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Little red Corvette a love that’s gonna last

After World War II, an observant GM designer and executive, Harley Earl, noticed that the many of the GIs returning from Europe were bringing sports cars home with them. MG, Jaguar, and Alfa Romeo were the most popular brands.

Earl thought GM could cash in on that market segment with a two-seater of their own. But he wasn’t the only American car manufacturer to see this opportunity. Nash Motor Co. was the first when they teamed up with British engineer Donald Healey and a car by Italian designer Sergio Pininfarina and began selling the relatively expensive Nash-Healey two-seat sports car in 1951.

It was apparently a difficult sales job, but in 1951 Earl did finally convince GM to allow his idea called “Project Opel” to proceed. But it wasn’t a carte blanche approval. GM executive Robert McLean, who may have had some “bean counter” blood in his veins, mandated this model must be made from off-the-shelf mechanical parts and the chassis and suspension components from the 1949 to 1954 Chevrolet passenger cars.

And so it began. The engine was the 235-cubic-inch straight six-cylinder used in the passenger cars, but with some modifications to boost the engine to 150 horsepower. The two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission had to be used, as GM didn’t have a manual transmission that could handle the 150-horsepower engine.

There was some debate on using steel or fiberglass, which was relatively new at that time, for the body, but fiberglass was the choice partly because it would be faster to build. Only 300 Corvettes were produced for 1953 priced at $3,490, or about $33,600 in today’s dollars. Initially, quality problems and lack of a manual transmission were the explanation for the poor sales results. Sales in 1954 were even lower.

In the first few years, there was some discussion at GM to drop the Corvette line completely, but the first-generation Chevrolet Corvette (C1) ran from 1953 through 1962, with that final year yielding its best sales at 14,531 Corvettes sold. By 1976, things were going pretty well for Danville resident Mike Natali. He was 29 years old, single, owned his own drug store and was looking for suitable transportation.

He didn’t plan to buy a collector car. All he wanted was a sporty, good looking used car. He found this issue’s 1962 Chevrolet Corvette for $6,000, or about $26,650 in today’s dollars. It fit the bill perfectly. It was owned by a friend of Natali’s cousin and was being stored in San Francisco.

“I basically drove it like a regular car because it was a 14-year-old used car. I took it to the drag strip a lot in Fremont and did pretty well,” Natali said.

It had a 350 V8 engine with a four-speed manual transmission. He adored this car and loved drag racing. During this time period, the Corvette also played a part in courtship with a woman who eventually stole his heart. Wedding bells sounded. By about 2001, Natali and his wife split up. It wasn’t one of those nice friendly divorces one occasionally hears about.

“She took a hammer and screw driver to the Corvette and really messed it up. She wrote names with the screw driver on the car. But it still drove, so I had to hide the car somewhere so she couldn’t find it,” Natali said.

He hid his Corvette with a friend in Orinda, but since the friend had no garage Natali covered the car with tarps and cardboard and kept it there for about a year. Then he met a man who had a body shop in Alameda and agreed to work on Natali’s car when his normal business was slow.

“It stayed there for about 2½ years. It was a long and expensive process. I had everything rechromed and all the body damage fixed. The car was repainted from Honduras Maroon to a Corvette red from a later model year. I had the black vinyl interior redone, which took another six months. The car was not in my possession for close to five years,” he said.

Natali doesn’t know how much money he spent to restore his car but estimates the figure in the neighborhood of $20,000. He has now owned the car for 42 years, has no plans to sell it and doesn’t drive the car as much as he did in the past.

It is pretty close to being period-correct for equipment, meaning there is no power steering or brakes. In addition to the convertible top, the Corvette has a removable hard top that would require two people to install. This car has been in various local car shows and won awards. It’s always locked in a garage now and is estimated at a current market value of about $50,000.

Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com. To view more photos of this and other issues’ vehicles, search for “David Krumboltz” at www.mercurynews.com.

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