The name Bob Wingate may be familiar to those who have been around classic Chevrolets for a few decades. During the late '70s and early '80s his business, Wingate Classics, was a staple if you were in the market for a Corvette or classic '55-'57 Chevy. The most fascinating of Bob's automotive stories are of some specially styled Corvettes provided directly to him by Chevrolet. This story is about my discovery and restoration of one of these cars, its documentation, and how it came to be built.
Wingate's automotive career began in 1955 at the age of 18, working for Clippinger Chevrolet in Covina, California, a place he would remain for the following 20 years. Working his way up to salesman, he concentrated his efforts on high-performance cars. His first encounter with the higher-ups at Chevrolet came in early 1959, when he wrote a letter requesting 100 new '59 Corvettes for Clippinger. This was unheard of in those days, but Joe Pike of Chevrolet Product Promotions came to his assistance and helped Bob locate over 50 cars that were funneled to Clippinger from other dealerships. This began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Bob Wingate and Joe Pike.
Bob continued selling large numbers of Corvettes and, by 1966, had sold more than any other salesman in the nation for the fifth year in a row. His reputation was growing and he had discovered many channels open to him for getting special things done for customers. If a customer wanted a special color or option combination that wasn't on the order sheet, Wingate would make a call to Central Office or whoever he needed in order to get the job done.
Each year, for a number of years running, Bob was given one of the early production Corvettes built for that model year. Officially, the car was a demo that was driven around with dealer plates; but at the end of the model year, Bob was allowed to have the car and sell it, keeping the proceeds as a bonus. These cars were always nicely optioned with whatever he desired.
For the '67 model year, Pike saw to it that a very special Corvette was sent to Bob in the opening month. The car was apparently done in Michigan as a special styling exercise. The details of how this was done and who funded it are sketchy at best, but Pike had discretionary funding at his disposal and the pull to get such a car built.
Bob was told not to ask where the cars came from, and it didn't matter much to him-he was too busy. In 1967, he sold over 160 Corvettes, and even had clients flying down from the Bay area to get cars from him.
Bob actively promoted high-performance options on the new Corvettes he sold. If you wanted American Racing mags, Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires, headers, and six taillights on your new Corvette, you got them.
In September 1966, a different-looking, new '67 Corvette was sent to the Clippinger dealership for Bob. It featured mild fender flares, Goodyear Blue Streak tires on American Racing mags, no front bumpers, no external mirror, antenna, emblems, or wipers, smoothed front turn-signal lights, a chrome tube grille, a milled-aluminum instrument cluster, and, as Bob described it, a pearl green paint job with pinstriping. All of this was in addition to the normal 435hp Tri-power 427, four-speed, side exhaust, black leather, power window, and telescoping wheel options.
Bob drove the car for about a month and a half. In late October, Pike and Zora Duntov were in Los Angeles for a visit, and Pike asked Bob how he liked the new car. Bob said it was OK, but he was not particularly fond of it. Apparently, some people within Chevrolet felt it wasn't a good idea for Bob to have this unusual car because potential customers who saw it might want one like it. Shortly after that, word came down from a Chevrolet higher-up that Bob should get rid of the car, and another one would be built for him immediately.
The next '67 Corvette that was built for him is the one I have found and restored. This car was done completely in St. Louis, and was shipped directly to Bob. It was more conventional, and was patterned after the '66 Corvette that was customized by Clippinger the previous winter.
After Bob was told to get rid of the first wild '67, Pike asked him what options and colors he wanted for his next car. Bob said he wanted Goodwood Green with black leather, power windows and brakes, radio, tinted glass, shoulder harness, side exhaust, 435hp 427, and a wide-ratio M20 with 3.55 Posi-traction rearend. Bob had talked with some engineers years earlier who figured out the wide-ratio transmission and 3.55 rearend combination made for a quicker car. Bob also requested Goodyear Blue Streak tires with American mags, and a white stripe over the top of the car and down the back. Joe said, "Ah, I don't know." But he called back the next day and said it was handled, and to expect a few surprises.
The car, as it showed up at Clippinger's, had the M20 wide-ratio trans with a 435hp L71; Goodyear Blue Streak tires on American Racing mags; Goodyear stickers on the body behind the front turn signals; no front bumpers (they were in a box behind the seats); grille inserts filling the bumper support holes; chrome bumper nuts filling the side holes for the front bumpers; hand-lettered white 427 numerals on the hood; brake calipers painted white; the white hood stripe continuing over the top of the car and down the back; six taillights; rear fender lips cut to fit the rear tires; a beautiful, wood Nardi steering wheel; and flawless paint, fit, and finish.
Bob recalls what was probably his most glorious moment with the car. He was pulling onto a highway at the same time as a guy he knew in a 427 Ford Cobra. Bob had no spare or jack in the car and not much gas in the tank, and the guy in the Cobra had a lady friend with him. They got next to each other and nailed it from a rolling 20-mph start. They stayed even for a few seconds, then Bob slowly started pulling away from the Cobra, to the surprise of both drivers.
As the summer of 1967 drew to a close and Bob's summertime road tour was complete, it was once again time to sell his car and collect his bonus. The highly anticipated '68 models were out, and Bob's new L89 convertible was on its way.
This is where the story takes a turn for the worse. The kid he sold the '67 to was a new customer who Bob had never seen before, but he had money and wanted the car. When Bob saw him a few months later, he said he ran out of gas on a freeway, and a truck hit the car, running over it and completely destroying the car.
In early 1993, I had the urge to have a mid-'60s Corvette, and saw an ad for a '67 in a local paper. The coupe was a nice car, but I told the owner it wasn't what I was looking for. A few weeks later, he called and said he might have found a car I was interested in.
He and I drove down to Long Beach to see a highly modified 427 '67 coupe, and I still remember the garage door swinging up to reveal a beastly looking '67. The car was truly a mess; it had huge fender flares and a big back spoiler, bare side pipes painted green, cracked red paint with gray primer splotches all over its six layers of paint, and an asking price I thought was too high. The owner, Rick, had originally found the car in Big Bear, California. He bought it from an eccentric guy who had owned the car since 1968. It still had the sticker on the tank, and it was a highly optioned 427/435hp car. After I left, I didn't think much about the car until Rick called asking if I was still interested.
My buddy Alex Bailey, who had seven Corvettes, said, "Look, it's not like you'd be making a huge financial mistake by getting this car. You probably won't lose much, if any, money on it, and you may have some fun along the way." That was good enough for me, and I went to look at the beastly '67 again. A pile of parts came with the car, and little did I know how original all these "wrong" parts were.
The following week, Bob invited me to his home. Fortunately, he's a camera buff and had over 100 pictures and 8mm films of the car. He told more fascinating stories than I could absorb, and my head was spinning when I left his house. I was invited back a week later, and that time I took detailed notes.
Bob found more stuff from the car in his attic. He had the original window sticker, owner's manual, trophies, the original key tag from when it was delivered, and more pictures. I asked more questions about the history of the car, and learned about succeeding special cars Wingate had after the '67.
I contacted the guy in Big Bear who had owned the car since 1968. He bought the car out of a local newspaper, and at the time it was Candy Apple Red.
As far as Bob and I can figure out, the missing year of ownership history (1967-1968) goes something like this: The unknown owner to whom Bob sold the car beat on it for a few months, blew up the engine, and had the aforementioned wreck on the freeway. The insurance company wrote off the car as totaled; a body shop picked it up as a salvage wreck, worked on it for a few months, turned it into a California custom, and sold it for a tidy profit.
The evidence I found on the car points to a low-budget customizing job. The rear of the car was hand-laid fiberglass, and the driver's door and left rear quarter-section were grafted on from a red '65 coupe. Even the gas tank, which had been somewhat crushed, was brazed to seal it up, and reused. Amazingly, the original tank sticker, which was on the top driver-side of the tank, was not touched.
From my research, no other tank stickers have been found to date that document this type of car. When I first looked at the car, I didn't notice the uniqueness of the tank sticker, but this document really makes the car what it is and ties the loose ends together. In the upper right-hand corner of the sticker, the COPO/F&SO box had a number in it, 8094C. I didn't think you could get an M20 wide-ratio transmission with the L71 engine, but there it was. The kicker was the last line of the typed section that read, "Build per FSO." FSO? Factory Shop Order? Who knows?
I remembered reading an addendum at the back of Noland Adams' book, where he talked about the possible existence of odd cars, such as Shop Orders, and seeing an old article in the March '90 issue of Vette magazine outlining such cars. I knew I had found something very different, and decided to ask for help documenting the car from people in the hobby more knowledgeable than I.
I made up three detailed packages of pictures of the car and sent them to Noland Adams, Dave Burroughs, and John Amgwert. Neither Dave nor John knew of any existing FSO Corvette, and neither had seen a tank sticker documenting such a car.
Both were clear and firm with their advice: Spend whatever it takes to have this car perfectly restored, or sell it right now to someone who will, because this is a rare piece of history. As the restoration progressed, I had lunch with Noland and Bob. They had not seen each other in about 15 years, and the stories flew back and forth nonstop. We quizzed Noland about my car, but he didn't have any clear answers. He too had not seen an FSO car with a tank sticker or documentation.
Putting it all into perspective, I think my '67 FSO car raises more questions than it answers. What was the mechanism and paperwork trail for building an FSO car, and who was involved? Who did Joe Pike contact to have these cars built? What does the COPO/FSO number on the tank sticker stand for or relate to? How did Bob Wingate get such detailed updates on my '67 as it was being assembled, and who was overseeing it? Joe Pike told Bob he did not build any other special cars like he had done for Bob Wingate. Are there other Chevrolet executives who used this FSO mechanism to have unique or one-off cars built?
I'd like to thank Steve Luvisi of Automotive Expertise in Huntington Beach, California, for the countless hours he spent on the restoration of this car, and the many others who had a hand in its revival. The American Heritage Award the car received during a spectacular week at the National Convention in Monterey was a wonderful way to further highlight the history and stories of such unique Corvettes. I'm grateful that NCRS created such an award to recognize cars with unique and colorful histories.