News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 20, 2013

MARK BENNETT: A sense of Americana constant passenger as iconic Corvette motors through milestone birthday

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — On my last ride at the wheel of a ’Vette, I was a wide-eyed teenager, guiding my brother’s almost-new, orange 1976 model.

Alas, the Chevette I drove in the 1980s — God rest its wonderfully basic, durable, unadorned soul — doesn’t count.

Instead, we’re talking a Corvette, the opposite end of Chevrolet’s technological spectrum.

Wednesday morning, on the eve of the iconic American sports car’s 60th birthday last week, I got reacquainted with the Corvette — in a sharp, red 2001 version owned by semi-retired Terre Haute electrician Tommy McGregor. Circumstances changed between my two ’Vette moments. I’m a wiser, more careful, more responsible, more skilled driver now. Usually.

Corvettes changed, too. Its horsepower, weight, styling, engineering and marketing have gone through twists and turns, like a forlorn stretch of Route 66. Its bottom-line virtue, though, remains intact.

Sporty exterior. Brisk acceleration. Two seats. A spirit of Americana on the open road.

McGregor, though, keeps a down-to-earth perspective (which helps, considering the Corvette’s underside clears the pavement by just 6 inches).

“If you want to call it a lifestyle, yeah,” he said. “Mostly, it involves driving these things somewhere.”

On Wednesday, McGregor drove it to Effingham, Ill., where Mid America Motorworks houses an eye-popping private collection of rare Corvettes in its My Garage Museum, and graciously let me ride shotgun. The facility on the flat Illinois prairie also is the site of the annual Corvette Funfest, hosted by Mid America owner Mike Yager. It contains gems ranging from a dazzling ’68 LeMans Corvette (“When you look inside and all you see is switches and a gear shift, that makes me slobber — I’m sorry,” Tommy said, laughing) to a 1957 Corvette “barn find” with grime and deflated tires intact (“Everybody’s looking for one of these,” said David Jones, museum staffer for the past 13 years).

Mid America is a favorite stop for McGregor and his usual road-trip companion, Judy, his wife. They’ve seen miles of scenery through the years. They started dating as 14-year-old next-door-neighbors and have been together ever since, navigating through Tommy’s service with the Air Force in Vietnam, raising a family with two sons, jobs, the arrivals of grandchildren, health concerns for both, retirements and life.

Corvettes mark mileposts in their timeline, like thousands of other aficionados.

Tommy bought his first ’Vette in 1966, brand new, at Indianapolis. He was 20. Chevrolet produced his car during the model’s “C2” generation, an era that leaves nostalgic auto buffs misty-eyed. The engines had grown from the original six-cylinder two-speeds in 1953 to a 427 cubic-inch motor with 425 horsepower. “When you’re talking ’66 Corvettes, you’re not talking road cruisers,” McGregor said.

You’re also not talking family cars, and that was the stage of life the McGregors were entering. “A 427 cubic-inch Corvette was not the ideal car for a young married couple,” he said, grinning. He sold it, they married and family life began.

“It was actually 40 years later when I got my next Corvette,” McGregor said.

In the meantime, the Corvette model endured a rocky road. Of its seven generations — C1 through the new C7 unveiled this month at the Detroit Auto Show — the C3s from 1968 to ’82 struggled most to uphold Corvette’s status as “the cornerstone of American automotive performance,” according to the official history on the Chevrolet website. It lost horsepower, due to submission to federal air-quality and fuel-consumption regulations, gained weight and lost some luster.

It “got fat,” as McGregor put it.

But the famed model survived.

Chevy redesigned and reintroduced Corvette as a juiced up C4 in 1984, followed by gradual upgrades in the C5 in 1997, the C6 in 2005, and the C7 last week.

Owners come in varieties, too, McGregor explained, including the “gold chain” set — those more inclined to pose next to their Corvettes rather than drive them. “Some people don’t want anyone near ’em,” he said. “I’m the guy putting the kids in the car. That kid might be the one buying the car someday. You’ve got to keep the sport alive.”

McGregor rejoined Corvette ownership in 2003, and it was a life-changing moment, for different reasons. He suffered a form of heart attack with a less than 10-percent survival rate. “If you don’t think prayer and God do marvelous things, you’re wrong,” he said while driving toward Effingham. “I should’ve died that night.”

He recovered, of course, and a few months later he and Judy mulled an idea. “We’d always talked about, sometime, getting another Corvette,” he said.

Thumbing through a trader magazine, Tommy spotted a 1966 for sale in upstate New York — white exterior, bright blue interior, a 427-cubic-inch engine with 390 horsepower that ran nicely on modern unleaded fuel. It needed some work, a project car, with a modest pricetag. “A perfect car equipped like that [would be] well outside our price range,” he said. They said yes, and started renovating the car, together, and even dropped the refurbished motor back in with the help of their two sons, Tommy proudly recalled. A family effort.

The knack for auto work came naturally for Tommy. His dad eventually owned local Burger Chef restaurants, but started work as a master auto body man at a Terre Haute Ford dealership and raced midget cars as a hobby. Tommy spent countless hours at his side in the garage, learning firsthand. Those skills proved valuable decades later with the rebuild job on the ’66 Corvette.

Sharp as it turned out, it had its drawbacks, specifically a lack of air-conditioning. With one son living in Oklahoma, the McGregors’ road treks from Terre Haute into the hot Southwestern heat got intense inside the car. So, they sold it four years ago, and found in Paris, Ill., their current 2001 C5 “Z06” — a code that harkens back to the early 1960s heyday crafted by Corvette engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, whose name and legend Tommy knows well.

It can do zero-to-60 mph in less than four “Mississippi’s” but McGregor points to a less ballyhooed feature on the dashboard. Going 70 mph on Interstate 70, the miles-per-gallon indicator light shows 29.9. “That’s better than our other car,” he said, referring to a 2003 Dodge Intrepid. With a smaller price but more quick power than some European sports cars, the Corvette is more economical, with “the biggest bang for your buck” in that automotive genre, he said.

It’s also a means to touch lives. One of their fondest journeys is an annual “Vets ’n Vettes” gathering on Veterans Day in Bowling Green, Ky., home of GM’s Corvette manufacturing plant and the National Corvette Museum. Through the program, Corvette owners treat wounded veterans with personalized rides and a few days of fun and camaraderie. “There’s a lot of interaction between somebody who’s been there and somebody who’s just got back,” Tommy said. “It’s kind of therapy as much for me as it is him.”

He recounted giving one young vet a spin and a taste of the acceleration. (With a police escort, of course.) With the young man gripping the dashboard, McGregor asked if he was OK. “Oh yeah,” the guy answered enthusiastically.

On last week’s excursion to Effingham, I rode in that same passenger seat and felt the same G force. Then, on a stretch of U.S. 40 in Illinois between Montrose and Casey, I got behind the controls. The finger-touch handling, zip and occasional second-glances from other motorists reminded me of that drive in my brother’s Corvette years earlier. But the best part of my reunion with that motorized symbol of Americana was the laughs and conversation about, yes, cars, but mostly family, faith, jobs, school, ups, downs and good roadside diners.

The Corvette was just the facilitator.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or