A Texas gal’s Corvette love story

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1961 Chevrolet Corvette driving Juan Martinez-DriverSource

When someone buys a car new, there’s usually little expectation that it will someday be regarded as a classic. Then the years pile on, and if the car is still in decent shape, it will most certainly become rarer as time and heavy use take their toll on all the others like it. A sports car—and an iconic one at that—is bound to make an impact as it ages.

Frankie Melder, now 81 years old, retired from her career as a physical therapist in 2006. When she graduated from physical therapy school back in 1961, she decided she wanted a new car.

“I would get up in the middle of the night solving problems, and when I got out to the garage in the morning, I was already at the clinic mentally,” she drawled in the manner of an East Texas native. “I didn’t need a car that wouldn’t start.”

1961 Chevrolet Corvette rear 3/4
Juan Martinez-DriverSource

At the time, she was driving a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. She liked the car. It was economical and she could drive it hard without worrying about it breaking down. Sometimes, she would even run it up to 90 miles per hour and watch the speedometer needle bounce off the little stop at the end of its dial. But it was an ugly grayish color and she wanted something sleek and beautiful.

Having owned a Volkswagen and driven a bathtub Porsche, she figured the Porsche would be the car to have. But for $1000 less (nearly $8300 in today’s money), she could buy a Corvette.

“That was a huge sum of money back then, so I thought, maybe another time (for the Porsche),” she says.

Melder liked the Porsche’s rounded shape, but felt the same about the Corvette’s body design.

“Anything with those blown-out, voluptuous fenders is beautiful to me,” she says. “They lost me when they went to that Italian design in 1963. I was like, ‘You ruined the car, man.'”

1961 Chevrolet Corvette interior
Juan Martinez-DriverSource
1961 Chevrolet Corvette engine
Juan Martinez-DriverSource

Since the Porsche was out of her price range, Melder went to Capitol Chevrolet in Austin, Texas, and became the proud owner of a brand-new 1961 Corvette convertible. The car was white with turquoise vinyl interior and was equipped with a 283-cubic-inch V-8 and three-speed manual transmission. With only 230 horsepower, it wasn’t the fastest car in the world, but Melder says she got it up to 100 mph once on the freeway between Fort Worth and Dallas.

“I guess it’s because the fiberglass was so light, but that thing would roar,” she says. “I loved the G-forces.”

Melder says she was responsible behind the wheel, however, and only drove fast a handful of times when she knew there was no one else on the road. As a physical therapist, she’d seen what can happen to people in automobile and motorcycle accidents.

A few years passed, and Melder’s desire for a Porsche slipped to the back of her mind. She was busy with work, and on top of that, had gradually fallen in love with her Corvette, which she called Bess.

“You don’t fall in love with a car until every day that car comes through for you and you become one with the car,” she says, adding that because it got her to work every day, the Corvette became a big part of who she was. “After a while, I couldn’t imagine driving another car.”

1961 Chevrolet Corvette front 3/4
Juan Martinez-DriverSource

The Corvette plied Melder’s 20-mile daily commute to and from the clinic. By the mid-1970s, the car—which had slowly metamorphosed into a relic of a bygone age—began to stand out from the other cars on the road. Melder began getting thumbs-up from people as she drove by. Other motorists were less likely to crowd her in traffic for fear of damaging a car most had begun to regard as a classic. She called Bess her goodwill ambassador.

“The more I drove it, the more respect people had for it,” she says. “You’d get people who’d say, ‘I used to have one of these,’ then the next words out of their mouth were ‘before I was married and had kids.’ You could see the pain in their eyes.”

Melder drove her Corvette to and from work for years, but eventually bought a BMW X5 that was more practical. She lives on a ranch near Round Top, Texas, so an SUV made more sense. She never fell out of love with Bess, but remembered what she’d told herself about the Porsche way back in ’61: “Someday, I’m gonna have me one.”

It took some time to find the right buyer, but after connecting with Bring a Trailer last year, Melder finally sold the Corvette to someone she knew would appreciate it.

“I didn’t want to sell it to someone who would give it to some 21-year-old kid who would spin it out and crash it,” she says. “I can tell the new owner is super crazy about it, and he’s very mature.”

1961 Chevrolet Corvette convertible
Juan Martinez-DriverSource

The new owner owns a trucking company and collects cars, but he’s in Germany—far away from the East Texas roads where Melder had driven Bess all those years.

“Do I miss Bess?” Melder asks. “Heck yes, but she’s in a good place.”

Melder says she’s also enjoying her new Porsche, a 2018 Carrera with many Carrera S features, such as bigger brakes, a sport exhaust system, and 20-inch wheels. A lot has changed since Bess was new, and this new car came with lap and shoulder seatbelts, airbags, and air conditioning, among other modern amenities.

She calls the new car “Sweetness.” It doesn’t get the waves and thumbs-up that Bess did, but given some time, it might.

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