Individuals at the highest levels of American government are almost invariably chauffeured by members of their security detail, so they can go years without driving a car themselves. Several former presidents have cited the relinquishment of their driving privileges as one of the most difficult adjustments they had to make in the name of security, making any time they could sneak in behind the wheel a genuine treat. And when the car the leader of the free world gets an opportunity to pilot just happens to be a 1963 Corvette, the experience goes far beyond a chance to regain a little snippet of normalcy. If you don’t believe me, just ask President Barack Obama, who described his chance to drive John Valvo’s ’63 split-window coupe as a “childhood dream.”
Valvo’s involvement with this now-famous split-window coupe began in the early 1980s, when the newly minted engineer was buying and selling Corvettes for fun and profit. The hobby was experiencing very strong growth in that time frame, and as a result Corvettes were quickly increasing in value. Valvo loved the cars and appreciated the opportunity to earn a few shekels trading in them.
In 1985 he bought a Silver Blue 1963 coupe that was very original but deteriorated. The plan was to repaint the body, freshen up the interior and engine compartment, and then sell it and move on to the next one. Once he stripped off the car’s finish, however, Valvo changed his mind. “After removing the original paint, I saw that the body was extremely straight and all original, so I opted to keep the car instead of selling it,” he says.
Valvo had his new acquisition re-sprayed in its original Silver Blue hue, fixed a few minor things and drove the car sparingly over the next few years. In 1988, after moving back to New York, he had the space and time to perform a rebuild on the 300-hp 327 engine. But once the powertrain was out of the car, Valvo saw other things that needed attention, so in the interest of efficiency, he decided to expand the project. As often happens, one thing quickly led to another, then another, and in the blink of an eye virtually the entire car was apart. “The engine rebuild evolved into a front-suspension removal and rebuild,” he explains, “then it made sense to also remove and rebuild the rear suspension. And finally, I justified to myself that it would be easier to put it all back together if I took the body off the frame.”
By early 1990 the Corvette was reassembled and back on the road. It was a two-year process full of the usual highs and lows, with plenty of scraped knuckles and long nights, but more than enough personal satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment to make it worthwhile. The joy of a job well done was amplified exponentially as Valvo used the car for occasions large and small in subsequent years. “There were, of course, lots of car shows and lots of awards,” he recounts, “and I made a lot of lasting friendships through my involvement with the hobby, and had a lot of fun. For example, [one] Christmas Eve the Corvette was used for making my rounds in a Santa Claus suit. I can’t tell you the expressions on people’s faces as they first noticed the car and then noticed that Santa was driving it. In 1994 I drove the car to the church for our wedding and used it for our ‘getaway’ after the reception. And thankfully, we were able to buy our first home, in Lindenhurst, New York, without having to sell it.”
In 1995 a career opportunity motivated Valvo to move to Pennsylvania, and naturally the Corvette went too. In 2003 it survived another monumental change when the Valvos welcomed twin girls into the family fold. “I didn’t have much free time after the twins were born, so for a few years I didn’t do much with the car other than an occasional leisure drive,” he notes. “In 2008 we moved once again for work, this time to Connecticut. As the girls have gotten older, I’ve enjoyed taking them for rides—one at a time, of course—and watching their excitement. The joy they get from the car is priceless.”
And so it went, a sweet split-window delighting the children and entertaining their parents, as it had done for more than 20 years. Then, in November 2015, the phone call came. It was Chris Mazzilli, and he wanted to know if Valvo would loan his car to Jerry Seinfeld for an episode of Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee webcast. Mazzilli owns the Gotham Comedy Club, one of New York’s—and, indeed, the nation’s—premier venues for comedians. That, plus their mutual love for cars, has cemented the friendship between Mazzilli and Seinfeld. Mazzilli also happens to own Dream Car Restorations, a full-service restoration shop in Hicksville, New York, and is totally dialed into the collector-car world. Seinfeld doesn’t hesitate to call when he’s looking for a specific car for his program. And for the upcoming episode, the comedian wanted a Midyear Corvette, preferably a ’63 split-window coupe or a ’65-’67 model with side pipes. Mazzilli touched base with Stan Rivera, president of Corvette Society, one of New York’s largest and most active Corvette clubs, and Rivera suggested that Mazzilli get in touch with Valvo.
“I knew about the show,” explains Valvo, “and was very excited about the idea of the car being used. It was also a great incentive to finally get some minor damage repaired. All the way back in 1991, while driving on Long Island’s Southern State Parkway to pick up my then-girlfriend—who’s now my wife of 21 years—the right front knock-off spinner came loose. The wheel then came loose and did a little bit of damage to the fender. It was noticeable, but small enough that I kept putting off getting it fixed.”
At the end of November, with time getting tight, Valvo drove the car from his home in Connecticut to Dream Car Restorations. There restoration expert Dave Weber and his talented crew repaired the front fender, replaced some noisy front wheel bearings and other suspension parts, and gave the entire car a thorough inspection to make sure it would perform flawlessly when the cameras started rolling.
On December 4th Weber let Valvo know that the car was finished and would be shipped to the location the next day for two days of shooting. It’s interesting to note that at this point, Valvo had no idea where the car was going or who the featured “comedian” on the show would be.
“They said they weren’t allowed to reveal too much information about who would be driving the car or where it would be going, and I understood and didn’t give it much thought,” says Valvo. “I knew Dave from Dream Car Restorations would be with the car wherever it went, so I wasn’t the least bit worried about it. On Sunday, December 6th, while doing tourist stuff at New York City’s Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, I sent a quick text to Dave to see if all was OK. Dave called back and said the car was running great and that Jerry loved it. There was still no word on where they were or who the guest would be.
“The following night, I received a call from Chris Mazzilli that all went well. He then informed me that the special guest who drove my car was the president of the United States, and the car went to the White House! You can only imagine how big my smile was—it was a very proud and exciting moment. And when my family heard this, well, my girls were ecstatic!”
Little did Valvo know what a prominent role this 1963 Corvette would play in his future family’s life when, 30 years ago, he decided to keep rather than flip it. The car taught him the agony and ecstasy of doing a restoration, led to the formation of lasting friendships in the Corvette hobby, served as wedding limo when he and his wife tied the knot, gave his daughters endless hours of entertainment and fulfilled a childhood dream for the president of the United States. It’s impossible to know what the next 30 years will bring, but if the past in any indication, there’s plenty of fun and excitement to come.