A strange thing happened at the 30th anniversary of the National Corvette Homecoming, held in Bowling Green, Kentucky, this past July. Two Corvettes, both '81s, stole the show. One was Alpha. One was Omega.
Alpha is two-tone Beige and Dark Bronze. Omega is solid Beige. Both are sport coupes with removable glass roof panels, and both are equipped with RPO L81 350s backed by automatic transmissions. What made these two C3s so special to Homecoming attendees was their ultra-low mileage, and the positions they occupied on their respective assembly lines in the summer of 1981.
Omega registered a scant 7.6 miles and was the last Corvette built at the St. Louis Chevrolet Assembly Plant. The assembly date was July 31, 1981.
Alpha, the two-tone Vette, registered almost 18 miles and was the first Corvette built at the Bowling Green Assembly Plant. The assembly date was June 1, 1981, or a full two months before assembly of the last St. Louis car.
Although designed with a build capacity of about 10,000 cars per year, the St. Louis facility had been turning out more than four times that many Corvettes in each of the previous five years. The car needed more space, and Bowling Green would be the answer.
Nineteen eighty-one also marked the first year for the Corvette Homecoming. The show was launched by Tom Hill, a Corvette engineer who still works at the Corvette plant today, and Sam Hall, who owns a clothing store in the town of Bowling Green.
Joe Pruitt, who runs the Corvette Homecoming today, wanted to do "something special" for the show's 30th year. He remembered that Alpha and Omega had been auctioned at Barrett-Jackson twiceùonce in the fall of 2010 in Las Vegas, and a second time in January 2011 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Ralph Braun Foundationùnamed for the founder of wheelchair-lift manufacturer the Braun Corporationùsold the cars both times to raise money to help provide enhanced-accessibility vehicles for the disabled.
Bill Siebert of Iowa, a Braun Corporation dealer, bid $300,000 and won the pair of Corvettes in Las Vegas. With the crowd cheering, an emotional Siebert stood up and donated the Vettes right back to the Foundation. Their next stop was Scottsdale, where they brought in another $100,000. The winning bidder was collector Michael Jenkins, who "happened to be in the audience" when the cars crossed the block on Wednesday at the weeklong sale.
"[I] wanted to make sure the bid got to $100,000," Jenkins told us.
The 46-year-old Jenkins recalls the '81 model with fond teenage memories. That the late C3s were "lacking in horsepower" was not a big deal to him at the time; he just thought the cars were cool. He fulfilled the dream of his first Corvette with a '96 model, a car that remains in his collection. Today that collection numbers about 100 mostly American cars of various model years, including "10 or 12 Corvettes." (Jenkins owns Traxxas, a company in Plano, Texas, that designs and manufactures radio-controlled model cars, trucks, and boats.)
Jenkins was surprised to find that the two cars were preserved as a pair, even though they didn't start out with the same owner. How did this happen?
The last St. Louis Corvette originally caught the attention of nationally known collectors David Burroughs, John Amgwert, and Mike Hansen. They documented the car's build process with more than 1,000 assembly-line photos.
Parting can be such sweet sorrow. St. Louis Assembly attached a plaque in the car's right front fender to designate its significance. It reads, "LAST CORVETTE BUILD IN ST. LOUIS, MO. 7-31-81." Hand-written in yellow paint under the gas tank is a note that reads, "LAST ST. LOUIS CORVETTE 7-31-81 AL MILLER."
Burroughs and Amgwert bought the '81 from a Chevrolet dealer and put the car in long-term storage, retaining the plastic on the seats, the cardboard on the floor, and the original dealer paperwork.
In 1988, Indiana-based collectors Bill and Kevin Adams purchased the car. They realized that if they could track down the first Corvette built at the Bowling Green plant, they would have a very collectible pair.
Connie Ferrell of Clarksville, Tennessee, was holding on to this prize. She won the car in a raffle on Christmas Eve of 1981. It seems a group of Bowling Green businessmen got together to raise money for the Capitol Arts Theater and the Bowling Green Boys & Girls Club. Luckily for them, local Chevy dealer Jimmy Greenway had gotten the first Corvette built at the new plant, and the car sold thousands of raffle tickets.
After winning the car, Ferrell parked her prize in the garage like a true collector.
"She'd go out there every so often and touch it," Pruitt told us. "She wouldn't drive it, wouldn't do anything with it whatsoever."
Finally, in 1999, she sold the cars to the Adamses, putting Alpha and Omega together under the same roof for the first time.
The cars seemed to go together for more than the obvious reason of their build order. Both are as close to untouched as 30-year-old cars could ever be. The interiors smell new, and the window stickers remain affixed to the glass. The bodies are factory fresh, as are the wheels and tires.
In 2010, the Adamses sold the cars to Ralph Braun, who donated them to his eponymous foundation. The end result has been a win for everyone involved. The Ralph Braun Foundation has raised $400,000. A collector in Plano, Texas, is happy with his purchase. And enthusiasts at the Corvette Homecoming got to see a pair of historically significant '81 models, still looking factory fresh after all these years.