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.”
Smith’s apprenticeship at Alternative Restoration lasted four years. By the end of that time, he had become an expert auto-body technician. He had also become close friends with his boss.
Oh, and he also had finished his Corvette.
At the time he purchased the ’76, Smith didn’t think the body was in such bad shape. But once he had it off the chassis and looked closer, he realized it was “really beat up.” The front had apparently been destroyed at some point and crudely patched back together. In the end, Smith replaced every panel except the quarters and rear surround.
But this was no mere repair job; Smith set out to radically change his Corvette’s appearance and make it far more aggressive, something along the lines of an L88 race car. The principal means of doing so was the addition of fender flares. He started out with a purchased set of flares, as is the usual course of action. However, once he started integrating them into the body, Smith realized these fiberglass extensions fell far short of his high standards. They lacked symmetry (he wanted them to be perfectly round), the lip was wrong (he wanted it to be 3/4-inch all around) and the wheels didn’t look right in them (they needed to be centered). They ended up being mere starting points. What ensued was a solid two years of work to get the flares to where he wanted them. That’s a lot of shaping and grinding, but Smith is pleased with the results. Of all his work on the car, he is proudest of the fender flares.
Smith followed a similar routine with the rear bumper. He started with a kit and ended up with a pure-custom piece when he was done. The “floating” quad taillights bezels, for instance, are entirely Smith’s work. With the front end, he improvised completely, eschewing any form of kit. He started by glassing in the stock unit, then modified the rest to suit his taste.
In order to accomplish the L88 look he desired, Smith knew that he needed to do more than just flare the fenders and bolt on a bulged hood; he needed a set of racing-style exposed headlights. Vintage Exotics had just what he wanted: a C3 FIA Headlight Kit, but the price was too steep for his budget. So he reached out to Jim Cantrell, Vintage Exotics’ owner, and asked if he could help sponsor his project by providing him with the headlights in return for future publicity. You see, by this point in the project, Smith’s goal was to create a car worth of a feature story in a car magazine. Obviously, mission accomplished on that front.
At the outset of the project, Smith intended to paint the Corvette yellow. But when it finally came time to pick up the spray gun, he had changed his mind to blue. He narrowed down his selection to four different shades, then sprayed out each of them on a body panel, eventually selecting one he calls “Alternative Blue”—in honor of the name of Valcourt’s restoration shop. Somewhere along the way he decided to integrate silver stripes into the paint job.
When it came time to lay down the color, Smith definitely did things the hard—that is to say, the “show car”—way. He painted the body fully in Alternative Blue, clear-coated that and sanded it down. Then he masked off the stripes and shot the silver. Next, he went to work wet-sanding and polishing the entire surface, smoothing the transition between the blue and silver colors and eliminating any orange peel. “That was a lot of work,” admits Smith. But the result is truly stunning. Close your eyes, run your hand over the surface of the body and it is impossible to discern the existence of the silver stripe. All you feel is a perfectly smooth paint. At this point it’s best to open your eyes and appreciate the deep-blue finish, which has a luster so thick that it almost appears liquid—you want to dive right in. Smith says that seeing the car fully painted for the first time was his favorite moment in the project. It’s easy to understand why.
The Corvette’s interior is the most stock-appearing aspect of the car, though hardly any of it is original. Smith was able to salvage the right dash pad, but the majority of the other parts were sourced from Willcox Corvette. He did most of the work, but realizing the project was dragging on a bit too long, he turned to Graham Cannon to restore the seats. The car came from the factory with power windows. As for the factory steering wheel, however, Smith jettisoned it for a small-diameter one with thick, leather padding. He also seriously upgraded the sound system, installing a modern unit that is clearly evident in the rear cargo area.
The one other aspect of the project Smith didn’t do himself was the engine. The original L48 small-block was tired and needed a rebuild. It also needed more power. Smith sent it off for the work, which was to include having it stroked to 383 cubic inches and fitted with a host of high-performance parts. All that was done, but done poorly. Finding sand in the engine was the warning sign, says Smith. He feels fortunate that he was able to discover this early on, since “it would have blown up” otherwise.
Instead of yelling at the guy who performed the shoddy work, “I bit my tongue and walked away,” says Smith. He turned to Rick Barnhart of Gout Racing to put the engine straight. “He was a lifesaver,” says Smith. But the engine expert did more than just get the V-8 to function properly, he tuned it crank out upwards of 500 horsepower. It features an Edelbrock 7501 Performer RPM Air-Gap intake manifold, QuickFuel 750-cfm carburetion, Air Flow Research heads (with 195-cc intake ports), Comp Cams Ultra Pro Magnum XD rocker arms and SCAT rods. A pair of Hooker Headers feeding into sidepipes assures that this Corvette’s bark is commensurate with its bite, while a tuned Positraction rear end with 3:71 gearing and a shift kit handle the four speed’s transfer of power.
Though Smith had others execute the engine rebuild, when it came to the V-8’s appearance, he did all the work himself—and there was a lot of it. Smith went to great lengths tucking everything away, going so far as to cut up the wiring harness. He also fabricated some covers under which to hide stuff, including one for the wiper assembly. On the other hand, he consciously avoided “blinging up” the engine bay with wall-to-wall chrome and colored cables. Sure, there is more shiny stuff than stock, but for the most part the area looks subdued compared with many show-car builds. Above all, it looks clean.
When it came to the Corvette’s chassis, Smith took a similar approach to the one he applied to the rest of the car: Leave no stone unturned. To that end, just about every stock part has been replaced with something that not only has a cleaner appearance but also performs better. The rear suspension features Van Steel offset trailing arms, a Van Steel 310-pound composite spring and Dragvette halfshaft safety loops. Up front, the ’76 rides on heavy-duty, shortened Van Steel coils. At each corner the car has a Bilstein Sport shock and Prothane urethane bushings, while both ends are tied down with Addco oversized sway bars. Once again, Smith did all the work himself.
In terms of rolling stock, Smith was originally going to go with 15-inch wheels—a set of time-honored slotted mags—maintaining a more period-correct look. Valcourt suggested something different, as in tall, modern wheels fitted with low-profile rubber. Smith wasn’t so sure. “It was a huge decision,” he confides. In the end, he went down the restomod route, purchasing a set of Billet Specialties Dagger G rims. Featuring a gun-metal finish, these 18-inch wheels are nine inches wide in front and a whopping 12 inches in the rear. Fat BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDW 2 tires—measuring 235/40/18 and 335/30/18—cover the alloys, while rebuilt stock brakes sit inside them.
“It has been built to the highest judging standards,” says Smith of Corvette. This has proven to be the case. In February 2015, Smith entered his recently completed Corvette in Calgary’s World of Wheels car show. He blew away the competition, winning no fewer than five awards: Best in Class (Full Sports), Rising Star, Outstanding Full/Radical/Handbuilt Custom, Outstanding Paint and Master Builder for performing
all the work himself with little or no
Smith says he intends to enter the ’76 in another major show in 2016. It will be a Good Guys event, either in Spokane or Phoenix. Meantime, he admits he “still has some bugs to work out.” These are mostly niggling items, including a minor leak in the intake manifold, an alternator that is not fully charging the battery and a malfunctioning electric fan.
For the moment, Smith is also spending more time behind his Corvette’s wheel, venturing out at least once a week. “It’s awesome, lots of fun to drive,” he says. As someone who normally drives a Nissan truck, he’s still getting accustomed to its power. “It’s scary fast,” he says. “It slams you back in your seat.” The suspension work also helped transform the Corvette: “It handles like it’s on rails, really responsive.”
Looking back, Smith has no regrets about starting his project with a junkyard dog. “I’m glad I chose it,” he maintains. He set out to prove he could build a top-notch show car without being a millionaire. “You would have to be very wealthy to hire somebody to do all the work I did,” he says. He estimates that if someone were to requisition Alternative Restorations to perform a similar build, it would entail 3,500 to 4,000 hours and result in a $180,000 bill.
But, in the end, this whole affair hasn’t really about the car. “It’s more about what I have become because of it,” says Smith. On this score, he is quick to credit his mentor and best friend, Byron Valcourt, for his success. “If it wasn’t for him,” he says, “I wouldn’t have a career right now.”