But their cars were metal. Enter the bolt-on fender flares, splitter, and wings. Nor were the Japanese short on engine tuning prowess. Every four-door sedan was turned into a pocket rocket. But the styling didn’t really catch on with Corvette owners in the USA…at that time. Even in Japan, the few Corvettes imported would draw on body kits made in Japan…but still look very much like the American equivalents (BSM in Yokohama was a good example).
It took some time for everyone to catch on to the new trends coming out of Japan. Eventually, however, the kids in Japan showed us how. So, we began to understand that these custom tricks developed in Japan could be used on the fiberglass Corvette…in fact, they could be applied even easier than was the case with a metal car.
It began with the Rocket Bunny / Liberty Walk flares and has now grown into full-body kits from more expensive vehicles from Ferrari to Corvette. The next technical issues to be incorporated were airlift suspensions (for the slammed look) and drifting.
This is a new era…a 2000s interpretation of what customizing could have been in the 1980s.
Individuals Express Themselves
Are you planning to get started on a 1984-1996 C4 Corvette project? If so, you can get your hands on a range of body kits, frames, fenders, hoods, door panels, air cleaners, brakes, dash, console, engine, exhaust, heater, ignition, distributor, lights, lamps, wheels, tires, weatherstrip, windshield, wipers, and many more!
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We also have a series of the History of Corvette Body Kits by generations:
- C1 Corvette Body Kits
- C2 Corvette Body Kits
- C3 Corvette Body Kits
- C4 Corvette Body Kits
- C5 Corvette Body Kits
- C6 Corvette Body Kits
- C7 Corvette Body Kits
We are also starting a new series of looking back at the custom Corvettes at SEMA over the years. Our first year in the series in Corvettes at SEMA 2013 Overview and Photos.
Are you looking for someone to work on your Corvette? We have compiled a list of Corvette Custom and Restoration Shops. This page is not intended to endorse these companies. Many of them come from show boards at car shows and others are readers and social media followers submissions.
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