One Thing Leads to Another

A chance encounter with a ’63 Split-Window launches an enduring relationship with the iconic model

Photo: One Thing Leads to Another 1
March 24, 2022

Darwin Ludi thought he had passed through the pearly gates when his older brother bought a new, V-8–powered 1957 Bel Air. “He added a few custom touches like fender skirts, lake pipes, and a larger four-barrel carburetor,” Ludi recounts, “and when I got a ride in the car, I was in heaven.”

When Ludi’s brother joined the Navy, their mother, who couldn’t shift a manual transmission, traded the Bel Air toward a ’60 Impala equipped with a 348-ci engine mated to a Powerglide automatic. Ludi’s parents allowed him to drive the Impala even though he was only 14 years old. After getting his driver’s license, he began drag-racing the car, albeit with limited success.

“I started racing on the streets of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where we lived, and at a few drag strips in northern New Mexico, but that 348 just could not cut it,” he remembers. “The Impala was, however, great for going to the local drive-in because I could put four or five of my friends in the huge trunk and sneak them in.”

Following graduation from high school, Ludi studied biology at New Mexico Highlands University, and between terms worked at the Nevada Test Site, a U.S. Department of Energy facility devoted primarily to nuclear-bomb testing. At the time, there was no speed limit on the highway connecting Mercury, Nevada, where Darwin lived while working at the Test Site, and Las Vegas, Nevada, so he routinely covered the 70 or so miles at 90 mph, which was roughly the Impala’s top cruising speed.

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Ludi saved nearly every penny he earned working at the Test Site to buy the car of his dreams, a ’65 GTO. Why a GTO and not a Corvette? Interestingly, there were zero Corvettes but no fewer than 13 ’65 GTOs in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which had a population of about 14,000 people. After convincing his mom to trade in the Impala, and adding all of his savings, Ludi was the proud owner of the 14th GTO in town. And through the remainder of his college studies and beyond, he wrung every bit of enjoyment out of it.

“After returning from a rodeo in Santa Rosa, I met my wife-to-be, Patricia, and we dated in the GTO,” he recalls. “At least once a month I drove to drag strips in New Mexico, Southern Colorado, and even Amarillo, Texas. I didn’t win all the races, but was very competitive.

“I had no problems with the 396/325-horsepower Chevelles, early Buick Gran Sports, Ford 390s, or even other GTOs with Tri-Power [triple carbureted] setups,” he continues. “Even though my car only had a four-barrel, I could beat most of the Tri-Power cars because they were four-speeds, and the drivers couldn’t shift as fast as my automatic.”

By the early 1970s the GTO was gone, Darwin and Patricia Ludi had three children, and the family moved about with thoroughly practical vehicles, ranging from a Chevy pickup truck to a VW Beetle. In 1989 all three children were in college, Patricia’s career as an educational administrator was in high gear, and Darwin’s medical-laboratory business was on sound footing, so the couple began looking for a ’65 GTO, just like the one they cherished in their youth.

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A few months later the Ludis were the proud owners of a Montero Red ’65 GTO hardtop. After a considerable amount of restoration work, Darwin and Patricia thoroughly enjoyed showing and driving the Goat, and they had every reason to believe that their vintage-car itch had been scratched. That changed abruptly one afternoon, however, when Darwin was motoring down a street in northern San Diego and saw a stunning, black ’63 Corvette on the showroom floor of a collector-car dealership.

“[The car] really stood out because every Split-Window coupe I had seen in magazines was red. To see another color was exciting, so I had to stop.” That fateful stop led to Darwin and Patricia buying their first Corvette, something they assumed they’d never be able to afford.

Over the ensuing decade the Ludis steadily improved the car and became very active in the Corvette world, earning numerous First Place and Best-of-Show awards at local and regional events. They were honored to lend their gleaming Split-Window to the National Corvette Museum, where it was displayed for a year, and gave permission to specialty-parts supplier Corvette Central to use a photo of the car in the company’s advertising.

With a ’65 GTO and ’63 Corvette side-by-side in their garage, the Ludis were thoroughly happy and had no intention to buy another collectible car. That changed in April 2000, when Darwin was once again motoring along in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego and noticed a C2 Corvette in the showroom of a vintage-car dealership. “I couldn’t tell what year it was, and at first thought it was black, which is what really got my attention,” he explains. “I told my wife we should stop and check it out, and she agreed.”

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A closer look revealed details the Ludis couldn’t resist. “When we entered the small store, we noted that the car was Daytona Blue,” recalls Darwin. “I had seen very similar colors on GTOs and Buick Rivieras, but had never seen it on a ’63 Corvette. The paint and matching blue interior were beautiful, and it was equipped with the 340-horsepower 327 engine and four-speed transmission. [I thought] ‘Here we go again!’”

The acquisition of the blue Corvette coincided with Darwin selling his medical laboratory and retiring, so he was looking for a project to occupy his time. “My wife was still working, and I was not about to sit around and do nothing, so I enrolled at our local community college and started taking automotive classes that related to older cars. I did that for two years and had a ball.”

The Ludis joined the NCRS and immediately bought the judging manuals and other literature pertaining to ’63 Corvettes. Using the manuals as their guide, they made a long list of parts and procedures needed to prepare their blue Split-Window for NCRS judging.

“Digging into the blue car, we started noticing discrepancies in what the NCRS was looking for and what we actually had before us,” explains Darwin. “The fan was incorrect, the fan clutch was aftermarket, the radiator was brass instead of aluminum, the brake master cylinder was out of an Impala, the carb was from a 1964 Corvette, the aluminum intake manifold was painted, the coil and speedometer cable were incorrect, the horns were replacements, and so on.”

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Over the next several years, with help from friend and certified master mechanic Joe Downey and The Corvette Shop in San Diego, the Ludis restored their Daytona Blue Sting Ray to as-new condition. Testifying to their confidence in the work performed, they accepted a 2008 invitation from the NCM to participate in a caravan featuring one example of every-year Corvette. The cars were to drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Detroit in celebration of Chevrolet’s 100th anniversary. The Ludis went several steps further, however, driving their beautiful Split-Window coupe from San Diego to Bowling Green before participating in the caravan to Michigan.

“Along the way we stopped at various sites to see car collections,” recalls Darwin, “and we visited several museums, including the Sloan and Studebaker museums in Indiana. We also visited [car-care product manufacturer] Griot’s Garage, and toured the Tire Rack. Several Chevrolet dealers along the way invited us to view their vintage collections, including the dealership owned by Ray Skillman, which had a top-notch facility. Once in Detroit we visited the Heritage Center, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Performance Build Center in Wixom.”

After the caravan concluded, the Ludis followed the same route home to San Diego, traversing a total of more than 5,000 miles for an epic trip they will never forget. Once back home they turned their attention to showing the blue Corvette at the highest levels. A 2010 NCRS regional meet in Albuquerque yielded a strong Second Flight award and a list of things to correct. Two years later, at a Texas NCRS event, the Ludis’ Sting Ray earned the coveted Top Flight ribbon. In 2014 a Bloomington Gold award was added to the car’s accolades.

In the years since earning those two coveted certifications, the Ludis have entered the Corvette in concours events throughout California and in several other states, including Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida. Along the way, they’ve captured many Best-in-Class and other honors, including the award for the Most Outstanding GM Product at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. They also earned Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) First Junior and First Senior awards, and in May they plan to take the car to AACA’s Virginia Beach event for a Grand National Award.

Over the many years the Ludis have owned this stunning Corvette, they have extracted every ounce of motoring fun from it. Besides participating in its restoration, they have driven the car thousands of miles, earned top honors with it at prestigious shows around the country, and met countless enthusiasts who share their passion.

“A few of the outstanding people we’ve crossed paths with include Werner Meier, who has one of the best restoration shops in the country; Michael Simcoe, GM’s design leader; and Peter Brock, who played an important role in the design of the C2,” recalls Darwin. “All of this was possible because back in 1992 we found a Tuxedo Black Split-Window coupe, followed by the Daytona Split-Window coupe in 2000.”

Also from Issue 153

  • LS6 C4 Autocross Champ
  • C4 Market Report
  • 450-hp Silver Anniversary ’78
  • History: Birth of the Cheetah
  • Tech: Inside the LT6
  • Barris Kustoms ’58
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