It all started about 25 years ago, when my father, Jim Sr., decided it was time for a better car. He went out and found a rough '75 Corvette on the side of the road. Once he had had his fun, he put the car into storage in a pole barn behind his body shop, Lewis Brothers Collision, in northern Michigan. He even tried unsuccessfully to sell it once back in the early '90s.
Some years later, when I was 11, I pulled back the tarp that had been placed over the car when it was stored. Excited by what I found, I asked my father if I could work on it. He told me that if I put in the time to help strip down the car and put it back together, he would paint it and give it to me. I agreed, and we began work on what would become a nearly six-year project.
The body on the Corvette required a ton of work, since in 1975 the term "panel fit" apparently did not exist. Fortunately, my father has an extensive knowledge of cars, especially the process of cutting, grinding, shaving, and reshaping. Our goal was to take some of the "disco" out and rebuild the Vette with a 1960s road-racing theme, using modern technology as inspiration. This included removing the roof moldings, the side emblems, the door and alarm locks, and blacking out much of the remaining moldings.
Before we got too much further into the bodywork, we pulled the smogged 350 Chevy and Turbo 400, rebuilt the trans, and installed a '99 Corvette LS1. This motor cost nearly the same amount of money that we would've put into that old 350, but it had double the power and much better gas mileage. More recently I've installed a Dragvette six-link to correct the geometry problems of the original rear suspension.
With the motor work complete, we delved back into the bodywork. Instead of reusing the old urethane bumpers, we installed a fiberglass reproduction '75 front unit and handmade our own piece for the rear. The latter process started with insulation foam, which we used to carve a buck. We then proceeded to "lay up" the bumper in fiberglass and shape it to the body. Up front, I shaved the bumper guards and license-plate mount. We then mounted the road lights and LED turn signals on specially fabricated plates located in the grille area. We also installed a hand-fabricated, Chevelle-style cowl-induction flap in the hood.
The first day of my junior year was fast approaching, so we stayed up late the night before to get the car roadworthy. I drove it around in flat black paint until the frost came, at which point the lack of side windows forced me to park it for the winter. I think I'm as famous around town for driving the car without windows as I am for having it at all.
With winter upon us, the next project on the docket was the interior. The vinyl dash, center console, and door panels were all cracked and worn, but since I was on a limited budget, we simply smoothed and painted them. We also made aluminum dash inserts and modified the center console to allow a CD player to go where the eight-track unit used to be. With the interior out of the way, we went back to our final block sanding and painting.
My father painted the car a custom mix of Matrix Kandy Red with flat black stripes, after which we finished assembling it enough for me to drive it to high school. Later, we decided to take the car to Detroit's Autorama for its first show. In preparation, we rebuilt the front and rear suspension so it would sit lower.
On my first night at the Renaissance Center, I met Chip Foose and Charlie Hutton, both of whom I both asked to sign the dashboard. Foose jokingly said, "You may have to pull me by the ear to get me over to your car, but I'll sign it." The next day I was able to get Hutton to sign the dash, but each time I asked Foose, he was busy. Having all but given up on him, I slept in the next day. When I returned to my car, the people at the booth next to me told me had stopped by two or three times looking for me, and that he would be by again. So I waited, and he did show up to sign the dash. I ended up winning Rising Star: Outstanding Engine at the show.
Four years later, I'm a senior at Michigan State University, working toward a medical career. I'm going to be attending MSU's Medical School this upcoming summer, where I'm going to train to become an orthopedic surgeon. Since I was a little kid, I've always wanted to be a doctor. I'll take with me many of the lessons I learned from my father, and from the body shop I grew to know so well.
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