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News: There's just something about a Corvette

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    Jun 2007

    There's just something about a Corvette

    There's just something about a Corvette


    Justin L. Fowler

    Shari and Roger Andrew bought their first Corvette in 1980 and have owned six; their current car is a 2007 convertible. Shari Andrew is finishing up her second term as president of the Central Illinois Corvette Club.

    Springfield, IL
    -- As an Army brat growing up in Hawaii and Japan, Shari Andrew always talked about owning a Corvette.

    “I just always thought that the Corvette was the sports car,” Andrew says. “It was the dream.”

    In Andrew’s mind, Corvettes were speed, and she liked anything fast: wave runners, snowmobiles, cars.

    For Andrew and husband, Roger, though, it was a dream deferred. It wasn’t until 1980 that they bought their first Corvette. An owner in the middle of a divorce was unloading it.

    “It fell into our laps,” Andrew says laughing.

    So here it was. A dream, finally fulfilled. And not bad to look at, either.

    “It made you feel,” she says, “like you were it. You got it, flaunt it.”

    Get Corvette owners together, and it’s sure to be a lively conversation. Persnickety? Perhaps. Adventurous? Likely. Unique? In a word.

    Corvettes are still wowing ’em. General Motors officials are poised to put their 2009 ZR1 model against the world’s most elite cars. Sales are humming across demographic lines: Corvette buyers are likely to be first-time buyers and females.

    Interest in older-model Corvettes continues to thrive, and there’s probably not a more loyal buying contingent. Many Corvette owners are repeat buyers or have multiple vehicles.

    For local Corvette owners, it’s simply a love affair.

    “The first one is the hardest to buy,” says John Hibbeler of Staunton, who owns three Corvettes. “It’s like buying that first house.”

    John Robinson of Springfield has had five Corvettes through the years, including a 1965 model he bought after getting out of the Army Reserves in 1966.

    “The Corvette had more mystique back then,” Robinson says. “It was a two-seater, and it was fast. It was something different.”

    “If you see a Corvette running down the highway,” John Hibbeler says, “there’s a certainty that person is going someplace neat, enjoying the ride and enjoying driving.”

    Mike Yager was hooked early. He had a poster of a Mako Shark — a concept for future Corvettes — on his bedroom wall, placed reverentially next to his Roberto Clemente poster.

    Corvettes have been an American institution for 55 years, but they almost didn’t get past the first couple of years. Sales were lackluster, matching road performance.
    Now the car is associated with speed: after all, the name comes from the swift, armed warship.

    Its appeal is all over the board. John Robinson had several late 1960s models, but sold them when “houses and kids” came his way. His most recent purchase is a 2003 model, and he’s back with the Central Illinois Corvette Club in Springfield — he was a charter member in 1968 — after a long absence.

    Hibbeler’s three Corvettes are housed in his 42-by-48-foot garage in Staunton. He has completely restored his 1966 Corvette and knows the cars inside and out. Literally. Parts — engines, block transmissions and intake manifolds — take up part of another garage.

    Yager is the founder and owner of Effingham’s Mid America Motorworks, one of the nation’s premier distributors of Corvette accessories. He’s also an avid Corvette collector: My Garage Museum, on the Mid America Motorworks campus, houses race cars, show cars and collectibles.

    Why Corvettes?

    “You have to ask?” shoots back Dale Lael, the owner of a 1961 Corvette.

    Yager says the newfound interest in Corvettes is a generational thing: baby boomers, who grew up on muscle cars — ogling them, if not owning them — now have money. Disposable income means getting that elusive Corvette.

    That’s not to say Corvette owners, like Hibbeler, didn’t embrace their first Corvette.
    “(Then) it was a 100 percent working car,” Hibbeler says. “If I went out on Saturday night, that’s it. When I went to work, that’s it. When I went to the grocery store, that’s it.
    “It’s been with me when I could barely make car payments. It was my freedom. It was my get-out-of-jail card. When I was living in an apartment using my coat for a blanket, I had my Corvette.

    “Through hard times and good times, you fought for it. If I had it for 40 years, I’m not going to get rid of it now.”

    Mike Yager is at his work desk, poring over old Corvette ads.

    “Look at this ad from the mid-’60s,” he says. It reads “10? 9? 8? 7? 6? 5? Drive it. Really drive it. Then tell us about those $14,000 cars.” The jab is at Porsche and Ferrari. A 1965 new Corvette retailed for $4,106.

    In a 1973 ad, a Mille Miglia Red Corvette beckons would-be buyers. “If you’ve wanted a Vette since you were a kid,” it teases, “you’ve waited long enough.”

    “Chevrolet really positioned the car as an icon,” says Yager, 58. “It never lost its focus.”

    Growing up in Newton, Ill., Yager spent nine years as a tool-and-die maker. In 1974, he went to his first Bloomington Gold Corvette Show, with mimeographed sheets hawking Corvette glasses, mugs and jewelry. He sold out of twill jacket Corvette patches, borrowing from a club’s pre-order to make good on the sale.

    “I realized that the audience was bigger than I thought,” Yager says. “It gave me a chance to meet customers one-on-one.”

    Working weekend swap meets, Yager built a loyal following. Mid America Motorworks, spread out over 40 acres, employs 175 people, making replacement and custom parts and selling factory original parts for Corvettes and Yager’s other passion, air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles.

    FunFest draws 50,000 enthusiasts and 15,000 Corvettes to Effingham each fall.
    The centerpiece of the campus is My Garage Museum, which houses only part of Yager’s eclectic collection.

    A 1964 frost-blue Styling Corvette, specially built for Chevrolet’s general manager, “Bunkie” Knudson, gleams with custom side pipes and color-coordinated hubcaps and tires. The car is valued at $900,000. Yager says Knudson had a flamingo-pink coupe built for his wife to match their Miami home.

    The collection, set along a reproduction of “Main Street” Effingham, contains a number of top-flight racing cars, bumps and bruises intact; they range from a 1968 LeMans Corvette and Elliott Forbes-Robinson’s No. 8 L-88 race car to two cars from the short-lived Corvette Challenge.

    Movie cars include a 1973 Stingray with a converted right-hand drive from “Corvette Summer” and a futuristic-looking machine from “Death Race 2000.”

    A personal Yager favorite: The last C4 (fourth generation) Corvette, made in 1996. Yager took delivery of the Corvette, valued at $1 million, off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Ky. Some Chevy executives and other employees autographed the inside of the hood; other employees signed the parts they were responsible for assembling.

    “ ‘Last cars’ are rare and go into private collections no one ever sees,” Yager says. “This one (being on display at my museum) is kind of neat.”

    Most Corvette owners can remember the precise details of buying their first ’Vette.
    “It was a ’65,” John Robinson says. “Bought it at Dick Waggoner’s (dealership in Springfield). A red-and-black roadster convertible with a 365-horsepower engine. I took it everywhere.”

    “A ’61 convertible, black with blue interior,” Dale Lael says. “283 engine, four-speed and a Wanderbar radio. I bought it in ’69 at the Jacksonville Shell station. I got them down from $1,500 to $1,100.”

    Robinson was an original members of the Corvette club in Springfield. Lael, 58, a graphic artist at The State Journal-Register, joined the club in September, 1970 and has been a member ever since.

    “Back then especially,” says Robinson, 63, a retired IDOT employee, “you had guys who were true car nuts, gearheads. Not too many can work on the new (Corvettes).”
    Practicality, John Hibbeler admits, isn’t the Corvette’s forte.

    “There’s not enough room, and they’re temperamental,” he says. “People got married and had kids; that’s why they got rid of them. That and the costs.”

    Among a forest of Corvette-related memorabilia — license plates, shirts, posters, patches and trophies — John Hibbeler recalls sitting on car fenders as a child, watching garage mechanics.

    “Even as a kid, I was taking wheels off toys,” says Hibbeler, 61, a manager of an auto parts department in Collinsville.

    Hibbeler is a walking encyclopedia of Corvette knowledge, a go-to answer man for owners all over the country.

    In display cases throughout his house, including an old rotating Timex glass-enclosed case, are models Hibbeler’s put together — “there’s a story with every one” — and 1/24th Danbury and Franklin Mint collectibles, so exact that gas caps open and seats fold up.

    Hibbeler has three full-size Corvettes: the ’66, a ’78, particularly sought-after because of its wraparound redesign, and a ’91 ZR-1. “The ’66 gets the most looks,” he admits. “The ’91, most people don’t know what it is, just that it’s a Corvette.”

    Hibbeler keeps his hobby in perspective: He doesn’t identify himself as a collector, and hasn’t gotten rich or gone into debt because of his cars.

    “You’ve got a short time to live,” he says, “you’ve got to do what you can to enjoy life. If you stop looking forward to something, you’ve got a real problem with life.”

    Corvettes, Hibbeler says, opened up a new world of friends for him. “This group of people is a second family to me,” he says. “I go to dinner with them, go on vacation with them, go racing with them.”

    Shari Andrew, 68, hadn’t been a member of the Central Illinois Corvette Club long before she was elected president and, through a by-law change, she’s finishing up a second term. Although not the first female president of the group, she’s proved popular, and “it doesn’t hurt that I know cars and have an interest in cars.

    The club may have started with a bunch of young guys, but now membership is more diverse.

    “We don’t have our noses in the air. That’s a misnomer,” Andrew says, joking.
    “We do a lot of things that are fun, whether it’s caravaning for dinner or auto-crossing or parties at different people’s houses.

    “(What makes it fun) are the people. You’re not always going to have the same types of interests — but in this case, we all love our Corvettes.”

    Steven Spearie is a freelance writer who can be reached at spearie@hotmail.com or 622-1788.
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