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- June 2009
Written By: Molly Barari
When Vern Ziebart was a 19-year-old airman, he bought a shiny red and white 1954 Corvette. The four-year-old Corvette was clunky like an old farm pickup, making it a less than ideal road car, but it meant everything to Ziebart.
It was the car he owned at the beginning of his relationship with his wife of 57 years, Aurie.
“I met Aurie for the first time with that car when we were footloose and fancy free,” recalled Ziebart, 78, with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “I was stationed in Salina, Kansas, and we met at a dance in a Methodist parish hall.”
Aurie, who was a student nurse at the time, didn’t share Ziebart’s passion for cars, but he won her over with his charming personality. Ziebart, originally from the Mitchell area, spent four years in the Air Force before working as an air traffic control specialist in North Dakota.
As time went by, Ziebart – who now lives in Rapid City – ended up trading his ’54 Corvette for a model without a center counsel. Over the years, he regretted the decision and missed the original. Ziebart restored a 1955 Chevy two-door hardtop and a 1950 Cadillac convertible, but he could never get the ’54 Corvette out of his blood – which reminded him of being young and courting his wife.
In 2011, he made it his mission to find the original Corvette. Since Ziebart doesn’t own a computer, his daughter Kari Panneck – who lives in the Washington, D.C. area – put a wanted request on Craigslist. A woman responded, saying she knew of a ’54 Corvette in Castle Rock, Colorado. It was the same model as Ziebart’s car, but a different serial number, meaning it wasn’t the exact car he had owned – but everything was identical to his car, including the fiberglass top he’d enjoyed on his original Corvette.
“I ended up buying the car in 2012 after studying the photos. The pictures really represented the car, and when I saw the image with the fiberglass top on it, I was amazed. It was exciting to realize this was the car I’d been looking for,” said Ziebart.
The car contained the original engine, hubcaps (which had already been restored), steering wheel, transmission and Wonderbar radio. The car needed a great deal of work to be fully restored back to its original glory, but Ziebart knew it was possible.
The recently-completed restoration project took three and a half years. Ziebart took the Corvette’s body off the frame and rebuilt the engine transmission. The car was sandblasted, painted, re-upholstered, and given new glass and carpet.
“It has a clean look on the outside. Red and white with a lot of nice chrome,” said Ziebart. “The car is just like new.”
The Corvette is so pristine, in fact, that Ziebart is afraid to drive it. For now, the car sits in what he calls his “car museum,” otherwise known as his garage. The large garage has porcelain tile on the floor and pictures of race cars on the wall. It also includes a display case with auto memorabilia. It’s where Ziebart goes to relax and reminisce.
Vern’s good friend Dan Haggerty of Rapid City said Ziebart epitomizes the word “craftsman.”
“Vern is over-the-top gifted. It doesn’t matter the medium. Cars, furniture, stain glass. One of the many grandfather clocks he built resides in the South Dakota governor’s mansion,” he shared.
“A few years ago, I showed Vern a picture of a piece of furniture in a magazine he agreed to build,” said Haggerty. “When I came to pick it up, there was a beautiful table he had just finished. Vern said, ‘I saw that table in the magazine you dropped off and thought, I wonder if I can build that?’ He built two of them over the next few weeks!”
“But the Corvette seemed to go far deeper than other projects. This was the car he used to court Aurie, who is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. During the time he watched the Corvette come back to life, he watched Aurie’s ebb away,” explained Haggerty. “He is Aurie’s sole healthcare provider, and Alzheimer’s is one thing Vern can’t fix. He has been an amazing caregiver, a shining example of keeping his vow in sickness and in health. My guess is the car brought Vern back to better times.”
For Ziebart, restoring the Corvette was hard work, but well worth it. He put it this way: “There are times you wish you’d never found it, but the end result keeps you going.”