"We had to pay a guy 15 grand to turn us on to that car. [It] had been sleeping for almost 20 years," says ProTeam Corvette Sales owner Terry Michaelis. This Rare Find is an original-owner '68 L88 that had been tucked away in a Florida pole barn and strewn with extremely valuable parts of a rare and esoteric big-block nature.
The saga of this red-on-red-on-white convertible's discovery began to unfold over the 2007 Labor Day weekend, thanks to Tom West. West has purchased more than 4,000 Corvettes for ProTeam in the last 21 years. So he was all ears when, as he tells it, "a longtime friend at the Kruse auction in Auburn asked, 'Would you guys have any interest in an L88?'"
Given that the L88 is one of the most valuable and sought-after of all vintage Corvettes, West tried not to act too excited.
"If it's real," he said simply.
He recalls his friend's response: "I'm told it is."
The inquisitive West asked for pictures and waited patiently for the mailman each day. A month passed. Finally, he phoned. The owner "travels a lot and is kind of hard to get hold of," his friend explained.
West called about once a month, then every two weeks in an attempt to pin down the owner of the vehicle. Michaelis began to think the L88 was just another ghost story, but finally, nearly a year later, West got the go-ahead to fly out to Tallahassee to look at the car.
"Terry put a punch list together for me, so I didn't make any mistakes inspecting it," he says.
That list included more than 100 different points. One key fact was that '68 L88s never came with a radio or radio-related items. Another was that every '68 L88 was equipped with the Muncie M22 "Rock Crusher" manual transmission. The numbers on this particular four-speed matched the last six digits of the VIN and were factory applied. Of course, West checked a myriad of other details.
Convinced by West's assessment that the car was authentic, Michaelis flew from Ohio to Florida to see check it out. The owner-a wealthy businessman-had already set the purchase price; there would be no negotiating.
In his typically colorful Ohio jargon, Michaelis compares the sight of this Rare Find to a Corvette "that somebody would walk past at a swap meet. [If] it didn't say anything about L88 and just had 15 grand on the windshield, nobody would buy it. [It] looked like a dried-up cow chip on four wheels."
The car was partially disassembled, but complete. "The motor was out of it, but the interior was all in it," says Michaelis. "I think the trans was out. By the time we were done, we ended up with tubs of parts."
One explanation for the car's condition was that the owner had raced it. Ronnie Reid Joyner was just 23 years old in the fall of 1967. In an email to this author, he wrote, "My favorite color was red, and I liked to drive fast-real fast. I did not want to be passed by anyone."
Joyner's previous '67 Vette, a 435-horse Tri-Power car, wasn't fast enough, so he went to Modern Chevrolet in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and ordered a '68 L88 with a four-speed and 3.08:1 gears. "Not so fast off the line, but top-end unlimited," as he described it.
When his car finally arrived, the '69 Corvette models were already hitting the dealership. Joyner mostly street raced his L88 from a rolling start. "I never lost," he wrote.
One night the Corvette did lose, but not to another car. Returning from an evening of drinking and fast driving, Joyner slid into a sand bank as he turned into his driveway. He tried to power out, but the clutch exploded and chopped up the bellhousing and firewall. The car sat for more than 20 years. Joyner erected a building (the aforementioned pole barn) in which to restore his L88, but the car continued to sit because "no one I found worked out" to restore it. Finally, he agreed to sell. (Somewhere in the pole barn's attic is the original paperwork; Joyner says he'll dig it out someday.)
Current owner Michaelis is as much a Corvette collector as a dealer, as he currently owns five L88s, five '53 models, and more than 100 other rare Vettes. He sent his latest L88 car-one of only 80 built in 1968-to arguably the premier Corvette restoration shop in America: Nabor Brothers in Houston. Since then, the car has won many NCRS, Bloomington, and concours d'elegance awards.
Other treasure seekers should take note of Michaelis' estimate that fewer than half of the L88s in existence have been located. Production was 20 in 1967, 80 in 1968, and 116 in 1969, for a total of 216. I asked him if he thought there could even be L88s running around disguised as small-blocks.
"Absolutely, he said. "I bought a '68 L88 a couple years ago that had a small-block in it."
For more photos of this barn-found Corvette and the story of its original owner, go to www.proteam-corvette.com/cars/NSN-WOW68-2.htm.
There are more out there. Send your leads on Rare Finds to firstname.lastname@example.org.