We’ve made no secret of the fact that we love some movies purely for their cars, and particularly for their car stunts. The orange-and-white Corvette above proves that this fascination for jumping, crashing, and barrel-rolling cars is hardly unique to the green-screen era; it’s been in the blood of car enthusiasts for decades.
This 1958 Corvette, up for auction at Mecum’s Indianapolis auction this July, hails from the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, a live event which was also advertised in the 1940s as Joie Chitwood and his Death Defying Hell Drivers. Sponsored by Chevrolet and hosted largely on dirt tracks, Joie Chitwood and his team of 15-or-so drivers crisscrossed North America for decades, accompanied by the smells of “popcorn, peanuts, and Red Hots” according to a ’50s commercial.
Chitwood himself was of Cherokee Indian descent and was launching softly-sprung sedans off ramps well before Evel Knievel came around. Officially known as George Rice Chitwood, the unusual spelling of Joie’s name is likely (and embarrassingly) due to a journalist’s error and a typesetter’s subsequent mistake. Before Chitwood’s name was splashed across Corvettes and Chevelles, it appeared in the annals of dirt tracks and even those of the Indianapolis 500. Chitwood raced at the Brickyard seven times in the 1940s—he was no slouch, either, and recorded three fifth-place finishes driving Offenhauser-powered cars for Kurtis Kraft.
He also brushed shoulders with another unsung hero in the Corvette legacy: fellow Indy racer Mauri Rose. Chitwood had some minor appearances in Hollywood flicks as a stunt driver, including one in 1950s To Please A Lady, which starred Clark Gable and featured actual race footage from the Indianapolis 500—including Mauri Rose’s pit lane fire.
Chitwood first built a career racing, but he eventually left oval circuits to trace some more … unorthodox routes. The following video (unfortunately, without sound) captures one of the earliest days of the thrill show’s decades-long career:
As of September, 1966, and as advertised in the Detroit Free Press, attendees could get a slice of the combustion-fueled action for $1 for adults, children ¢50.
The show appealed to thrill-seeking kids, who wanted to see cars bash into each other, and to safety-conscious parents, who wanted to see drivers walk away from those same crashes. Chitwood obliged both, making sure that Chevrolet made the most of its sponsorship:
“Chevrolet is the only one we use, not a souped-up reinforced model but the same Chevrolet you’ll find on any showroom floor,” Chitwood himself touts in this video. “My boys and I give hundreds of performances day and night with same fleet of Chevrolets. When you say the pounding we give ’em … you’ll get an idea of why the car we use has to be able to take it.”
In addition to balancing cars on two wheels and launching them off ramps, Chitwood and his team even ran Chevrolets into each other head-on, and walked away:
Perhaps Chitwood wanted to spare this handsome 1958 Vette that same rough show program, because even though it could “spin on a dime and give you a nickel change,” the Vette only spent a year with the thrill show.
To flaunt the C1 Corvette’s capabilities, Chitwood—naturally—targeted the hottest performance upgrades. In 1958 Chevrolet offered its 283-cubic-inch V-8 either with a single four-barrel carb or with two four-barrels; the latter came in 245- and 270-hp tune. At the top of the range sat the fuel-injected 283 engines, however, and Chitwood specced the top-of-the-line 290-hp mill. That V-8 mated to a BorgWarner four-speed manual and drove through a 4.11:1 Positraction rear end. With the car’s stated purpose—and with that all-American soundtrack—Chitwood opted to delete the radio.
Though the 1958 Vette had only a brief tenure with Chitwood’s show, its ancestors—driven by Chitwood’s sons—were still kicking up dust clouds into the 1980s:
The show morphed slightly into The Joie Chitwood Chevy Thunder Show and ran until 1998.
Where was the 1958 car, if it wasn’t touring with the team?
In 1959 Chitwood sold the C1 show car to Gerald C. Francis of Lansing, Michigan, with whom the car stayed until 1995. Francis’ widow sold the car to Harry and Marianne Strong of Clinton, Missouri, in the mid-’90s. The couple restored the car but kept it as original as possible, leaving a nut-and-bolt restoration to the car’s next owner, who commissioned the work in 2006. Mecum advertises that Chitwood Corvette will be offered with its original 1958 registration, signed by Joie Chitwood himself, and various show promotional materials and vintage footage.
Welcoming crowds to a “presentation of automotive artistry,” the thrill show’s announcer proclaimed that “We live to drive, and drive to live.” We can’t guarantee a mystical transfer of dirt-track stunt-driving skills if you purchase this historic 1958 Vette—but we hope the car’s buyer agrees with that same sentiment.