In ancient Rome, a Centurion referred to a "captain of 100," since such a man had authority over that number of foot soldiers in a legion. Centurions were loyal and courageous soldiers who had worked their way up the ranks. Once noticed by the general for their skill and courage in battle, they were made officers. Given this special status, signified by unique armor and helmet, they received a "Hail!" (meaning health, or safety) salute consisting of beating on one's breastplate, continuing with an upward thrust of the hand.
What's all this have to do with Vettes? Well, we recently came across a Centurion of a different sort, a rare design that fits on either the C1 or C2 chassis ('53 to '65). This 20th century warrior boasts its own special status and colorful history, both of which deserve recognition. While we won't try to imitate that traditional Roman hand motion (it reminds us too much of Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I and those absurd "sword and sandal" scenes with Comicus and Empress Nympho), we will dignify the car by recounting its inspiration and origins, stemming from a famous Corvette.
Regular VETTE readers will likely recall Jeremy Clough's literate and conscientious coverage of Bill Mitchell's '59 Sting Ray racer in a recent issue ("Silver and Exact," Feb. '11). While a Roman Centurion was required to be literate as well, the details of the car of the same name are somewhat less civilized, though no less courageous.
The story begins with Warren "Bud" Goodwin, who founded the Fiberfab company in 1964, offering street-rod parts and body panels for Mustangs. He developed a number of kit cars using various chassis platforms and bearing exotic names such as Aztec, Banshee, and Jamaican. None was quite as alluring as the Centurion, however, which is not surprising since it was a close copy of the seminal Corvette concept. While this effort was certainly not the origin of the expression "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," the maxim surely applies here.
Only seven bodies were built, but the limited run was not due to a lack of interest or promotion. Goodwin raced the Centurion shown here—the prototype and only factory-built version—in club events, and it appeared in "Man from Glad" commercials and as a backup car in the Elvis movie Clambake.
Sadly, both the company and its creator came to unfortunate ends, according to Tom Lieb, president of Scat Crankshafts, whose father was a dealer for Fiberfab. After the Liebs had picked up a load of body parts at the factory in Northern California and were heading back home, a startling news report aired on their truck's radio as they approached Los Angeles.
Lieb told us in a recent interview at his factory office that Goodwin apparently discovered his wife and factory engineer in flagrante delicto. Enraged, he grabbed a shotgun and added the suffix morto to his wife's salacious activities. He later claimed the gun went off accidentally, hitting her between the eyes. Apparently, the jury didn't buy his story.
GM's lawyers made the Centurion morto as well, not wanting to see an unauthorized replica on the market.
Goodwin's prized Centurion prototype is now owned by vintage racer and car collector Wes Abendroth (who confirms Lieb's recollections, by the way). He has a fondness for obscure and rare kit and race cars from the '50s and '60s, along with nearly two dozen Corvettes. One in particular, an '80 model that he bought new, bears mention, as it sheds some light on his attraction to the Centurion.
Abendroth stored the car for 30 years, putting only 4.7 miles on it all that time. Formerly a Corvette dealer in the Dallas, Texas, area, he had access to just about any model he wanted, and then some. But back then, the new-fangled computer technology on the impending '81 model bothered him, so he decided to purchase a car from the last year of carbureted Corvettes.
"My original thought was that it was the end of an era," he recalls. "The thought of a Corvette without a carb panicked me to buy a new 1980 model. The fear was that I wouldn't be able to work on it—no backyard tuning. You'd have to take it to the dealer."