Pennsville car enthusiast gets the ride of a lifetime

Monday, June 09, 2008
By Randall Clark
rclark@sjnewsco.com

PENNSVILLE TWP, NEW JERSEY. When life gave Mike Mortarulo Jr. a lemon, he made a midnight black, 210-horsepower Corvette.

The Pennsville Memorial High School senior says he was "taken for a ride" by a private auto salesman several years ago. With his life savings, he bought a 1980 Corvette that he says turned out to have so many cracks in the frame, it was a danger on the road.

But through perseverance, a community of car lovers and a little elbow grease, he was able to turn his proverbial pumpkin into a chariot.

The amazing story of his vehicle's transformation, along with the people and companies who donated from all over the world to help his cause, is now a six-page spread in the July 2008 edition of the national magazine Corvette Enthusiast.

For 18-year-old Mike, his love affair with the Chevrolet icon began in the baby seat of his mother's own pristine ride. It is a Mortarulo family tradition or obsession he explained.

So he toiled. And he saved, overcoming the impulses of youth in a commercially driven society.

At 15, Mike was working several nights a week as a busboy at the Riverview Inn, waiting for the day he could find his perfect car. It wouldn't be brand new, or even in the best shape. But it would be his.

"Then one day I found it on the side of the road. I went down and looked at it a couple times. I went down and took it for a ride and eventually bought it outright," Mike said. "The (salesman) said it ran well, it's just ugly. The paint was bad, the interior was bad. But I was fine with it."

A $4,500 purchase, it was the most cash Mike had ever held in his hand. He drove it off the property and thought he would never look back.

But maintenance issues arose quickly, and soon he had taken it to the shop for what was supposed to be a minor repair.

There at Pennsville Tire and Auto, they discovered cracks all up and down the frame. Even a hard brake or sharp turn could have caused the frame to break, perhaps causing a major accident.

"Mechanics told me it was a parts car. And I didn't have the kind of money to fix it," Mike said. "It was a nightmare."

So the car sat in his parents' driveway for about eight months as Mike and his family tried to find a way to recoup some of the money he had lost in the deal. His mother, Jody Mortarulo, said that they towed it everywhere to try fixing it up, though the diagnosis was always the same.

"I would wake up in the morning and look out the window, going, That's my son's money. What are we going to do?'" Jody said. "It was a horrible eight months."

And then fate played a royal hand. Jody, in trying to find people interested in spare parts, came into contact with PSEG Nuclear co-worker Brian Falla, a longtime member of the Corvette Club of Northern Delaware.

"I made some suggestions to her. The frame was shot, the car was basically junk," Falla said. "So I brought it up to some of our members."

Falla inquired during CCND's monthly meeting if anyone was in need of parts for an '80 Corvette. As Mike puts it, "it snowballed from there."

Club member Barry Kimmelman wanted to give Mike a better introduction into the Corvette community, keeping with the organization's mission to benefit the community.

According to Falla, CCND raises between $5,000 and $10,000 annually through its car shows, with proceeds benefiting local charities and orphanages. Mike became their latest cause.

CCND put the car up in a Kennett Square, Pa., garage at the home of club President Andy Rumford. As long as Mike was there to learn and to help, the club began to reassemble his dream car from the ground up.

From large items like the frame, brakes, engine and steering system, down to minute details like the antenna, each part was given its due attention in the overhaul.

The story made its way onto Corvette discussion forums such as Corvetteforum.com and Vetteheads.com, and complete strangers began to donate money and parts to the rebuilding process. Work began July 3, 2007. The car was completed on Nov. 25, 2007 Mike's 18th birthday.

Mike said he spent every weekend there working on it until it was ready for the road. The project turned out to be bigger than anything they could have ever imagined, Falla said.

"People started hearing the story and helping me. Parts were donated from some really big vendors," said Mike.

"It was an unbelievable experience. And in the process I learned the car inside and out."

The National Honor Society student says he hopes one day he can return the favor to someone facing similar circumstances, and the generosity of so many people will not be forgotten.

He added that he is looking forward to a long summer with his Corvette, keeping his fingers crossed it will just be small mechanical tuning to the car until he is off to college at Virginia Tech this fall. Until then, there will be little between him and the open road.