Starting a Corvette Restoration Project

First Steps on a Long Road

Project Corvette Restoration Aerial View
This is a truly good-looking Corvette - it's just a little tired and needs to be freshened up. That makes this car a good candidate for restoration. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

When I started looking for a Corvette to restore, I wrote an article about finding the perfect project Corvette, and I laid out some parameters - the most important being that the car would not cost me more than $5,000 to purchase, but also that the car would run and be drivable from the first day. The price restriction pretty much limited my search to late C3 (1975-1982) and early C4 (1984-1988) Corvettes.

I would have liked a 1968-1974 Corvette, but the ones that I could afford weren't really running.

I found the right car after a short search, and this article begins the series of stories that will document the restoration and customization process. I'll take this Corvette from tired survivor to car show jewel over the next few years, and keep track of the expenses along the way.

Narrowing the Search

In the course of my search for the right car, I gained a lot more respect for the much-maligned C4 models, but I realized that my heart was set on a fin-back C3. My unscientific observation of Corvette market values, at least in the Pacific Northwest, is that there's a price dip for cars made in the mid-to-late 70s. Corvettes made in 1974 or earlier trend upwards in price, and prices start to rise again with the glass-back Corvettes from 1978 and later. So that meant that I was limited to 1975, 1976, and 1977 model years to find a running and drivable project for less than $5,000.

Finding a Candidate

Following the advice I offer to my readers on how to buy a Corvette, I spent several weeks scanning the advertisements on Craigslist. I knew I wouldn't find my bargain 'Vette at a collector car auction or even on eBay, so my options were limited to the newspaper classified ads and Craigslist.

I used Craiglook.com to scan all the Craigslist regions within 250 miles of my home.

I called a bunch of prospective sellers, and then went to look at several Corvettes, including one that had been the sad victim of an engine fire. I saw several that were substantially incomplete, or which had extensive body damage from previous accidents. I learned a lot about Corvettes from this process, so when I found the right car, I knew it immediately.

The right Corvette for me turned up about 75 miles away from my home. It was in a small farming community, and the seller had not advertised it widely. I would never have found it if it wasn't for Craiglook's ability to search Craigslist advertisements outside of my usual area - and I was lucky that no one else found it before me!

The car in question is a 1977 T-top coupe. I went down and gave the car a gentle test-drive - just enough to make sure it was a reliable runner and had no immediate bad habits.

Talking to the seller gave me a good feeling - he was a genuinely nice guy who told me everything he knew that was wrong with the car.

Because of the low price and the fact that I wanted the car to be a restoration project, I skipped having a mechanic inspect it, and I made a deal with the seller on the spot. I'm happy to say that I beat my price limit by $1,000, which is a good nest egg toward the future repair and upgrade process! I paid the seller in cash and took the car home. The title change went through the Department of Motor Vehicles without any trouble. It's really mine, now.

The first thing to do with a new project when you get it home is to crawl all over it and note everything you can find. I had a couple of fellow enthusiasts and Corvette experts help me with this process. They pointed out things that I would have missed.

For example, one expert was able to show me that the front fenders on this car are factory-original, which means the car has never taken a front-end hit.

Similarly, we found no evidence of a rear-end hit - Hallelujah! We also determined that the engine in the car is not original, so no NCRS Top Flight certifications will be coming to me in the future without an expensive process of finding the right numbers-matching components.

The most interesting episode in the process of carefully evaluating the car was when I noticed that the VIN number of the car did not match the "L-82" badges on the hood. There were 6,148 Corvettes built with the 210-horsepower L-82 option in 1977, but the VIN number specifies that this Corvette was a base 180-horsepower car when it left the factory in St. Louis.

But this car was outfitted with almost all the cool options for '77 - including air conditioning, cruise control, 8-track tape, and convenience lights. Like most Corvettes of that era, this car has an automatic transmission. This Corvette is a boulevard cruiser for the ages.

Naming Names

Many enthusiasts name their cars. Maybe it's silly, but it can also be fun and help to create a bond between you and your Corvette. My tradition is to name my project cars after notable women from the plays of William Shakespeare. The name for this Corvette had to be special - I couldn't very well go on referring to the car as the Ugly Duckling!

But genius came and sat on my shoulder for a moment. I named this Corvette after a sturdy woman in one of Shakespeare's best comedies - Mistress Quickly from The Merry Wives of Windsor. For a Corvette, that name just works.

Looking at the car, it's obvious that the original paint color was Silver, and this Corvette came with Smoke Grey leather interior. But somewhere along the line, someone replaced the original leather seats with the optional Smoke Grey cloth seats. They're in good condition, and I'll probably keep them as part of the history of the car.

Because this restoration is not going to be completely original, I decided to change the car's exterior color.

If this was a truly collectible and valuable Corvette, that would be an insane decision. But this will be a "driving restoration" so I have the luxury of changing the color. I have always wanted a bright yellow car, and that color fits the in-your-face lines of a C3 Stingray, so that's what it will be.

Right now, I'm talking with the professors who teach auto body paint and repair at the local community colleges to see if they're willing to take on this car as a project. If that works out, we'll document the whole process of stripping, sanding, and painting that they do.

The next hurdle that Mistress Quickly and I will face is the emissions test when the license registration comes up for renewal in June. So I have scheduled an appointment with an expert in carbureted engines. We'll put this Corvette on a chassis dynamometer and get a baseline reading of horsepower and torque, and make sure that she'll pass the pollution test. While I'm there, we'll talk about some basic engine upgrade options for the future, such as a high-flow intake manifold and carburetor.

The car already has a true dual exhaust, replacing the original 2-into-1-into-2 design that GM used.

The other thing that needs to be done right away is a front-end wheel alignment. The right-front tire is noticeably out of alignment, and that will have an effect on both the handling and fuel economy. Hopefully, no suspension parts have been damaged, but a little bit of shopping online shows me that a front suspension restoration kit with upgraded polyurethane bushings will cost me just $279.99. Take it from a guy who's done a lot of suspension work on Italian cars - that's a phenomenal price.

I will begin the actual work of this restoration by completely rebuilding the front and rear suspensions, and I'll document that process in detail in a future article. I'll replace the shock absorbers while I'm working, and give the brakes a close inspection, too. Between the shocks and the front and rear suspension and steering rebuilds, I'll probably spend about $500 to get this Corvette handling like new.

Then I can go to work on the engine and paint.