He Needed a Winter Car, So He Home-Engineered a Front-Wheel Drive Corvette
John Jacobi needed a FWD car for winter driving. So he took a 1979 Cadillac Eldorado frame and placed a 1979 C3 Corvette body.
This story involves the only known front-wheel-drive 1979 C3 Corvette, a possible stolen car, the National Corvette Museum, and a father who could "fix anything." Meet the El Vette, a 1979 C3 Corvette with a secret under its fiberglass body.
The only hint people get is a smoked plexiglass hood scoop covering the intake air cleaner. A trained eye will notice the intake is sitting nearly at the nose-end of the car. That's because this Corvette body sits on a 1979 Cadillac Eldorado chassis, hence the name. John "JJ" Jacobi engineered this car, and the story of its origins was written in a submission letter by his daughter, Tara Cobi, when she donated El Vette to the National Corvette Museum in January of 2019.
In the letter posted on the National Corvette Museum website, Tara describes her father as the kind of guy who never bought anything that he couldn't build himself. Mr. Jacobi was an engineer by trade, and at the time, the El Vette idea came about the Jacobi family was living in Long Island, where the winters can be especially brutal. Mr. Jacobi found himself in need of a winter car. This car needed to be front-wheel drive for better traction, have a fiberglass body because he was tired of dealing with rust repair, and handle well.
At this point, I should mention one of Mr. Jacobi's favorite cars was the Corvette, and so he decided to build a Corvette with a FWD traction advantage. Maybe not as easy as just buying a cheap Honda or something, but much more interesting.
Now, El Vette is not a hold-my-beer special held together with zip-ties. The car was properly engineered to be an all-weather daily driver. According to Tara, in 1985, her father went to the local junkyard and purchased a 1979 C3 body and a 1979 Eldorado frame with four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent suspension. When one hears "Cadillac Eldorado" from the 70s, we usually picture a mile-long Boss Hogg convertible chugging unleaded via a 500ci V8, but by 1979 the Eldorado had a much more conservative wheelbase. The body style used for El Vette is similar to Robert De Niro's Cadillac in the film Casino (1995), which blows up at the beginning of the movie (although that car was a 1981 Eldorado).
Tara recalls that Mr. Jacobi asked a chassis specialist to modify the Cadillac frame to fit under the C3 body. The Eldorado frame needed to be shortened by 16-inches and aligned to the body using the wheel openings and factory mounting dimensions. The goal was to keep the Corvette's ride height as factory as possible. The car's rear section involved splicing a section of the C3's frame to the Eldorado frame using a 3/16-inch thick steel plate to avoid modifying the original gas tank, spare tire, and rear bumper mounts.
For power, El Vette runs an Oldsmobile small block 350 V8 and a Cadillac automatic transmission. Due to the modifications, the engine sits 16 inches further forward than stock. That required installing extensions for the wiring harness, AC lines, and relocating the AC compressor and alternator so the hood would close. Everything was done professionally with notes documented by Mr. Jacobi, and it took five years of free nights tinkering in the garage until he finished in 1990.
Mr. Jacobi nearly lost El Vette when he tried to register the car and the DMV came back with a mismatched VIN for the C3 body, prompting an investigation into a possible stolen car. Tara was a college student the night police arrived at their home, flashing a warrant to seize the car from the garage. She was alone in the house and stalled while trying to reach her father on the phone as several more police cars showed up to surround the driveway. Tara had no choice but to hand over the keys. One can only imagine the anxiety of having to wait for Mr. Jacobi to arrive home and see an empty garage.
El Vetter was reposed and auctioned, forcing Mr. Jacobi to buy back his own car, but in 1993 the DMV finally gave him a title for a custom-built '79 Corvette with a '79 Eldorado chassis.
The letter ends with Tara saying that Mr. Jacobi passed away in April 2018, and one of his last wishes was to donate El Vette to the National Corvette Museum, which she did. Not because she didn't want the car but because El Vette would be in better hands at the museum and be admired by fellow Corvette enthusiasts.
A 1979 C3 powered by an Oldsmobile sitting on a Cadillac chassis could almost be considered a tribute to General Motors. If you happened to visit the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, check out John Jacobi's black 1979 El Vette. There's truly no other Corvette like it in the world.
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