A Ride to Remember
By Richard Earl (with Christopher R.Phillip)
Harley and his wife, Sue, had the greatest American cars in their driveway during the 1960s-customized Corvettes specially minted at the GM Technical Center's ultra-futuristic "Styling Section" in Warren, Michigan. Most Americans only read about Harley in major newspapers or in the pages of a national magazine, but I got to be around him frequently. He was my grandfather.
Harley had a tradition of letting his grandchildren ride with him in his '63 Corvette convertible on their birthdays. My two older sisters, Suzie and Liz, and my brother, Courtney, had already been through their birthday rite-of-initiation. On December 27, 1967, it was my turn to be one of Harley's riders. I had just turned 8 years old, and my mom, Suzie, dropped me off at Harley's house for my gift. I bounded out of the car, ran inside the house, jumped on his lap, and remember him giving me a kiss and tickling me a little. All of Harley's grandkids growing up in the 1960s knew he was the stuff legends were made of. It was a special occasion to go for an exclusive one-on-one joy ride with him, and I didn't take it for granted.
I waited excitedly for him to find his keys. Pops-as we all called Harley-could see how eager I was, and so he teased me and told me that the housekeeper must have misplaced them. Then, I remember the magic sound of jangling metal upon metal in his pocket (he knew they were there all along) as he got up and started walking for the front door. I knew what was about to unfold-it was my turn to experience my very own birthday-ritual ride in Harley's custom '63 Corvette convertible.
While turning the key, Harley looked over at me from the driver side of the Corvette's two-seat cockpit and asked, "You ready to roll?" With that, the engine roared to life with the sound from those unique side pipes. He always launched his Corvettes hard coming out of the driveway onto South Ocean Boulevard, because an Australian Pine hedge near the property grew fast and always seemed to block the driveway's view of oncoming traffic.
The cars were moving fast on this day, but Harley just punched the accelerator as always, spraying driveway gravel every which way, and glided his shiny blue Corvette up to speed in a heartbeat. At that exact moment, I knew how much fun Harley was going to show me on my birthday.
There was no avoiding it, but people always eyeballed Harley when he drove his '63 Corvette. Perhaps it was the car, or maybe it was the image he presented, an extremely tall fellow cruising through town wearing his aviator sunglasses. When we went by the public beach area in the heart of Palm Beach, people did full head-turns on the high street curb and looked down at us in the beautiful Corvette, which was replete with a wide array of technological dials and dashboard gizmos they'd never seen before; this car even had an altimeter!
Afterwards, Harley and I cruised up North Ocean Boulevard on the way to the top end of the island, to the inlet dock. There's a nice quarter-mile stretch of palm-tree-laden roadway where you're so close to the turquoise-blue ocean you can practically touch it. That's when Harley downshifted the four-speed manual transmission, glued the accelerator to the floorboard, and gunned forward at maximum horsepower.
From as fast as the needle would go up on the speedometer, Harley then slowed the Corvette down as he shifted gears and braked while going into an S-turn. From there the road snaked inland off the ocean; we kept journeying northward to the inlet 2 miles ahead. On arriving at the inlet, I looked the one-off Corvette over with awe. Even at 8 years old, I could tell that there was something extremely special about the Corvette's curvaceous body, and that Harley's was the best of them all.
Before I knew it, we were back in the Corvette again, heading southward to my house where I'd be dropped off. Harley wished me happy birthday, and my idyllic Corvette ride with him was over.
I remember my enormous smile from 42 years ago. There's no doubt it's the same reaction legions of adoring Harley Earl fans have whenever they see one of his Corvettes today.
Special thanks to the Earl family, especially Connie and Richard Earl, for their invaluable assistance in assembling this story. Learn more about Harley Earl at the Official Harley Earl website, www.carofthecentury.com.