I went to California the summer of 1961 along with two boyhood friends, driving north from Virginia and connecting with old Route 66 in Illinois and following it all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There were only a few stretches of interstate to interfere with the magic of traveling the “Mother Road” and we were under its spell…a Burma-Shave sign in a farm field next to the highway, a cactus in the desert under a brighter, western sky, the sleepy little towns with their service stations and curio shops, the tourist cabins and custard stands, the coffee shops and quaint corner restaurants…with all sorts of attractions to see and explore, and local characters to met and chat with along the way...the stuff that fills books today, we experienced firsthand and marveled at back then. And all we had to get us there was A Guide Book To Highway 66, by Jack Rittenhouse, which we picked up for a dollar...my 1954 Ford two-door sedan with a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser engine and “Hollywood” mufflers…and a backseat full of groceries. I came to stay. My buddies were on a two-week vacation and would fly home soon with mild cases of alcohol poisoning and a lifetime of memories.
As soon as I was settled in my Belmont Shore (Long Beach) apartment and had a job, I got started on my search for a new Corvette. The TV series, Route 66, had gotten into my blood from the start. And now I was mesmerized by the likes of Bob Cashman and Randy Shukin on TV walking up and down rows of cars sporting their shiny cordovans, slapping their hands down on hoods, making their frantic sales pitches, and trying to convince you to “come on out today”. I’d never seen cars sold this way before.
Because my new “roomie” Jack had just graduated from USC, he first took me to Felix Chevrolet, just off the university campus at 3330 S. Figuero Street at Jefferson...where the famous "Felix the Cat” neon sign has lit up the night since 1958. Interestingly, Winslow Felix, who opened Felix Chevrolet in 1921 at another LA location, was best friends with the popular cartoon character’s co-creator, Pat Sullivan and gained permission to use the image. He tragically died in 1936 while playing polo and the business had progressed through his widow’s hands to Nick Shammas, who signed with Chevrolet as Felix’s new operator in 1955 and moved the dealership here three years later. Jack introduced me to Nick. I was looking for a new 1962 Corvette, Ermine white and red interior with a 340. He didn’t have one, but would check around and leave a message at my company’s switchboard.
Jack also had a contact at Enoch Chevrolet at 8730 Long Beach Boulevard in South Gate at the corner of Compton Boulevard...”The Corvette Corner,” as they advertised in the newspapers. There, Monte Yovetich, the sales manager, made a note of what I wanted and said he’d call when he found one...that he was busy trying to get rid of two 1961s he still had on his lot. I wanted a 327/340.
Harry Mann Chevrolet over on 5735 Crenshaw Boulevard in LA had the reputation of being the biggest Corvette dealer around, but they specialized in fuel injected cars with factory-delivered or dealer-installed racing options. Even then, “fuelies” were still pretty rare...but if you owned one you took it to Harry Mann because they had a full-time specialist who could tune it. Manager Bill Meade showed me a Corvette that fit the bill…it was beautiful…but it was already “fitted” with stuff I couldn’t afford. And I wasn’t ready to place an order. He took my name and number.
Then one of the girls at my Santa Ana office told me that her dad had just bought a new Chevy from a small dealership in nearby Orange and that he’d seen several new Corvettes there. On Saturday, we went together to take a look.
Selman Chevrolet, then located at 402 W. Chapman, was indeed small…three cars in the showroom…the rest parked in the shop area and outside in the driveway (Selman has long since moved to the other end of Chapman and is one of the largest Corvette dealers in Southern California). We were introduced to Jim Hamilton, the office manager, who didn’t have my car but took an interest…and gave friendly assurances that he would find exactly what I wanted. I was so sure he’d follow through that I let him appraise my '54 Ford ($659) and I completed an application for a loan with GMAC.
To my dismay, I soon had a request at the switchboard to call him. I figured that GMAC turned me down. Instead he said a Corvette with off-road exhaust that he had ordered for a client had just arrived but the customer turned it down when he heard how loud it was (and he thought he ordered black interior)...that it otherwise was exactly what I wanted. I took it sight unseen. Jim said it was already prepped and as soon as the paperwork was done, he’d call...which he did the following day…that was October 18, 1961. And on my lunch break on Thursday the nineteenth, I took the Ford over to Orange, signed all the papers, and drove off the lot in my first brand-new car...which I’d never driven beforehand. The excitement of having my Vette was enough. That seems to show through in the Polaroid shot that was taken by my boss when I got back to the office.
The fun times I had with the Vette when I was single in southern California could literally fill several volumes (Oops…I guess they have…sorry). I had so loved that car then. But by the time I was married and moved from Long Beach to Tustin in early 1965, the Vette was showing her age. And when my company transferred us to Atlanta later that year, we took her on one final trip, across country…heading east. Now I felt every expansion joint in the concrete highways of Texas… the wet carpeting and the moisture from the leaky windshield in the rainstorms of Mississippi…and the grabbing of brakes when applied and the drifting to the right as we crossed the Alabama state line into Georgia. After that trip I was finished with the Vette. And when we got into our new home and started planning for our family, I took the car to Mitchell Motors on Peachtree and traded it in for a new 1967 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Holiday Coupe. That was on November 23, 1966. I got $2,404.60 for her. And for a long time, I never looked back.
In 2003, I returned to Virginia to attend my fiftieth high school reunion. And one night while there, sitting in my sister’s home catching up on things, our conversation got around to the subject of cars. That reminded her she had been saving something for me that she’d completely forgotten about. It was a manila envelope that she’d found when we were closing our old homeplace years earlier after our parents died. Inside was the snapshot of me standing next to the Vette on the day of delivery, along with all of the glove box items that came with the car, and the Corvette Owners Kit. I had sent them home for safekeeping and to show off my brand new beauty. I decided on the spot that it was time to find another 1962 Corvette like the one I had so long ago…Ermine white, red interior, 340 horse. Little did I know what was about to happen.
I’d never done any work on my ’62 except change the spark plugs so I needed to learn. The first step was to enroll in Bloomington Gold School for a lesson on what to look for when considering a purchase. Next came meetings with two guys I got to know who restored Corvettes, each offering to be a resource when I actually found a car to examine. I emailed them countless pictures of ’62 Vettes being advertised online and my coaches always tried to point out the good and the bad aspects of those cars. We eventually zeroed in on several Vettes to be auctioned but they all failed the test. We were picky. And summer after summer went by with me getting no closer to finding a decent look-a-like for my Vette.
Then I got a lead on a nice Corvette in Los Angeles that was not being actively marketed. I spoke with the owner. He had purchased the car in Colorado twenty years prior. It was given a frame-on restoration soon after he bought it, and on two separate occasions it had earned an NCRS Chapter Top Flight award. The car was now just sitting in a rented garage as he had simply lost interest in it. He sent pictures and told me the price. I thought it was a great car but too expensive. After that, we would occasionally exchange emails over the next twelve months until one day he sent me a scan of the NCRS Scoring Summary, intending to show me how few points his car lost when it was judged. And then I noticed that the serial number written on the summary was the same serial number that was typed on my Conditional Sale Contract. Now I was REALLY excited…and suddenly the price didn’t seem high anymore. I flew to California to inspect the car and closed the deal the next day. That was on March 5, 2007 and with title in hand I showed the seller my Conditional Sale Contract and told him the story. I honestly believe that he was as thrilled as I about this extraordinary reunion.
In 2011, after earning the NCRS Duntov Mark of Excellence Award, she underwent a complete frame-off, nut and bolt restoration. We used all restored original or NOS GM suspension, steering, and brake parts, including the wheel cylinders, chatter springs, and brake shoes…and period correct screws and bolts, all with the proper head-marks. The engine, transmission, tail housing, and rear end components that should have casting and assembly dates are present, and in the proper chronological order typical of a Corvette with final assembly October 9, 1961. And she flies like the wind.
The little Vette, that was my “girlfriend” years before I met my wife, has come full circle on an incredible journey. Needless to say, she shows her age a lot better than me. But I have a big problem. My son and my son-in-law each want the car. I don’t tell them it won’t mean the same to them. I know they love it for a different reason.