There’s no doubt where Debbie Strati-Padawer’s passion for performance cars comes from. “My affinity for cars began in high school,” the East Coaster recalls. “Growing up with two older brothers in the ‘muscle car’ days, there were hordes of guys with their cars in the driveway at all hours of the day and night.”
Strati-Padawer’s brother Steve had a 427-cid/435-bhp 1967 coupe while her other brother, Ken, had an LS7-powered Chevelle. “Weeknights were spent getting ready for weekends at National Speedway, Dover or Raceway Park, or drag racing the quarter-mile strip at Westchester County Airport,” she remembers. “Transmissions were pulled out and changed, engines were rebuilt, headers put on, scoops installed in hoods and so on.” Her brothers even went so far as to hop up their grandfather’s Ford Galaxy 500 one night.
All Strati-Padawer’s memories of the good old days are not good, however. “It used to irk me no end that I was not allowed to even sit in my brother Steve’s ’67 Corvette,” she recounts. “On the flip side, my other brother Ken would let me drive his 1970 454 Chevelle with a Hurst 4-speed and cowl induction to high school. That was hot! I was a 17-year-old girl driving this loud, powerful machine through the high-school parking lot and I did not stall it once, not even over the speed bumps!”
Complete immersion in the car scene led to Strati-Padawer’s desire to get her own set of cool wheels, and brother Steve’s refusal to let his kid sister anywhere near his beloved Corvette made her determined to get, you guessed it, a Corvette. In 1977, she pulled the trigger even though it meant spending every dime she had and then some. She was still about $2,000 short of the $9,600 total needed. Her parents understood how much the new car meant to their daughter and generously covered the shortfall. “They put a check in a cute little card with a turtle on the front holding a gas can with ‘Happy Traveling, Love Mom and Dad’ written on the inside,” recalls Strati-Padawer. “The card remains an important piece of the history of the car, and a part of its original documentation and paperwork.”
Strati-Padawer ordered her ’77 Corvette from Byrne Brothers Chevrolet. The color she chose was Corvette Light Blue, which was essentially the same color as her brother’s ’67. “Coincidentally on purpose, I ordered the car in the same color as Steve’s 1967,” she says with a grin befitting the cat who just ate the canary. “In my own way, I was telling him that I no longer felt a need to sit in his car because I was buying one of my own!”
The ’77 came with the base L48 engine and the Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission. A lot of previously optional features were now standard, but there were still some highly desirable extras available and Strati-Padawer checked off most of them, including air-conditioning, tilt-telescopic steering column, power windows, white-letter tires, cruise control, heavy-duty battery and the Convenience Group. Called RPO XZ2, the latter was essentially a lighting package consisting of a dome-light delay, headlight warning buzzer, low-fuel warning light, underhood light, interior courtesy lights and a right-side visor mirror.
Strati-Padawer did not begin with a conscious plan to preserve her Corvette indefinitely, but that was inevitable given her obsessive-compulsive drive to care for the car. “My Corvette never saw snow or rain,” she says with more than a hint of pride. “If the roads were wet or salted, or there was the slightest threat of inclement weather, plans were cancelled or changed and the car remained in the garage, covered. It has never been through a car wash, but rather lovingly hand washed and dried, door jams wiped, windows cleaned, interior polished and tires shined for the past 32 years.”
Strati-Padawer has been equally particular when it comes to servicing the Vette: “There were only two mechanics I trusted to work on my car, David and Daniel Schutzbank. Entrusting one’s car is a lot like leaving your baby with someone, and not everyone can be trusted. I once left my car overnight for minor repairs at a garage, and I drove to the station after he closed at midnight to make sure the car was garaged for the night.”
All of the love and attention lavished on the car over the years has yielded one of the most original 1977 Corvettes in existence. The car has traveled a little more than 31,000 easy miles. and it still retains original paint, interior trim and almost all underhood parts. Strati-Padawer also still has the original steel-belted Firestone 500 tires, which is remarkable given that these were recalled shortly after she took delivery. Instead of trading in the defective tires for new ones, she wisely set them aside and bought new tires, making hers one of the very few Corvettes of the era with its factory-installed Firestones.
A little more than a year ago, Strati-Padawer was introduced to the show scene by her long-lost childhood friend, Bobby Zajicek, after reuniting with him at an elementary-school reunion. “One thing led to another,” she explains, “and before I knew it, a routine we called ‘midnight oil’ was born. Bobby would show up at my doorstep at midnight, sleeves rolled up and ready to work on my car. He was intent on getting it ready for the spring car-show season. We did a little minor tweaking here and there, shot hoops at 1:00 in the morning, blasted the radio in the garage and fought a lot about what needed to be replaced and what had to remain stock. Since we are from two different schools of thought, it was often a challenge. Bobby would say, ‘The paint is peeling on the block, let’s just spray paint it’ or ‘Let’s put chrome tips on your tailpipes.’ After many hours of my insisting, ‘No, the car has to stay just the way it is, it’s a survivor,’ he finally got it. This was like déjà vu, reminiscent of my high-school years with my brothers, but in my garage this time.”
All of the time and effort spent prepping the car paid dividends when it earned a Top Flight award at its very first NCRS event, a Long Island Metro Chapter show. Strati-Padawer plans to continue showing the car in 2010, including at Bloomington, where she’ll have it Survivor judged. She would have made the pilgrimage to Bloomington in ’09, but the dates conflicted with her son Luke’s high-school graduation. Luke offered to skip his graduation ceremony and go for the Gold, but mom vetoed that move. She did, however, let him drive the car, an experience that brought her equal measures of joy and stress.
“He was 16 with a learner’s permit when I gave him my keys and let him take her out for a spin,” she recounts. “Talk about a white-knuckle ride, but it was well worth it. I had a reason for this temporary insanity; I wanted him to see just how much I trusted and believed in him. As we pulled back into the driveway—I was looking very gray and ghostly by this point—Luke turned to me and said, ‘Mom, I’ve been waiting to do that since the day I was born.’ I did have to draw the line this year when he announced he would like to borrow my wheels for his high-school prom. Ah, I don’t think so.”
Though he’ll have to rough it to the prom in a more ordinary car, the future looks bright for Luke. He and his mom will get to Bloomington this year, and along with Strati-Padawer’s daughter, Lindsay, the family will continue enjoying their remarkably well-preserved Corvette for many years to come.