Portrait of an Artist

One of the top illustrators of his day and a fixture of San Francico’s North Beach neighborhood, David Grove was also a Corvette enthusiast of the first order, having owned a ’53 for over 50 years.

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January 23, 2014

David Grove was an uncommon Corvette collector. An urbane, intellectual and idiosyncratic man, Grove launched his career as an illustrator in Paris and lived much of his life in San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood of North Beach. The tall, lanky Europhile smoked French cigarettes and wore Spanish boots, but when it came to cars, his taste was decidedly American. During the last 40 years of his life, the only vehicles he owned were Corvettes. In addition, Grove was special in that he owned a ’53 Corvette for over five decades. Moreover, he regularly drove this car (number 149 of 300 built) and performed nearly all of its maintenance, right up until his death on October 25, 2012.

Born in Washington, D.C. on February 27, 1940, David Donner Grove was destined to become an artist. His mother, Jean, was a sculptor, and his father, Edward, was a noted engraver. At the age of six, Grove won an award for one of his water-color paintings, a surprisingly accurate rendition of a locomotive. Soon thereafter, the Grove family, which included David’s younger brother, Eric, moved to Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia.

Art literally permeated the Grove household. In his book, David Grove: An Illustrated Life, published in 2011, Grove wrote, “It was a pretty normal childhood except that it was passed in a home that smelled of turpentine and linseed oil towards my father’s sky-lit studio on the top and tended to be awash in wood chips and marble dust towards my mother’s heavy sculpture studio in the basement.”

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By the time he neared the end of high school and was making decisions about college, Grove was an accomplished artist. The teenager was aware of the difficulty of turning his passion into a career, however, and he was not sure being an artist would be the best way to contribute to his Cold War-torn country. “I was going to be a chemical engineer,” he wrote. “This was 1957-1958. Sputnik. Big science push.”

Ironically, the very practical and immediate concern of funding his college education steered Grove back in the direction of the arts. His parents had previously submitted a portfolio of his work to the National Scholastic Art Awards Competition. A year later, Grove was granted a two-year scholarship to the Syracuse University School of Art.

Still harboring the notion that he had to learn a useful trade, Grove entered college thinking he would study industrial design—especially automotive styling. As with most young car nuts, Grove had spent a lot of time drawing cars as a kid; he just happened to be a lot better at it than his peers. Once school started, however, it wasn’t long before he lost his practical resolve. “After the first few months of nothing but drawing and painting…all day every day, the industrial design idea kind of evaporated and something older and deeper began to emerge.” That something was illustration.

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Grove remembered the illustrations in some of his favorite books that his father read to him and his brother—adventure books like Kidnapped and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. “He made sure we observed everything about and within those wonderful images,” wrote Grove. When he was at Syracuse, illustrations were still a crucial element in magazines, especially ones targeted at women—ladies’ journals, as they were called. Grove studied and was inspired by the work of Bernie Fuch and Mark English, two established illustrators out of Detroit.

Grove was passionate about automobiles from an early age. “He was always interested in cars,” says his three-years younger brother Eric, a filmmaker who lives in Virginia. He explains that a neighbor who owned an old Packard took Grove under his wing and taught him how to work on cars. After that experience, says Eric, “David was all primed and ready.”

Grove’s interest in cars was also piqued by trips to visit an uncle in rural New Jersey. He noticed that the farm kids in the area were allowed to begin driving at a very early age, and he wanted in on the action. Grove coaxed his uncle into letting him drive his tractor, but soon he wanted to get behind the wheel of something a little faster—especially once he witnessed a friend drive a floor-shift Hudson on a neighboring farm. “David was fascinated by that Hudson,” declares Eric.

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Just as soon as it was legal for him to be issued a driving permit, Grove convinced his dad to get him one. His enthusiasm for cars did not immediately translate into driving talent, says Eric—who concedes that his father was no Fangio, either—but that didn’t keep Grove from driving fast: “He drove every car like it was a sports car.”

Grove’s first car, a ’49 Ford, was decidedly not a sports car. By the time Grove was a senior in high school, however, he had upgraded to something with a little more spunk—a ’57 Plymouth Fury. He drove the Fury to college in the fall of 1958, but eventually it, too, was replaced—with a ’53 Corvette, which he purchased in upstate New York in 1961.

A freshly minted teenager at the time of the Corvette’s debut in 1953, Grove was drawn to Chevrolet’s sports car. No doubt, as an art student, he gained an even deeper appreciation for its design. According to Eric, it was a car’s styling that was most important to his brother; the ’53 purchase probably was not about performance. Although he was going from a four-place coupe to a two-seat roadster, Grove was also going from a 318-cubic-inch V8 engine with a healthy 290 horsepower to a 235-cubic-inch inline-6 with just 150 ponies. Style indeed.
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Though Grove surely enjoyed having a sports car at school, he remained very much focused on his studies, as well as his position as editor of the campus magazine, the Syracuse 10. On top of all that, Grove was spending increasingly more time behind

the lens of a camera. Such ambition did not go unrecognized. In June of 1961, he

was awarded the Harriet Leavenworth Prize for outstanding performance in the field of illustration, as well as the M. Peter Piening prize in advertising design.

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Still, Grove took time off to pursue his automotive passions. For example, he and a bunch of buddies, as well as his brother, attended the 1961 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Though Innes Ireland won driving a Lotus, this Formula One race is best remembered for being Stirling Moss’ final GP; his Lotus failed to finish.

After graduating from college—magna cum laude, no less—Grove took a job with Mel Richman, Inc; its large production studio was located not far from his parents’ home in Drexel Hill. “This was one of the last big full-service operations on the East Coast,” wrote Grove in his autobiography. “I had my own illustration/design studio overlooking the Schuylkill River and downstairs was the biggest state-of-the-art photo studio I had ever seen.”

Grove had landed an ideal job, and by all accounts he flourished at Mel Richman. After two years, though, wanderlust set in and he decided it was time to take off for Europe. He had saved up $3,000, which he guessed was enough to last him six months overseas. Problem was, that amount of dough could just about buy him a brand-new ’64 Corvette. “It was a remarkably beautiful car,” Grove wrote. “I even got as far as picking out the engine, transmission, color and accessories. Came to about $3,300.” He managed to overcome this “brief deflection,” however, and bought a one-way transatlantic boat fare and set sail for the Old Country.

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And the ’53 Corvette? Grove kept it, stowing it in a neighbor’s garage. Little did Mrs. Hoover know that Grove’s six-month jaunt would morph into a four-year sabbatical.

At first, Grove kept to his plan of traveling through Europe, most of which he did on a BMW motorcycle. As predicted, his money lasted about half a year, yet the desire to return Stateside did not correspond with the status of his bank account. As he put it, “By the time the money was gone, I didn’t want to leave.” Grove set up shop in Paris, but instead of knocking on the doors of production houses, he put his hands on the ebony and ivory—along with all his other talents, Grove was a pretty good pianist, too. Given his love of jazz, especially the work of Miles Davis, and the fact that it was the mid-’60s, it’s easy to understand his desire to immerse himself in the scene. Playing for tips kept Grove in baguettes and wine, but it didn’t take him long to realize that it wasn’t much of a career.

Grove had been making quick sketches in Europe, including one of the Mako Shark Corvette concept car shown at the 1965 Paris Auto Show. “I was drawing while the car was slowly rotating on a display turntable—not easy,” he wrote. But his focus was on photography at the time, and it was in that field that he thought his future lay. Grove had a French designer look at his photography portfolio, and being impressed with what he saw, the man gave him the names of three reps.

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One of them, Rod Calvert, gave Grove a break, but he wasn’t interested in his photos; it was the couple of illustrations in the American’s portfolio that intrigued him. Within three days of this meeting, Calvert got Grove an assignment to create a black-and-white newspaper advertisement for a French department store. The only catch was that he had just 24 hours to finish it. Grove met the deadline, and not only did the ad run in print, it ended up being used on a billboard, as well. “I was dumfounded,” wrote Grove. “In one terrible day and night I had earned enough for three months.”

With the illustration assignments continuing to roll in, Grove bought himself a 1965 Triumph TR4A sports car and enjoyed life to the fullest for a few years, reveling in his Parisian world but traveling often. When his agent suddenly disappeared in 1967, however, the jig was up, and Grove told himself: “Time to go home.” He did so in a rather circuitous manner, though, spending a year and a half working in London.

Grove got a job at Artist Partners, where, much to his relief, the assignments were less commercial and he was allowed and encouraged to make illustrations that he considered more artistic and creative. While this aspect of the job suited him, the long hours didn’t. He had gone from working three to five days a month in Paris to grinding out 40 to 60 hours a week in London. On top of that, he found the city entirely lacking in good cheap food—something he had found in abundance in Paris. “My biggest problem was the total absence of a café scene,” he wrote. “Something about an outdoor café and the protocol that went with it just fit—perfectly. Discovering that way of living in Europe and especially Paris changed my life.”

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In 1969, Grove finally made it back to the States, heading home to Drexel Hill. One of his first tasks was getting his ’53 Corvette back on the road. Considering it had been in storage for four years, this was no small task, but he soon had it running. Eric recalls his brother taking him on a memorable drive around Manhattan in the roadster. After a few months at home, Grove grew restless and decided to go west. “I thought now’s the time to see California and whatever lies between here and there,” he wrote. During his time in Europe, he had also acquired a number of contacts in California, so this trip was not simply another case of wanderlust.

Though the ’53 was in fine fettle, it was not the right vehicle for a cross-country drive; Grove wanted something he could sleep in, so he bought a ’62 Impala station wagon. Before he set off, there was the matter of where to store his Corvette. It went into another neighbor’s garage—a Mrs. Gazarra’s—because, wrote Grove, “Mrs. Hoover had had enough.” Little did Mrs. Gazarra know that the car would stay in her garage even longer.

Grove’s seven-week journey ended in Morro Bay, California. At that point, he let his address book decide which direction he should head—south or north. He started making calls to Los Angeles and got nowhere, so he pointed his Impala northward. Just outside of San Francisco, he stopped to make some calls. At first he got more “no longer in service” messages and “wrong number” replies, then he finally connected with a guy he had met in Paris, who let him crash on his sofa.

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Relaunching his artistic career in San Francisco was no easy task for Grove. Unlike Manhattan, it didn’t have large design and production houses that required full-time illustrators, so he had to go the freelance route and the pickings were slim. He was nearly broke by the time he got some assignments from a small packaging firm, designing coffee-can labels and recipe inserts. That was all the toehold he needed, however. From there, he got a larger assignment to create 20 illustrations for a young-reader version of Treasure Island, and was off to the races.

More book work followed, as well as magazine jobs, including illustrations for Car and Driver. While the fact that the magazine’s editor at the time, Bob Brown, was Grove’s college roommate certainly helped open the door, it was the quality of his work that kept it open. As another Car and Driver staffer, Gene Butera, wrote in David Grove: An Illustrated Life, “The important thing about Grove’s illustrations was that, in addition to their exhibiting all the qualities of fine painting, they were always dead on in their ability to get to the heart of the story.” In 1972, Grove was admitted into the Society of Illustrators in New York, the most prestigious organization of its kind in the U.S.

Well before he’d firmly established himself as an illustrator, Grove did something a little rash—he bought a Corvette. He caught a glimpse of the car from the window of his apartment up in Bernal Heights. Parked below in the used lot of Stewart Chevrolet on Mission Street, the Sting Ray looked very familiar. “It was the exact car I had nearly purchased in lieu of going to Europe in 1964,” he wrote. “The body, engine, transmission, radio—everything. The only difference was the paint; the silver I had wanted was now Silver Blue.”

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As it turns out, Grove didn’t buy the Corvette right away. “I needed a new car like a hole in the head,” he wrote of the small-block coupe. “The Impala was running great—and I had no money.” After a month of gazing at the car from afar, and waiting for someone else to buy it, Grove went down and talked to a salesman. Well, he did more than talk; he became the car’s new owner. “It looked real nice, but mechanically it was a mess,” he wrote. “I was under it for three months before I could drive it.”

But drive it he did. In 1972, Grove and then-girlfriend Barbara Jones took it on a road trip up to Grant Pass, Oregon. Longtime friend Terry Forgette accompanied Grove on numerous road trips in the Corvette, including mid-week ski trips to Lake Tahoe. He says Grove relished getting behind the four-speed coupe’s steering wheel and taming curvy, mountain roads. “He drove fast and hard,” says Forgette. “But he was a good driver and wasn’t dangerous.”

While Grove thoroughly enjoyed his ’64, he did not turn his back on the ’53; it just took a while longer before he was ready to bring it out west. In the mid-’70s, he moved to North Beach. He loved the neighborhood’s cafe culture (Caffé Malvina soon became his “headquarters for living”), Italian food and late-night haunts, but owning one car there, much less two, presented a challenge. It was not until 1979 that he could afford to buy an apartment on Union Street with a good-sized garage, and even then he had to spend a lot of money modifying it to make sure it could accommodate both Corvettes. Ever focused on the details, Grove also had a heater and a thermostat installed in the garage. “Nothing was left to chance with David,” says his longtime friend and the executor of his estate, Ray Alexander. In 1980, Grove had the ’53 shipped out from Philadelphia, finally giving Mrs. Gazarra her garage back.

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Though Grove didn’t usually venture beyond the San Francisco city limits in his first-year Corvette—he used the ’64 for longer outings—he did drive it around town on a regularly basis. He usually entered it in the North Beach Christmas street fair, proudly driving it down Grant Street. According to his friend Dan Walsh, Grove got a kick out of turning heads in the car.

Walsh, Forgette and others helped Grove work on his Corvettes. While the ’64 proved to be a reliable machine that only needed regular maintenance, the ’53 had some gremlins. At one point it refused to start, and Grove and his buddies had a hell of a time diagnosing the problem. After trying all sorts of remedies—from replacing the battery to rejetting the carburetor—the old Blue Spark six still wouldn’t fully turn over. Then Grove tracked down some original spark-plug wires that were unencumbered with modern attenuators and installed them. That did the trick.

Walsh says Grove liked rolling up his sleeves and diving into some pretty big jobs, like replacing the ’53’s head gasket. But Grove also just liked hanging out in his garage with friends. “A lot of the time we would just talk cars,” says Walsh.

Grove was a night owl. He ate dinner late, often closing down one of his favorite North Beach restaurants, like Vanessi’s. But then it was back to his home studio, where he would routinely work until dawn. “When he was working, he was working,” says Alexander of Grove’s intense focus. He sketched and painted alone, the late-night hours preventing him from being interrupted. Before picking up pen or paintbrush, however, Grove used his camera. He went to elaborate lengths to stage his proposed illustrations, using his friends as models and creating meticulously crafted props, then photographing them.

Of Grove’s technique, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “His absolute and unwavering attention to detail, authenticity and accuracy—combined with his unique fluid painting style—led to a client list that expanded to include not only every major publisher, but also advertising clients….”

In 2007, Grove was admitted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame and recognized for a career overflowing with achievement. He created movie posters for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsider” and an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes; and paperback book covers for John LeCarre’s Little Drummer Girl and Call for the Dead, as well as reprint paperback covers of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. From 1975 to 1990, Grove produced catalog artwork for Pendleton Woolen Mills. Other commercial clients including the National Football League, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Grove created the program cover and poster for the ’83 and ’95 Indy 500s), Mercedes-Benz and Campbell-Ewald, for whom he created the cover of the 1988 Corvette brochure.

Eventually, Grove’s cigarette habit caught up to him in the form of emphysema. As his condition deteriorated and he lost strength, driving the ’64, with its unassisted steering and brakes, as well as its heavy clutch, became too much of a chore. Instead of buying a Honda Accord, Grove bought a ’69 Corvette. In addition to being easier to drive, thanks to its automatic transmission and power steering and brakes, the C3 was stylish enough to pass muster with Grove. As Alexander says, “David could not be seen in an uncool car.” The ’69 served as Grove’s go-to machine during the last few years of his life, including trips across the Golden Gate bridge to visit friends in the North Bay.

Grove strove to keep the ’53 as original as possible, choosing to repair instead of replace whenever possible. He kept the car clean but had no interest in detailing it into a concours sheen. The paint is apparently original. As for the Corvette’s damaged left rear fender, Grove was to blame; he accidently drove the ’69 into the ’53 in the tight confines of his garage a few months before he died. According to Alexander, this unfortunate incident pained Grove greatly.

He might not have been your average Corvette owner, but Grove’s reasons for owning them were far from unusual. “He enjoyed life, and the Corvettes were part of that,” says Alexander. In the end, though, “It was all about the design; he just loved the lines of the cars.” The ’53 was clearly the jewel of Grove’s Corvette collection, but he did not treat it like an art object—something to which its 83,000-mile odometer readout attests. Though he had kept it in storage for many long years, he had apparently never come close to selling it. The roadster had no doubt become an old companion that connected him to his youth—to the kid drawing cars in class, to the college student impressing his dates, to an American in Paris returning home.

Also from Issue 88

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