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1979 Chevy T-Top Corvette - Part 1: Gone Fishin for Right Project Car

On the hunt for a real-world project shark

Chris Petris Jan 27, 2005
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The Corvette marketplace can be volatile when dealing with early modelcars. However, several years of Corvettes have been stagnant in themarketplace. This stability makes the '74-'81 T-top Corvette a good buy,and if you're modest with the purchase and repair costs, you can drive anice car without fear of damaging a pristine, numbers-correct beauty.

The idea behind our Project Shark Attack is to get into a driveable,good-looking Corvette at a reasonable cost. The shark body or "Cokebottle" styling is a look many love to see. On a road trip, peoplealways take a second glance at a shark.

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This left front brake caliper has been leaking for a while. The Rallywheel is corroded badly on the inside. It's hard to believe, but all thebrake calipers look like original ACDelco pieces. I dislike having thisparticular fluid leak on my shop floor as it can do long-term floordamage.

I set out to find a reasonably priced '74-'81 shark with a solidfoundation that required some work. Approximately 337,000 '74-'81 T-topsharks were built and you can find them relatively easily. The '74s and'75s can be an exception because of the higher cost of convertibles andbig-blocks. Plus, those build figures don't reflect convertibles, pacecars, or anniversary cars. Prices vary from a few thousand dollars totwenty grand or more for an extremely nice, restored car.

To the first-time buyer, a low- dollar car may seem like the smart wayto go because, after all, it needs work anyway. But buying a low- dollarcar usually means everything needs attention immediately, which can becostly. Based on our experience, a car in the $2,000 range is good formajor modifications or a donor car, but not this project.

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Here's another typical leak to expect on a shark. The leaking P/Scontrol valve appears to be a remanufactured unit. TheP/S-control-valve-to-P/S-assist cylinder hoses are bent and out ofposition.

A lot of sharks in the $5,000-$6,000 range have had some repair workdone. These cars are sometimes good bargains because someone may havetired of the project and wants out. A shark in this range may be a goodbuy for an owner who can do his own repairs and cleaning.

Sharks in the $7,000-$10,000 range can be a good starting point for thefirst-time buyer. These cars should be driveable with good exterior andinterior appearance. Remember, a professionally restored shark sells for$20,000 or more, so if you find one for even half that, it will stillrequire some repairs.

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The driver-side lower-control-arm bushing is gone, causing a loud clunkwhen brakes are applied. Power-steering leaks end up on top of the frontlower-control-arm bushing, weakening it. When this happens, thecontrol-arm bushing becomes soft and falls apart.

Spending a few dollars more up front can save money in repairs later.Knowing this from the many sharks that have passed through the shop, Ilooked for one in the $5,000-$7,000 range. I like the interior of the'74-'77 because of the round speedometer and tachometer, but don't carefor the flat back window. If you live in an area where air conditioningisn't optional, the '78-'81 A/C is preferable because it has moreairflow than the earlier cars. The '74-'77 can be modified to havebetter A/C airflow, but it costs money.

With a good idea of what I wanted, I found a '79 with fresh paint and afour-speed transmission. The owner said it was mostly unmodified, so Igrabbed my Corvette Black Book and went to look at it. On the way, I wasthinking how nice it would be to shift a car again. You don't find many'74-'81 four-speed cars--especially factory equipped. As I turned intohis shop, I remembered the seller telling me it was red. This isn'tnecessarily a bad thing, but it seems every car I have the opportunityto buy is red.

My first impression of the car was fairly good. It had a spoiler on thefront and rear, two different brands of tires, and the center hubcapswere missing from the Rally wheels. The tires were pretty worn,indicating the car was most likely bought for resale. The interior wasmostly complete with incorrect seats. Someone installed a Vega steeringwheel on the non-tilt steering column. Under the hood looked largelyuntouched, as the owner said. Most of the shielding and hardware was inplace, which was good. But there was a rust-colored stain on theradiator and the right side of the engine compartment. So it had anoverheating engine and possible engine damage as a result.

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The driver-side view of the engine compartment shows wear, with most ofthe correct hardware in place. When modifications are done, it can bedifficult and costly to locate the correct parts. Themaster-cylinder-cover retainer bail still has the factory tag.

The seller said, "Let's put it on the lift to look at the underside."This was music to my ears, as the seller didn't know of my knowledge ofCorvettes and I wore clothing without any Corvette logos. As the car wasbeing lifted, the seller told me the engine and power steering hadleaks, and the right front caliper had a slight leak. I took a look withmy trusty Maglite flashlight. It had the leaks as stated, but the framewas in good shape--no severe rust, kinks, or cracks at the frontsuspension area. No bodywork had been performed on the inner fenders,indicating no major accident had occurred. The underside consisted ofall original pieces, including well-worn bushings and bearings. Theexhaust system had been changed, eliminating the catalytic converters.

After lowering the car, I looked at the door gaps, especially at thetops of the fenders. If there is a major gap between the upper part ofthe fender and door, accident damage may have occurred. The windshieldframe looked clean and the windshield wasn't leaking badly. The floorswere good, indicating there were no major leaks in the car.

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While difficult to recognize, this is the inside of the driver-side rearinner fender. I was looking for damage to the bonding strips. Thefenders and upper-surround panels are bonded together with bondingstrips and bonding adhesive. If there has been damage to the fiberglass,this is the place to find it.

After the underside inspection, I started the car. As the engine turnedover, it sounded as if it had two weak cylinders. While I was waitingfor the engine to warm up, I found a replacement cooling-systemthermostat in the glovebox, reinforcing the overheating theory. The A/Cblower came on, but the A/C compressor did not. The headlights didn'topen. The tachometer worked erratically, but all other gauges appearedto function correctly. The dash was cracked above the gauges and thedoor panels required replacement, as would the carpet. The odometershowed 24,736 miles and I believe the car probably had 124,736 milesbased on the number of original parts still present.

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When you find the radiator area rusty red, it tells a story. Apparently,somebody thought they had a quick fix, which was another reason totrailer the car back to the shop. The cooling system may be fine, butwith a 50-mile ride home, why take a chance?

Checking the numbers, I found the car was originally dark brown metallicwith light beige interior. It was a four-speed L82 with factory A/C.Since there were 42,454 automatics built, the four-speed certainly madethis car desirable.

Having covered all the major areas of the car, I began to make my finalassessment. Even though this Corvette required more work than Ioriginally wanted for the Shark Attack project, it had a lot of goodattributes. Usually, paint is of secondary importance when inspecting acar, but the red exterior was fresh and well done. This was importantbecause even an inexpensive base/clear paint job, done correctly, wouldcost $2,000. The frame, suspension pieces, and most hardware were inplace and intact.

The seller wanted $5,000. After discussion, we settled on $4,000, minusthe seats. They were incorrect anyway, and I had a set of correct onesat the shop.

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The weatherstrips are original equipment and showing their age. They'recracking and pieces are peeling off. After 24 years, the weatherstripsdry out, but the originals held well. Notice the Vega steering wheel.

I didn't testdrive the car because of the obvious necessary brakerepairs. I came back with my trailer and took it to the shop, ready toget the ball rolling on our project. The next phase of the project willbe a complete inspection of all mechanical components. Then acomprehensive list of necessary mechanical parts and labor will becompiled. Once we determine what parts we need, Corvette Central, asponsor of this project, will assist us from start to finish.

Before any work begins, all phases of the frame-on restoration will bediscussed and planned out, as well as some possible enhancements.Planning is essential to ensure any project is successful and on budget.

Tiptoeing around the fresh paint while the work is being done will bethe first challenge. But, rest assured, there are many more in store.


Corvette Central
Sawyer, MI 49125



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