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Hero In Uniform Marine Captain J. Lance Miller’s ’66

Hostile Takeover

May 1, 2002

Step By Step

I bought this ’66 Corvette over the Internet, sight unseen, from a guy in Florida while I was living in Okinawa, Japan. I’d begun my search for a mid-year Corvette in 1995. It was little more than cruising the Internet from Japan to see what was available and checking current prices. By the summer of 1997, I had settled on the precise year, interior and exterior colors, and options I wanted. I also came to the realization that ’66 Rally Red coupes with black interior and L72 motors were not that plentiful (or, at least, not for sale).

I began to toy with the idea of buying one of the nicer available ’66 coupes regardless of color and options, but there was always a feeling nagging at me that I would not be completely happy with anything less than my dream car. Sure, I could have gone to the trouble—succumbing to the dark side, some might say—of repainting and replacing the interior, but the trim tag would be screaming at me from beneath the glovebox. I was searching for a car with the options I would have ordered in 1966.

When I saw photos of this car in September 1997, I knew I’d found the car of my dreams. I e-mailed the owner, telling him I would take it. Because I wasn’t scheduled to leave Okinawa for another 12 months, and did not know where I would be sent next or when I’d be able to make it to the States to see it, I made arrangements for the car’s storage in Florida. I took some leave and went to Florida in December to see it for the first time. The car turned out to be in much better shape than I had imagined. Very few of the original parts were missing. The engine’s (painted but dented) original valve covers had been replaced with a chrome set, but were boxed along with some of the other original pieces. The obvious things such as rubber, filters, and plug wires had been replaced over the years, but the body had not been cut up, and the suspension and frame were in remarkable condition. Even the original riveted ball joints were still in place. The engine fired up immediately and seemed to get smoother the longer it was driven. I was impressed by the overall sturdiness of the car. Acceleration was phenomenal and cruising was pleasant, but braking performance was a bit disappointing. Air was accumulating in the brake lines and needed to be bled out. Paint was fresh and looked good, until you took a close look. There were many imperfections—visible scratches under the paint, overspray on the dash and other places, and it was apparent many parts that should have been removed and painted separately, such as the headlight buckets, had not been removed for painting. Still, I was very happy. I went away feeling that the car was in driveable and restorable condition.

In March, I received orders to move to Camp Pendleton, California. Now that I knew where I was going, I had to figure out a way to get the car from Florida to California. I thought about driving it, but it would have exceeded my insurance company’s 2,500-mile-per-year limit and added a lot of miles. Also, the thought of leaving it unattended while sleeping in motels worried me. So I contracted with a transportation company to transport it in an enclosed trailer for just under $1,500. They could get it to California in as little as five days. I jumped on it and made arrangements to be in California for its delivery. My wife wanted me to go sell our old house in California and buy a new one, so she supported my going.

I got a flight from Okinawa and made it to San Diego the day the car was to arrive. Traveling for over 7,000 miles and 24 hours, I’d been out of contact with my mother-in-law, to whom the car was being delivered. When I arrived, I was sat down and handed a beer—normally not a bad thing—only this time it was to soften the bad news. The driver had blown his engine climbing the grade on I-70 west of Denver. The truck, which was still under warranty, was at the dealership in Denver waiting for a new engine.

I occupied my time actively pursuing the sale of our home and the purchase of another (with a three-car garage) nearby. I walked through models, took digital photos to send back to my wife, and ate American fast food. Figuring that enough time had passed for something positive to have happened, I called the transportation company. The replacement engine wouldn’t arrive until Monday (I was scheduled to leave on Tuesday), and the trailer containing my car was 70 miles outside of Denver sitting unguarded at a truck stop! I asked them to pay my plane fare to Denver so I could take delivery of the car that evening. With a friend along for the adventure, we made it to the motel where the driver had been staying. After considering road conditions (6 inches of snow on the ground), we decided to check in and wait till morning.

We awoke at dawn. The interstate appeared clear all the way over the mountain. We got to the truck stop and unlocked the trailer. I caught a glimpse of the old girl I had first met in Florida, and she looked pissed off. On her hood was a small pile of snow that had drifted in from the roof vent. A thin layer of dust had settled on her paint and her cockpit was stuffed with her car cover and a box containing the parts her previous owner had promised to pack. The temperature outside was a sweltering 15 degrees F.

Any questions concerning the old girl’s mood were answered when I tried to start her. She resisted, but finally started in a fit of coughs and sputters—quite a bit different from the quick-starting spunky redhead I met in the warm Florida sunshine. (I learned later that her choke was sticking. I think she did it on purpose.) I backed out of the trailer before the car would idle on its own by tickling the gas a little every few seconds. Once out in the sunshine, I grew tired of her antics and tapped the accelerator a bit. She either got the message I was irritated with her, or caught sight of the freeway and was hoping to go for a run. She straightened up and began to idle at about 2,000 rpm—smooth as silk—but only after she broke the tachometer cable. I think she did it just to get back at me for leaving her stranded in a strange place.

For the next 1,000 miles, through Colorado, southern Utah, Nevada, and finally into California she ran like a champ. Whether it was flat, downhill, or up the steepest terrain the Rockies had to offer, it didn’t seem to matter. Engine temperature was never a problem; no matter how hard we pushed her, the old girl just kept humming away...perhaps humming isn’t the right word to describe the sound emanating from the 32-year-old side exhaust. We noticed a peculiar vibration at 75 mph, one that gave away more of the painter’s slipshod work. Many of the interior screws weren’t even screwed into anything, just pushed into the holes and left to rattle. We stopped a lot, not necessarily for gas (14 mpg) but because I wanted to keep checking the oil and engine to make sure nothing went wrong. Every stop invited curious onlookers. I enjoyed their curiosity, but quickly grew tired of the “What year is it?” question.

We rolled into San Diego 18 hours after we’d started. Air accumulated in the brake lines as we drove, and braking performance deteriorated as the miles added up. By the time we hit Las Vegas, it took a couple of pumps before there were any brakes at all. We lost the speedometer and tachometer cables, discovered a worn upper ball joint, identified the brake-system problems, and the slipshod work of the painters. I left the old girl in storage in a warm southern California garage, wrapped in her car cover, until the whole family arrived that July.

The ’02 Z06 addition was acquired for the daily commute. I repeated the sight-unseen purchase process I followed with the ’66 with this one as well, but instead of using the Internet, I ordered it from a dealer in Las Vegas, and then had to wait two months to see it. My Corvette deliveries seem more like hostile takeovers.
—J. Lance Miller



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