The crunch of breaking fiberglass is a nightmarish sound to any Corvette owner. The repair process that comes after an accident can be equally unnerving and lasts far longer. Here's how to get the damage repaired and the event behind you as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Choosing Your Corvette's Insurance
The starting point is to choose your insurance company wisely. The main reason for buying insurance is to be properly taken care of when an accident occurs. Shopping for insurance by price alone can result in the purchase of a product that lets you down when you most need it. If you're dealing with the major automotive insurers, sometimes referred to as "standard carriers," ask your friends and associates what companies they have used and what their claims experiences have been.
I'll start things off by giving a conditional endorsement to State Farm, which has insured my vehicles for decades and generally has been good to deal with. The rates have been competitive, and, when needed, the company has come through after a little work on my part. The limitation with State Farm, or any major insurer, is that there is little likelihood the inspector or appraiser will have sufficient knowledge of older specialty vehicles. This is less of an issue for C4, C5, and C6 owners, but it is a real concern for owners of earlier Corvettes or any customized car.
Consider the added benefit of choosing an insurance company that has a local agent or office to assist you when an accident occurs. I value having people nearby I can call or visit if a problem or dispute arises. For example, if someone hits your car, you may have to come up with your deductible until the claim is settled with the other person's insurance company. A local agent may work to get the other insurance company to issue a check for the deductible right away. It may be more difficult to get such personal service from Internet insurance providers.
Is Collector-Car Insurance Right For You?
There are alternatives to the major insurers for some Corvette owners. Collector-car insurers, such as Heacock Classic, specialize in, well, special cars. A particular advantage of collector-car insurers can be insuring for an agreed value. If the car is stolen or severely damaged, having an agreed value in the policy will prevent having to establish a value after the fact. With most family auto policies, the car is valued at its bluebook value, sometimes called ACV or Actual Cash Value (the depreciated value)-and that value is subject to debate.
Another potential problem can arise from limits an insurance company places on the labor rate it's willing to pay. Although the company can't force you to use its preferred shops, the maximum rate it will pay may be, say, $42 per hour, while your chosen specialty shop charges $70. If your shop does the repair, you may have to pay the difference. Read the fine print to determine the labor-rate limitations. The rate may need to be negotiated with the shop prior to the work being commenced. In other words, pay particular attention to shops that have not had their labor rate approved by your insurance company, or you may be held accountable for the additional repair costs.
Collector-car insurance policies can offer a number of other advantages. Particularly important is that the claim adjusters are much more likely to be experienced with special-interest cars. This can make a world of difference when estimating the true cost of repairs on an older vehicle. And because collector-car insurers are smaller, they're not as likely to try to steer policyholders to particular shops, instead allowing car owners to select their preferred repair facility. Another Heacock advantage is that all policies provide instantaneous, automatic insurance coverage when a new collector car is purchased. An additional $10 a year covers flatbed towing for the insured car, a real plus in the event of a breakdown or a flat. Heacock can also insure cars during restoration, insure race cars, and even insure a car club for general liability or shows.
It's important to point out, however, that collector-car insurers don't insure all Corvettes. Surprisingly, it isn't the age of the Corvette that matters. The prime requirement is that the car only be used occasionally. Each of the drivers in the household must have another car for daily transportation.
Finding The Right Repair Shop
Getting back to the major insurers, a common accident-aftermath problem for owners of older Corvettes is that the adjusters don't know what it takes to properly repair early-Corvette bodies. Prior to 1984, Corvette bodies were assembled by bonding the fiberglass panels together. For example, the front fenders were aligned and abutted to the upper surround (top) panel and glued together with a bonding strip clamped against their inside edges. After the initial assembly hardened, the seams between the panels were then ground, re-glassed, reground, filled, and flattened. Few of today's body shops have experience with this process, and the learning curve is steep. In addition, the materials used for bonding and filling are critical. If they shrink, the seams will eventually become visible through the paint.
Selecting the right shop is critical to ensuring the quality of the repair and refinish. This is particularly so for the type of damage shown on the rear of the pictured '73 Corvette. When the upper rear panel is replaced, it will be bonded to both rear fenders and the taillight panel.
As mentioned previously, insurance companies may try to steer you to certain shops that they recommend. This is not necessarily a bad policy. If the insurance company is good, the shops it prefers to work with are ones that consistently repair cars to its customers' satisfaction. Insurance companies have good working relationships with their preferred shops, so if the repairer says extra work is needed, it's less likely to be questioned. And some shops, such as those in State Farm's "Select Service" network, even provide lifetime warranties on the repairs and refinish (paint) work.
Regardless of whether you choose a service provider suggested by the insurance company, it's well worth the time to thoroughly check out the shop. To find an experienced Corvette repair shop, first ask around.
If you're not a member of a Corvette club, go to a Corvette show and talk to car owners. Additionally, much information can be found through Internet research, including visiting Corvette forums. The owner of the damaged '73 contacted J&M Enterprises, located in Brooksville, Florida, after the shop was recommended to him by people he trusted. J&M offered years of experience repairing and restoring older Corvettes. Corvette Center in Newington, Connecticut, was also highly recommended, having specialized in Corvettes for more than 40 years.
Do Your Homework
Be proactive by providing the insurance company with complete pricing for parts and labor. If the extent of damage potentially represents a total loss, providing a substantiated, current market valuation is particularly important (see sidebar). It's better to provide accurate information for the insurance company to base its decision on than to try to get it to reverse that decision later on. In the case of the '73, both experienced Corvette shops provided detailed estimates that helped the insurance company understand what was necessary in order to repair the car. However, the insurance company would only pay the local hourly labor rate and recommended three local shops said to be experienced in these repairs.
Visit the shops and talk with both the owners and the people doing the repairs. What you see, what they say, and your intuition will all help guide your choice. The manager of the first local shop was very friendly, helpful, and honest. One technician did all the work on Corvettes and was very experienced with newer models, but he freely admitted he never replaced top panels on older Corvettes. The second shop provided a few old photos of miscellaneous Corvette repairs, but the technician who did the fiberglass work said he drilled screw holes to hold the panels together while the adhesive cured. My experience is that the fillers shrink at the screw holes, eventually making little depressions that are visible along the seams.
Prepare a list of questions, and don't be hurried during your inspections. The owner of the third shop, Superior Auto Body Shop in Pinellas Park, Florida, proved very knowledgeable about earlier Corvettes and provided his personal cell number for follow-up questions. He stated exactly what materials would be used and said that the panels would be clamped-not screwed-during assembly. A tour showed the shop to be large, modern, and clean. Online research indicated that Superior had been in business for 30 years and was family owned. The shop was also a preferred provider of State Farm and a number of other carriers, which speaks volumes about the quality of its work.
Vehicles being repaired in the shop included a Corvette, a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, an Acura NSX, and a number of Porches and BMWs-cars whose owners tend to be very picky about the quality of the work performed. And indeed, the bodywork and finishes on these cars looked excellent. Perhaps the best way to judge a shop is to examine several cars that had similar repairs performed there several years ago, but in reality this is rarely easy to do.
After selecting the shop, get a copy of its repair/refinish warranty. Many reputable shops will guarantee their work for the life of the car. I also recommend asking whether someone from the shop will do a walk-around when the car arrives, and sign a sheet detailing its condition. Prepare this sheet with a description of the condition of the paint and body, interior, glass, trim, and top. Also be sure to note the presence of any overspray (or lack thereof). The purpose of this step is to make sure the shop uses extra care to prevent overspray or other incidental damage during the repair.
When appropriate, make a list of detail items a body shop might not know, such as the importance of reusing original bolts and not painting plated fasteners, or the correct location for different-size screws. Photograph the exterior, the interior, and important assembly details. If possible, consider copying relevant pages from Corvette factory assembly manuals and leaving them in the car. It may be weeks after disassembly before the car is put back together, and the technician is not likely to remember where every fastener went.
Ask how long the repairs will take. While anyone who has worked on an older car will appreciate it almost always takes longer than estimated, you don't want your repair job to drop in priority as a result. If GM or N.O.S. (new old stock) parts aren't available, take an active part in choosing what replacement parts are used. Sermersheim's Corvette in Evansville, Indiana, sells good-quality, press-molded fiberglass panels, which are a good choice if you don't want to use non-original hand-laid panels.
Be aware that a heavy collision often results in hidden damage that will not be apparent until disassembly. The chance of such damage existing makes it even more important to select a good repairer initially, since moving the car to another shop after disassembly tends to be difficult and expensive. If additional damage is found, make sure the adjuster approves the work before the shop performs it. Otherwise, you will likely be responsible for the additional charges.
Think about what other repairs, parts replacements, or improvements could be done less expensively at this time. The labor for replacing a wiring harness, certain A/C parts, or other hard-to-reach components may cost considerably less when the car is apart. Should something additional be painted at the same time? Have you wanted to replace a stock part with something custom? Saving some money this way can take some of the sting out of paying your deductible.\
And finally, keep cool throughout the process. Be polite, especially when you're frustrated. The people you'll deal with at insurance companies are generally good folks who are trying to do their job according to their employers' policies. Take detailed notes of each conversation. These may help if you wind up with a serious dispute. And remember that what you say is probably going into their claim folder, too. If you're a member of a Corvette club or have other Corvette experience, tell the adjuster and claims people so they'll know your statements about parts and repairs are based on prior knowledge.
After your car is in the shop, Pete Doriguzzi of Heacock Classic recommends regular "conjugal visits." Check in often to see how much progress is being made. When work becomes delayed-for example, if the shop is having trouble finding a part-offer to help. Finally, when it's time to pick up the car, don't be rushed. Be prepared to leave it at the shop if you find items that need to be fixed. Never pick up the car in the dark or at closing time. Inspect every inch slowly, carefully, and thoroughly, and take a testdrive before settling up. Often it's easier and faster to have minor issues resolved while the car is still in the shop-and the bill has yet to be paid.
Doriguzzi also encourages car owners to do their research beforehand, so if an accident does occur, the car can be towed directly to the desired shop and not left outside in a storage area. Finding an experienced shop may also shorten your repair time, since the people there will have a better knowledge of where to get specialty parts. If your car was previously repaired or restored by a particular shop, Heacock encourages you to return there for the work, since the employees will know the car, its paint codes, and sources for parts.
In addition to taking time to research and choose a good insurance company and a good repair shop beforehand, it is wise to photograph and document the condition of the car and any items that make it more valuable. This can be very beneficial if the car is stolen or severely damaged.
Accidents happen in an eyeblink. The repair process takes much longer and can be fraught with inconveniences, setbacks, and problems. Along the way, try to keep in mind that as much as you love your car, it's still just a car. It may help to consider Buddha's First Noble Truth, which I interpret as saying that life presents a constant string of problems, and your quality of life comes from how you deal with these. Remember, your Corvette will be back on the road soon enough, and you'll be smiling once again as the miles fly by.
Total Loss Becomes Total Win
The Crash: Several months ago I received an urgent call from a friend. A kid had just blown through a traffic light while texting and T-boned his 30th Anniversary Trans Am. This was his pride and joy-and the only car he had ever bought new. Just to show how much he cared for it, he had personally made custom covers to protect the seats.
The Problem: His insurance company said the car was totaled and would call back in a few days to let him know how much they'd pay for it. He was informed that the kid's insurance company was only willing to pay for the book value of a '99 Firebird, about $6,500. My experience was that it would be better to help my friend's insurance company establish a correct value than to try to convince them that the value they came up with was wrong.
The Solution: The first step was to detail in writing the unusually good condition of car, as well as its many rare and desirable options. The next step was to assemble a list of current, real-world selling prices for similar-condition, like-optioned cars, including sales on eBay, Hemmings, and other Internet sites.
The Result: My friend sent this information to his insurance company. A few days later, the insurer agreed on a value that was considerably above the previously stated amount. My friend was reimbursed with enough money to replace the Trans Am with a newer, lower-mileage C5!