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.

Photo: Working Class Hero 1
June 12, 2014

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.

Photo: Working Class Hero 2

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.”

Photo: Working Class Hero 3

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.

The local constabulary saw it differently, of course, issuing him three tickets in two weeks not long after he bought the car. One of those infractions was for going flat-out on a local freeway late one night. “There was nobody on the highway,” recalls Gray, “and I opened it up.” Luckily, he wasn’t written up for the actual velocity he had attained; that would have been bad.

Soon, Gray found more socially acceptable ways to exercise his Corvette. Some of his neighbors were into autocrossing, so he decided to give it a go. He participated in local events, some of them organized by the Northern California Corvette Association (NCCA), which Gray joined in 1964.

Photo: Working Class Hero 4

Ever the hot-rodder, Gray performed some mods to prepare his Corvette for competition. He replaced the stock five-inch-wide wheels with six-inch-wide Buick rims, fitting them with Mickey Thompson rubber. After installing a set of racing shocks, Gray’s split window acquitted itself well on track. It performed especially well on courses with long straights where Gray could use more of the Corvette’s power. One of them, which incorporated a drag strip, suited the ’63 especially well. “The MG guys hated it,” he recalls. Gray got his sports-car comeuppance, however, when he took his Corvette onto a dedicated road course and was easily passed by a track-prepped Triumph.

Drag racing proved a better fit for the split window. With lots of local strips and plenty of interest among his buddies, it was easy for Gray to get involved in the sport. Of course, that meant tinkering with his Corvette. To extract some more power from the engine, he installed the intake manifold from a 340-hp, L76-spec ’63 Corvette engine, and a larger carburetor to go along with it. (He saved the original items, by the way.) With more air and fuel going into the V8, Gray needed a better way to extract the spent exhaust gases. To that end, his dad welded him a muffler bypass pipe, giving him a straight-through exhaust system. Now that’s love. Eventually, Gray bolted on a wider set of Torque Thrust D wheels—7 x 15-inch in front and 8.5 × 15-inch in the rear. H best-ever elapsed time in the quarter mile was an impressive 14.17 seconds, and he won several trophies earned for his efforts.

Along with the racing, the ’63 was getting Gray to work and back: “For many years it was my primary car.” It also served him well on numerous road trips. Gray found the car to be plenty roomy, with a surprising amount of storage space behind the seats. He admits to having slept in it on at least one occasion back in the day. After attaching a tow hitch, Gray even used the Corvette to haul a boat on fishing trip.

Photo: Working Class Hero 5

In 1965, after Ron and Mary Ann got married, the newlyweds went on their honeymoon in the Corvette. They took Highway 1 down the coast to Disneyland. From there it was off to Las Vegas. After arriving at their next destination, Lake Tahoe, the 22-year-olds got snowed in and were forced to wait out the storm before returning to San Francisco. The following year, Gray and his wife drove all the way to Ensenada, Mexico, enjoying the smooth, new toll road from the border town of Tijuana.

It was full steam ahead with the racing and road trips until 1971, when the Grays had their first child. While the split window saw less action at this point, Gray didn’t consider parting with it. “I’ve never thought about selling it,” he insists. However, in 1979, when the family moved from the Bay Area to the Northern California town of Clear Lake, the ’63 was banished to Gray’s mother’s garage in San Francisco for five years. The Corvette was eventually brought up to Clear Lake and saw more use, but its heyday had passed.

I was at the wheel as we drove into San Francisco for our photo shoot, relishing my first experience piloting a ’63 split-window coupe. The view out the rear is hindered by the backlight’s central spine—actually, the visibility is worse than I had anticipated—but that’s the unmistakable charm of this one-year-only Corvette; there’s nothing quite like it on the road.

Photo: Working Class Hero 6

The small-block V8 is a charmer, too. It purred along at 2,500 rpm as we cruised on the freeway at 65 mph, yet its instantaneous throttle response and willingness to rev make it an eager partner. Combined with the slick-shifting transmission, the engine provides genuinely strong performance. I can see why the young Gray succumbed to temptation along this very stretch of highway 50 years ago.

As we made our way into the city, I got to see how the coupe behaved in urban traffic. The clutch is on the stiff side and a real contrast to the light action of the gear lever, but I acclimate to it within a few stoplights. Same goes for the steering; at first it feels vague and and a bit overboosted, but I grow accustomed to it almost immediately and like the feel of the thin-spoke wheel in my hands.

The drum brakes, on the other hand, are hard to get used to. With little bite and not much stopping power, these binders don’t instill a lot of confidence; they’re the one aspect of the car that feels anachronistic. But then again, they were good enough for the autocross course and got Gray to Mexico and back, so who am I to quibble?

Photo: Working Class Hero 7

The most lasting impression of my time behind the wheel, however, has nothing to do with the dynamics of the driving experience and everything to do with the commotion the ’63 causes. Drivers rolled down their windows to wave, Harley riders offered engine-revving salutes and the thumbs of normally auto-averse pedestrians were universally up. These days seeing any early Corvette being driving on the road is something special, but this bright-red split window seemed to generate a particularly large amount of enthusiasm. I asked Gray if this is the response the car always gets. “Yep,” he replied with a grin.

Before we meet up with photographer David Bush, Gray gave me a tour of the Bayview neighborhood where he grew up. He showed me his parent’s house and the place where he and his wife lived during their first two years of marriage, as well as the local drag strip: Williams Ave. I resisted the urge to reenact Gray’s history and abstain from any smokey burnouts, though this still-frisky Corvette certainly feels up for it.

Gray figures his ’63 has about 110,000 miles on it. (Unfortunately, the odometer had to be turned back at one point, so he doesn’t know for sure.) It has proven to be an exceedingly reliable machine over the decades, requiring only minimal repairs, such as replacing the radiator and the clutch pressure plate. The only time it left him stranded was when the alternator died. Ironically enough, he replace this aftermarket item with the original, which he had saved. The original intake manifold and carburetor found their way back onto the small block, as well, and that muffler-bypass pipe now sits on a work bench in Gray’s garage, a proud souvenir of the halcyon days of his youth.

Photo: Working Class Hero 8

The split window has never been restored, per se, but it does sport new seat covers and the windshield is a replacement item. It has been repainted twice. In 1967, Gray had it painted Amber Fire Mist, a Cadillac color, to which he added a hood stripe (first executed with a “lace” pattern, followed by a flaming one). Seven years later, seeing the errors of his ways, he changed it back to Riverside Red.

Gray still has the original wheels but just can’t bring himself to put them back on. To his eyes, the car simply looks right with the wide Torque Thrust alloys and beefy 235/60R15 Mickey Thompson rear tires. “This is my Corvette, and this is the way I want it,” says Gray with practiced resolve, having taken jabs from purists over the years.

Though he is well aware of his Corvette’s monetary value, Gray refuses to treat it as a museum piece. “I’ve never seen it in terms of dollars and cents,” he says. “When I bought it, I never thought it would be a collectable car.” Gray drives the split window to car shows and on NCCA events—Mary Ann still accompanying him on occasion—and even gunned it down the drag strip in 2008, racing his daughter who was throttling the ’78 Corvette he had given her. (Dad won.) For the most part, though, Gray drives the ’63 gingerly these days. If he wants to drive hard, he takes out his 2013 Grand Sport convertible. That said, his adoration for the split window is unabated. When he emerged from its cockpit after driving up and down the San Francisco waterfront for our action photos, the huge smile on his face said it all: He still loves this Corvette.

Photo: Working Class Hero 9
Photo: Working Class Hero 10

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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