See The USA in a 1961 Chevrolet Corvette convertible

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Published: January 05, 2008 12:00 am

"Graduating from Capitol Hill High School in 1961, I always wanted a Corvette from that year," Bobby Cleveland said. The personable sales and marketing firm CEO was sitting in his south Norman office decorated with Elvis and golf memorabilia. His shiny red and white 1961 Chevrolet Corvette convertible was parked right outside. "We used to watch that 'Route 66' TV show and it was the coolest car around," Cleveland added, referring to the early '60's program featuring two hipsters in a 'Vette cruising the USA having random adventures. Since 1953, Corvette has been America's only true premium, production, high-performance sports car.

"After we got married and could afford it, my wife and I started searching. The 1961 model is hard to find. We found 1960s and 1962s but couldn't find a 1961. Then, 21 years ago we found one in south Oklahoma City owned by a guy who had it about 95 percent restored," Cleveland said. Cleveland completed the restoration, which was mostly interior work. The car is State Trooper-bait red. Coveted globally, it's a legendary ride. Once he parked it at a mall and came back outside to find a pair of Japanese tourists taking photos of each other in the driver's seat.

"I don't go to many car shows, but when I do, it always wins something. We went to the one in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where there were 6,000 Corvettes and we had the only 1961."

General Motors made fewer than 11,000 that year and relatively few have survived. It was the first year that Corvette was successful at Sebring, due in large part to its new aluminum radiator that reduced weight significantly and increased horsepower to 315 from the 283 cubic inch V-8 engine with Rochester fuel injection.

Cleveland's ride has the optional four-speed transmission. 2007 Corvettes are luxury cars, but 46 years ago they had few amenities. The 1961 interior was little changed from the first Corvette produced in 1953. Cleveland's 'Vette has a crowded dash with engine temperature, battery charge, fuel level and oil pressure gauges, a clock, tachometer and speedometer.

In 1954 an optional radio included the "Wonder Bar." By pushing a single horizontal bar the radio would automatically seek the strongest station signal. Cleveland has an updated sound system.

"I only drive my Corvette to work once in awhile. One time I was out here on Highway 9 and this girl in a '63 GTO pulled up beside me. She revved up her engine and next thing I knew, we were racing. She waxed me," Cleveland said. "After that I had a 454 engine put in it." The boost in power created cooling system issues that required modifications. "I had to have two electric fans added and don't have trouble with it overheating anymore."

A new engine just because you got smoked at a light may seem like an extravagance, but consider this. Sticker price for a new 1961 Corvette was just under $4,000. Today one in excellent condition easily fetches 25 times that amount or more. People have followed Cleveland on the street and made offers to buy his 'Vette on the spot.

"I had a 1982 Porsche 911 for awhile and that was a sharp car. It cost more money than the Corvette but it never generated the kind of enthusiasm that this one does," Cleveland said.

"Back in 1961 at Capitol Hill High School nobody had a new car. If you ran around with five or six guys, usually only one had a car and he'd pick everybody up. Gasoline was like 21 cents a gallon and we'd all chip in," Cleveland said. "Lots of guys had '55 Chevys. That was a cool car. Back then you had to have moon or flipper hub caps and the car had to be lowered. You could always get a good deal buying hub caps right out of the parking lot. A local guy would paint pin stripes. Capitol Hill was like its own city."

Cleveland's telephone rang and he let it go to voice mail. Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel" played before the message was received.

"This is the only Corvette I've had but I'd also like to have a '67. We don't drive this one very often. It doesn't have air conditioning, and on a hot day with the top down we about burn up," Cleveland said. "We've pulled it (on a trailer) to our place at Grand Lake and the time we went to Eureka Springs we drove the old Route 66 highway from Tulsa. But I wouldn't be afraid to drive it anywhere. I'd take off for California today," Cleveland said.

He smiled wistfully, possibly imagining the random adventures he'd have on that trip.

Have you seen a cool car around Norman? Writer Doug Hill's always on the lookout for the next Dig My Ride column. E-mail him at