Chris Mazzilli remembers well the day he first saw maybe the greatest barn find in Corvette history. The hair stood up on his arms as he witnessed 36 grime-coated cars dwelling beneath the dim light of a Manhattan parking garage.
That was five years ago, and the cars—some of them banged up from a recent relocation by movers who didn't really have a good idea how to move delicate, fiberglass-bodied classic cars—were coated with the particulate detritus of America's busiest city. Brake dust, train grime, road salt, pigeon crap, and God knows what else had obscured deep reds, bright yellows, and brilliant shades of blue-green. The cars spanned the first four decades of Corvette production and had been sitting in various Manhattan garages for nearly 30 years.
Now, the cars will soon find as many as 36 different homes.
In partnership with Mazzilli (who is co-owner of the Gotham Comedy Club) and two New York City real estate families (the Hellers and Spindlers), formed an organization called Corvette Heroes. Later this summer, the group plans to give the cars away one by one in a national sweepstakes to benefit charity.
How did Mazilli and the Hellers end up with the so-called Peter Max collection of dusty ’Vettes? Peter Heller, his cousin Scott Heller, and Scott’s sons, Adam and Mike, bought the collection from Peter Max—the psychedelic pop artist known for his colorful paintings—in the summer of 2014. The Hellers had met Chris Mazzilli (a Corvette expert in his own right) at the Old Westbury Gardens earlier that summer, where Mazzilli was showing his ’71 LS5 Corvette.
“I went to get a drink of water and when I came back there was a guy under my car,” he says. “He started asking questions about the ’53 Corvette and the ’55 Corvette and others. There aren't a lot of those, so I asked him, ‘Are you talking about the Peter Max collection?’ and he said, “How did you know?’”
Any Corvette collector worth his salt had heard of the semi-abandoned collection, but the Hellers were new to the genre. They wanted to know how much the cars were worth, en masse, before they put in an offer. Mazzilli went to see the cars so that he could better advise them.
“We walked in and they turned on these dim lights and the hair stood up on my arms,” he says. “It was the greatest barn find in history.”
The origin of the stash
Peter Max had acquired the cars in 1989, when he bought them from Dennis Amodeo, a carpenter from Long Island who had won the cars in a national call-in contest on VH1. Max was going to use the cars in an art project, but he never got around to it amid other projects and some trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.
Although the Hellers had hoped to sell the entire collection as a single lot, it was tough to find a buyer with the kind of scratch to afford them all, especially given the need to restore them all.
More importantly, not many of the cars are especially rare or collectible, with the exception of some of the models from the early ’50s and a few that feature rare paint colors. One of them—a Cascade Green ’56—was used in aComedians in Cars Getting Coffee episode featuring Jimmy Fallon and a Boston Whaler runabout.
When Jim Cahill purchased the cars in 1988 as part of a stunt to boost VH1's flagging ratings, he wasn't really on the hunt for unicorns. They were all driver-quality cars. The lion's share have automatic transmissions, although more than half are convertibles. More than three decades later, the dusty ’Vettes have become more valuable simply due to the passage of time, to say nothing of their bizarre association with Peter Max.
A new chapter
After the Hellers bought the collection, Mazzilli's showbiz connections helped them get the cars featured on a History Channel special, The Lost Corvettes, which airs September 21. History also commissioned Mazzilli to lead a project in which his team designs their version of what the 1983 Corvette should have looked like. (Hint: It's based on a 1985 Corvette and looks a lot like a 1984 Corvette.)
Restoration work on many of the cars is finished, and restoration of the others is ongoing at Dream Car Restorations in Hicksville, New York, on Long Island. Much of the work involved bringing lightly modified driver cars back to factory stock condition.
Winners from the sweepstakes will be announced later this year or at the beginning of 2020. Proceeds from the contest will go to charities benefitting US military veterans, including the National Guard Educational Foundation.