If we were granted three wishes, we know what the first one would be.
We’d time-travel back to the days of Southern California car culture right after World War II. We’d ask to be dropped off to a quaint, mid-century Los Angeles, with orange groves, a comparatively innocent Hollywood, and shiny, finned, post-war cars everywhere. A far cry from the jam-packed, 450 square-mile megalopolis it is today.
With room to grow, sunshine and surf, folks flocked from around the country seeking a fair weather version of the American dream. After the U.S. declared victory in WWII, the “Golden State” exploded with growth and became the blueprint for sprawl, suburbia, freeways, and a bellwether car culture still wielding global influence today.
One strain–of many–So Cal car scenes was the popularity of European sports cars. G.I.’s returning from overseas brought home little British speedsters and in no time, sports car clubs, a bustling aftermarket and a competitive racing scene sprung up and created a big commotion.
It created enough of a stir that GM’s Harley Earl decided GM would throw it’s hat in the ring and by 1953, Chevrolet fielded the radical Corvette.
It was fairly staid performance-wise, but had looks that were exotic and cutting edge for the day. With a six-cylinder and a two-speed PowerGlide automatic transmission it was certainly no barnburner, but it was cloaked in new fangled fiberglass and again, the styling was lifted right out of a Buck Rogers comic book.
And it was a big flop. Chevy managed to sell just 300 the first year.
The guys in the aforementioned sports car scene thought it was a poseur and responded accordingly. It wasn’t until a young Belgium engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov took the reigns of Corvette development and showed those guys in tweed caps what a V8 was all about. The rest is history.
Since there’s no such thing as a genie-in-a-bottle, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, gazing at Jim Nielsen’s 1957 Corvette is the closest we’ll get to a whiff of gasoline, saltwater and the golden era of Southern California’s sports car scene. With an LS motor thrown in for good measure.
Currently residing in San Clemente, CA with his wife Joan, Jim Nielsen is an approachable, easy-going guy that was more than happy to share his story with Corvette Online.
Jim was at the height of his youth in the late ’50s, early ’60s and was at the epicenter of the So Cal sports car scene. He grew up in Long Beach, owned British sports cars and was actively involved in the racing community. He also participated in clubs, slalom and auto-crossing events and was a flagman for SCCA.
He came to his senses–nudge, nudge–after hanging out with some Corvette guys and realized that not only was the ‘Vette a fast brute, but parts and go-fast goodies were a fraction of the cost of the expensive foreign jobs.
Then, like we’ve heard so many times before, Jim married and had two daughters and as it usually happens, playing with cars took a back seat for awhile.
After a 30 year career with the IRS, he retired and now had time to resume his car passion and looked to take on a project. His family has owned a 300SL Gullwing since the mid-’60s and he liked ’57 Corvettes because they borrow many styling cues from that big kahuna German car.
In 2001, he found the 1957 Corvette featured here advertised for sale in California. It’d been a big-block drag car in Hawaii, and had seen a hard life before returning to the mainland. Jim says “The original car was just a run-of-the-mill ’57 Corvette. It came from St. Louis as a red car with a base small-block V8. When I acquired it, it had no motor or transmission and although the body was solid, it had radiused rear wheel wells for drag slicks.”
Jim continued, “All along I meant to do a complete make-over of the car. Since I came from a background of British sports cars in the ’50s and ’60s, it was a natural when I made the decision to “modernize” the car with new running gear and suspension. I wanted to make the car like the early sports cars that I had owned.”
What’s so cool about Jim’s car us that it is a one-off combination of C1 restomod with a heavy dose of old school So Cal flavor and the result is not only fantastic, but pays homage–and keeps alive–the days of a long gone sports car scene.
Jim explains further, “I added the toneau cover over the driving compartment, the Talbot mirrors, Lucas Flamethrower driving lights and of course, exhaust cut-outs that so many hot rods had in the day.” Although the Corvette was initially an outsider when it debuted, it soon earned the respect of the community and assimilated the car fashion/accessories of the day.
Jim’s car was also a ground breaker of a restomod movement that’s still in full bloom. Even today, altering an old C1 is risky business. Some folks get all hot and bothered about it, but this basket case ‘Vette lucked out when Jim found it. The car has been so carefully and respectfully updated, that it now is a one-of-kind car that is arguably better than it ever was.
Jim explains further, “The decision to update the running gear came from the desire for a more fuel efficient motor. From there, updating the 1949 truck steering and drum brakes was a no brainer. Eventually, a call to Paul Newman Car Creations, (out of business?) solidified how the build would go.
A 1985 Corvette Z51 donor suspension was also purchased from a salvage yard and while Newman was doing the frame, I polished the suspension and replaced all of the bushings and components.
The entire ’85 suspension and brakes were utilized and the Tremec six-speed from the Camaro was hooked up to a 3:73 rear end.”
What Jim probably didn’t realize is he and Newman helped create the modern restomod blueprint that is still the defacto template for updating old Corvettes. An important note here is they didn’t go with tube frame. Newman gusseted the factory frame and grafted a front clip on the front to accept the C4 brakes/suspension. The rear IRS was mated to fabricated mounts on the other end and the union was complete. The C4’s rack and pinion steering was added as well.
Jim was heavily involved in the build as well, contributing much elbow grease and sweat equity. “While all of this was going on, I had Street and Performance reprogram the engine computer for a manual transmission and purchased a wiring harness not only for the engine management system but also the entire car. I also put in a Rock Valley stainless tank with an in-tank electric fuel pump. Centech supplied the wiring harness for the car and engine management.
After body-man Bill Bissell and I completed the rough work of reskinning the body and reworking the rear wheel wells and inner fenders, we put the body back on the rolling chassis and I wired the car and got it running. I added creature comforts such as a heated seat for my wife, AC, power windows, power door locks, etc.” The interior work was done by Little John at Interior Concepts & Design, Fountain Valley, CA.
Jim said he worked right along side his buddy Bill for six months to get the car right.
Furthermore, Jim tells us, “I drove the car in bare fiberglass for almost a year before turning it over to the paint shop to complete the final sanding and apply 1998 Ferrari Rosa Corsa Racing Red Glasurit paint.”
The finished body and paint work are stellar, with tolerances and gaps that are tight and laser straight. The aforementioned process of laying fiberglass over the entire and re-cutting all the openings really paid off.
The car’s stance might be the best part of the build. Impossibly, it looks mean and modern yet old school with updated 16 inch rallyes and dog dish caps. This is one of the hardest parts to get right when building a car and Jim hit the jackpot here.
Jim says, “The decision to have Newman make up a set of 16 inch modern steel wheels with ’57 dog dish hubcaps came from my fond appreciation of 1957 Corvettes with the big brake option and all of them rolled off the line with the small caps back in the day.” The car currently rides on 16 inch, blackwall Michelin radials.
The car rode a little stiff with the Z51 springs so he took it to the late Dick Guldstrand–Mr. Corvette–and had him swap in a softer set of springs. The ride and handling are now a better trade-off for cruising up and down the coast of San Clemente.
The car was completed in 2005 and since then, Jim’s had a ball with the car. He’s active in the Corvette community, a member of the Solid Axle Corvette Club of Southern California, regularly shows the car around the San Diego/Orange County and has put almost 20,000, trouble free miles on the car since completion.
The California of yesterday may be long gone, but from behind the wheel of this resurrected ’57 Corvette, an endless summer in sunny Long Beach lives on forever.