Rock 'n' roll tunes, "killer" fame, and a red Corvette. No, we're not talking about cruising down the road in your C6 with your iPod ablaze, dreaming of international superstardom. No, let's turn the clock back to 1957, when a man and his pumping piano made history in the emerging rock-music scene with the now-famous single, "Great Balls of Fire."
So what does Jerry Lee Lewis have to do with Corvettes, you ask? Actually, reports show that Lewis owned several Vettes over the years, including the '80 convertible you see here. And since Chevrolet didn't build any droptop Vettes from '75 through '85, this customized version caught our attention in more ways than one.
The car started life as a T-top model with a 190hp 350 and an automatic transmission-nothing out of the ordinary there. It's unknown whether the droptop conversion took place immediately or a few years down the road.
Indeed, much of the life of this red beauty was spent hidden away from the eyes of the public. Some rumors state that Lewis bought the car after recovering from stomach surgery in 1981, and that it was later seized by the IRS. (We tried to reach Lewis through his publicist but were unsuccessful.)
What the documents show is that the car was traded in at John Ellis Chevrolet in 1989. After that, it was kept in numerous collections until it resurfaced at a Mecum auction just over two years ago.
The mid '70s spelled the end for many factory convertibles. With sales slumping and federal safety regulators breathing down manufacturers' necks, many carmakers decided to eliminate their convertible offerings altogether. While many topless-Vette fans were content to make do with a T-top model, the more ardent among them clamored for a proper droptop model. For them, a conversion was the only way to go, and a handful of specialty coachbuilders-including Duntov, Flint Corvettes, Greenwood, and Perfection Auto-were happy to oblige.
The most famous of these creations was the Duntov-ACI turbo, of which an estimated 86 (of a scheduled 200) were built. To some, aftermarket convertible conversions like these are a legitimate part of Corvette history. Others regard the whole enterprise as a regrettable mistake. Whatever your thoughts on the matter, it's clear that historically noteworthy examples like the Lewis car will continue to pop up at auction for years to come.
The Auction Block
On May 28, 2007, at the Belvidere High Performance Auction in Illinois, a red Corvette took its spot at center stage as the auctioneer unleashed an especially breathless sales pitch:
"Here before you is an absolutely fabulous 1980 Corvette convertible-yes, convertible-previously owned by the infamous Jerry Lee Lewis! Crazy Jerry . . . had to have a Corvette convertible . . . so he built one! Here she is, the 1980 Corvette convertible owned by the man himself! Included with the car is a letter from a dealership confirming that this vehicle [was] owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. This Corvette has been freshly painted, [has] a brand-new interior, and comes complete with a 350ci motor [and] automatic transmission."
The car sold for $15,500 and has since been kept in a private collection and rarely driven. It will be interesting to see when this unique piece of Corvette history surfaces again.
The C3 As Collectible
Third-generation Corvettes have been admired over the years for their sleek lines and-in some cases-bracing performance. And while C3 values have always trailed that of the earlier Corvette models, that doesn't mean the shark cars are completely devoid of investment potential.
The so-called "chrome bumper cars" continue to lead the way in appreciation, and it's these models that are most often featured in high-profile auctions such as Mecum and Barrett-Jackson. Terry Michaelis, president of ProTeam Corvette Sales (www.proteamcorvette.com), offers this advice for buying a '68-'72 editon: "Try to buy double- or triple-digit-production cars with rare colors, rare options, and paperwork-L88s, LS6s, L89s, ZR1/LT-1s, ZR2s or low-mile cars."
The later, polyurethane-bumper cars are less highly regarded by collectors, due in large part to their lower horsepower ratings and less-graceful silhouettes. Regarding buying a later C3 as an investment, Michaelis says, "Look for Indy Pace Cars ('78) and Collector Edition Cars ('82)." In his opinion, the lower the build quantity of a Corvette, the higher its eventual value.
So where do the '73 models fit, you ask? Right in the middle . . . in more ways than one. These cars were fitted with the new 5-mph, color-keyed rubber front end but retained the older chrome rear bumper. People tend to either love or hate these "transition" models.
Lately, the prices of '73 Vettes have been on the rise, possibly because of the cars' relative scarcity. What does Michaelis recommend here? "Try to buy double- or triple-digit-production cars with rare colors, rare options, and paperwork. Low mileage helps, as does Bloomington Gold or NCRS judging. [A prime example would be the] Z07 off-road suspension and brake packages, as there were only 45 produced."
Special thanks to Terry Michaelis of ProTeam Corvette Sales, Inc.