Eighteen years old and finishing his senior year in high school, Jeremy Smith was looking to buy his first car back in 2007. He wanted something different, a vehicle that would help the Canadian stand apart from his Calgary peers. He was interested in buying an older car, and it needed to be sporty. But above all, he was looking for a driver, a car that would require a minimal amount of work and deliver the maximum amount of fun. Smith wasn’t necessarily looking for a Corvette, and he definitely wasn’t keen on a project car.
He got both: a 1976 Corvette and a project that spanned eight years and countless hours of hands-on work. But he also got a lot else out of the bargain: a career, as well as a best friend.
“A Corvette happened to pop up,” says Smith of his Internet search. On screen, the L48-engined manual looked promising. In reality, the situation was much different. Based on the bugs, mice droppings and rust he found in the car, Smith could only conclude, “It must have been sitting in a field for a number of years.” While the blue-and-white Corvette’s doors wouldn’t shut properly, it did run. This, combined with the fact that it was more or less complete and had no obvious damage, was enough for Smith to plunk down $5,500 (Canadian) on what he acknowledges was a “basket case.” “It was like getting a car at a junkyard,” he says.
So Smith knew full well that this Corvette would require a lot of work, but he had no intention of restoring it to pristine, original condition. In addition to just making it function properly, his plan was always to modify it and make it faster. He knew that he’d need to gather a lot of parts, many of which he’d have to buy piecemeal, according to the ebb and flow of his bank account. Two years was his initial estimate for the project. Then, about a month into the job, he had an epiphany: “I should do this differently,” Smith told himself. He decided he wanted to build a really nice show car, not just a runner. His new time frame? Four years. He ended up being off by half.
Why did it take so long? Well, first of all, Smith had no experience working on cars, at least not at the level of expertise this one required. While he wanted to do all the work on his car by himself, he knew that he needed to learn the auto-body craft in order to do it. After working for his dad in a mattress factory, doing some welding for an uncle and a short stint at Home Depot, Smith decided he wanted to get into the automotive field. This was about three years into the project. He went to repair shops looking for work, with the aim of finding somebody who would apprentice him. What he got was a job washing cars for minimum wage—“bottom of the totem pole,” in his words. Undeterred, he kept plugging away—both on his car and on landing an apprenticeship.
Some around Smith were sowing doubt in the whole project. “People were telling me I made a big mistake,” he says. “How I would never get it back together. The negative comments didn’t [deter] me. I mean, I was enjoying the journey and wanted to hone my skills—you know, see how far I could go with this. I knew I could do it, it would just take time.”
Then, finally, somebody cut him a break: Bryon Valcourt of Alternative Restoration agreed to hire him on and teach him the ropes. That was late 2011, about four years into the Corvette project. You’d think that as Smith learned more about bodywork, repair and cars in general, it would have accelerated progress on the ’76, but just the opposite occurred. As his skills and knowledge increased, he realized that the work he had done previously was sub-par and needed to be redone. (And if he didn’t realize it, Valcourt would point it out.) Plus, Smith’s approach to new aspects of the project was much more painstaking and exacting, thus requiring more time to execute. He was already a perfectionist—”I’m really, really anal,” he notes—but now Valcourt had exposed him to a whole new world of professionalism. “What he taught me made the Corvette much nicer than I could ever have imagined.” In addition to learning skills from Valcourt, Smith acquired a steadfast commitment to excellence in his line of work. “It’s more than just a job,” he says, “it’s a passion.”