When Jim Rhea found his next project car in July of 1997, most people told him not to bother. They said the car was too far gone to restore. They said it wasn't worth dragging home. They said...Well, it doesn't matter what they said. Jim Rhea is not an individual who always heeds what others think should be done. Like some of Bowling Green, Kentucky's other products, Rhea marches to the beat of a different drummer. So when he found a '76 L-48 Corvette in dire need of some TLC, he was determined to give it just that.
To be honest, it seems Jim's "diamond in the rough" was hardly suitable for more than parting out, but that barely slowed Jim's determination. When he found it, the car had languished under a pile of scrap aluminum in a Pensacola, Florida backyard for over seven years! According to Jim, "the previous owner claimed that the car needed a brake job when it was parked. Now, instead of a $250 brake job, it would require a $10,000 'resurrection'."
The car was in very dubious shape. After seven years of constant north Florida sun and a partially open driver-side window, the entire interior had to be replaced. The body had been nicked, gouged, and assaulted by the aluminum piled all over and around it. Rats and mice had infested the forlorn Stingray's engine compartment, eating through all of the belts, hoses, and wiring. "My friend (and President of Corvettes Limited of Bowling Green), Gary Cockriel, told me, 'If you handed me the keys and said it's yours if you'll finish it, I'd turn you down.' Undeterred by this claim, I started with little more than a dream, a vision, and a very rough hulk of a car."
Jim spent the following year-and-a-half meticulously restoring the forsaken Shark to its former glory. The car is basically stock, with minor upgrades for better efficiency and performance. Jim replaced or repaired everything from top to bottom, doing nearly all the body, paint, engine, and interior work himself, with help from friends from Corvettes Limited for the heavy stuff like completely rebuilding the suspension and installing a new transmission. The only items Jim had done by outside sources were installing a new windshield, mounting and balancing the tires, and rebuilding the rear wheel bearings.
The Vette was originally a Code 10L Classic White coupe with Code 322 Blue-Green leather interior. The previous owner told Jim that the original owner had requested that the dealer change the seats and door panels to white upon delivery. While Jim has no way to officially verify that claim, only about four hundred Code 322 interiors were produced, and this one was unique. After substantial bodywork, which included replacing the torn and beaten urethane front and rear bumper covers with fiberglass duplicates that he bonded and molded to the body, Jim resprayed the '76 in acrylic enamel Classic White with a clear coat. He also updated the Shark's headlights with Halogen bulbs, then reupholstered the interior-at home-to "dealer specs" with blue-green and white leather supplied by Corvettes Original of Douglasville, Georgia. Creature comforts are a combination of old and new, including the factory air conditioning and a hidden Pioneer CD player with a multitude of Kenwood speakers.
The '76 is propelled by the same 180-hp L48 small-block that moved the car 25 years ago. The engine is now spotless and runs strong but has never been rebuilt, though over 112,000 miles are on the clock! Aluminum L-82 valve covers grace the stock heads, and a Holley 600-cfm carburetor sits in place of the factory Rochester Q-jet. A K&N filter is hidden within the L48 air cleaner housing. Flow Tech 1 1/2-inch headers send spent gases out via a 2 1/4-inch polished aluminized steel exhaust system. The Corvette rolls on stock 15x8-inch Rally Wheels all around, wrapped with P235-70 Firestone Firehawk tires. The most effective modification to the original drivetrain, however, has been the transmission. Jim swapped out the old Turbo 350 close-ratio three-speed automatic in favor of a T200-R4 from an '84 V-8 Monte Carlo. The swap was a direct bolt in(!), and gained Jim wider ratio gears, a lower First-gear, and overdrive! Now, combined with 3.08:1 ring-and-pinion, Jim gets much better throttle responsive from his old Shark, and has documented 23 mpg with the A/C going!
After 18 months of intensive work, Jim proved the naysayers wrong by driving the Shark to Gary's house for its unveiling. "Needless to say, Gary was floored," Jim recalls. "He couldn't believe it was the same car he said was 'too far gone to be restored'." Even though the '76 accumulates fewer than 5,000 miles per year, Jim is not afraid to drive it. He and his wife, Beth, have taken the Shark for trips up to 500 miles, making its improved fuel economy important, since it is "too heavy to push very far." Jim felt it was his "duty...to love the car back to life for others to enjoy and appreciate," and he has truly hit the mark. Beth has threatened to kill him if he should ever decide to sell the Corvette, and they display it at every event hosted by the National Corvette Museum. It has collected several show trophies and other honors.
Jim's biggest thrill was having his resurrected Shark selected by C5-R pilot Ron Fellows as Ron's Celebrity Choice at the 2001 C5 Birthday Bash, followed closely by an invitation for his car to represent '76 Corvettes in the 50th Anniversary Motorama at the NCM in June 2002.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Operation Resurrection has been a success!