November 2, 2011
Editor’s Note: To say that Peter has lived a charmed and at times crazy automotive life is an understatement. The son of Tony De Lorenzo, the legendary GM PR chief who ruled from 1957 to 1979 – GM’s glory days – Peter was exposed to the business and the legends of the business from a young age. As he likes to say, “The legends that you read about in books today were either hanging out in our driveway or interacting with our family all the time.” People like Bunkie Knudsen, Ed Cole, Bill Mitchell and Zora Arkus-Duntov, just to name a few, and there were countless others as well. But that is just one dimension to Peter’s automotive life. Today, in light of the 100th Anniversary of Chevrolet, Peter reminisces about another one of those dimensions, some of his favorite stories involving the famous bowtie brand. - WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 11/1, 12:oo p.m.) Detroit. It has been interesting to read all of the articles about Chevrolet and its 100th Anniversary over the last couple of weeks. Chevrolet the brand, like Ford, its arch competitor across town, has been inexorably linked to the American fabric for a century. Regurgitating what has already been written is something I won’t do. But shedding light on my own Chevy stories is something I can do. Following are just a few of them.
The first Chevy. I distinctly remember standing next to our loaded ’58 Chevrolet Impala (painted in Anniversary Gold), in the driveway of our home in Flint, when a Boeing 707 flew low over the city for the very first time. A spectacular sight to say the least, as it was the first jet-engine aircraft I had ever seen, or heard. And the Impala? It wasn’t as spectacular as the 707, but it was pretty hot at the time. I’m pretty sure the “Anniversary Gold” color had something to do with GM’s 50th Anniversary, which was celebrated in Flint for a week in grand style culminating in a full-blown parade through downtown. The after party that my parents had for GM execs and dignitaries, the media, and every celebrity of note who attended the anniversary festivities was something else, with a diverse group of characters such as Guy Williams (the actor who played “Zorro” on the popular Disney TV show at the time), Henry Calvin, the actor who played Sergeant Garcia on “Zorro” (in his costume uniform), the reigning Miss America, Marilyn Van Durber, and the famous rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun in attendance, just to name a few. But then that party’s a story for another column.
The first Corvette. We had moved to suburban Detroit between Christmas and New Year’s in 1959 and my deep immersion in all things automotive began. It was “all cars, all the time” and my passion for everything to do with cars took hold, fueled by the constant parade of the latest GM cars in our driveway and by the fact that my older brother Tony was well and truly immersed in a car jones of his own that was already taking on prodigious proportions. But the first Corvette I remember was the white with red ’61 that was dropped-off one summer for a few days at the house. My oldest sister and her beau at the time tooled around in it all weekend. I was mesmerized by it. And during those sizzling hot summer nights over that memorable weekend I could hear that guttural V8 rumble all the way to the main thoroughfare nearby, before it changed to that unmistakable carbureted moan as it accelerated and faded off in the distance.
Mr. Mitchell’s neighborhood. To say that the ‘50s and ‘60s were a different era in automotive history is not painting a proper picture of just how different it was. Detroit was much more of a freewheeling mindset back then. Car executives were bold, decisive, conniving, creative and power-hungry personalities who inevitably went with their gut instincts – which could end up being either a recipe for disaster or a huge runaway sales hit on the streets. The only committees you'd find back then were the finance committees – and they never got near the design, engineering, marketing or even the advertising unless there was some sort of a problem. These Car Kings worked flat-out and they partied flat-out, too, ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists while wielding their power ruthlessly at times to get what they wanted – and rightly so in their minds – as they were some of the most powerful business executives on earth. In short, it was a world that was 180 degrees different from what goes on today.
No one represented the spirit of the business more than Bill Mitchell, GM’s chief of design, or “styling” as it was called back then. Mitchell was bold, powerful, flamboyant, recalcitrant, maniacal, brilliant, frustrating and probably every other adjective you can think of for someone who was one of a kind. He was smart enough to know and he had the innate sense to understand that he had inherited the legacy of the great Harley Earl, and he never for a second forgot that fact – or let anyone else forget it either. And he played it for all it was worth with a swagger and strut that haven't been seen in this town since. He often bumped heads with the "suits" down at the corporation when they didn't "get" one of his design recommendations – but he usually won the battles and got his way in the end.
Having heard countless firsthand stories about the man and his ballistic fits in the styling studios while cajoling his troops to go further and reach higher, I can shed light on a slightly different side to him too. Because, after all, he lived just a block away from our house.
And I'll never forget the day I discovered that fact...
I was still in my bike-riding days back then, but I remember resting with my buddies one blistering Friday afternoon on a corner in our neighborhood after a long, hot day of riding around aimlessly – we did that often back then – when we heard a rumble and roar coming from off in the distance. I knew right away that it wasn't motorcycles and that it was more than one of whatever it was – and just then a pack of the most stunning cars we'd ever seen burst around the corner and came rumbling right past us – the sun glinting off the barking pipes and the canopy of trees shimmering off the perfect mirror finishes of the paint jobs.
This horsepower train was led by the "original" Corvette Stingray in Silver, followed by the XP700 Corvette (a "bubble-top" show car with side pipes also in Silver – it was Mitchell's favorite color), the first Mako Shark Corvette and a concept called the Corvair Sebring Spyder (also in Silver), a wild racing-inspired show car with dual cut-down racing windscreens and three pipes curling out and around each side in the back. They were so loud we couldn't even hear ourselves screaming whatever it was we were screaming, but after a split second to think about it, we took off, pedaling our guts out after them. It was apparent that these machines were heading for our part of the neighborhood – and as we tried to keep them in sight I realized they were turning on to my cross street...
We came around the corner and saw them pull into a driveway, exactly one block from my house. We stopped right at the end of the driveway with our mouths agape down to the asphalt, as the drivers of the other cars handed the keys to the driver of the Stingray and he took them up to the front door where a woman collected them. Then, an Impala pulled up and the four men got in it and were gone, leaving the cars sitting in the driveway all lined up ticking and spitting as their pipes started to cool.
This became the Friday Afternoon Ritual of the summer – at least when Bill Mitchell was in town.
Ed Cole’s 409 Chevy company car. One weekend Ed Cole sent over his personal company car at the time for us to use – a white with blue 409 Impala SS with 4-speed manual gearbox. The story was that it was a prototype of the production car, and the only other 409 Chevy in existence was in “Dyno Don” Nicholson’s hands at the NHRA Winternationals. We spent the weekend cleaning everyone’s clock on Woodward Avenue in Cole’s toy.
The ’62 PR Corvette. GM PR had a white/black ’62 Corvette in its fleet and it sat pretty much underutilized, that is until my brother got home from school for the summer. After that it was permanently attached to our driveway every weekend. Just a 300HP, 4-speed model but still, it was the first of many memorable “Corvette Summers.”
The ’62 Corvair. We had an early Corvair Monza Spyder Coupe in red with black that was tweaked by Bill Mitchell with the addition of a narrow white racing stripe (bordered by two thin stripes) that ran down the center of the car. The stripes were painted on. It also had the soon-to-be-available turbocharged engine, long before the public even knew it was coming. I recall that we took it to the Detroit Dragway at the time and the tech inspectors didn't want to let us run it in a "stock" class because of the turbo. We convinced them that it was a factory prototype and they let us run it anyway. Thus began my infatuation with the Corvair.
The ‘63 Stingray. One of my most memorable Chevrolet moments occured when Ed Cole lent us his personal driver, again, for a weekend. This time it was a brand-new ’63 Fuel-injected Corvette Stingray Coupe in gleaming Silver – with every high-performance option – just a couple of days after the car’s official introduction to the media. Except no one had seen one in metro Detroit at the time so needless to say, it caused quite a stir, literally stopping traffic and drawing hordes of followers everywhere we went. I maintain that no car has made the impression that the Stingray did upon its introduction. It was a singular moment in automotive history and a magnificently sensational car for the ages. And it still is.
The ’63 Corvair Sebring Spyder and the original Stingray racer. Once I got the Friday Afternoon Ritual down pat, I would case out Bill Mitchell’s driveway to see what cars were delivered for his amusement. Then, early Saturday morning I would ride my bike over to his house and basically camp in his driveway inspecting every inch of the machines in repose there, waiting for Mitchell to emerge. One Saturday morning Mitchell came out and said to me “hop in” for a ride up to the local drug store in the Corvair Sebring Spyder. Painted red originally, that day the Spyder was painted in mirror-like silver, sort of like a junior Stingray. The run up to the drugstore took 15 minutes, start-to-finish. But from that moment on I was neck-deep in the automotive “thing” and over a couple of year’s time I got to ride in every significant GM styling concept car of that era, including the original Stingray racer, which to this day is my all-time favorite car.
The Black ’64 Stingray Coupe. The summer of ’64 changed everything. My brother decided to go to SCCA driver’s school (unbeknownst to our parents) and he talked my dad into ordering a loaded black-on-black ’64 Fuel-injected Stingray coupe just for the summer. It had every heavy-duty option on it and when Zora got word that it was destined to go to “Tony’s boy” he massaged and tweaked it and threw a set of Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires on it for good measure. But before he gave it back to us he sent it over to Bill Mitchell’s personal GM Styling technician, a brilliant fabricator named Ken Eschebach, who rigged a set of hangers and straight pipes so that the muffler’s would be easily removable once we arrived at Watkins Glen. It worked like gangbusters but we were so tired after the school that my brother decided we’d just drive it back from New York with the straight pipes on it. Needles to say it was loud, but we relished every single moment of it.
The Cobra vs. Corvette Weekend. After the Watkins Glen adventure, reality set in. The black ’64 Stingray Coupe would have to be put back together so the car could be sold. The roll bar was removed, we put the interior bits back in it and we basically had a beautiful, badass Stingray to play with for the rest of the summer. We had started getting Shelby Cobras to drive from Ford, and for one memorable weekend we had our Stingray along with a brand new silver Shelby Cobra. My brother had his college roommate in town plus a few hangers on, and we staged our own Corvette vs. Cobra shootout over the entire weekend, roaring around town in a freight train of horsepower. I thought it couldn’t and wouldn’t get better than that. I was wrong. And for the record, I could write a column about our Ford exploits that would be just as much fun as this one. And I might, one day. (A sad note to this story? The Black '64 Corvette Stingray Coupe was sold to a friend of my sister's who lived in Chicago. He took delivery of it here and drove it back. It was stolen and stripped three nights later.)
Dolly Cole’s ’65 Corvette Stingray. Dolly Cole was the firecracker wife of Ed. She was beautiful, smart and sexy, and she loved to go fast. Ed put together a ’65 Stingray roadster for her that was electric blue with a white interior and it also had the factory side pipes. Oh, and one more thing, it had the first pre-production 396 cu. in. big block Chevy engine in it, months before introduction. Dolly called it her “Bluebird” and the only person she let drive it outside of her family was my brother. We had the blistering fast “Bluebird” over several weekends, including the one where we drove it, a red Shelby Cobra, and a GT350 Shelby Mustang down to South Bend for a little car show that was set-up by my brother and friends at the University of Notre Dame. That “little” car show marked the infamous public debut of the Corvette Grand Sport Roadster that no one knew existed. All we knew before that was that Zora told Tony that he would send something down to the show. When they opened up the trailer from GM and that now priceless Corvette racing icon emerged, the automotive world stopped.
The ’65 Corvair. After my brother graduated, he was slated to do an internship in New York City. My dad thought that a Corvair would be a perfectly sensible, practical car for my brother and normally it would have been, but by then the racing bug had fully taken over. We took possession of the Corvair on a Friday afternoon and by Saturday evening the interior had been stripped, a roll bar and other safety equipment had been installed and it was nearly ready to go SCCA racing in “A” Sedan. We raced it on and off for two years.
The ’67 L88 Roadster. With the racing bug well and fully engaged, my brother got the notion to race a Corvette. A serious Corvette. Hanley Dawson was a friend of our dad’s and a noted Chevy dealer in Detroit. We decided to pitch Hanley about not only ordering a Corvette, but to sponsor it as well. When the black roadster arrived at Hanley Dawson Chevrolet, it was one of the first “L88” Corvettes produced (of 20 total that year). In one weekend we removed the windshield from the magnificent beast, fabricated a cut-down wind screen, affixed a set of OK Kustom headers and side pipes on it, installed a roll bar and the other safety stuff and it was ready to race. And yes, Zora made sure the engine was up to snuff before it was even delivered to the dealership. You can see the car here.
The rest, as they say, is history. To make a long story short, Tony went on to reestablish the Corvette name on the racetracks of America and in international GT events at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen. At one point his famed Owens Corning Corvette Racing Team won 22 races in a row, with Tony and his partner Jerry Thompson (a Chevrolet engineer) finishing 1-2 14 times, including nine first-place finishes for Tony.
The Flying ’67 Camaro. While my older sister was out of town I took her electric blue Camaro SS out, as I often did. As a matter of fact I was an experienced driver two years before I was due to get my license. I would regularly take out our cars, as the house was often empty due to my parents’ travel commitments and such. Developing the racing bug of my own, I would especially relish taking the Camaro out after a fresh coat of snow at night so I could slide it around the neighborhood with abandon. My schoolmates heard of these exploits and wanted to see a glimpse of this, so one day after school they followed me though one of my “tracks,” which was an area where new homes were being built that I knew well. As you can imagine, things didn’t work out as planned. I went barreling into a turn, only to discover that it was covered with mud. With zero grip, I slid wide and hit a giant mound of dirt square on, which launched the car in the air. All my buddies recall seeing was the bottom of the Camaro as it disappeared over the dirt pile. The car was only slightly damaged, (we made up some story while it was being fixed down at Hanley Dawson Chevrolet), but my sister wasn’t completely fooled. She knew something wasn’t right. We didn’t notice until later that the body shop put the wrong front valance panel on the car. That Camaro had hideaway headlights. The valance panel was for a Camaro with fixed headlights. We never said a word.
The ’68 Z28 Camaro. One May weekend a red with black ’68 Z28 Camaro arrived in our driveway and that car was just a blast. I spent the whole weekend running it as hard as it would go, and it never faltered and never wavered. It was just a high-revving beast with a bad attitude. I had two memorable encounters on Woodward Avenue with a classmate (a Ford exec’s son) who had a 390 cu. in. Mustang. We stayed even up until about 60 mph but then the Z28 took over and just disappeared. I loved every moment with that car and to this day that first-generation car is my favorite Camaro
The ’69 L88 Roadster. With the racing thing dominating everything, there was thought given to producing Tony De Lorenzo “signature” Corvettes. So we ordered a full-on black ’69 Corvette L88 roadster to do just that. We even had it displayed at the 1969 Detroit Auto Show as the “Daytona GT.” That plan never panned out because the racing took precedence over everything, but I got to “exercise” that car on the streets and byways around the Motor City. And it was fantastic. You can read more about it here.
My ’69 Corvair. Having been a fan of Corvairs almost from the beginning, I got a red ’69 Coupe with the 140HP engine and 4-speed as my driver. Within a day of having it I bolted on a set of exhaust headers from that famous gearhead bible – the J.C. Whitney catalog – that I had ordered the previous week. The most memorable thing about it? It would shoot blue flames out the pipes when it was warming up.
The Run to Mid-Ohio in the ’70 Corvette LT1 Roadster. A friend of ours who was just getting started with his own racing bug had a “Yenko Stinger” Corvair down at Mid-Ohio, but he had a problem and made a frantic call to see if anyone could rustle up the critical part that he needed to continue racing. I answered the call, and I enlisted a good friend of ours to ride down there with me. At the time I had a “borrowed” white with red Corvette LT1 Roadster from Chevrolet, and we left at 9:00 p.m. and made it down there by 11:30, hammering it the whole way. We handed-over the part to our friend, exchanged pleasantries in the motel parking lot, and then turned right around five minutes later and headed straight back, going flat-out whenever we could. It was a classic high-speed run.
The 2011 Camaro Indy Pace car. Last May, thanks to a gracious, spur-of-the-moment invitation from some of my old friends at Chevrolet, I found myself buckled in the backseat of the lead Camaro SS at the head of the field for the parade lap before the start of the Indianapolis 500. And I must tell you, when you hear Mari Hulman George say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines" and you hear those racing engines firing up right behind you on the track, well, I can barely even begin to describe the feeling. Short of being strapped-in to one of the Indy cars rolling off the grid, the adrenaline rush was palpable and intense, much more than I expected, in fact. After all, when you're right there, on the track at the head of the field for the biggest race in the world it is simply mind-blowing and I was determined to savor every second of it.
And when we started accelerating out on our flying parade lap the sight and sound were almost incomprehensible. You hear Indy drivers talk about how race day is different at The Speedway because of all the people, but I had no idea what they were talking about until I experienced it for myself. The People. Oh my goodness, the people. Jammed into the grandstands as far as you could see. And when we came through Turn 1 and started to accelerate away toward Turn 2 the cheering from the crowd rose-up and swallowed us whole, completely drowning out any noise associated with riding in a convertible at 100+ mph. It was incredible.
As we passed the suites outside of Turn 2 and headed down the back stretch, it was only then that I had a chance to catch my breath and say to myself, "Am I really doing this? Is this really happening?" Oh, it definitely was and I made sure I was in the moment, believe me. And when we approached Turn 3, the buffeting from the wind in the Camaro SS convertible was overwhelmed again by the huge roar from the crowd. But then nothing, I mean nothing prepared me for the sight going through the short chute into Turn 4 and looking down the main straightaway of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. It was simply the most magnificent sight I've ever experienced in my life. And as we roared down the straightaway in front of the huge main grandstands you couldn't hear a thing, the noise from the crowd simply drowned-out everything. It was absolutely fantastic. And then it was over. We peeled off on to the apron in Turn 1 only to have a razor-sharp brrraaap jolt us as Mario Andretti blasted by in the two-seater promotional IndyCar, followed by A.J. Foyt in the Pace Car and the entire field of 33 cars. As far as once-in-a-lifetime experiences go for a hard-core racing enthusiast like myself, I would say that this pretty much did me in. And it really doesn't need to be said but I'll say it again anyway. Indy? There's simply nothing else like it.
Oh, there’s more. Much more. I have many, many other Chevy stories that will have to wait for some other opportunity. There was the Day-Glo orange ’70 Chevy van that I used for my various band gigs, there was the time I was enlisted (gladly) to drive a pre-production C5 Corvette for a Chevy catalog shoot on a tiny oval in Arizona, countless other racing-related stories, including our buddy and his NHRA champion Corvair, the ’69 SS 396 Chevelle that I flogged for a weekend, and on and on and on.
But that will have to do for now because after all, the best stories are always the next ones.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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