Working Class Hero

This split-window coupe has been autocrossed, drag-raced and used to pull a boat, and it still gives its original owner, who boot-strapped his way into it, loads of satisfaction.

June 12, 2014

Also from Issue 91

  • 2012 Callaway B2K Grand Sport
  • 1968 L88 Convertible
  • Buyer’s Guide: $20K
  • History: Frank Winchell
  • 2015 Model-Year Preview
  • Racing: Long Beach, Laguna Seca
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Like a lot of 11-year-old boys growing up in the ’50s, Ron Gray delivered newspapers—in his case, the San Francisco News. Unlike most of his peers, he had a very long-term goal when it came to the $30 a month he made: He was saving for a car. Interestingly, it was his mom, not his dad, who gave him the idea. “She was my financial advisor,” says Gray. Little did he know it at the time, but his mom had put him on the path to buying a new ’63 Corvette coupe—a car that he owns to this day.

Gray was born and raised in San Francisco’s Bayview district, a blue-collar enclave of electricians and plumbers; his father was a welder. The neighborhood was also rife with hot-rodders, who took the young, inquisitive Gray under their wings and taught him the ways of their underworld. He quickly learned the difference between a flat-head V8 and an overhead-valve one. Soon they had him working on their cars. “I could change the tranny on a ’41 Ford before I learned how to drive,” recalls Gray.

By the time he was 15, Gray was allowed to ride shotgun with these older hot-rodders as they drag-raced their homemade machines out by the Pacific Ocean. “They took me into their confidence,” says Gray with a nostalgic glimmer in his eyes.

A year later, Gray had a car of his own: a ’52 Oldsmobile convertible he bought for $200. The first thing he did was punch holes in the muffler to make it louder; Gray saved more advanced hot-rodding practices for his second car, a ’39 Ford he bought as a rolling chassis for $20. He promptly bolted in a 335-cid Olds overhead-valve V8 with an Eagle cam, machined heads and three two-barrel carbs. Once he installed a LaSalle tranny, he was ready to rumble. He was also out of money. “I emptied out the bank account,” Gray remembers.

This hot rod lasted him through high school, but when it came to driving his girlfriend Mary Ann to the senior prom, he wanted something nicer. Gray promised her that he would get a Corvette for the event. Not surprisingly, his attempts to rent one were unsuccessful. Gray’s his girlfriend didn’t mind, but it made him want a Corvette just that much more. Then there was the matter of peer pressure: “All the cool guys had Corvettes,” he recalls.

After a six-month stint in the Army, Gray landed a job as an apprentice powerplant engineer at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. As it turns out, a coworker had a Corvette. Well, that was about all Gray could take. With a steady income and some money in the bank, he sold his ’54 Olds, which had replaced the ’39, and went down to Dick Bullis Chevrolet in nearby Burlingame to buy himself a new Corvette. The dealer had one in stock—a Riverside Red ’63 coupe with a base engine and a four-speed manual—but it was not interested in negotiating the price. “The window sticker said $5,100,” says Gray, “and they didn’t budge.”

Gray’s financial advisor may not have been thrilled about his decision to buy the car, but the Bayview hot-rodders were, and Mary Ann finally got her ride in a Corvette. And while it was a lot of dough back in those days, nobody thought he was putting on airs. “The Corvette is the working man’s sports car,” says Gray. What attracted him and his buddies most to the car was its performance. Even with the standard-spec 327-cubic-inch small-block V8, the car was fast, and Gray wasted no time putting all that performance to good use.

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