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Rebuilt Corvette returns to its West Virginia home

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Richard Sanson of St. Albans, W.Va., and his son, Ricky, rebuit this diesel-powered, 1978 Corvette from a burned shell in 1981.
Sanson and his wife, Jean, sold their 1978 Corvette after their son’s death in 1982. The couple recently repurchased the vehicle. “I didn’t think I’d ever see that car again,” Jean Sanders said.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An ice blue 1978 diesel-powered Corvette has made its way home.

“I'm just sort of excited,” said Jean Sanson, 72, of St. Albans. “This car has made a full circle.”

The car had burned in 1981 when her husband, Richard, 73, and their 17-year-old son, Ricky, turned it from a pile of charred wreckage into a rare vehicle. Her husband's business involves overhauling old cars and selling them.

“They made a show car out of it,” Jean Sanson said of the Corvette. “They turned it into diesel so it would not be a hot rod car but a family car.”

Father and son did some major work on the sleek car that stole the limelight at major auto shows in Knoxville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio.

They had thought for a good while about converting a Corvette from gasoline to diesel. Then in October 1981, a Corvette caught fire as it was being driven on Interstate 77 near Charleston. The front end was ruined and the interior gutted. Sanson paid $2,600 for little more than its frame. It was to be a car for Ricky to drive and show.

They installed a diesel engine and welded stronger body supports onto the frame to handle the bigger engine. The car was rewired. Other changes involved the exhaust system, drive shaft and fuel lines. Only the best parts were used.

In mid-March 1982, the Sansons took the car to a Corvette show in Knoxville that was held in conjunction with the World's Fair. A dealer offered $18,000 for the car. A similar incident occurred in Columbus.

They were looking forward most of all to an April show that year in Key West, Fla., where they would see how their car stood up against the very best.

Before that could happen, tragedy struck.

Ricky died in an unusual accident and the family was devastated. On March 28, 1982, he fell out the door of a pickup truck and broke his neck, his mother said.

His grief-stricken parents kept the car as a memorial to their son.

Four years ago, another emotional storm struck when Jean Sanson was told she had a liver disease.

“I was diagnosed as terminally ill in 2009,” she said. “Doctors said I had two weeks to six months to live. I've never tasted alcohol. They said it was hereditary.”

During the hurdles of life, she leans on her faith.

“The Lord has his reasons,” she said. “He knows what is best for us.”

She makes regular trips to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment, takes medication and remains on a special diet. “I'm in stage four. I don't have energy but I'm doing fine. The arthritis in my knees hurts worse.”

Following her diagnosis in 2009, the Corvette was sold to a man in North Carolina. Each time she walked through the garage, her heart ached a little to see it was no longer there.

Recently, the phone rang and a woman said the man who purchased the car had passed away. She was his sister and had inherited the Corvette. She said she could use some money and asked if the Sansons would be interested in buying it back.

The couple talked it over. She learned he, too, had missed the car.

Jean Sanson called the woman back. “I said, ‘I want it.'”

On April 22, the car was back in St. Albans.

“I'll drive it every day,” Jean Sanson said. “I drove wreckers for 30 years. I enjoy driving. I've driven tractor-trailers and big and small wreckers. I didn't think I'd ever see that car again. It was the most wonderful feeling.”

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