This 1954 Chevrolet Corvette is the “gift” that keeps on giving

Courtesy Mark Wiley

In July 2004, I decided I wanted a get a little car to tinker with. I talked to my wife and started dreaming about an old convertible like an MG, Triumph, or VW. My wife is from Sandpoint, Idaho, and recalled a gentleman there, Paul Kemp, who had a car collection. He had passed away, but my wife said she’d call her father to find out if Kemp’s widow or son had any for sale.

Several months went by and I forgot about it until she mentioned that her father had talked to the widow. The woman had an old convertible Corvette she’d planned to keep in the family, but it didn’t run and needed new paint. If I was interested, my father-in-law said, the widow might sell. Since my father-in-law was a family friend, Mrs. Kemp trusted that I would appreciate this old Corvette and get it back on the road. So I contacted her directly and made an offer on the mystery Corvette, sight unseen. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover it was actually a C1 from 1954. Already it was much cooler than an MG or VW. As I began to learn its history, it became even cooler.

1954 Chevrolet Corvettes on parade at GM Motorama
Mark Wiley and his wife, Kristine, like to dress the part with their significant Corvette, which took part in GM’s Motorama activities in 1954, including this cruise down the brand-new Harbor Freeway. Courtesy Mark Wiley

Paul Kemp was a car enthusiast who owned a Conoco/Texaco oil company in Sandpoint. He first saw this ’54 on a 1979 calendar put out by a Washington chapter of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS). Kemp already had designs on a Corvette collection and wanted the ’54 as a centerpiece. At the same time, he’d made arrangements with nearby Taylor Parker Chevrolet to purchase a new Corvette every year for his collection, an order it filled from 1978 to 2000. Before his death in 2004, he’d amassed nearly 30 Corvettes.

Kemp loved the car but never drove it; he added only 100 miles, in fact. By the time I bought it, the Corvette had been sitting unused for a long time.

1954 Chevrolet Corvette front three-quarter
Courtesy Mark Wiley

In 2008, I gave it a frame-off restoration, during which I discovered it had been painted several times, so I contacted Corvette historian Noland Adams. Because the car had old black paint beneath the cowl and inside the doors, he was able to determine that mine came black from the factory—one of just four or six produced for 1954. Its serial number (E54S001601) puts production around March 12 of that year. This coincides with the time General Motors was prepping for Motorama in Los Angeles and had several cars painted black for the exhibit. GM brought a fleet of Corvettes out west, including this one. It was even used for a promotion down L.A.’s not-yet-open Harbor Freeway.

Since its restoration, my Corvette has done the rounds in judged shows, scoring regional and national NCRS Top Flight awards, a Duntov Award, and Bloomington Gold certification. Not bad for a fun little car I could tinker with.

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