This one’s for all of you who have been asking for more model car material, as well as those who appreciated the gamut of highly creative–and realistic–artwork of Charlie Smith I showed last time. I told you he had something significantly different left in his big bag of tricks. Well this is it. It’s in 1/8 scale, three-dimensional, and made of plastic.
This was quite a departure for Charlie. He hadn’t built plastic model cars since he was a kid, and he cut and modified those with a kitchen knife he heated over a stove burner. This one started out as more of a design concept than a model-building project. It’s just that he decided to render this design in 3-D. He made no drawings during the project. The concept was to design a hot rod-influenced, open wheel, fenderless roadster that could be produced by Detroit and sold to the public. In other words, not a modified or customized Corvette, but a new factory Corvette that looked more like a hot rod. He was told, bluntly, by one Detroit designer, “A production street rod from a major manufacturer? I don’t think so!”
But along with several photos, Charlie sent me a written description of the genesis, process, and execution of this project, so let me turn the podium over to him to tell the tale:
“When the all-new 1984 [C-4] Corvette was released in late 1983, it made a big impression on me. Not so much its exterior styling, but that engine with its plenum and injector tubes and those 16-inch directional wheels, really blew me away. So much so that those contemporary elements began creeping into almost every street rod design I did in those days. I began envisioning a very non-traditional hot rod with an all-Vette drive train, including the wheels. A street rod, if you will, with Corvette qualities. After countless drawings, I always came back to the traditional ’32 Ford hiboy as the core element of the concept.
“After long involvement in the advertising/publicity field, I started my own graphics business (Top Flite Concepts T-shirts) in the early ’80s that took me to lots of the major street rod and custom car events, where I had the perfect vantage point to keep my eye on the street rod scene. One day in 1985, while looking through the wares of one of the show’s vendors, I made a remarkable find: a 1/8 scale 1984 model Corvette kit by Monogram. What good fortune! All I would have to do is find one of those older Big ’32 kits by the same maker, and I’d be on my way to 3-dimensional fulfillment. I was planning to use only the Corvette’s engine and wheels and as much running gear as possible. It was only 1/8 scale, but certainly a hell of a lot cheaper than the full-size alternative.
“The next summer at an NSRA event in Michigan, I met a designer friend who happened to work for a Detroit manufacturer. Discussing the essence of automobile design–and standing in the midst of all those exposed tires (thousands of street rods)–it came down to the question of “full-envelope bodies” vs. “fenderless cars.” I’d always been partial to the compactness and purpose of the latter, while his job requirements made him favor the former. He said hot rods were all about fun. But when you’re faced with the realistic parameters to sell volumes of cars, where are you going to put all those modern necessary components, not to mention all the safety and pollution-control features mandated today?
“His words helped me form a new direction for my scale auto project, which was still simmering on the back-burner. I not only had a challenge, but I had the guidelines to follow and all the pieces and parts to complete the job in that one Corvette model kit. I didn’t need the Big Deuce. If I could pare that Corvette envelope down by removing all but the essential elements, while maintaining all the production car requirements, I might end up with a fenderless hot rod worthy of becoming a factory offering.
“A Corvette if you will with street rod qualities (notice the switch in purpose). Also, one of those parameters my friend was always talking about was product identification. It was going to be a street rod, but it was definitely going to be a Corvette. In fact, it was to include everything the production vehicle contained, just minus some fiberglass.
“When I returned home from that ’86 Michigan trip I was fired up. Out came the Corvette model and a jeweler’s saw I’d recently purchased. It had been ages since I put glue to plastic, and the idea of a jeweler’s saw was new to me, but necessary for this undertaking. I won’t explain the body-building process in detail, or the running gear, but I will say that nearly everything for the Vettester body was built from the kit’s stock body shell, re-proportioned to fit traditional roadster measurements. There was a slight amount of new construction (with “Bondo”) in the cowl area and forward of the rear tires. And of course the pseudo-frame rails were an addition (even these are a continuation of the lower “flange” that is part of the Corvette’s front cap styling). But other than areas mentioned, the rest of the body was simply cut apart and reassembled.”
“The entire front end, forward of the cowl, is basically still the hood, although the left and right portions that contain the headlights are now dropped down to the sides, still in their original position in their panels, with room to still close into the nose. And that nose, like the rear cap, is still a “safety bumper,” as on the original Vette. Everything else, down to the catalytic converter and modern conveniences, was planned to fit–packed into an economy of volume, and quite possibly ready for a future window sticker.”
Charlie went on to explain that with the basic body, engine, and interior mocked up as a “slammer,” with some large rear tires cribbed from an off-brand big T kit his son had under his bed, and temporary cobbled suspension, he took his concept model with him to events through the year (’86), showing it to fellow artists, designers, and even rod-builders, beginning with a visit to artist Ed Newton–who quickly began envisioning, and sketching, similar concepts with Camaros, Mustangs, and even Edsels. Charlie ended at the SEMA show where, he says, “Don Thelan, Pete Chapouris, and even Thom Taylor came by my hotel room to see what I’d been chattering about at the show.” Charlie went on to say, “On the last day of the show, several artists dropped by, as well as a young designer named Chip Foose, who was just into his second year at Art Center College as I remember. I had met him the year before at Merced, and knew his dad, Sam. Chip showed me his portfolio, which was quite impressive. So I shared several of my new graphic designs. Then he asked what I’d been up to, styling-wise, and out came the Corvette model with an explanation of the factory street rod concept. I could tell Chip was genuinely intrigued by the idea.” More on this in a minute.
After that, time became an issue. By mid-’87 Ed Newton began pressing him to finish the model so they could do a combined article for publication. Working off and on, it took until May of ’88 to complete. “If I’d known the amount of work it would take, I’d have stuck with pencil sketches and would have been done with it,” quipped Charlie.
Further, “Work on the model was quite exacting. Underneath, everything was handbuilt.
“The traditional-looking front suspension was all hand-fabricated, as was the frame and Corvette-like rear end [from styrene tubing heat and bent and flat sheets of varying thicknesses, cut out and laminated]. The front end, though looking like a dropped axle, is actually hinged at the corners and employs upper A-arms for an articulated design. In the interior, engine compartment, and opened trunk, no detail could be left to imagination.”
Continues Charlie: “All told, my little project took six months of combined time to complete. It was finally ready for display at the NSRA Nationals in St. Paul in June of 1989. Soon Ed and my combined article appeared in magazines including Nitro in France and the premiere issue of Custom Rodder. We both got plenty of mileage out of that original 1/8 scale model and the concept it spawned.
“You remember my meeting with young Chip Foose? As his senior project at Art Center he chose to build a contemporary 1/5-scale street rod for his presentation. One could imagine it as a factory offering with all the necessary street legal ‘pieces and parts’ my designer friend worried about. In any event, I’ve always felt Chip’s encounter with the ‘Corvette Street Rod’ at least to some degree was an inspiration for his ‘Master Work,’ and I think he’d agree.
“So what about my Detroit designer friend who said ‘No way!’ to a production street rod from a major manufacturer? It’s general consensus, at least among the rodding community, that Chip’s Senior Project–his design almost exactly–was picked up by Chrysler and produced (with the addition of ugly front bumpers) as the Plymouth Prowler from 1997 to 2002. I knew it would happen!”
Of course Charlie has his little Vettester tucked away somewhere for safe keeping. It did serve its purpose. And I would remind you that Charlie’s words and opinions are his own. But, first, you have to be at least somewhat amazed at this guy’s skill at 3-dimensional modeling in plastic, especially considering this was basically a one-time effort by an otherwise 2-dimensional artist. And second, in the 30+ years since its debut, you’ve seen numerous variations and interpretations on this concept in many magazine “Sketchpads,” ranging from Mustangs and Camaros, to Edsels and Airflows, to ’60s pickup trucks and VW Bugs. And not only have model builders run with this idea in many forms, but so have full-size hot rod builders, in a creative variety of ways, with some surprising and fun results.
I’m sorry to report that Charlie has had some physical setbacks of late that have impinged on his otherwise prolific and wide-ranging output. But in recent conversations he sounds positive and upbeat. What I’m rooting for right now is the completion of his 1:1 custom ’59 Thunderbird, which I know is progressing as we speak. Otherwise, Charlie, thank you big time for all this wonderful, amazing stuff!