Rags to Riches

My father seemed to handle the stresses of his career very well. There was one strange thing he was hung up on that I could never understand.

For all of you that have had to go through similar quirks and crappy treatment, here is a story on how providence gave me my comeuppance.
His quirks were mostly understandable for a person who had gone what he went through. I loved baseball and was good at it. Even though I had an unheard of batting average of 700 in the pony league, he would not let me join any school teams. “Schools are for learning”. Very strange thing for a Detroit high school sports star with letters in four sports and played on several base teams to say. This was not the worst quirk, though.

The one he had about me and cars was most baffling and, frankly, crippling. The first sign was when he taught the neighbor kid my age to drive and helped him get a license while he would not let me even get a learners permit. How many more blows to the ego must I take?

I was 18 before I got my license but did not have a car. When it came for me to buy my own car, he would not allow a V8 engine. Please remember, when I was 18, I was not legally an adult till 21 back then. Still, his actions made no sense. They were not for safety because he knew a six calendar car could go quite fast and it was not due to any malfeasance on my part.

I was mature for my age and had never shown any signs of bad judgment or poor conduct. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke. Went to church every Sunday. I even had become an Eagle Scout two years prior to this. Man, what does it take with this guy? Just thinking back about it makes my jaws tight. This is why I have always felt the treatment I was getting was totally unwarranted. It was critical for me to have a car at this age not only for practical reasons. I had had enough of the restrictions of military and needed some expression of freedom.

Most guys get motorcycles for this, I just wanted a decent car that was also acceptable to my peers. God only knows we need all the help we can to try to fit in. Those days, a car was the main expression of the quality of a young man. It would be like taking a cell phone from a kid today and then locking up his video games. I was paying my own way so his decision making was not based on finances.

I could fathom no justification for his attitudes and it was straining our relationship to its limit. I had spent my whole life in the service with him and deserved a lot better from him. I asked nothing from him and all he did was block my way to entering civilian life on an even footing. I saw a good car as a means of doing this. Hell, he was giving me no ideas and the military could care less what would happen to me.

Going to school full time and holding down a full time job requires dependable transportation. We lived out in the middle of nowhere on an Air Force base, and there are no auto parts stores on military bases.

I had to drive around in a dorky Corvair until I could get a car without his co-signature. While I had purchased Corvair car brand new with my own money, I was tired of clunkers always breaking down.

Dad would not let buy a new car with a V8 engine. Even though I could not get the V8 sedan I wanted, I focused on how to make the most of what I had.

Dad’s plan backfired on him because the first time I raced the Corvair—it got a first place trophy and set a record in doing it. I had never been to a drag race before.

Drag racing looked simple enough. I made a few adjustments to the car and entered the race. I was not interested in drag racing so I did not race any more. To me, it was a mechanical challenge and required little skill.

While cruising down main street a couple of years later, a bright, shiny turquoise and white Corvette caught my eye on the Chevy dealer’s used car lot. It stood out because it was five years old and as pristine as it was when it was new on the show room floor. Not only was the paint immaculate, the interior and carpets had absolutely no signs of use. There were a couple of reasons it had not sold, though.

The dealer came out when he saw me standing frozen in awe next to the car. He did not come on like a hot shot salesman so I relaxed a bit and we just talked. I told him how impressive the car looked and I had stopped more to admire it than buy it. This type of car was way beyond my means.

He then came right out and told me the engine was shot. I knew this car was in very rare condition so continued the conversation with the glimmer of hope. I told him I did not know if I could qualify for a loan without a co-signer any way. We both let these issues ride for the moment. He had already seen my car was in excellent condition as well.

We took the 1959 Corvette for a ride and the smoky exhaust was noticeable as he had warned. It was not terrible but was noticeable. Other than that, the car was solid as a rock. One big issue was something I had never heard of before or since. This Corvette had a three speed stick shift. Even my Corvair had a four speed. I knew this was a bigger factor than the weak engine.

From a couple of prior cars, I learned putting rings and bearings in an engine was pretty straight forward and a machine shop could do a valve job for fifty bucks. Since dad had retired by now, there was longer a SAC base auto shop around the corner any more so jerking an engine would be more difficult. That is all an engine rebuild consisted of. A four speed transmission would be much more expensive but a bolt on job once I got one. It would not have to be right away. Could it be possible to take this car home?

The dealer really wanted to unload this beautiful turkey so he took my Corvair and gave me a $1,800 loan on my signature alone. An engine rebuild was less than $500 back then and a four speed would cost about the same. This was literally a smokin’ deal. It was great driving it home. About three or four years prior we had just returned from Japan. I didn’t know a Chevy from a Ford and dad made me wait an extra year to get my driver‘s license. Maybe he wanted me to get adjusted to riding on the right side of the road again.

By now, dad had somewhat relaxed on his idiocy. He saw I was not a wild driving kid. I still did not drink. My interest was entirely mechanical. I was not out laying rubber on week-ends like all the other quarter mile wannabes. If he could have B-52’s to putter around with, I sure could have my Chevy. Although he had helped me with prior cars, I knew better than ask him on this one. My in- your-face-attitude with Ralph Nader’s book in hand was enough for him break. Still, his pride would not let him help me work on this car. By now, I knew more than him anyway. The worm was beginning to turn.

Summer break was coming up and I knew a guy that worked on cars on the side. We made a deal and I took the car to his garage and we pulled the engine. In a couple of months, the rebuilt engine was in the car. Drove it a week and something started going wrong. Could not figure it out so tore into the engine and found an error the machine shop made. Oil was not getting to the top end of the engine. They would not make it right so I filed a small claims court suit and won. Was this pretty woman of a car cursed? School is starting soon so the car I was borrowing for the night job would not be enough.

Just outside of town is a junk yard. I was desperate, I needed any Chevy V8 that was running. Told them my situation with my 1959 Corvette and the owner said there were a couple of V8’s he would like to show me and said if I bought one, they would drop it in the car for me because my time was so short.

Actually, he did not have a couple. He had only one that he wanted me to look at but wanted it to be a surprise. We went over to this plain 1959 Chevy sedan and he popped the hood and smiled from ear to ear when I saw a Corvette engine looking right back at us. Back then you could order a Corvette engine in any Chevy.

It had the aluminum valve covers that had “Corvette” cast into them and all. He took my rebuilt engine out and put this used one in. He knew a lot of parts on my engine were in perfect shape so gave me a sweet deal. I knew it was a risk but my back was against the wall.

The next day the car was ready. I cranked it up and heard a smooth, well-tuned machine come to life. No smoke was coming out and she purred…well, that’s enough, you know.

People like this are never forgotten. For $200 I had a Corvette engine installed and could continue schooling with no interruption.

The test drive showed it was also a strong engine. Much better than the original and just as good as my rebuild would have been (less the special cam I had put in.) I could not get over my good fortune and spent the next couple of days washing and waxing. Then my luck finally did run out.

I worked at nights as a janitor in the state capitol building. There are at least five different police forces patrolling the area. Just one week after getting the car to run, it was not where I parked it after work. It was long gone. Poof!

Filed the insurance claim with GEICO and got a ’55 Chevy to get around in till next time I got a break in time to find another car. My future brother in law loved the ’55 and wanted to buy it from me as soon as I was done with it. I figured he was going to have a long wait. Then the check from GEICO came in…

GEICO, for you lizard fans, was the premier insurance company for enlisted men. GEICO is an acronym for Government Employees Insurance Company. Back then, it was exclusively for government employees which included military NCOs. The officers also had an insurance company out of Texas that has also grown to be a fine company today and is also opening its doors to the general public as GEICO did years ago.

Insurance became my chosen career so I’ll try to give the least wordy explanation of what happened. First, I had purchased this car way below market value. Cars are insured at full market value regardless of mechanical condition. Secondly, insurance must pay me enough to buy a replacement vehicle at what the same ones were selling on car lots that day. As promised, that’s is the short version of what happened. After the loan was paid off, I had about $3,000 1964 bucks in my jeans. I had also crossed the threshold of 21 but still living at home and going to college full time while also working full time.

The ’55 Chevy was running just fine and I was a bit burnt out on cars for now as well as not having a lot of time. The money was just put in the bank.

One day, I got a call from the California Highway Patrol…

In small California towns that do not have a police department, the Highway Patrol will help keep an eye on things. One week-end one of them noticed some local kids were hot rodding around the back roads and followed them. He knew these kids and he knew their car. It was going one heck of a lot faster than it ever went before so he pulled them over with flashlight in hand.

He gets the serial number off the engine block and radios it right in, after which, he takes them to jail. Indeed, it was from a stolen car.

The kids were immediately hauled into the station and questioning begins. It did not take long for them to spill their guts and admit to where the rest of the car was.

Although the engine was the least valuable part of the car, they shoved that pristine mint condition body over the edge of a rock quarry. The phone call was for me to drive up to this little town and identify the remains. I would find them locked in a sealed storage place at the little local Chevy dealership.

A car made of fiberglass makes quite a splash at the bottom of a rock quarry. What was in the dealership locker were just the metal parts of the body like bumpers, wheel covers and some grill work. On one bumper was the sticker needed to get on base so that’s all it took.

Those kids would be resting their heels behind bars for a while over a junk yard engine because the base sticker on the body part connected it to the stolen engine. This was necessary because the original engine had been removed from the car so numbers no longer matched. This also changed the crime from petty theft to grand larceny. Don’t cha love it!

Then the officer told me that someone else wanted to talk to me.

The old man that had the dealership saw we were done and came over. Figured the ‘ol codger never missed an opportunity for a sale so I was ready for syrup to flow, Instead, he invited me into his private office and I heard a tone that was totally unexpected. He was humbly asking me for a favor. He explained that his country dealership would lose its franchise if he did not sell one Corvette a year and the year was running out.

The local people only bought pickups and station wagons. The only young kids in the area were losers like the ones that stole my car. The rest of the young people were either in school with me or in their citified careers. He promised to sell me a Corvette of my own design at his cost.

I told him to bring out his manuals and a sharp pencil. What the heck, I had an afternoon to kill and a long drive home. I had been looking at the new car Ford just came out with. It seemed to me they were onto something but fell short on the performance part. This was the Mustang. The ’64 ½ version just came out fixing many of my original complaints.

The Corvette is a custom, hand built car. The manual is three inches thick. We had a job ahead of us. Practically every part of the car can be custom built to the owner’s specs.

We got through the basics pretty quickly. Tires, wheels, body type and interior options were simple things that needed no thought. True sports cars didn’t have air conditioning and power accessories and interiors were black. True racing Corvettes come without a radio (these became prime collector Corvettes.) I was not a zealot so I even requested the version with FM. The Cobra didn’t even have rollup windows! Things became more involved when we got to the mechanical parts.

There are hundreds of options for various parts of the engine, transmission, wheels, tires, exhaust and rear end differential. We put together a design that produced more horse power than cubic inches but, by using the right gearing combinations, gave 19 miles to the gallon. The cars today use the same principal and get twice the mileage — but they don’t have 11:1 compression ratios that blow out spark plugs every 2,000 miles on a Holley 750cfm carb.

You often hear of old codgers that years later get their dream car they wanted as a kid. This was my dream car and I was still a kid. All young men at that time knew about these things. Some, more than others, and I knew more thanks to the mechanical interests I had inherited from my B-52 mechanic father.

My interests were strictly mechanical and not social like most other kids. Those clean jet engines that performed flawlessly with no visible moving parts were what I grew up with and were the standard I was trying to reach. Have been trying to explain this for a life time. Guess only engineers see the beauty in a machine. For me, it was just a hobby and nothing more.

I set back while the little old man started working his pencil. It took him almost half an hour. Ford was going to sell one less Mustang.

The bottom line came to me owing exactly what I had owed on the 1959 Corvette! With the money from GEICO I had the exact same car payment as the old car and I was to get the icon of all Corvettes: the 1965 Corvette Stingray fastback in the brand new color coming out called Nassau Blue. Average selling cost was $8,000. I was given this car for $4,200. Those in the know have a good idea of the icon status this particular car achieved and what it is worth today.

Talk about comeuppance. This was brutal!

Driving this home not only represented my separation from the control of my father, it also represented my release from any military control. At this time in history, though, the release was not complete. The draft was bringing in hundreds of thousands of young men to fight the Viet Nam war. Only those grades in school kept me out of that mess.

This was a constant threat all through college for all of us. Dad did not want me in this war. He had told me about its coming in 1957 and had told me he did not want me to be in it. At that time we were living in the far east and he was a clandestine intelligence operative so I figured he knew what he was talking about. History proved him correct.

Driving the 1965 Corvette Stingray home meant something more to me than just a kid’s fancy dream car. This story is not about this but I will touch a bit on it because many of you may have questions about the social implications of such a status symbol on a 21 year old male.

As it turned out, the draft board maintained my student deferment long beyond the four year limit. I was finally able to become my own person. I did not want to become identified to the car so drove a different one to school and work. One day the car broke down so I had to drive the Corvette to school. The following week I got a letter from my fraternity. I had been elected vice president. The car went back to the garage and I never went back to the fraternity. Welcome to the civilian world. Was this a warning to not stay away from my roots? Viet Nam was not the only place jungles can be found.

Sports cars remained part of my life even to this day. As I got older, they no longer had any social implications. I have had several Corvettes after this one. Currently have what will probably be the last one. It’s a classic but only goes half way back to 1965. I looked for almost a year for it.

Its color is the same Nassau Blue that was on the ’65. That color remained popular for over 40 years and I had been the first one in this town to get it. This time we have the old man version with less horse power than the ’65, automatic transmission and is seldom driven. Often, when pulling out onto the freeway, I will flash back to the day I first pulled the Stingray onto the freeway and put the petal to the metal.

As an afterthought, my 65th birthday is behind me. Have had many sports cars including several Corvettes. In spite of my father’s fears and/or phobias, I have never had an at-fault accident in my life. Have had hairy moments on rallies and tracks. I have been hit over half a dozen times. But never in a Corvette.

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