Memoirs of a confirmed Corvette freak
Joe Oldham was a self-described Corvette Freak. He was also my father, and a very successful automotive writer, who passed away in 2017. By the mid-1970s, my father had owned two Corvettes, and he wrote about his passion for America’s sports car in this piece which first published in the 1974 Issue of Hi-Performance Cars Corvette annual. The article was a belated 20th birthday tribute to his favorite car, and after it was published he would go on to own two more Corvettes, both black C4s, a 1985 and a 1987 convertible. I hope you enjoy reading it, it’s one of my personal favorites from his body of work. — Scott Oldham
I was into it from the beginning, you know. Right from the beginning. I saw the first Corvette, the first one, the show car. I was nine years old at the time and already four years into being a car nut. My Uncle Jimmy took me to a General Motors Motorama in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1953 and it was there. The first one, sitting there under a brace of floodlights with its white paint gleaming and reflecting and twinkling like crazy. There was some model standing next to it with a pageboy haircut and a low cut gown and I kept wishing she would get out of the way. She was saying that this is a show car only, not slated for immediate production. She said it was one-off styling exercise by the General Motors Styling Staff just to test public reaction. She repeated that it was not for production.
How wrong she was.
That first show car was the start of something big, as Steve Allen’s song goes, both for Chevrolet and for me. The Chevrolet story is told elsewhere in this issue. My story, a melodrama of 20 years of experiences in and around Corvettes, probably has about as much interest to you as the morning line on hogs. Be that as it may, your intrepid reporter will attempt to carry on anyway with as little dozing as possible.
Because most of our antiquated state motor vehicle laws don’t allow 10-, 11-, or 12-year-old boys to drive legally, my next several Corvette years were spent as an observer only. I watched the ’53 production model grow out of that show car. I saw the ’54 and the ’55 at the Motoramas of those years. I read the magazines diligently. I knew that the Vette now packed a V-8 and stick shift. I did a lot of daydreaming.
The cars got bigger in the late ’50s. They got four-speeds and bigger engines and multiple carburetors and they went racing. I followed all and patiently built plastic models of each model year.
This continued until I was 16. Then a miraculous thing happened. An older friend of mine bought a Corvette. His name was George Vincent and his Corvette was a black ’60 roadster with four-speed transmission, dual four-barrel 283 engine rated 245 horsepower, and even Positraction.
I have to tell you about George Vincent. He was a couple of years older than me and something of a folk hero on the block. He lived in Tarrytown, New York, and was the first guy I ever knew who had actually competed in a drag race. He was also the first guy I knew who went a hundred miles an hour in a car and the first guy I knew who went street racing and the first guy I knew who took me street racing. Like I said, he was my hero.
George had done all this in a ’59 Pontiac Star Chief sedan, his family car. It was George who turned me on to Pontiacs, too. My first real car, not counting the ’47 Buick Century and the ’50 Chevy Torpedo-back sedan, was a ’59 Pontiac Bonneville convertible, because of George Vincent.
Anyway, George Vincent came around one day with this black ’60 Corvette. My first ride in a Corvette was a memorable one. George revved the little 283 up to five grand and dumped the clutch – hard. We smoked the skinny 6.70 x 15 tires the length of Richmond Street. Then George threw the most beautiful powershift I’ve ever seen. Another 40 feet of rubber and we were fishtailing down Etna Street with all eight barrels wide open.
Another scorching powershift and we were smoking into third gear and then fourth, still wide open through the streets of Brooklyn, the exhausts bellowing and the air sucking into those Rochester WCFBs until I thought the whole hood would cave in.
That was my first ride in a Vette. And from that day on, I knew I had to have one. A few years later, I had about run the gamut on my ’59 Poncho. By now it had Tri-Power induction and 4.55 gears (my secret “weapon”) and bucket seats and a console and it dominated its class at the track and did well on the street.
The ad was a three liner in the Sunday New York Times.
Corvette ’62. ’65 327 / 365 engine.
4-speed Hurst. Posi. Honduras Maroon.
I called the number out of sheer curiosity, never thinking that I would really buy the car, but hoping maybe I could make believe I was interested and possibly drive it.
I really wasn’t ready for the shock of the deep maroon paint job that greeted me at the prescribed address. The engine was indeed a ’65 327/365 and it idled with that rump-rump-rump that said it had a “30-across” cam. A Hurst Competition Plus four-speed shifter replaced the stock unit, as did the 4.88 gears with Positraction. The suspension had been beefed with much stiffer rear springs that precluded wheel hop. But the pièce de résistance was the three taillights on each side of the rear license plate. Stock Vettes had two lights, one each side. If you had three, man, you were unbelievably cool.
The test drive blew my mind. The owner took it first. It was sort of a replay of my first ride with Vincent. Only now I was fishtailing it down a street in Oceanside, Long Island.
Many days, loan applications, co-signers, and bank officers later, I was meeting the guy at the White Castle on Sunrise Highway in Oceanside. I had the cashier’s check in my wallet. I was actually going to own a Corvette.
The business concluded, it was mine. I drove home cautiously. Very cautiously. The Corvette was so much faster and quicker and did everything so much more suddenly than my ’59 Pontiac that I was afraid of the car at first.
Still, I was grooving on the very idea that I owned a Corvette. Then it happened. A Corvette trailing in the opposite direction. The driver waved at me. For a minute, I was dumbfounded and the other car was gone too fast for me to reciprocate. Then I realized that the driver had waved to me because I too was driving a Corvette. A wide grin spread across my face as I came to the realization that I was suddenly a member of a very elite club.
Corvettes have proliferated to the point today where not too many Vette owners wave to each other on the road. And this is too bad. Owning a Corvette is still a pretty exclusive business. Let’s save the wave.
That Honduras Maroon Corvette was fast. Fast enough to win 95 percent of the street races it got into. Fast enough to win its class one year at the AHRA National Championships.
But there were more Corvette experiences to savor and save in the ensuing years. Another friend, Phil Chiarello, bought a ’63 convertible with a four-speed and a solid lifter engine. We compared notes many times and I had my first driving experiences with an independent suspension Sting Ray.
By this time I was into the magazine writing business and test cars were overflowing my driveway all the time. Still, when it was Corvette testing time, it was something special. I had since sold my ’62 and regretted it the minute I signed over the registration. So testing Corvettes was now an even more rewarding experience.
There was the ’67 427 3×2 car that absolutely destroyed my mind and also contributed to the suspension of my driver’s license for a time. There were the twin ’68 Phase III Corvettes that had been set up and customized by Motion Performance in Baldwin, New York.
At the Chevrolet new car press review in 1969, Zora Arkus-Duntov had something special waiting for the media at the GM Proving Grounds. It was a white Stingray coupe fitted with a reworked ZL1 427 engine, beefed Turbo 400 and gears. He also had a dragstrip set up at the proving grounds so that us would-be drag racing writers could thrash the guts out of his pet. We did. I remember running a bunch of 10.90s at over 110 mph leaving the stick in Drive!
One day in 1970, Judy Stropus, of the Chevrolet New York public relations office, called and asked if I would like to drive a Corvette for awhile. Did I? Was the pope Catholic? I went to the garage and spotted the beast. Judy had described it as merely a Corvette. It was more, much more. It was an aluminum head L88 with side pipes, four-speed, and every other option in the books, topped by a flame red paint job that baited every cop from New York to Saskatoon. Despite the fact that it was July and it was 100 degrees in New York and 120 inside the Vette’s cockpit, I still enjoyed that car. Immensely.
That ’72 350 automatic test car I had last year got me to thinking. It had air, power everything, and Turbo automatic. It was a beautiful riding and handling car and completely different from the more animal-like Corvettes I’d been used to. Though I thought if I ever again owned a Corvette, it would be like this one. I now own a ’73 Corvette like that one. It’s even the same color-Elkhart Green with dark saddle interior, “power everything,” and air. (Air conditioning in a Corvette is a must for anyone of my bulk.)
I love that new Corvette just as I’ve ever loved every Corvette I’ve ever driven. Happy 20th Birthday to you, Corvette, and thanks for many memories.