Adventures In My High-School Corvette

I hadn’t had my ’57 Corvette long before it helped me accumulate a couple of tickets and a one-month license suspension. It was the kind of car that encouraged exuberance, and as a teenager in a car-crazy era, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Adventures in My High-School Corvette

Naturally, I used that enforced break from driving to modify my ‘Vette. I started by investing summer-job money in a Duntov cam and a set of solid lifters. Next came a manual gearbox. I couldn’t afford to swap in a four-speed, so I settled for a three-speed and paid a mechanic to install it and its clutch mechanism.

Then, once my license was restored and the ‘Vette was ready, a friend and I picked it up from the shop and test drove it out of town. We headed for a long, straight stretch of divided parkway with no houses or traffic where someone had painted 1/4-mile start and finish lines on the eastbound side. We wanted to try a fun run, so approaching that section on the westbound side, just cruising in third, I decided to punch it without downshifting to see how it pulled from low rpm. I was watching the road, not the speedometer, but we were likely up to 90 or so (in a 35-mph zone) before I backed off and braked for the stop at the next intersection.

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When we got there, a pair of angry cops were waiting. “Do you know how fast you were going, kid?” one growled angrily. “No, officer,” I grinned, thinking they had merely heard the engine at high rpm and didn’t really have anything on me. I was not about to confess.

“We clocked you at 80,” he snarled. “Let me see your license.” It turned out they had radar hidden halfway down the road (unusual at the time) and were monitoring it from the corner. “Is that as fast as that car will go?” one officer sarcastically enquired while his partner was writing maybe the best ticket of his career. “Yeah … in first gear,” I snarked.

Before this ‘Vette, I had a well-used ’57 MGA, which was cool for school but slow, unreliable, and a little rusty. I lusted for something cooler and quicker and started threatening to trade it for an older Corvette. I even checked out a couple of not-so-cherry ‘54s and ‘55s.

My folks were not wealthy, but my father, a Nebraska farmer’s son, loved cars and was a skilled driver who had wheels as a kid. He believed his sons should, too. His affinity included Corvettes, and on a business trip to Detroit, he found this nice ‘57—a black base car with a detachable hardtop, a 245-horse twin-four-barrel 283-cubic inch V-8 and a Powerglide two-speed automatic. He talked the seller down to $1500 and brought it home. So, as a car-loving high-school senior, I ended up with the only Corvette around. Truly bad-ass!

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Not only did the Corvette encourage my assertive driving habits, it also brought out my creativity, serving as a blank canvas that my teenage car-crazy self couldn’t help but personalize. When the inevitable big ticket that came after my 80-mph test run earned me a second license suspension, this time for three long months, I decided I would use the time off to customize my ‘Vette.

Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I had always had a thing for customized cars. I lusted over the best ones in magazines and built plastic car models with every cool modification I could manage. Why not apply that (questionable) skill to my own set of wheels? In those days, it was just a used sports car, not yet a coveted collectible.

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I started by painting white racing stripes nose-to-tail. Then I removed every other tooth from the grille and blacked out its horizontal bar, leaving half as many teeth floating twice as far apart in the oval opening. I thought that was a good look for a toothy C1 Corvette (and still do). I also pulled off both front and rear license-plate brackets and the rear-fender chrome trim and added twin antennas, custom (’68 Olds wagon) taillamp lenses, and triple (’64 Pontiac Tempest) chrome strips in the coves. I also installed short lake pipes with removable caps, which tended to drag on driveway ramps and break off every week or two.

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We didn’t have an abundance of aftermarket alloy wheels way back then, but we did have hubcaps. I tried chrome “moon” discs for a while, then switched to spun aluminum “racing” discs. Tire choices were limited to black- or whitewall bias-ply, and I didn’t have money for new ones anyway. The ho-hum, half-tread set of whitewalls that came on it would have to do.

I two-toned the orangey-red dash and seats, the latter with white upholstery paint, then paid a body shop to Bondo chrome exhaust tips into the rear fenders. Finally, I painted the inside of the trunk white and sweet-talked my visiting artist cousin into painting a cartoon skunk in there because we had christened my newly striped and customized ‘Vette “Li’l Stinkie.”

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The doors and dash did look better painted white, but it wasn’t long before the paint on the seats began to crack and look awful, so I bought a set of seat covers to hide them. And the tightly restrained exhausts soon vibrated through the Bondo. Otherwise, I thought it looked pretty good. And it got a new white convertible top, which our family cat walked all over leaving indelible paw prints on it the first night it was home. I love animals but never liked that cat.

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Because it still had the numerically low axle ratio that came with the Powerglide automatic, it was incredibly long-legged, good for 65 mph in first, over 100 in second and I don’t know what in third. I pushed it to 100 a couple times where I thought it was safe but had the good sense never to exceed that speed.

I even took it to the local drags one Sunday and won a trophy. It was a bit of a dog off the line, but while the other cars with their numerically high gear ratios were already in fourth halfway down the strip, Li’l Stinkie and I were cruising by in second gear just before the finish. Hilarious!

It also nearly killed me more than once. It suddenly slid sideways on a wet curvy four-lane during Friday rush-hour traffic on my way home from my summer construction job. I caught the slide and avoided getting battered, but that was a scary lesson for a teenager.

Scarier still was a near disaster on the night of my senior prom. After dropping girlfriend Marty home, I stupidly decided to try a late-night run on that makeshift drag strip. Well into second gear, a large dog suddenly appeared in my headlamps trotting down the middle of the road. I jammed on the brakes and swerved to miss it, which sent me into a series of left-right-left tank slappers.

Gary Witzenburg
Gary Witzenburg

Very fortunately, I knew enough even at 17 to understand that getting off the brakes would help me regain control, so I did and somehow avoided both the dog and the high curbs that likely would have flipped me into the puckerbrush on either side of the road. Whew!!! I was probably wearing the Sears seatbelt I had bought and installed but had no roll bar to keep the car off my head if it went belly up. Another very scary lesson—one I wouldn’t forget.

When it came time for college, my ‘Vette had to go because my dad needed the money. But my customization had badly damaged its value. “Your son pretty much ruined that car,” one dealer told him. Another who specialized in used Corvettes finally bought it for $1,200, as I recall. Years later, I encountered that guy working as a salesman at a different dealership and asked whether he remembered Li’l Stinkie. “Hell, boy,” he said, “I lost my ass on that car!”

Looking back, modifying that future classic was a major collector Corvette sacrilege, but this was an era before phrases like “matching numbers” and “period-correct” had much significance. In the moment, Li’l Stinkie embodied my car-crazy tastes, and I don’t think I’d change a thing.

Report by Gary Witzenburg for


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