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Since opening their doors back in 2007, Heartland Customs in Purcell, Oklahoma, has evolved from an all-purpose hot rod shop into an award-winning restoration house. While some might consider the flavor of their builds to be in the pro touring camp, Heartland Customs’ approach is unique in that they take painstaking measures to ensure that the car’s original look and feel is retained while modernizing it throughout. The result, as owner Jeff Page explains, is a vintage machine can that deliver performance and drivability that’s on par with the vehicles that are rolling into automakers’ showrooms today.
“A lot of these restomod shops are adding spoilers, doing rocker panels in carbon fiber, and changing other elements of the car’s original design, and that stuff is totally cool. But to me, when you’re done with it, sometimes you’ve kind of lost the original essence of the car. So my thought was to bring something to the folks who wanted one of these cars when they were in high school or college but they couldn’t afford them, and now they’re at a place in their life where they can. But they also remember how much wrenching it took to keep the car on the road, and how bad the air conditioning was if it worked at all, and they don’t want that part of it. Maybe they drive an Audi or Mercedes-Benz now – or even a new Chevy truck – and they don’t want to go back to sixty-year-old technology. So the goal for me was take their favorite classic car and give it all of the creature comforts and driving manners of a new vehicle while keeping that stuff hidden away so it looks like it originally did.”
While Heartland Customs has applied their talents to an array of GM muscle cars over the years, vintage Corvettes have long been a specialty of theirs, and their latest ’61 build is a bona fide show-stopper.
“I’ve got a customer out in California that we’ve built a number of cars for over the years,” Page tells us. “He typically drives them for a bit, sells them off at a profit, and comes back to have more cars built. For him it’s kind of a business opportunity. One day he calls me and says, “OK, let’s do something different this time around. We’ve done a ’63 split-window and some ‘58s – I really like those C1s, but is there a model that’s a bit unusual? Maybe a little sportier?’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be a ’61.’”
While Chevrolet was still producing the first generation of Corvettes at the time, the 1961 car introduced some key aesthetic tweaks that would bridge the gap between the ‘C1’ Corvette and the second generation ‘C2’ model that debuted in 1963. “The ’61 was kind of a transitional look,” he notes. “The rear end has kind of a ducktail shape to it, it’s got the round tail lights – it’s a more athletic body style overall.”
Page’s client agreed, and the team soon set to work on the project. But as the build was moving along, Page received a call from a potential customer, who was also interested in having a Corvette built. Heartland Customs’ backlog of pending projects meant that they had a five-year wait in front of them, and they wondered if there was a way to get the new machine in his driveway sooner. “So he asked if we had anyone who would be willing to sell their project or their spot,” he recalls. “And this customer in California immediately came to mind.”
The two clients worked out a deal between them and ’61 became the new customer's build mid-way through the project. “He kept more of less the same spec, but we were early enough in the process that we could change the paint color and make some changes to the interior,” Page says. “But he was good to go with the rest of it.” While the initial plan was to have the build completed in time to debut it in Holley Performance’s booth at the 2021 SEMA show, a change of plans provided the team with some breathing room in order to get everything perfect, and it’s clear that it was well worth the wait.
The Corvette’s paint and bodywork is the result of more than a thousand man-hours and sports rear quarter panels that have been subtly extended out by an inch and half to provide room for wider rubber. The fastidiously massaged and aligned fiberglass is underpinned by an Art Morrison chassis that dramatically improves structural rigidity while also providing support for the Corvette’s new rack and pinion steering, six-piston Baer brakes, and modernized suspension, the latter of which is now independent at both the front and rear and outfitted with double-adjustable coilovers.
Underneath the hood lurks an LT1 crate motor from Chevrolet Performance that dishes out a healthy 535hp. Hooker headers and stainless mufflers are on hand to provide a properly burly soundtrack, and the power makes its way to the rear wheels through a Tremec TKX five-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip rear end from a fifth-generation Camaro ZL1.
While the custom 18-inch wheels are designed to look like the factory wheel and hubcap, they also feature a modern twist. “The original wheels had these tiny window cutouts on them,” Page points out. “They looked classy, but they wouldn’t allow you to see the brakes behind them – back then you really didn’t want to. But since we have these fancy brakes on there now, we designed the new wheels to mimic that look but with larger window cutouts that allow you to see what’s going on behind them.”
Meanwhile the Corvette’s interior boasts European leatherwork by Moore and Giles that’s been color-matched to the convertible top, as well as a host of cleverly integrated upgrades and tweaks that make the cabin far more posh than it was back in the day. “Sculpt Garage does the interior for every Heartland Customs car built,” Page says. “What’s awesome about them is that they basically redesign the interior so it looks original without the unsightly elements. All of the trim, knobs, and other features that you expect to see are there, but things like the twenty five screws that the factory used to hold door together are now hidden, and the tolerances are much better than they originally were.” Other features, like the Dakota Digital gauges and the RetroSound Wonderbar stereo, also mimic the look of their original counterparts while providing modern creature comforts like Bluetooth connectivity and Apple CarPlay compatibility. A wireless charging pad has also been discreetly integrated into the center console to keep mobile devices juiced up.
After the team at Heartland Customs had thoroughly shaken the car down to ensure it was ready for primetime, the Corvette was delivered in June of this year. “We probably drove around for three or four days with the laptop hooked up, just dialing in every little thing to get it perfect,” he says. “I feel like a lot of shops out there that do a great job on 98% of the build, but they kind of overlook that last two percent because they want to get their customers their cars. But that’s stuff like the brake pedal feel and how sensitive the drive-by-wire throttle is, and those elements can really make a difference in terms of how much fun a car is to drive.”
With the new owner now enjoying the summer in his hot rodded C1 ragtop, the Heartland Customs team is now on to the next project. “Right now we have sixteen cars in-house and a six-year waiting list of cars to be built after those,” Page notes. “That’s keeping us plenty busy, and we’re getting to branch out a bit. C1 and C2 Corvettes are kind of how we got on the map, but now we’re also doing Mustangs, classic trucks built for overlanding, and other things like that, so we’re really excited about taking on these new projects.”