Paul Van Valkenberg poses the question, "If you could have only one car for the next 30 years, what would it be?"
You're reading Corvette Fever, so the answer to that hypothetical question is pretty safe to assume. Paul's choice has been a Corvette-the same '63 Sting Ray-for the last 37 years. He drives it not only on weekends, but every day. When he needs mulch from The Home Depot, he crams it into the Corvette. When he was collaborating with Mark Donohue on a classic racing book, most of the interviews took place in this car. When his kids were born, they came home in this car.
This Corvette isn't pretty and is about as ordinary a coupe as they made in 1963, with a 300hp engine under the hood and the barely adequate two-speed Powerglide automatic doing the shifting. It has never been restored, but it has been fixed. The suspension is stock, the tires are skinny, some of the trim is missing, and it generally shows the wear of being a daily driver its entire life. In a weird way, Paul's inattention to its preservation has only made it better. This car is a legend that grows every day he drives it.
At a time when just about every surviving '63 Corvette has been restored to an appallingly high standard, turned into a vintage racer, or modified into abstract art, it's almost comforting to know there's at least one out there that's still just a car. Paul's '63 does the noble work cars were built to do.
It all started in 1966 when he was an engineer doing R&D for Chevrolet's racing program. Working with Jim Hall on the era's Chaparrals and with Roger Penske and Donohue on the nascent Camaro Z/28 Trans Am competition machines, there probably wasn't a better job for a race-crazed 25-year-old engineer from Topeka, Kansas. He acquired a clean '63 Corvette for daily transportation. He didn't keep it.
"My first Corvette was stolen and stripped in 1967," Paul explains. "The insurance company paid my claim, and with that I bought the car I drive now. I bought back the shell of my first Corvette for $400 and turned it into a B-Production race car. So I had two '63 Corvettes and I'd tow the race car with this car all over the country. During 1968, I won about half the races I entered with that car. I should have been successful with that car-I was a Chevrolet race engineer."
Being a Chevy engineer had other advantages, too. "I had an extra rear window lying around when I was a Chevy engineer because I had a '67 Corvette for doing development work on the Chaparral," Paul explains. "I took out the rear window to mount the Chaparral's rear wing through the opening to load-measure the struts. So I took the bar out of my '63's rear window and replaced it with the '67 glass. That bar would block a complete police car. It was the only modification I ever made to the vehicle's body."
Paul's Corvettes came with him along Route 66 when he migrated from Detroit to California as Chevy's racing efforts faded away and the company, he says, put most of its effort into defending the Corvair and safety issues. "I couldn't take any more Detroit winters," he adds, stating the single most popular reason for leaving Michigan. In California, he fell into the world of automotive journalism, becoming the tech editor of Sports Car Graphic. Later, he designed and built some of the first electronic-data-acquisition equipment for measuring vehicular performance using a "fifth wheel" suction cupped onto the door. The system was used by such magazines as Motor Trend and Road & Track until just a few years ago, often using his Sting Ray as a development tool. He also cowrote The Unfair Advantage, the classic autobiography of Indy winner, Trans Am champion, and Can Am dominator Mark Donohue. During the early '70s, most of the interviews took place inside this car at racetracks around the country.
"Donohue and I would sometimes go and park someplace quiet away from the racetrack to work on his biography," Paul recalls. "He'd always say, 'Paul, when are you going to get rid of his s--- box?' But if you've read his book, you know how compulsive he was about his own cars." A full three decades after it was written, and nearly three decades after Donohue's death while testing a Formula One car, The Unfair Advantage remains the definitive book on the mind and soul of a great race-car driver (the edition issued in 2000 is still available). This Sting Ray is a genuine artifact of its composition.
With Donohue's book under his belt, Paul's career as an automotive author took flight. He's written five books over the years while often contributing to Road & Track and other publications, and penning a monthly column for the well-respected Race Car Engineering. In the process, he's driven and tested virtually every Corvette variation subsequent to the car he owns and many other types of vehicles to boot. "I can't think of any redeeming characteristics in any of them," he says. "I was never tempted by a newer Corvette. The '63 is the most practical car I could have driven all those years. It has increased in value 10 times since I bought it. It costs me practically nothing to drive. It's cheap to fix. What else would I buy?"
Of course, more than four decades of use takes its toll on any car, and this Corvette carries some scars. "The front end of the Sting Ray was damaged in 1970 when my last girlfriend (before I got married) was driving it behind my Trans-Am Camaro race car and bumped into me at a stoplight," he recalls. "She's now a missionary to the Kurds in Iraq. When she came back to the U.S. last month, I showed her the car and she was relieved to see how well it had been repaired. I never, ever raced this car; never drag raced it and never put it on a skidpad. Still, I've rebuilt just about everything on the car at least once." Paul added that he has always worked on the car himself. "It has a two-speed Powerglide and I've rebuilt it about three times," he says. "I've been tempted to change to a Turbo 350, but that would take some cutting. I rebuilt the 327 once about 15 years ago, but took that engine out in 2001 and replaced the long-block with a Targetmaster 350 and all the accessories and intake from the 327. It's a black car and it's always been black, but this next time will be the third time I've painted it from the beltline up. I reupholstered it 10 years ago in the stock pattern."
Except for the gentle engine swap and that long-ago (and since reversed) rear-window installation, he's never felt any urge to deviate from stock. "I was making a career of modifications and there was no reason to ever screw up my own car," he says.
At 63, however, Paul Van Valkenberg may finally be ready to part with his Corvette. His interests now extend past automobiles and his No. 1 interest at the moment is the neuroscience of vision. That's an interest that isn't promoted by spending time fixing a 41-year-old Chevrolet. "I'm getting a little old to crawl underneath it," he says, "and I never have trusted it to anyone else. The first year I had it I took it to a dealership to fix a leaky windshield and they screwed that up royally. A couple years ago I had someone else build the automatic transmission, so that was screwed up. I'm considering a good home for it now that I'm getting old. After I'm gone, my family wouldn't know what to do with it.
"I get a couple of people a month asking if I'd sell it. Nah, I'd think to myself, it would be like selling one of your kids. On the other hand, you do reach that point in life where you have to say goodbye."
Paul has saved every piece and part that ever came off his Sting Ray, including the original 327 long-block, and the water pumps that have gone bad. "The car's been in primer for maybe a year," he states. "I know every micro-crack and tick in that paint and I can't decide what level of perfection or imperfection to accept."
But if it's tough for Paul to figure out what to ultimately do with his car, it may be an even tougher decision for anyone who buys it from him. If they restore the car, what they have is yet another restored '63 Corvette and not even a particularly unique one. If they decide to hot-rod the thing, they wipe out a lot of history in the process. Would you screw up the car within which Mark Donohue contemplated his autobiography? Would parking it in a collection in its current well-used condition be much fun? While Paul may think it's a fantastic daily driver, would you park your air-conditioned C5 in its favor?
Ultimately, what's next for this car is likely never going to be as interesting as what is already in its past.