Twice the Love

May 1, 2012
Bill McElroy caught a bug to restore a Corvette at 19—and ended up doing it twice.

Bill McElroy was just 19 when he took on a Corvette restoration project.

It was 1971, and McElroy picked up a weekly newspaper in Bensalem, Penn. There he found an ad for a 1966 Corvette Sting Ray coupe.

“I went to look at the car, and it was pretty raggedy,” recalls McElroy, who owns Bill McElroy’s Auto Body in Bensalem. It was dirty, had no hubcaps, and the paint needed buffing and polishing. But it was cheap. He paid $1,600 for the car; others were selling the same model for $2,600–$2,800, McElroy says.

He bought the car initially as transportation. So when he got it home, he stripped it down but left the bumpers on. “My girlfriend (now wife) didn’t want to get into the car because of how it looked,” he says. “It looked kind of derelict going down the road.”

A year later, he was drafted into the Army transportation unit. He served for two years and came back to the area, and to his car that needed much attention. He began restoring it in 1975, the same year he signed a lease for his first body shop. He completely disassembled it and refurbished every part, but he didn’t rebuild the engine. “The main focus was the body,” he says.

After all the exterior pieces were unbolted, the vehicle got new seat covers and new carpet, and some of the glass was also replaced. The car got five-spoke chrome wheels, a 327-cubic-inch engine, and a four-speed Muncie transmission. It was painted black, with an old-school paint accent called cobwebbing, on the sides. The whole project took about six months.

After it was finished, “I drove the heck out of it,” McElroy says. The vehicle had about 40,000 miles on it when he bought it, but he drove it nearly every day after he finished it. Today it has about 150,000 miles on it.

He’s been through a lot with the Corvette. In 1976, he and his girlfriend were watching TV in the living room. He heard the distinctive sound of the side exhaust and the shifting of the four gears, and realized that it wasn’t just his imagination. It was stolen. He called the police, and they found it about 25 miles away, in a neighborhood in inner Philadelphia, with a screwdriver in the ignition. Feeling violated and defeated, he mustered up gratitude that he at least got it back, and with minor damage.

The Corvette developed an engine problem, and McElroy became too busy to deal with it. So he let it sit.

He got close to selling the vehicle, but decided instead to restore it again. “Everybody around me said, ‘Are you crazy?’ At that point it was starting to become nostalgia,” he says, recalling how his children used to look through the back window and stare at the stars.

“I owed it to it,” he says of the Corvette’s second restoration.

The second restoration cost about $15,000, and he put in time after work. It wasn’t a frame-off restoration, but he did everything else. He redid the suspension and transmission. He installed new carpet, seats and interior. He re-polished the moldings, re-plated the bumpers, installed new tires and new wheels, and replaced the glass.

He also again stripped the paint. Then he painted it pewter with three-tone, straight-line graphics.

He doesn’t take the car to shows, and unlike after the first restoration, he drives this car minimally. His everyday vehicle is a 2000 Silverado truck.

Also the longest continuous standing member of the Philadelphia Modifiers Car Club, McElroy says it’s fun to see the attention it receives when he takes it out on occasion. And, he says jokingly, sometimes he thinks of restoring it again.

“It takes me back in time,” he says.

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