Cars We Love & Who We Are #29
Miles Collier, writing in the August 2022 issue of Sports Car Market spoke to his belief that “the restoration of a car either produces an archetype that embodies the standard characteristics of that vehicle or a portrait that serves as an evocation of someone or something, that attempts to capture the essence of that someone or something.”
Collier states, “The restoration process always transforms, even destroys the past, if only by severing the car’s most important relationship, its connection to the selfsame and irrecoverable past.” He believes that the end result, no matter how meticulous and faithful the effort, will achieve no more than an approximation of the automobile’s lost reality.
His point is that the evidence of human stories engraved in the material fabric of the car makes it an emotional and powerful historical artifact that honors the car’s relationship to time and use.
His words made me reflect on the 1961 Corvette I have owned since 1967 and retained as original until a restoration necessitated by a fire in 2017.
The following looks at the restoration effort of my Corvette in the light of Miles Collier’s beliefs.
To provide a sense of the Corvette’s accrued life, times and use that translated into my, then, unrestored Corvette’s rich patina, I will begin with a piece I wrote for Hemmings to celebrate my 50th year of ownership.
Applying Miles Collier’s archetype versus portrait conventions in assessing the restoration of my 1961 Corvette
Summer 1967 witnessed the Beatles joining Sergeant Pepper’s Band and marching off the touring circuit for good at the same time that 100,000 hippies descended on San Francisco for the “Summer of Love.” It may have been ’67 but I would experience it like Route 66.
Still a teenager, my summer of ‘67 was to be an American Graffiti experience rich with Jersey Shore adventures and cruising main streets across Bergen County and beyond.
My sophomore year at Newark College of Engineering, now NJIT, was in the books and the bill for first semester of my junior year fast approached. Tuition for the next semester loomed as the princely sum of $220.
Having just sold my 1959 MGA for $325, I was working hard at two jobs because I wanted to buy a Corvette as well as pay for school.
The ad in the local paper read “1961 Corvette, Honduras Maroon with white cove, 283 with dual quads.” The classified now tossed to the kitchen table was still warm from my touch as I hit the road for Bloomfield, New Jersey. I was not disappointed. There it stood, strong and clean. A brief conversation revealed that it had been sold, but was again available because the previous buyer could not swing the bank loan. $1300 was a lot of money in 1967. I had $1200. Never-the-less I committed to returning the next day with the cash. Over the subsequent 24 hours I sold anything I had of value including my once treasured Lionel train set that filled my basement. At final accounting I had supplemented my bank roll by $125. I bought it.
Unthinkable now, but in 1967 on Saturday nights, youthful drivers across America in cars of every description would cruise around the center of town. Summer nights witnessed an unbroken string of cars that slowly crept along downtown main streets. A hormone laced dance of cars, flirting glances and laughter, it played out against a backdrop of deep throated Detroit iron and the aroma of engines running rich on Sunoco high test. I loved it.
This great horsepower driven rite of passage inspired iconic American rock groups like the Beach Boys to memorialize it in song and Spielberg and Lucas to put it in movie theaters with American Graffiti.
Main streets seemed to be filled with guys congregating on corners and girls strolling to nowhere in particular. Guys would drive around and, if they saw a couple of girls they liked walking down the main drag, there would be an invitation to go for a ride. The response would often be a giggling yes. Again unthinkable today.
While my Corvette only had two seats, I could fit four people as long as at least two of them were pretty girls.
Years passed and the early 70s saw me return to graduate school. A lasting memory finds me alone and cruising along Route 81 north of Binghamton, New York bound for Syracuse University, my future alma mater. The Chevy small block smoothly rumbled at speed. Midnight approached. Wind danced through the open cockpit. A starry summer sky hung like rich black velvet populated with diamonds twinkling in a jeweler’s case. A full moon poured moody light upon the sleeping village in the valley below. Cruising at 70, I climbed a high banking turn where the valley floor quickly fell away. For me that frozen moment in time captured a peace and sweet loneliness that connected with me in a way that freed me from ever again wondering why I so loved the open road.
Upon returning from graduate school, I discovered that my nephew Michael, age three, had taken a fancy to the Corvette. My sister said yes, he could go for a ride, but only if I installed a seat belt for him. Forty-three years later the car still has the one seatbelt. Michael now lives in North Carolina with children of his own.
Life like a road has rough spots. My father was a life-long smoker and car guy. I picked up one appetite not the other. We would work on the Corvette together. Swearing and laughing. It served both of us well.
By 1980 emphysema had robbed him of his ability to breath. His heart beat strong but his lungs were gone. He was taken to Holy Name Hospital to address what could be done to ease his passing. The time came when all that could be done was accomplished. He would go home. While the nurses recommended arranging for an ambulance to take him home. I said no. I hooked up an oxygen system in the Corvette. When they wheeled him to the hospital entrance the Corvette was waiting to take him for one last ride.
1994 found my mother who had nurtured my appreciation for great books and a love of history suffering from the mental ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. When I would visit her at a care facility, as I frequently did, her affliction had reached the point where her recognition of me would drift in and out. I learned a lot about Alzheimer’s during that time. One thing was that memory does not deteriorate uniformly. I would wheel her out to the facility parking lot on sunny days and bring her by the familiar Corvette. I would open the passenger door and sit on the sill facing her in her wheelchair. Sitting there under blue skies old memories would flash across her face like short lived sparks and disappear. My mother would smile.
As time passes I find that others with cars and stories gravitate to like souls. In recent years a number of friends gather on early Sunday mornings a few times a year at the International Crossroads in Mahwah, NJ. We call it the “Classic Car Dust Off Breakfast Run.” We pick a diner somewhere within 50 miles and embark on a traveling car show.
I am blessed that these are the best days of my life. And come July, I will celebrate 50 years of history with a numbers matching Corvette that remains original after more than one quarter of a million miles and continues to make memories.
2017, at least for me, will be another summer of love.
…And now it is 2022
Now 5-years hence, fire damage in September of 2017 would result in a complete restoration. Details of the restoration have been chronicled in the September 2019 issue of Hemmings Muscle Machines.
In differentiating between Collier’s choice of archetype or portrait, I believe my restoration effort walks a slim line straddling both. In doing so I acknowledge that my restoration effort, in seeking to retain elements directly associated with the use experienced and the passage of time, incorporates original components that fall short of showroom “archetype” condition. I deem that a plus not a negative.
My goal in executing the restoration was three-fold. I wanted to preserve my Corvette’s ability to afford the driver a time machine by informing their driving experience with the qualities of that period of automotive history. So, no restomod for me, thank you.
Secondly, for those friends and family members who knew and shared my history, I strived for a way to connect with the energy of that driving and living experience to instill a feeling for that history for those who shared in it.
Finally the car needed to be right. By that I meaning functional in a way that communicated a driving experience that possessed authenticity.
The door panels that have been touched by every meaningful person in my life since I have been a teenager remain in place. The sill plate where I sat to capture fleeting memories with my mother retains its original place of honor. Trim pieces that have reflected the passing scene of every drive I have ever taken continue to do so. The door handle my father pressed down when departing from his last drive continues to function nobly without complaint. The Wonderbar radio that reported the passing of history and any music available on an AM channel sits functional as it has since the day it left the showroom. The Goldwater-Miller presidential campaign button has been left where it was found with the spare tire .
On the other hand, The history recorded in the scars and abrasions of the slings, arrows and dings of outrageous happenstance have all been swept away by a superior prep and paint process. So the paint scar earned through years of hard top use is left to memory as is the gash left by the mishandling of the hard top by a past girlfriend who was “helping” me. To that list belongs paint worn off by decades of polishing, the many scars acquired in decades of open water transport on Martha’s Vineyard ferries and the meteor shower of road debris kicked up over a period spanning the administrations of ten United States Presidents. While all the scars are but a memory the color itself, though not the chemistry producing it, exhibits an amazing fidelity to the original Honduras Maroon.
Collier’s perspective on the desirable qualities guiding a restoration speaks approvingly of a process that honors the automobile’s relationship to time and use. And, in the rare instance of a long period of single ownership, I would add, the life shared with the owner.
NOTE: DRIVIN’ NEWS WILL BE TAKING A ONE ISSUE BREAK.