When you think of the world's most famous Corvette, what comes to mind? Maybe the heavily customized C3 from the movie Corvette Summer or the classic C1 of the television series Route 66? What if we told you our candidate for the most famous Corvette of all time doesn't look much like a Corvette at all? Think white suit, pink shirt, and loafers without socks. Ring a bell? Of course it does. Miami Vice first aired in 1984 and immediately became one of TV's hottest shows. Everyone was copying Don Johnson's five o'clock shadow, wearing pastels, and aspiring to drive a Ferrari Daytona Spyder.
Of course, with only 165 real Daytona Spyders made, and selling prices at one time topping $500,000, living out one's Sonny Crockett fantasies behind the wheel simply wasn't a realistic ambition for most. Fortunately for Vice fans, a faux Daytona was available to fit the bill.
But what do Miami Vice, vintage Ferraris, and Don Johnson have to do with Corvettes? you ask. Well, the "Daytonas" used on the show were actually C3 Corvettes fitted with new bodies and interior pieces to look like the real thing. They were constructed by specialty-car builder Tom McBurnie, of Thunder Ranch, in El Cajon, California, and were available in both kit and turnkey forms. In the '80s complete cars sold, on average, for just under $50,000, while individual body panels started at $6,500 each. That's still plenty pricey, but provided Ferrari looks were all you were after, the Thunder Ranch 'tona was a relative bargain.
That's not to say a trained eye couldn't pick out the differences between a real Daytona and a Corvette-based replica. The side vent windows were usually missing on the kit cars, different door handles were often used, and Corvette dash pieces and seats can sometimes be spotted. And if you still had doubts about a Daytona's authenticity, all you'd have to do was open the engine compartment. Real Ferrari 365s came with a 4.4-liter 352hp DOHC V-12 that was capable of hustling the car from 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds and on to a terminal velocity of 174 mph. On the opposite end, most kit cars still owned their original third-generation Corvette V-8, good for 160 to 200 horses. That might sound like a lot of discrepancies, but to a generation of loyal Miami Vice fans, Crockett's "Daytona" might as well have been the real deal.
For years there was no record of where the Miami Vice cars went. One was said to be on display in a museum in Tennessee. The other, based on an '81 Corvette chassis, just surfaced in Lubbock, Texas, in the possession of Jeff Souter. Although the car is slated to undergo a restoration and is currently in a somewhat deteriorated state, we thought its unique history and celebrity status made it worthy of recognition.
The story of how the car ended up in Souter's possession isn't one of pampered living in a climate-controlled garage. In fact, it's more of a Cinderella story. "My cousin Bryan told me about a Daytona that had been sitting behind a friend's mechanic shop for seven years," Jeff recalls. "My cousin called [shop owner] Ed McKenzie to see if he wanted to sell it. He was told that the car had just sold a week earlier and, to add salt to the wound, that it was the actual car from the TV show."
Jeff had owned custom Corvettes in the past and grew up watching Miami Vice. He had even looked at a few Daytona kit cars over the years but never found one worth purchasing. This time, he knew had found the one. Jeff found out who the buyer was and contacted him. "He kept saying it wasn't for sale, but I kept bugging him, big-time," Jeff says. "Finally I got to go over and see the car. It was in very sad shape. The seats had shrunk from the heat, it wasn't running, and the interior was almost completely gone. But I had to have it. I kept telling him that there had to be some amount he would sell it for. I must have worn him down, because he sold it."
Being a huge fan of Miami Vice, Jeff went out and bought the entire series on DVD so he could scrutinize the scenes containing his pseudo-Daytona. Jeff explains, "The car was very different on the show than it is now. The dash has changed, the door handles have been changed, a bunch of stuff like that. But every time I thought it wasn't the [same] car, I would go out to it and see that it was. Believe me, this is the biggest investigation I have ever done on anything."
In the end, we learned more faux-Daytona trivia than we ever needed to know. For example: On the show, the car's front Ferrari emblem appeared to be mounted much higher than it is now. When Jeff started nosing around, he could see patchwork where someone filled the mounting holes to move the emblem lower. "I have also worked with a lot of movie cars in the past and recognized a lot of other signs," Jeff told us, "like the oversized brake pedal, fuel cell, camera mounts, and remnants of a skid plate and second brake pedal. I was lucky enough to get in contact with Roger Pamperin, the guy who owned the car the last 15 years. He gave me documentation showing the car shipping from California to Texas after it was last used in the movie Speed Zone." Roger also informed Jeff that kit-car builder Carl Roberts was given the Miami Vice Daytonas in trade for building the Testarossa replica that replaced them.
Jeff went on to explain that the car currently has an '89 L98 motor with 245 hp, an automatic transmission, and four-wheel disc brakes. Luckily, it still has its original Zenith wire knock-off wheels and even its BFGoodrich Euro tires, which are no longer in production. "I want to do a frame-off restoration," Jeff tells us. "I want to put it back as close as I possibly can to how it was on the show. If I had any wish in the world, it would be for Tom McBurnie to help me restore it. After all, he is the original builder."
While there are still a number of Corvette-chassis "Daytonas" on the road today, these are becoming almost as rare as the real thing. Few Daytona kit builders still exist, and these offer a more limited selection of parts. But for diehard Miami Vice fans, there's still hope. It just takes time, money, and maybe a pastel sport coat.
In His Own Words
Miami Vice "Daytona" builder, Tom McBurnie
I worked for a company in Newport Beach called Trend Imports. I used to paint and customize Ferraris there. I suggested that we do a replica Ferrari. At first I wanted to use a Camaro chassis, but we needed the independent suspension of the Corvette. I started in 1980, and it took one year to get everything fitted and ready to build. The first four California Daytona Spyders went to the owner of Trend Imports. The first and the fourth are the ones used on the show.
[Miami Vice transportation coordinator] Ben Haggerty used to hang out at Trend Imports, and he was the one who recommended to [director and show creator] Michael Mann that he use the Ferrari Daytona Spyder. They leased one for the pilot and then purchased it and another for the second season. One was a '76, and the other an '81.
Currently, I am working on many projects, including the 356 Speedster, 550 Spyder, and 718 RSK.
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