Burton Hall would not deny that his 1961 Corvette, a dual-quad, four-speed model with a 4.11 axle ratio, can be a rough-riding machine. Its steering, handling, braking and ride comfort fall far short of modern cars.
That’s just how he likes it.
“An old car is a document, a history book,” says Hall, an editorial and digital designer. “When I drive the Corvette, I know what it’s like to drive in 1961.”
After buying his Honduras Maroon ’Vette in the summer of 1967, Hall used it as everyday transportation for 13 years, around the New York metro area as well as for long drives up and down the East Coast. His records document nearly 260,000 miles accrued, and he still clocks about 2,000 a year, including a 200-mile round-trip in 98-degree New Jersey’s summer weather.
So Hall is well aware that a first-generation Corvette’s primitive suspension does little to cushion passengers from the abuse of poorly maintained roads. Still, aside from a set of Keystone wheels installed in 1968, Hall’s ’61 remains in factory-stock condition, with its original powertrain, paint and interior. He resists installing even radial tires or replace the tube-type AM radio.
Other owners of C1 Corvettes are less willing to put up with the jolts. Motivated by the availability of bolt-in suspension and steering parts, they are upgrading their cars to improve road manners says Jerry Kohn, founder and owner of Corvette Central in Sawyer, Mich. The parts, which amount to a total rework of the front-end design, can be removed if the owner decides to return the car to its original chassis layout.
Chevrolet based the 1953-62 Corvette’s chassis on components from its 1949-1954 passenger cars, including the kingpin steering links. Kohn says that the easiest upgrade to ride and handling is to replace worn springs and to install radial tires and modern shock absorbers. Steel wheels that fit reproduction wheel covers are available in the original 15 x 5-inch size, and Coker Tire offers a radial tire that resembles a bias-ply to maintain a stock look. Going wider than six inches can cause clearance problems, Kohn explains.
The next level of upgrade is to replace the original recirculating-ball steering with a modern rack-and-pinion system, which improves steering noticeably, Kohn says. Steeroids conversion kits, available through a number of suppliers, enable owners to bolt in a system that offers the option of adding power assist, something that GM didn’t offer for the earliest ’Vettes.
To completely overhaul the handling, ride and steering of a C1 Corvette, Kohn recommends installing a full bolt-in front suspension system made by Jim Meyer Racing Products in Lincoln City, Ore. Although based on the compact A-arm Mustang II suspension layout that hot rod builders favor, Meyer’s design uses many GM parts, including 1967-72 Chevelle spindles, ball joints, brake calipers and 11-inch ventilated rotors.
The kit’s crossmember bolts to the original frame in the stock location. Meyer says that the installation requires a two-inch weld on each side of the frame to secure small support brackets. Even so, the new suspension remains removable, and the welded brackets could be ground off if re-installing the original suspension.
In the version of the kit that Meyer sells, the steering rack is a remanufactured unit from a 1979-93 Ford Mustang or similar vintage Thunderbird, and it offers the option of power assist, also a reversible bolt-in. Meyer recommends using a new steering column from suppliers like Ididt or Flaming River (though Meyer does sell a kit to modify the original column).
“Just doing the bolt-in front end, these cars steer, ride and handle superbly,” says Meyer. He estimated that someone with moderate mechanical ability and common tools could install the whole package in two days.
As an added benefit, the modern steering allows using a smaller, 15-inch steering wheel, which improves interior comfort. To add a bit more legroom to pre-1962 models, Kohn suggests installing 1961-62 style seats that have integral frames.