1967 Chevrolet Corvette - The Rocket Man's Rocket Car

Astronaut Gus Grissom's '67 Big-Block Convertible

John Nelson Jun 1, 2004 0 Comment(s)
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Records show that Betty Grissom sold the car back to Jim Rathmann Chevrolet in September 1967. The car was subsequently purchased by one Mel Phoenix, who had his own particular addiction to speed. According to a March 31, 1968 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Phoenix, an engineer who dealt with quality control on the massive Saturn rockets NASA used to propel the rocket men into outer space, was a "Man of All Hobbies." He held a black belt in judo, was an expert fencer, and actively raced both cars (the piece mentions modified midgets) and boats (namely hydroplanes, in which he neared the 100-mph mark).

One of Phoenix's more ambitious undertakings is mentioned only briefly in the article, and unfortunately that sentence is all the info we have about the man's plan to set-up Grissom's Corvette-which he bought from Rathmann in October 1967, "for a run for the national record of 231 miles an hour." From this point, much of the history of Grissom's Vette is sketchy. One thing that we can be fairly sure of is that Phoenix's speed record attempt didn't happen-mostly because the Rocketman's car was never modified for such an attempt, at least not extensively. Setting a speed record in the fallen astronaut's Corvette would have been appropriate, we think, but it didn't happen.

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What did happen is that Grissom's '67 ended up as an NCRS Top Flight restoration, and it is owned today by someone who appreciates the car and its connection to America's space-faring history. Jim Falkowski of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, bought the convertible in 1986. Growing up in those early days of the "space race," Falkowski, like most other children of era, was fascinated by the prospect of climbing aboard a rocketship and blasting off to faraway worlds. "When I found out the car was for sale," he told us, "it meant a lot because of who owned it. Like all kids my age, the astronauts had intrigued me while growing up."

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Falkowski has been able to trace the first three owners subsequent to Phoenix. But the rest of the intervening 10 years are something of a blank-including the identity of car's restorer, whose work has held up to this day and only needed a thorough detailing job by Falkowski to garner the '67 one of NCRS' coveted blue ribbons. Impressive as gaining Top Flight status is, however, it pales compared to the opportunities Falkowski has had to reconnect Grissom's old car with its past.

Falkowski's first invite was to celebrate the landing of the space shuttle Discovery, the first shuttle flight after the 1986 Challenger disaster. "They had a parade like they used to have for the Mercury and Gemini astronauts," he recounted for us. "I found an ad looking for the car in Florida Today." Answering the ad led to Falkowski and the '67 taking part in the October 24, 1988 motorcade celebrating the shuttle's successful return to (and from) space; he even got to meet Rick Hauck, the mission commander and pilot. Falkowski was also involved in the Gemini Celebration in 1993 where he conveyed Grissom's widow Betty and his son Scott in Gus' '67 during the event's parade. Falkowski also got to sit in on a bull session with Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard, and Scott Carpenter from the Mercury 7, as some of America's original spacemen talked about hot rodding around the Cape and rambunctiously racing each other-all in their Corvettes, of course.

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Today, Falkowski says he would find it tough to part with what is now his '67 Corvette Sting Ray convertible. For one thing, his wife and two daughters would protest mightily. For another, Jim Falkowski feels some strong emotions in owning the old astronaut's Vette; as he told us, there's a "connection to our country, to childhood dreams, to good times. I still get a chill when I get into the car and realize who drove it." And in that sense, while the Rocketman's car lives on, so does Gus Grissom, the Rocketman. (Jim Falkowski invites all who are interested to visit his Web site, www.gusgrissomcorvette.com.)

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