Corvette owner builds highly desirable collection

Dan Wells, Freelance
driving.ca
Published: Friday, January 11, 2008

EDMONTON - The iconic Corvette is perhaps the most well-known and desirable American car ever, and aged examples generally change ownership often -- among enthusiasts, investors, dilettantes, spirited drivers, and anyone else with sufficient play money.

But then there are Corvette owners who knew a good thing back "in the day." First to purchase, never to sell, and always having preserved their valued 'Vettes, they've grown to see them rise in collectibility, worth, legend and credibility.

Once upon a showroom floor, there sat a new red 1965 Corvette Sting Ray convertible at Don Wheaton Chevrolet-Oldsmobile. Many saw the car, many wanted it, but only one would have it -- this man, Al Wilson. It's still his favourite transportation toy, with a mere 57,000 miles on it.

Upon delivery, 241 miles showed, travelled by Wheaton himself. Wilson's 1963 Impala convertible was traded in on the fibreglass flyer. Wilson says, "It wasn't intended as a keeper car." The idea was to drive it for a few years and trade it in, maybe on another Corvette.

That trade never happened. Instead, Wilson would enjoy his car for many years to come. The Corvette left the dealer's lot with a 350 horsepower, 327 cubic-inch engine, four-speed manual transmission, positraction rear-end, power steering-brakes-windows, white convertible top, full wheel covers and whitewall tires. By the way, those brakes are four-wheel discs, a first for Corvette.

Over the first few years, Wilson installed a number of 1965 options; radio, auxiliary hardtop, cast-aluminum wheels, side pipes, 4.56 rear axle ratio, seven-quart oil pan, transistorized ignition and fuel-injection system. Wilson kept all parts he removed and could reinstall them to return the car to its original state.

In the early 1970s, Wilson thought, "Maybe I should keep this car for a while," and bought new parts to replace those that would wear out or rust -- leather seat covers, clock, speedometer, tachometer, folding top, radiator, park and tail-light bezels, bumpers and grille. He has a veritable personal-parts department, though the car hasn't required any of them yet.

In its early years of usage, the Corvette was driven year-round, then stored during winter months, then stored indefinitely -- it was perpetually parked in the fall of 1979. Wilson explains, "Life took over, I had no time for it, and interest waned."

In 1980, Wilson began a four-year working stint in Ottawa while the car stayed put. Upon return, Wilson and his wife were busy with house renovations, and the Corvette would remain in storage, a virtually unseen museum piece. Nothing would be done to it as it rested in a garage, heated in winter. After saving it all this time, he had no plans of selling.

Because of other interests, Wilson left the Northern Alberta Corvette Owners Club of which he was a charter member and active participant since its inception in 1970. Certain members of this club would hound and hassle Wilson for several years, pleading with him to "get it going, get it out, get it to a show."

Eventually, Wilson's resistance weakened, and the classic Corvette convertible would be awakened from its 28-year sleep.

The "club" was planning a five-car display for the 2007 Powerama Motoring Expo in April, featuring one each of the 1963-1967 body style. "So that was the motivator," says Wilson, whose car sat proudly in the centre, unknown to most viewers as a car that had just spent two-thirds of its existence hidden away from the public.

In June, a club meet held at Don Wheaton Chevrolet reunited the car with its point of sale. Wilson had previously spoken at length with Wheaton in his office upstairs, who'd recalled driving the Corvette to and from home for a couple of months before it was sold.

The car's value had risen greatly -- a recent appraisal pegged the worth of the little red Corvette at 10 times its original list price. Wilson would enter the Corvette in other car shows that season, adding 500 miles more to the odometer. It looks like a five-year-old car, and performs much as it did when brand new.

After having driven more modern cars in the interim, Wilson stated that "The car felt quite strange" to drive again, attributed to a much more reclined seat-back and a large, highly placed steering wheel, resulting in a sense of sitting low in relationship to the dashboard.

Wilson soon rediscovered the feeling of exhilaration he had experienced in the car decades before. He played out a couple of "stop-light grand prix" bursts to find that the old gal "still accelerates quite good."

But Wilson won't push the car too hard for too long, stating, "You've got to keep in mind that everything is old," and breaking something on a well-maintained, low-mileage collector car would be disastrous. For the same reason, he won't drive it far from Edmonton.

The Corvette is once again registered to the same Alberta licence plate it first wore back in 1965. Wilson isn't flooded with memories when he sees or drives it nowadays. He'd rather appreciate it for what it is now than what it was then.

Wilson plans to remove the seven-quart oil pan, reinstall the factory-equipped five-quart unit, and put the power-steering back on (it had to be removed to accommodate the larger oil pan). As well, the hardtop will come off, followed by soft-top reattachment.

Next year will be another Corvette summer for Wilson and his prized roadster, plans being to exhibit it at numerous shows and meets, both Corvette and non-Corvette based.

Wilson's second Corvette was acquired by chance, not choice. Club friend Scott Allen, whose father Harry was sales manager at Edmonton Motors, told Wilson that a limited-edition 1978 Corvette Pace Car was due to arrive there soon, saying, "You really should get it."

So Wilson did, stating, "My idea was to get a unique new car, tuck it away and leave it -- so that's what I did with the '78. It was not bought with investment in mind." Both it and the '65 will someday become the property of Wilson's daughter.

Only 6,502 of this Indianapolis 500 Pace Car replica were offered for sale, one each assigned to every Chevrolet dealer in North America. They were in the showrooms even before the race was held on May 28, and caused quite a stir.

Much the same as what had occurred with the last Cadillac Eldorado convertibles in 1976, a buying frenzy erupted. Speculators drove prices far above suggested retail. One dealer was known to have gathered seriously interested parties together for an auction, the highest bidder driving home in the Pace Car.

All 1978 Corvettes wore badges inside and out to commemorate the 25th anniversary (1953-1978). The Pace Car sported a black-over-silver two-tone paint scheme with special decals, red striping along mid-body and on wheels, faired-in front and rear spoilers, silver leather high-back bucket seats and silvered T-Top panels. The Pace Car premium over the base model was a pricey $4,000. All Canadian-marketed Pace Cars came fully optioned.

Wilson would drive his '78 less than he did his '65 -- much less. After two years of light usage, including presence at mostly Corvette-themed shows, it was parked in 1980 at 1,500 kms -- barely broken in. "It really didn't get much driving," said Wilson, who didn't want to "pile on the miles."

It sat in the garage also, and would keep the '65 company. It got some street time again in 1999, having waited almost 20 years. More shows, some meets, a trip to Calgary -- "If I wanted to go, I had a really neat new/old car to drive."

After a short season out, it was placed back into storage until 2006, when again it appeared on the show circuit for the public's appreciation. Currently, with a scant 2,500 kms, this 30-year-old, two-seater, specialty sports car is in near showroom shape. Except for the battery, it has all its original equipment.

It is presently valued at twice its new price, much less than what was initially anticipated -- but that is of no concern to Wilson. Speaking about his pair of first-owner Corvettes, he says, "I have them 'cause I like them, and they're kind of unique."

The story doesn't end here. Wilson bought a third Corvette in 2006, a used '98 convertible. Says Wilson, "We use that as our driver to attend Corvette events outside of Edmonton."

Chevrolet has promised a supercharged Corvette SS for 2009. Wilson would like one, but says, "It will be priced out of my range, at about $100,000 -- I could sell one or two of these Corvettes, and afford it."

It's just a wish, not for certain. What is certain is that Wilson is a true Corvette connoisseur.