Rayburn Pennington is probably the most unlikely owner of any Motion Corvette ever. He runs a one-man body shop in the quiet Missouri town of Poplar Bluff, as he has for decades. He wasn't looking to buy a Motion Corvette, and, frankly, didn't know what a Motion Corvette was, even when it rolled into his shop for some touch-up paint work. It's an amazing story that's even more amazing when you consider the car in question is a '73 Motion Manta Ray, one of only three built, and the only one known to exist. Here's the story.
Outside of it being sold new in Chicago, the first ten years of this car's life are unknown. Rayburn was able to trace it back to Dyersburg, Tennessee, where it was for sale in 1980. A man from the nearby town of Malden, Missouri, was looking for a sports car and bought it. He installed nitrous, did some drag racing, and had it painted, but incorrectly altered Motion's signature side stripe. After a year or so, he sold it to a guy in Poplar Bluff, who owned a machine shop. Facing divorce, that owner sold it to the local Oldsmobile/Buick dealer, who then sold it to one of Rayburn's friends, who managed a dairy. The dairy manager had it for five or six years, and during his ownership, brought it to Rayburn several times to repair stone chips on the rockers and that kind of thing.
"I worked on the car two or three times, and I wondered what it was," Rayburn told us. "I asked the owner, and he said, 'It's a custom car from California.' So I took it at that. He needed some more work done and made an appointment with me. Then he calls me and tells me he's not going to bring it because he traded it in on a new pickup at the Chevrolet dealer. That was probably 1987."
Later, somebody at the Chevrolet dealer backed into the Corvette and broke the front bumper. The Chevy dealer arranged for Rayburn to paint the new bumper and install it. He did, then the Corvette returned to the dealer where it sat unsold for a long time. The market for aging, wild, custom Corvettes in that small, rural Missouri town wasn't exactly on fire. Eventually, the high-powered hybrid wound up on the back lot where "old maids" go to spiral downward into deep decline and salvage.
In summer of 1988, Rayburn's phone rang. "The dealership called me one day, and the guy asked me to meet him at the coffee shop. He said, 'I want to sell you this Corvette.' I thought I'd talk to him," Rayburn remembers, "so I met him at the coffee shop. I was mildly interested because I buy and sell cars and mess with 'em, but I knew that Corvette was very different, very unusual looking, and I thought that might ruin it. I told him I was really not very interested in the car. He was just going to have to hit me with a low figure, and I'll either buy it or I won't."
The dealer thought it over and tossed out his offer: $6,749. Rayburn thought he could fluff it up and maybe make a dollar, so he agreed to buy it. "That afternoon I went to pick it up. It was sitting full of water up to the top of the rocker panels, water in the seats, and the car was just white inside with mold. It had sat out in the weather, and the paint had cracked, and it wouldn't start," He recalls.
Rayburn bought a new battery, emptied the water, put plastic on the seats so he could sit on them, then got the tired car started and limped it home. A friend at his body shop saw the sorry state it was in and told Rayburn he should take it back and demand a refund. Rayburn was none too happy, but felt that a deal is a deal, even if it's a bad one.
"I heard later that the rumor around town was the dealer was laughing at me because he had ripped me off," Rayburn says. But the car had landed in the right hands and was now on the rebound. He cleaned and dried the interior, refurbed the seats, then did some wet sanding, and was able to salvage the paint job. After buffing, it looked good.
"My nephew, a devoted gearhead, has kept every magazine he ever bought, and he said, 'Motion is ringing a bell in my head.' So he goes home and starts looking through his old magazines and finds pictures of Motion cars and Joel Rosen and all that, and asks me if I think it's a Motion car. I told him, I don't think so. It's a custom car from California. Later, I thought it could be, but to me it was no big deal whether it was from New York or California."
Rayburn continued to learn about his Corvette and the heritage of Motion Performance in New York. An issue of the Dupont Registry had a feature on Joel Rosen and one of his Motion Corvettes, and mentioned that he would be displaying the vintage car at an upcoming '93 Bloomington Gold event. Rayburn went, found the yellow Motion car on display, and began comparing the two. When Joel Rosen walked up, Rayburn mentioned that he thought he might have a Motion car and handed Joel some photos.
"He said, 'You don't know what you've got, do you?'
"I said, No sir, I sure don't.
"He said, 'You don't know anything about Motion?'
"I said, I hate to tell you this, but no, I don't.
"He said, 'You never did read about me in the magazines?'
"I said, No, to tell you the truth. I didn't because when you were big in magazines, I was raising kids and making house payments and trying to survive, and I didn't have the money to buy a magazine.
"We talked some more, then he said, 'I'm going to tell you about your car. I did build it. I only built three of them, all three in 1973. The name of it is Manta Ray. One of them was wrecked when it was new; the other one has never been heard from. One of them was pearl yellow; one was orange with no stripe. The other two were 454/four-speeds; yours is a 350/automatic with air. The guy wanted a street cruiser. You've got a very, very rare and valuable car.'"
A previous owner had pulled the engine and replaced it with another 350. Rayburn may be close to tracking it down, but in the meantime, Joel found a correctly date-coded block and heads, and built it, adding his traditional dyno tune.
This one-of-a-kind Corvette has made the rounds of the Corvette shows, and garnered invitations to the prestigious concours d'elegance shows, Supercar Reunion, Franklin Mint show, and numerous Corvette gatherings.
Rayburn says the driving experience is a blast, and he's also been known to take it on the dragstrip. The car draws big crowds wherever it goes. At this photo shoot, on the grounds of the National Corvette Museum, an onlooker told Rayburn there were two real Motion Corvettes in Missouri, not realizing that he was looking at one of them.
After owning it for 19 years, Rayburn is approaching retirement and considering selling his unique Manta Ray Corvette. We've got a feeling that when it goes up for sale, it won't go begging for a buyer as it did 20 years earlier.