Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Just an old car. All original 1961 Corvette is regularly driven and enjoyed by the same owner for more than 30 years

Editor's note:  This article may seem strange for this blog, because it's written in third-person even though it is obviously about my dad and his Corvette.  That's because I originally wrote it for a magazine.  But before it could get published, the magazine went out of production.  I thought it was a pretty good story anyway, so I didn't want it to go to waste.

Also, the article mentions the connection with this Corvette and the Omaha Tangier Shriner Corvette Patrol.  I am currently working on a new story about that organization, and have some great pictures that I'll share in the neat future, so stay tuned!

For many years, Jim Hover refused to take his '61 Corvette to a car show. “I hated having people tell me I should restore it,” he grouses. “This car will never be restored as long as I'm alive.”

Jim has managed to keep his Corvette original for 32 years now. That's how long ago he bought it from an Omaha, Neb., used car lot for the princely sum of $4,500. And today, the gleaming white beauty sits in pretty much the same condition as it was purchased. Far from perfect, but with a charm and history that's hard to duplicate at any cost.

When this car was new, members of the Omaha Tangier Shrine Corvette Patrol purchased specially ordered groups of identical Corvettes each year to use in parades and public events. If you've seen the Shriners in action, you know they know how to have a good time with some cool toys. Of course, their main purpose is to raise money and awareness for their children's burn hospitals throughout the country.

In 1961, the Omaha Shine Patrol Corvettes looked a lot like this one. They all had solid Ermine white bodies with Jewel blue interiors. They were all 230-hp cars with Powerglide transmissions. In fact, they looked exactly like this one, because, well, it was one.

It wasn't particularly special by the time it made it to that used car lot in 1978, though. “I always did like the looks of these '61 Vettes,” Jim recalls, “but I mainly bought it because it was cheap.”

Don't let him fool you, though. Jim knows his cars. His dad was one of the first used car dealers in Colorado Springs, and after growing up in that environment, he went on to retire from a successful career as a district manager with Chevrolet Motor Division. He's owned several Corvettes, but none of them managed to hold his attention as long as this one.

1961 could definitely be called a transitional year in the history of the Corvette. It was the first year for the four round taillights, a design cue that still remains today. But it was the last year for the 283-c.i. V8, as it was replaced with the 327 in '62. It was the first year for the mesh grill instead of the old, toothy grin that had been carried over basically since the Corvettes inception. But it was the last year for do-wop-era wide whitewalls. It was the first year that the exhaust exited under the car instead of through a hole in the bumper. But it was the last year it could be ordered with a contrasting color in the cove.

All '61 Corvettes came with a 283-c.i. powerplant. In addition to the base, single four-barrel, 230-hp version like our feature car, there was either a dual-quad 245- and 270-hp version, or a choice of either a 275- or 315-hp fuelie.

At the time, the Corvette's styling seemed cutting edge. For example, that four taillight design was taken straight from Bill Mitchell's 1960 Corvette XP-700 show car. And yet, the production taillight lenses are directly interchangeable with a '58 Impala.

The '61 Corvette design proved to be so iconic that it will forever be associated with the hit television series Route 66, where the heroes, Tod and Buz (played by Martin Milner and George Maharis), traveled the country in search of adventure.

Route 66 first aired nearly 50-years ago, and most of the cars from the show have probably either been restored, or more likely, don't even exist anymore. But in that same lengthy amount of time, think about what is still completely original on Jim's car. The paint. The engine. The seats. The transmission. The spare tire. Even the cloth rebound straps on both sides of the straight rear axle.

How did this car stay so original? Was it in storage for the last 30-years? Hardly. “One of the reasons I wouldn't want to restore this car is that then I'd worry about it all the time,” Jim says. “The way it is now, I can drive it without thinking it's going to get a rock chip or door ding. It just wouldn't be any fun if it was too nice. This way, I can just touch up the little chips with the back of a match. Someday, the whole car might be repainted with a match!”

And drive he has. Jim couldn't tell you how many miles his Corvette had without looking, but it was about to turn over 130,000 when these pictures were taken, and that odometer wasn't about to stop turning anytime soon.

Nebraska stopped administering inspection stickers after 1982, so after wearing a new sticker for its first 21 years, that last '82 sticker still remains in the windshield. There's also an old AAA sticker on the back bumper. Not because Jim was a member of AAA, but because there's a scratch under there that “looked like hell.”

When Jim bought this car, his kids were two and five. Most people don't consider a Corvette to be the perfect vehicle for a family of four, but it didn't stop the Hovers. Jim would drive, his wife would ride shotgun, his younger daughter would ride on mom's lap, and his son would sit on the transmission hump, careful not to kick the Powerglide out of gear. “No one really cared about that stuff back then,” he says, “but you'd be hauled to jail for riding around like that now!”

Another reason Jim doesn't want to restore his Corvette is because he appreciates originality. “Anybody can restore a car, but with this one, you know exactly what it is. These cars didn't have smooth paint and perfect bodywork from the factory. They were wavy. I can prove they were, because this one's wavy. You can see exactly how this car was put together—what bolts and fasteners they used; where things were shiny and where they weren't. A lot of restored cars don't get all this stuff quite right.”

Over the years, Jim's Corvette has endured two huge modifications. The valve covers were replaced with older, cast versions instead of the painted originals. “I just think Corvette engines should say 'Corvette' on them,” he says. “The originals are boxed up in the basement if anyone is worried about it, though.”

It also sports a late model set of Coker radial whitewall tires. Jim drove this car for years with the old bias-ply Firestones, but as those tires aged it handled “like a ship without a rudder.”

Don't think he's a modding fool, however. For example, Jim bought boxes of the original style T-3 headlights from junkyards back in the '80s. “They were easy to find, and only cost a buck or two. You never really see them anymore. Nothing else looks right in there, but they're all so old, they're turning yellow. I don't really drive it at night all that much anymore, though.”

It was mentioned earlier that the spare tire is the original. But it has been out of the trunk. Jim used to use it regularly to hold up the car when he rotated the old bias-ply tires. It hasn't actually ever been driven on, though. And it does have that iconic '61 Corvette wide whitewall on the side facing the trunkwell.

Jim likes to tell people that his Corvette is, “just an old car,” and when he first started saying that, it probably was. But today, it is obvious that it isn't just an old car to him anymore. He knows every inch of it as if it's an extension of his own body. It was there when his children grew up, moved away, got married, and had kids of their own. It has been there through every good time, and every bad time for 32 years. It moved to new homes right along with his family. In fact, it is a member of his family.

These days, Jim is more willing to share his '61 Corvette with people at those car shows that he used to detest so much. Standing there with him at a local cruise night recently, a guy wearing a Corvette shirt studied his car carefully, then offered his opinion: “That car is beautiful the way it is. Don't ever restore it.”

That old Corvette may be the same as it was when he bought it, but as it turns out, Jim was ahead of his time.

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