Time capsules are what we place objects from our past into, but what we're really storing away are memories. Looking at and handling the tangible items inspire us to think about good times, good people, and good feelings. So it is with Chet Tibbils' '58 Corvette. For him, every piece tells a story.
Chet, 70, and his wife, Joanne, live in Daytona Beach, Florida, and his approach to the car is the same now as it was when he bought it brand-new nearly 44 years ago. To Chet, it is "just my car," and the only thing he enjoys more than reminiscing about it is working on it.
When you get Chet started, the memories come flooding back in such a mass he can barely keep up with them. But from the day he made the down payment to his most recent trip up the Florida Space Coast, they are all there. More than anything, it's the memories that make this car special.
The story begins on September 11, 1958, when the young serviceman made his way from Fort Dix in New Jersey to Reedman Automobiles in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. "When I was there, there were two Corvettes on the floor," Chet says. "One was a used '57 fuel-injected car for $2,300, and the other was a brand-new '58 for $4,508. I wanted the new car, so I traded in my '56 Lincoln Premier convertible and bought it."
From the beginning, Chet pushed the car to its limits.
"I have a picture that ran in the local paper in 1958 of me autocrossing the car," he says. "I had crashed another '58 not long before I bought this one. But I raced autocross in this Corvette until the C4s came along. I couldn't handle them."
To understand Chet's approach to his Corvette you have to realize that in the early years, it was his only car. It was the daily driver, the family cruiser, and the weekend racer all rolled into one. It was neither a collector's item nor a status symbol; it was just his car, and he drove the dickens out of it.
"I used to put chains on the tires and go out with all the other guys to do donuts in the snow," he says. "Back then, I thought it was a nice car, but I didn't think it was so special. I didn't have the perspective I have now."
At times, it sat for long periods. "Raising a family, there were times when we couldn't afford the engine, transmission, or rearend repair when it needed it," Chet says.
But the Corvette always persevered until he could get it back on the road. When he did, it racked up the mileage. "One of the questions I'm asked most often is how many miles are really on it," Chet says. The answer: 381,000.
Many of those miles have faded, nondescript, into the past. But others are etched indelibly in Chet's mind: Joanne tooling around in it while pregnant, making Avon deliveries; Corvette club rallies; taking the family to Cape Cod, their 3-year-old daughter on Joanne's lap, and 2-year-old son on the ragtop lid; driving his daughter to her wedding; and strapping a car seat in the back and taking his grandson for a ride. One after the other they come back to him, each one sweet and cherished.
Perhaps the sweetest memory of all is also one of the first.
In 1961, Joanne was waitressing in a little restaurant called Buzzy's in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. It was a hole in the wall with the usual diner fare, hamburgers and whatnot.
It just so happened the young waitress was bemoaning how there didn't seem to be any tall men left in the world. Her friends, calling her on her lament, bet $5 she wouldn't go on a date with the next tall man who walked through the door.
Later that day, 6-foot-5 Chet strode up with two friends. He noticed Joanne right away, but he was in the restaurant for nearly two hours without saying a word to her. Finally, when she started to leave, Chet seized the moment.
"I followed her outside and asked her for a date," he says. "We went out the next Saturday, and about six months later, we were married."
During that first encounter, Joanne didn't know the Corvette was Chet's. He says he didn't think it was all that important; but, more than 40 years later, she set the record straight.
"I was very impressed with his car," she says. "In fact, if I had known it was his when we first met, I would have asked him out."
The car has changed a great deal since those early years. It began life with Silver Blue paint, but Chet quickly decided to go his own way with the color. He says, "Back then, they had this stuff in a spray can called George Barris' gold-color chrome, and I put it on the grille and housing, emblems, and trunk spears."
In 1959, it was time for an entirely new direction. Chet removed the trunk spears, emblems, and rear bumpers and molded fiberglass to smooth out the lines. He replaced the Corvette grille with a multi-doorknob-type grille, and installed white vinyl seats, a white leather top, and "moon disc" hubcaps. He then painted the car the same Admiralty Blue color as his old Lincoln Premier.
But the car would remain in this configuration only until 1962, when Chet removed the grille altogether and fashioned a shark nose and bulleted headlight openings for the front end.
From 1967 to 1969, he modified the grille off a '55 Chevy to replace the shark treatment. He then painted the car '69 Chrysler Imperial Copper poly (the same color it is today) and changed the interior to black.
In 1977, Chet painted the car a radish color, but he and Joanne hated it so much, it was back to Copper in less than a year. Cragar Mach 8 aluminum rims also went on around that time. Chet was always inspired by the lightweight, simple construction of the Corvette open-wheel race cars and prototypes (particularly the XP-700), and tried to emulate them as much as possible, always doing his own bodywork.
"This car has never been in a shop," Chet says. "Everything that's ever been done to it has been done by me. I started working on cars as a kid, and I picked up skills in various places. I owned a colonial furniture design shop for a while, and I learned how to spray just about any type of finish. When I first started doing bodywork and fiberglass, I was never any good. But I learned to just keep doing it over and over until it looked right."
After the redesign of '77, the Corvette stayed in much the same configuration it is now. But at a cruise event in 1988, Chet was rear-ended. Faced with starting over on his life's work, it would be 12 years before he began the rebirth process at age 66.
He added a secondary grille below the '55 piece. Then he performed one of his most difficult modifications. As a nod to the original chrome spears of the '58, he hand-molded raised fiberglass ribs down the trunk lid. He also adapted and installed a three-point seatbelt system from the rear of a '90s Mercedes, which had to be modified to sit out of the path of the convertible top.
If you find it difficult to keep up with all the modifications, a summary of the different versions of this Corvette can be found under the hood, where Chet has immortalized them on canvas, so to speak.
He painted the first mural in 1969, and has redone it twice with the new incarnations of the Corvette. "I just took [the insert] out and did it on my kitchen table," he says. "Took me about three months."
Besides a cruise up A1A or across the Florida panhandle, Chet derives the most pleasure from watching other people gather around and take it in.
"I enjoy talking about it, and I enjoy that other people enjoy it," Chet says. "It makes me feel so good. It seems like there's a crowd around it all the time. We were at the Spring Run at Daytona, and a guy came up to me. He said he recognized the car immediately, and had to come see if it was the same car he remembered from Connecticut back in the '60s."
One more good memory.
"Joanne and I still go out to cruise nights," Chet says. "Being down here in Florida, I feel 10 years younger. We love to go to the bridges around [our home] and watch the water. And every time the Corvette gets us home, we pat it on the dash and say, 'Thank you again.' "
When you talk to Chet now, he'll tell you about the changes he's making to the wiper system because the synchronization isn't just right, or the scratch from his garage door that needs to be touched up. Each nuance triggers a memory, and as long as Chet continues to drive his car, more memories are just down the road.