Submitted by: Capt J Lance Miller USMC, DITC Okinawa
Lance Miller's 1966 big block coupe with 450/425hp engine, leather, knockoffs & side exhaust.
I bought this car over the Internet, sight unseen, from a guy who lives in Florida - while I was living in Okinawa, Japan. I began my search for a midyear Corvette in 1995, at the time, little more than cruising the Internet from Japan to see what was available and checking current prices. By the summer of 1997 I had settled on the precise year, interior and exterior colors and options I was looking for. I had also come to the realization that '66 Rally Red coupes with black interior and L72 motors were not that plentiful (or at least, not far sale.) I had begun to toy with the idea of just buying one of the nicer available '66 coupes regardless of color and options, but there was always a feeling nagging at me that I would not be completely happy with anything less than my dream car. Sure, I could have gone to the trouble - succumbing to the dark side some might say - of repainting and replacing the interior, but the trim tag would be screaming at me from beneath the glovebox. I was, without realizing it, clarifying my goal and my restoration paradigm - that is the possession of a car with the options I would have ordered in 1966. A car in the condition it would have been delivered in - built by an assembly line of personal friends who knew I was the owner of a brewery and a whorehouse and that I was going to be throwing them a big party if they did a good job. So when I saw photos of this car, this red, sassy old girl with her sidepipes and knockoffs - not to mention her correct, L72 big block - I knew I had found the car of my dreams. I wrote the owner an e-mail telling him that I would take it. This was September, 1997 and because I was not scheduled to leave Okinawa for another 12 months, did not know where I would be sent next and did not know when I would be able to make it to the states to see it, I made arrangements for the car's storage in Florida.
I was able to take some leave and go to Florida in December to see it for the first time. We spent two days getting to know each other - bonding. The car turned out to be in much better shape than I had imagined a nearly 32 year old car to be in. Very few of the original parts were missing. The engine's (painted) original dented valve covers had been replaced with chrome set and were boxed along with some of the other original pieces. The obvious things such as rubber, filters and plug wires had been replaced over the years as they wore out, but the body had not been cut up and the suspension and frame were in remarkable condition. Even the original riveted ball joints were still in place. The engine fired up immediately and seemed to get smoother the longer it was driven. I was impressed by the overall solidness of the car which could be felt every time a shift was hit a little hard. Acceleration was phenomenal, cruising was pleasant but braking performance was a bit disappointing. Air was in the brake lines and needed to be bled out. Paint was fresh and looked good - until you took a close look. There were many imperfections such as visible scratches under the paint, overspray on the dash and other places and it was apparent many parts that should have been removed and painted separately, such as the headlight buckets, had not been removed for painting. These imperfections do not show up in photos and most people would probably not notice them at all - but it is not the kind of paint job that was done by close friends hoping to be invited to their brewery/whorehouse owner friend's party. All in all I was still very happy - I went away feeling that the car was in both fully drivable and restorable condition.
In March, I received orders for Camp Pendleton California to be executed in July. Now that I knew where I was going I had to figure out a way to get the car from Florida to California. I thought about driving it - take a week and just enjoy myself while crossing the country in a classic Vette. But it would have exceeded my insurance companies 2500 mile per year limit and added allot of miles. Also, the thought of leaving it unattended while sleeping in motels worried me. So I began the search for a transportation company. I contracted with one that offered to transport it in an enclosed trailer for just under $1500. I was called the next day by a dispatcher who said that he had a driver standing by in Florida who could pick up my car and have it in California in as little as 5 days. I jumped on it, and at the same time, made arrangements to be in California for it's delivery. My wife wanted me to go sell our old house in California and buy us a new one - so she was all about me going. Everything was going great - got a flight from Okinawa to Taipei to LAX, rented a car at LAX and made it to San Diego on the day the car was to arrive. Unfortunately, while travelling for over 7000 miles and 24 hours, I had been out of contact with my wife and her mother whose house the car was being deliverd to. When I arrived, I was sat down and handed a beer - normally not a bad thing - only this time it was to soften the blow from some bad news. The bad news was that the driver had blown his engine climbing the grade on I-70 west of Denver. The truck, which was still under warrantee, was at the Ford dealership in Denver waiting for a new engine. I waited for three days. I occupied my time actively pursuing the sale of our home and the purchase of another (with a three car garage) nearby. I walked through models, took digital photos to send back to the wife - and ate American fast food. On Saturday, figuring that enough time had passed for something positive to have happened, I called the transportation company. This time I was told that the truck was still not finished and that the replacement engine would not arrive until Monday (I was scheduled to leave on Tuesday.) I was also informed that the trailer containing my car was 70 miles outside of Denver sitting unguarded, at a truck stop. This news ruffled me a bit, I may have even said some harsh words, I did ask them to pay my plane fare to Denver so I could take delivery of the car that evening. With a friend of the family along for the adventure, we made it to the motel where the driver had been staying by nightfall. After considering road conditions from the six inches of snow on the ground dropped the night before, we decided to check in and see if the conditions improved by morning. We left a message for the driver to contact us at the desk. The driver turned out to be a real nice guy - stranded 1000 miles from home (near San Diego) and running out of money. An independent trucker - he was losing money every day his truck was down. It turned out that the transportation company just turned around and contracted with independent truckers and took $300 right off the top - just for giving him the work.
We awoke at dawn the next morning. The weather was crisp, clear and most important - the interstate appeared clear all the way over the mountain. We drove the hour out of Denver watching the roads for ice and snow, remarkably the road seemed to get clearer the higher up the mountain we went. We got to the Truck stop and unlocked the trailer. From the side door of the trailer I caught a glimpse of the old girl I had first met in Florida - and she looked pissed off. On her hood, was a small pile of snow that had drifted in from the roof vent. A thin layer of dust had settled on her paint and her cockpit was stuffed with her car cover and a box containing the parts her previous owner had promised to pack. The temperature outside was a sweltering 15 degrees F. Any questions concerning the old girl's mood were answered when I tried to start her. She resisted, or rather, she fought kicking and screaming but finally caught in a fit of coughs and sputters - quite a bit different than the quick-starting spunky redhead I met in the warm Florida sunshine. (I learned later that her choke sticks a bit when cold - it does not close all the way, I now realize that the engine must have started without any choke at all. I think she did it on purpose...) I backed out of the trailer before the car would idle on it's own by tickling the gas a little every few seconds. Once out in the sunshine I grew tired of her antics and let her know I would not put up with any more crap by tapping the accelerator a bit. Now she either got the message I was irritated with her, or she had caught sight of the freeway and was hoping to go for a run,.. but she straightened up and began to idle at about 2000 rpm - smooth as silk - but only after she broke the tachometer cable. (I had apparently engaged the fast idle and gotten the choke to close properly.) I now think she did it just to get back at me for leaving her stranded in a strange place.
For the next 1000 miles, through what was left of Colorado, southern Utah, Nevada and finally into California she ran like a champ. She seemed happy to be being driven and eager to climb each hill. Whether it was flat, downhill or up the steepest terrain the rockies had to offer, it didn't seem to matter - hardly any movement of the accelerator was required to maintain speed. Engine temperature never a problem - no matter how hard we thought we pushed her, the old girl just kept humming away... perhaps humming isn't the right word to describe the sound emanating from the 32 year old side exhaust. As the secondaries begin to open up so does the sound from the pipes. We noticed a peculiar vibration at 75 mph, one that gave away more of the painter's slipshod work. Many of the interior screws were not even screwed into anything, just pushed into the holes and left there to rattle. We finally settled on 65-70 mph because that was the fastest speed we could go before the sound rattled the fillings from our teeth out. We stopped a lot, not necessarily for gas (14 mpg) but because I wanted to keep checking the oil and engine to make sure nothing went wrong. Every stop invited curious onlookers - I enjoyed their curiosity but grew tired of the, "what year is it?" question pretty fast.
We rolled into San Diego - tired, with our ears ringing and eyes drooping - 18 hours after we started. Air accumulated in the brake lines as we drove, braking performance deteriorated as the miles added up. By the time we hit Vegas it took a couple of pumps before there were any brakes at all. We caused components that would have probably failed one at a time over a period of years to fail all at once. Along the way we lost the speedometer and tachometer cables, discovered a worn upper ball joint, identified the brake system problems (probably rotors needing to be turned - out of round rotors cause the caliper pistons to pump in and out introducing air into the system) and the slipshod work of the painters. I am back in Okinawa now, We'll be moving in July. The old girl is in storage again. In storage in a warm southern California garage, wrapped in her car cover - waiting, ready for the next road trip.
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