One wintry afternoon, I sat down in one of the local watering holes with all of the estimates I had so far. These covered approaches from American-made full body panels (expensive but basically bolt-on) to nameless third-world country half-panels (much cheaper, but not as good-looking and needing to be carefully welded into place) to "donate this beater to charity". The total project price was daunting, no matter which path was taken. After a couple of years of saving, I had the money in the bank for one of the cheaper approaches. But was this the right way to spend it?
I also had the local used-car classified papers and decided to do a quick experiment. I would circle every car I had even the slightest interest in owning that was posted with a price below the Firebird's most optimistic restoration cost. There were hundreds of candidates: Camaro, Fiat X1/9, BMW 2002, Roadrunner, MGB, Porsche 912 or 914 or even the odd skanky 911, Barracuda . . . The big problem was that pretty much any of these 10- to 25-year-old beauties would require exactly the same kind of bodywork investment I was trying to avoid.
Except for the funky plastic-bodied Corvette. An old Corvette would not be rusted through, although it might be pretty beaten up mechanically. The sweet spot for prices started at about ten years old, which was much fresher than some of the European exotics I lusted after. A ten-year old American car was just getting into its prime - lots of wrecks for spares, mechanics familiar with all their quirks, plenty of after-market suppliers to keep me poor. Genius!
So I started serious shopping. Every Thursday I bought the classifieds, found all the Corvettes in the right price range, called owners, set up test drives, and cajoled my sainted roommate into driving me around. We saw many, many Corvettes. Pretty much all of them had been rode hard and put away wet, most had power windows (!) and automatic transmissions (!!!), few appealed. At the end of the summer, though, we found a fine late-70's instance with the (laughably named) high-performance engine, four-speed, and no options. Perfect.
This started my romance with plastic-bodied cars. A few years later, a group of us bought a lovely Austin-Healey 3000 replica based on the venerable VW chassis. This car was a revelation to me, since I had equal fun driving it as the Corvette and spent about one-tenth per year on maintenance (and gas, for that matter). Plus, it was far smoother on the highway and had a certain social appeal the brutal Corvette would never develop. Though we sold it a few years later for a tidy profit, I couldn't get it out of my mind. Skipping ahead a few years, I found myself on Ebay making a Saved Search for "replica and kit cars".
I wanted cheap fair-weather top-down driving fun in a plastic-bodied car. After three years of haunting Ebay, almost closing a deal on another Corvette, I found a fine red Blakely Bernardi for sale. I had never bought anything bigger than a fountain pen on Ebay, had never heard of the Blakely company, had no idea what I would be getting, and forged ahead in a fluffy cloud of ignorance and optimism.
The deal was done and I began the arduous job of getting a car from a distant state into my garage. The owner said the car had an overheating problem and I would not be able to drive it home, much to my disappointment. It later turned out that the car only overheated if you drove it too slowly, so it's probably fair to say that I would never have noticed the problem until I got into my own driveway. On the other hand, its dried-up old seals and gaskets are sorely stressed by travel at speed and joyfully leak about a quart of oil for every hour on the highway. But the car-shipping option worked out very well and one sunny spring morning a few weeks later I received a call telling me to jog pronto to the corner strip mall, the nearest the auto transport semi could get to my back yard.
Think "Christmas for a six-year-old" levels of excitement. The tire straps were loosened, the papers signed, the keys found, and the car started. On the first try - FTW! I immediately noted one of the Bernardi's less civilized traits (well - depends on the beholder, I would guess) - a significant disproportion between the engine size and the muffler complement, writ large by being the only object inside a shipping container with the acoustic properties of an ogre-sized subwoofer.
The car rolled out of the truck with no drama, and into my garage a couple of minutes later. Many hurdles lay ahead before it would be licensed and on the road, but those are tales for a later post.