Corvettes have a habit of transcending the typical roles of an automobile. A two-place sports car never has been what you'd consider a truly rational, totally practical mode of transportation. Perhaps that's what makes them so endearing, though; throw out reason and we're left with pure, raw emotion. When referring to Corvettes of any era, that fervor-inducing sensation is spelled F-U-N.
Many enthusiasts consider their Vettes to be toys, hot rods, weekend cruisers, or maybe even living artifacts. To Leo and Vonni Ensz of Hot Springs, Arkansas, however, the '64 fuel-injected Corvette convertible parked in their garage is more than just a cool car or a great investment. It's a member of the family.
When Leo, now 71-years young, talks about his mid-year roadster, it's with the glow of a proud parent boasting about his child. One of his favorite lines is, "I'm the original owner with my original wife." Leo and the Vette date back to November 16, 1963, when he bought it brand new from Nobby Schmitt Motor Company in Greenville, Illinois, for a whopping $4,404. At the time, Leo lived in Godfrey, Illinois, and sold his '59 Corvette, which he also had bought new, in order to step up to the current model. According to Leo, "Mr. Nobby Schmitt, the owner of the Chevrolet dealership, told me he had placed the 1963 and 1964 manuals in the Vette, and he never wanted to see it again. I suspect that was the first and only Vette he ever sold."
Leo's pride rolled off the St. Louis assembly plant as a genuine performance car with a 375hp L84 Rochester fuel-injected 327-cid powerplant attached to an M20 four-speed gearbox and a Posi-traction rearend with a 3.70:1 axle ratio. It was also one of a relative handful to be assembled with sintered metallic brakes for more aggressive stopping, as well as GM's "Off Road Exhaust System (RPO N11). Leo swears that, "The J65 brake option with the other options truly made this Vette very competitive. There is absolutely no brake fade." But the convertible, wearing Daytona Blue with white and blue trim, was also fully intended to be a driver. So Leo got it with an AM/FM radio, removable auxiliary hardtop, soft ray tinted glass, and back-up lamps.
As the first president and one of the founders of Piasa Corvette Club (named for the monstrous Piasa bird of Illini Indian lore) in Alton, Illinois, during the mid-'60s, Leo spent a lot of time with people who shared his passion for plastic. "The Corvette plant in St. Louis, Missouri, was accommodating to us for special tours and even let us use their conference room for some of our Piasa Corvette Club meetings." He still wishes that they'd let him take pictures inside the plant. Another of the Piasa Corvette Club outings "was to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to see a road race. I volunteered to rent a camping trailer; don't ever try to electrically connect a U-Haul trailer to a mid-year Vette. What a job!" They finally succeeded in hooking it up after removing the rear panel of the car.
Fellow Corvette enthusiasts weren't the only people Leo had exciting encounters with, however. "I had a policeman stop me on the way to work in 1965. He stated that I was the first Corvette he had ever given a speeding ticket. My reply was, 'Would you like to keep your record clean?'" A good argument but, unfortunately, Leo still got the ticket.
Motorsports were in Leo's blood, and he downright loved his Corvette. He ran high-speed autocrosses at Mid-America Raceway in Wentzville, Missouri, and won Top Time in both 1964 and 1965. He also ran very competitively in numerous autocrosses and car rallies in the '60s and early '70s, which Leo attributes to being able to go 65 mph in first gear. Plus, "I drove the Vette every day, and it fit me like a glove." It was in this racing fashion, in fact, that he first began wooing his bride-to-be. "My first date with my future wife was for an SCCA rally in Bellville, Illinois. I needed a navigator. She was great: [She] even learned how to use a Steven Circular Calculator." That was a perfect match-up, so Leo ultimately proposed to Vonni in the Vette, and they married in 1966. "We drove the Vette to Daytona Beach, Florida, for our honeymoon-the only challenge was packing her luggage!"
After getting marriage, they sold Vonni's '62 Chevy Impala convertible and replaced it with a six-cylinder '57 Chevy four-door sedan so they could keep the Vette. Though she wanted the Vette, Vonni wasn't thrilled about her Imp's practical replacement. Love soon forgives, and the Vette continued to play a central role in the Ensz family. "Our lives really revolved around Vette meetings, parties, auto crosses, races, and rallies." Vonni enjoyed driving the mid-year every bit as much as Leo, and she was quite adept with the four-speed.
When their son, Chad, was born in August 1968, and the Vette not being air-conditioned, "I used my mother-in-law's air-conditioned T-bird to bring him and Vonni home. He has never forgiven me that his first car ride wasn't in this Vette," Leo tells us with a smile. Chad's second ride was in it, though.
Leo also tells us about a family trip to the Lake of the Ozarks when Vonni was pregnant with their daughter, Holli. "[Vonni] chose to ride in an air-conditioned vehicle, so I had our sheep dog in the Vette pulling the boat. It was very hot so I had the top down, and I put a bandana over the dog's hair to keep it from hurting her eyes. Upon gassing, I heard someone remark, 'What an ugly gal in that Vette!'"
Since he was fairly mechanical, Leo did all the repairs and maintenance on the '64 himself with friends from the Corvette club. They all pitched in together and rented a garage to work on their Vettes on the weekends. "I remember one time working in my own garage," Leo continues, "when I was replacing a throw-out bearing and my son (two- or three-years-old) had his pedal car jacked up, and he was laying on his back with both hands pretending to repair his car. I also have lots of footage on the old Super 8 with Chad and Holli pretending to drive the Vette at very early ages." It's no surprise that Chad and Holli have grown into die-hard Corvette lovers (and owners) themselves. Chad drives a Light Pewter '00, and Holli enjoys a '95 C4 of her own.
In 1985, after a lifetime of memories shared together, Leo felt he owed it to the car to give it a proper restoration. His original intent was to refurbish it as a driver, but wasn't satisfied with the results. So he proceeded to a concourse-quality frame-off restoration. However, money unfortunately doesn't fall from the sky and, "from 1986 to 1996, we had one or both of our children in college so the restoration went very slowly." Leo restored the frame, suspension, and engine himself with the help of many friends.
Despite the mid-year having 91,662 miles on the clock before its restoration, it had been maintained well, and many components were still in good shape. Leo emphasizes that, "The Vette has never let me down. The fuel-injection system has performed flawlessly since its purchase. The injection system had a bad reputation in the '60s, but mine never gave me any problems." Besides that, other components like the drum brakes showed little deterioration. In fact, it still wears the original shoes on the rear. The fronts only had to be replaced because they froze on the drums when the '64 hadn't moved during its restoration, and they were damaged when Leo removed the pads.
The Vette's renewal was finally completed in 1998. Since then, it's been enjoying retirement along with Leo and Vonni, who now take the former family hauler on the show circuit. At its first event in '98, the Fuelie received its Bloomington Gold Certification, and it earned both its Chapter and Regional NCRS Top Flight awards in 1999. They've also taken home a myriad of prizes annually from the Lone Star Corvette Classic in Texas, including a Best of Show, two Best Interiors, Dick Guldstrand's Celebrity Choice in 2001, and it was VETTE Magazine's pick in 2003. The roadster doesn't get driven much at the moment but Leo says, "We are having a lot of fun at the Corvette shows with my original Vette and my original wife!"