Corvette restoration a bonding experience for R.I. father and son

father son 1

by Peter C.T. Elsworth as republished from Providence Journal
Christopher DeGrave’s Ontario Orange 1971 Chevrolet Corvette 454 LS5
is a striking reflection of the bond he has with his father, Dennis

Dateline 11.28.15: RICHMOND, R.I. — Christopher DeGrave’s Ontario Orange 1971 Chevrolet Corvette 454 LS5 is a striking reflection of the bond he has with his father, Dennis. Together, they’re a team with deep roots. Christopher is an only child, as was Dennis. Indeed, the tradition of only children — and only sons at that — goes back five generations to Christopher’s great-great grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1912 from northern France, near the port city of Calais.

Christopher bought the 1971 Corvette three years ago in need of substantial work, and together they have brought it back to immaculate condition. Remarkably, the glossy orange paintwork is original, the result of hours of buffing and polishing.

The restoration project with his father followed one involving a 1972 Corvette, which they began in 2001 and completed two years later. But the car was stolen one month after the restoration was complete, and was never found.


Christopher, 31, said the theft — after their two-year restoration effort — was a rough experience. “When you’re restoring a classic car like that, [theft] is the last thing on your mind,” he said. “It was a heartbreak for both of us, but the knowledge was not lost.”

“The cars have brought us closer,” he said.

Indeed, he credits his father with getting him started and with his continued interest in working on old Corvettes. Dennis DeGrave has a number of other cars, including a 1929 Model A Ford and some muscle cars, but the Corvettes clearly rule.

However, the DeGraves waited nearly 10 years after the theft of the 1972 Corvette before getting another Corvette to work on. And when they did, they looked for another C3 model — the third generation of the iconic sports car that ran from 1968 to ’72. Christopher trolled Craigslist and found the 1971 Corvette in New Jersey two years ago.

“It had some paint issues and had not been well maintained and needed work, but it was not as bad as the [1972 Corvette],” he said, noting the ’71 had been sitting in a garage for 14 years.

He had the 454 engine rebuilt with GM parts, along with the suspension, brakes, exhaust and front end. “The components were rebuilt, changed or reconditioned,” he said. “It’s just like she came out of the factory.”

The leather seats are also original — although thoroughly cleaned and buffed — as is the radio.

“We drive this all over the place,” Christopher said.

Dennis, 63, is retired from federal government work, and Christopher is a state coordinator for the Americans With Disabilities Act and also deputy fire chief of the South Kingstown Fire Department. He met his wife, Jamie, while visiting General Motors’ Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with his father in 2010.

“If it wasn’t for a Corvette, I would never have met my wife,” he said. “Or a wife that puts up with Corvettes. She loves them and is supportive of the addiction.”

Dennis also owns a sixth-generation (2005-13) Atomic Orange 2007 Corvette Z06, which he bought in Maryland three years ago. It was in good condition and only required “some minor modification, nothing too major.”

He did change the wheels, upholstered the seats and upped the performance.

And he recently purchased a bright red 1991 Corvette ZR-1 with black trim from the widow of a late friend. Dennis said only about 6,000 were sold from 1990 to ’95 despite its high performance — courtesy of a Lotus LT5 V8 engine with 375 horsepower. The car didn’t sell well, he said, because it was priced considerably higher than regular Corvettes.

“It was the fastest car on the road [with a top speed of 195 mph in 1990], but was an extra $26,000 more than a base Corvette with a regular engine,” he said.

The car has only 16,000 miles on it and is in extremely good condition, with striking red leather seats and even an anti-radar shield on the windshield.

While Dennis was talking about the car, Christopher’s friend Brad Spencer of Charlestown drove up in his red and black 1980 Corvette with an open T-top. He recently inherited the car from an aunt, but was unsure whether he’d keep it because his wife, Danielle, is expecting their first child.

“Once you get into Corvettes, you never get into anything else,” said Christopher.

Photos Courtesy of Providence Journal