1977 Chevrolet Corvette - Long-Distance Shark

Dick and Jill Countryman's '77 Vette Rod averages about 5,000 miles a year.

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Don'thate the '77 Corvette because it's popular. Sure, its powertrain choices weren't as strong, or as numerous, as they were earlier in the '70s, and there was only one body style available. But that didn't stop 49,213 sharks from rolling out of St. Louis that year-the third-highest Corvette production total ever, only topped by the '79's 53,000-plus and the 51,000-plus made in the extended '84 model run.

The year 1977 was a year of refinement for the Corvette (no longer called Stingray). The steering column was redesigned, placing the steering wheel 2 inches closer to the dash, and the headlight dimmer switch moved from the floor to the turn-signal stalk. The console was redesigned so any standard-size Delco radio would fit, plus the HVAC controls were relocated to the console from the dash. A new leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel was included with the tilt-and-telescope wheel option, which most '77 Vettes were built with, replacing the unpopular "Vega" four-spoke wheel first seen in 1976. Add in power steering, power brakes, and leather seats that were now standard, and Corvette's base price jumped over a thousand bucks for 1977, up to $8,647. Not too many "stripper" Vettes were made that year, as production records show the majority of them were optioned with air conditioning, power windows, the tilt-and-telescope steering column, and an automatic transmission.

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Dick and Jill Countryman's '77 is one of nearly 7,100 '77s built with a four-speed manual transmission; one that left St. Louis with the full complement of luxo-tourer features that Corvette buyers of the day were going for. It's an early-production '77, as evidenced by the separate alarm actuator on the left front fender (a running change moved it to the driver's door lock around midyear).

When Dick found the car in 1987, it was neither a basket case nor a trailer queen. It had about 78,000 miles on it, and it had been maintained reasonably well. But age takes its toll, and it was due for some fixes. "I did all the upgrades for driving it on the highway," he says from his Belvidere, Illinois, home. "I went through everything on it." That included the front and rear suspension systems, which were completely rebuilt with new bearings, polyurethane bushings, front ball joints, rear trailing arms and adjustable struts, a composite rear spring, and more. The brakes were treated to stainless-sleeved calipers, plus new brake lines and hoses. "I actually pulled the body off when I put the new fuel lines, brake lines, and body mounts on," Dick recalls. "After I did all that stuff, it took another three years before it went into a body shop."

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Before the bodywork happened, more mechanical upgrades were in the works. That included a Keisler five-speed transmission and a GM Performance Parts ZZ4 350ci crate engine to replace the shark's stock L48 350. "Best move I ever made," Dick says of the ZZ4 swap. "It runs excellent-you can put your air on, and you don't feel the pull down in horsepower as you did with the stock 350." He says it was an "easy drop" with no problems encountered, even with headers like his ceramic-coated Hooker Super Comps. "A lot of guys are worried about their hood clearances," he adds. "I never had a bit of trouble putting it in." His success with the ZZ4 swap caught the eye of his fellow C3 Vette Registry members, several of whom are either considering-or have already-swapped a ZZ4 for their original L48.

Other recent mechanical upgrades are a hydraulic clutch to complement the Keisler five-speed, and Steeroids rack-and-pinion steering to replace the ancient (and worn) Saginaw recirculating-ball system. "It's nice and tight and snug, and you don't have any 'play' in the steering wheel like you did with the old steering boxes," Dick says. "When you touch it, it's right there."

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Once it was ready for the body shop, however, Dick had to change painters before his car went in the booth. "Eventually, I got tired of waiting for the guy who was going to do it. I got lucky and talked to a guy in November of 2002. The following February, I took it to him and he had it done two weeks before the 50th Anniversary Caravan." That guy was Tim Grove of Rods 'N Restoration in nearby Rock Falls, Illinois. He applied the single-stage PPG Black to the Vette's body, but not before doing some restorative work to it. "He pulled the whole front clip off it and did the stress cracks and all from the bottom first. Then he flipped it over and did the top. he did an excellent job." That's not surprising, says Dick, who points out that Tim's shop does a lot of ultra-high-buck cars such as Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings. Dick found Tim through an old buddy. "One of the guys that I went to school with, Kerry Hopperstad from Hopperstad Customs in Belvidere, worked with Tim years ago. That's how I got to know Tim."

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Once back from the body shop-the only time it's ever been trailered in the time that Dick's owned it-the Vette had to get back together in a hurry if it was to make the 50th Anniversary Caravan. "I had a lot of work to do getting the interior back in, and all, because I'd completely gutted the whole thing," Dick says. In went new smoke-grey carpeting from Auto Custom Carpets, and then matching leather went on the seats (thanks to Doug Scott) and the door panels. A Clarion AM/FM/CD player with Pioneer Sound Bar speakers replaced the OEM Delco sound system, and a carbon-fiber accent panel went on the console and gauge cluster.

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Once done, the '77 went back into drive-to-shows duty, which it's performed flawlessly ever since. That was about 60,000 miles ago, and the shark now has 138,000 miles on it. "We usually average about 5,000 miles a year on the black ['77] car, which is quite a few," Dick says. "I drive it, but when I bring it home it's cleaned up and put away. I start looking for nicks and scratches, then we hand-rub them out. I detail it up, and she's ready to go again."

And go again it did, to two big downstate Illinois shows in 2007: Mid America Motorworks' Corvette Funfest in Effingham, and Springfield's International Route 66 Mother Road Festival, with another trip planned to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for the Classic Corvette Extravaganza. "That will probably be my last one of the year, seeing as how it's in the middle of October," he says. "We'll bring it back, and I'll get it cleaned up, and we probably won't store it away. We may do some local shows or just a drive-in or two around here, weather permitting. it could be put away early, you never know."

Then, in 2008, it's back on the road with the '77 and its garage-mate, a '96 Collector's Edition C4 that was featured in CF in May 2006. "We went to Vettes On The Rockies this year [2007] in Colorado, but we drove our '96 and took Third Place in our class," Rick says. "We'll probably drive our black '77 out there next year. We're also talking about taking it to Eureka Springs-everybody seems to talk that up. We also have a Gathering coming up for the C3 Vette Registry next year somewhere in the Midwest. I'm going to say around Branson, Missouri. It should be a good-sized gathering for us next year. We'll put quite a few miles on the '77 this coming year"

Stylin' :Dick Countryman's early-production '77 Corvette had 78,000 miles on it when he bought it two decades ago. his restoration and upgrades made it ready for the next 100,000-and beyond.

Out Back :Over time, new paint, rolling stock, and chassis hardware went in Dick Countryman's '77, but the "tunnel" rear window stayed.

Next Office One big improvement for 1977 was the absence of the four-spoke "Vega" steering wheel if you ordered the tilt-and-telescoping wheel option. Leather seats became standard that year.

ZZ TIME ::: Under a chromed K&N air cleaner sits a GM Performance Parts ZZ4 in place of the stock LM1. Dick says it's an easy swap, even with headers.

Where to next? ::: This shark doesn't stay at home if there's a big show to head out to.

RACKING 'EM UP ::: The new-for-1977 luggage rack has provisions to carry the T-tops in case the weather calls for open-cabin cruising. Hot Rods 'N Restorations applied the single-stage PPG black enamel.

Trick Shift :A Hurst-shifted, Keisler five-speed conversion replaced the stock four-speed. Combined with the posi's 3.36 rear gears, it makes for an easy-going, long-distance cruiser.

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