At a 1988 meeting in New York City, Jeff Rowe, Vice President of Programming for VH1, challenged marketing consultant Jim Cahill to come up with a “mushroom cloud sized” promotion for the nascent cable channel. A few years earlier VH1’s sister channel MTV had benefited considerably from its indisputably wacky “Paint the Mutha Pink” contest, wherein one entrant won a “party house” in Bloomington, Indiana, that he or she was then required to repaint in a vivid shade of—you guessed it—pink. A host of other prizes, including a Jeep, massive amounts of Hawaiian Punch and a private concert featuring “Pink Houses” singer John Cougar Mellencamp, were also included. Cahill had to come up with something for VH1 that would overshadow the pink-house campaign, and he had only a few short days in which to do it.
While MTV was focused primarily on teens, VH1 was intended to lure baby boomers, so Cahill racked his brain trying to come up with an epic idea that would encompass this broad demographic. “I didn’t have a lot of time,” he remembers, “so I definitely felt some pressure. Right after the meeting in New York, I flew back to California, and on my way home from the airport I was caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. While sitting there, going nowhere, I happened to glance at the other side of the freeway just as a 1962 Corvette rolled by. That was it: a Corvette giveaway!”
To his great frustration Cahill had never owned a Corvette, but as someone who had admired these cars for many years, he knew how powerful their hold on people’s emotions could be. He also knew they would resonate strongly with VH1’s target audience. “The Corvette was, and to this day remains, a baby-boomer icon,” he explains. “It’s something people aspire to own, just as I always aspired to own one, and it spans the generations. There are Corvettes for people who grew up with Elvis, Corvettes for people who grew up with the Beatles, and Corvettes for people who grew up with the Eagles.”
In thinking about it further, and drawing upon his own unsatisfied lust for the marque, Cahill asked himself which model-year Corvette would be best to offer up in a contest. “I began by asking myself, which model year would I most want to own? Every model year!”
And just like that, the idea to give away one of every year Corvette, going all the way back to 1953 and running right up through 1989, was born. And for maximum impact, all 36 cars would be awarded to a single winner. Cahill knew immediately that he had his mushroom-cloud-sized promotion, but he still faced the monumental task of convincing MTV Networks that it was something worth doing. He had a powerful ally in Rowe, the aforementioned head of programming for VH1, but he still had to convince senior management, including Tom Freston, who was then president and CEO of the network.
To get everyone on board, Cahill designed a presentation befitting the occasion. “The ‘abracadabra’ pitch culminated with me pulling the cover off of 36 scale-model Corvettes to reveal the idea. The entire pitch was just six words. Thirty-six Corvettes. One Winner. No Kidding. Tom immediately said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and the whole conference room went [crazy]. It was one of the most exciting pitch meetings I’ve ever attended. With everyone on board with the idea, we set off to do [what would be] cable TV’s most successful promotion.”
Rowe put Cahill in charge of the entire contest, so he was responsible for organizing it, buy all of the Corvettes, caring for them until the giveaway and promoting the whole thing. Before Cahill hit the road running however, MTV General Manager Jarl Mohn had some sage advice. “Jarl told me to buy all of the cars right away, because if someone calls a finance meeting and analyzes this, the idea will be killed. But if the cars are already purchased, it’ll be too late to stop us.”
The Mushroom Cloud Arises
To expedite the acquisition of suitable cars, Cahill enlisted the help of expert Ty Knutson. “Ty helped me find the right cars, and he helped me find them quickly.” For Cahill, “the right cars” meant stock Corvettes that looked nice, ran well and could be bought for a rational price. “I would have spent three times as much if I was chasing big-blocks and matching numbers,” Cahill explains, “but I wasn’t concerned with that. I went with the classic showroom-stock look, and we got nice cars and we stayed on budget.”
Staying on budget was, of course, particularly important to MTV Networks and parent company Viacom, and to that end Cahill came up with another brilliant idea. The primary way for interested individuals to enter the contest was by calling a 900 telephone number at a cost of $2.00 per call. By the time it was all over, more than 1.4 million calls had been placed, generating gross revenues in excess of $2.8 million. While the promotion’s budget remains confidential, it is certain that the entry fees produced by the 900 number exceeded the total cost, making the contest financially profitable for Viacom.
The positive balance sheet certainly went over big with Viacom’s bean counters, but any money made was far outweighed by the promotional value the contest provided. “You have to remember,” Cahill points out, “that we were in the dark ages of cable-TV media back then. VH1’s audience numbered in the thousands before the contest, and we reached millions of people with this promotion, and generated tens of millions of dollars of publicity value with it.”
The winner was chosen by an AT&T computer from among the 1.4 million callers to the 900 number. He was a carpenter from Long Island named Dennis Amodeo, and he was fortunate to have been home when Cahill called with the good news: the rules stipulated that if contest organizers couldn’t get in touch with the winner within a certain window of time, a computer-selected runner-up would get the call next. “The second person chosen was from Montana,” Cahill remembers, “and to this day that person doesn’t know how close he or she came.”
We Have a Winner…and a Buyer
Amodeo had entered the contest near its beginning, and after some time passed had forgotten all about it. Predictably, he was in a state of shock when he realized who Jim Cahill was and why he was calling. “Once I started reading the legalese to him, he was so overcome with emotion that he actually started crying,” remembers Cahill. Amodeo was flown out to California, where Beach Boys co-founder and lyricist Mike Love presented him with the keys to the cars at a party in Culver City.
Following the presentation party in California, the VH1 Corvettes were splashed all over the news once again, and this led to an odd turn of events. Famed pop artist Peter Max learned about the big Corvette giveaway when a friend who had seen it on TV called him. After the phone call, which had awakened Max, he went back to sleep and had a very vivid dream about the Corvettes coming out of tunnels into a football stadium. Each car had a cheerleader on it, waving pom-poms, and as they entered the stadium the crowd shouted, “They’re Peter Max’s cars!” The dream motivated Max to contact Amodeo, and after a meeting in Max’s Manhattan studio, a deal was struck. The Corvettes were now indeed Peter Max’s cars.
“I was surprised to learn that Dennis sold the cars when he got home to New York,” says Cahill, whose final task for MTV Networks was getting the cars loaded onto transport trucks in California for the journey east. For the man behind the contest, the end was bittersweet. “I was moving over to Fox Broadcasting to begin production on a series called Fantasy Park, which was based on the VH1 Corvettes’ core concept of awarding large fantasy prizes to viewers at home. Fantasy Park was network TV’s first interactive series, and it was very exciting to be involved, but in a way I was sad when the VH1 contest ended. Running the contest was heaven for me as a Corvette guy. They were stored in a warehouse in Marina del Rey, [so] I took one home almost every night for a year and got to know the nuances of each car. Putting the cars on those transporters after the contest was over was a very emotional experience.”
A few days later all 36 Corvettes arrived at a warehouse on the West Side of Manhattan. This is the part of the story with which I have firsthand experience. In 1989 I owned a restoration shop in New York, and shortly after the cars reached Manhattan, Max called and asked me to provide an estimate to strip the paint, do any required bodywork and prime all of the cars. He intended to treat each car as an individual canvas for his distinctive artwork, but he ultimately got distracted by other artistic endeavors as well as his protracted battle with the federal government regarding income-tax fraud.
Months turned into years, and the cars remained in storage, moving from one warehouse or parking facility to another every so often as the space they were occupying was needed for redevelopment or something else. Though the Corvettes visibly deteriorated over time from lack of care, Max didn’t give up on his dream of painting them. His plan did, however, evolve over time. When photos of the filthy, forlorn cars sitting in the basement of a Brooklyn parking garage made the rounds in 2010, Max told the New York Times that he was going to paint them in an uncharacteristically subtle way, representing “a blend between what Peter Max the artist would do and what Corvette people would do.”
That approach never came to pass, and another plan that had Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting involved with the collection also fell by the wayside. What, you may justifiably ask, was the connection between Earnhardt and Max? Beginning in the 1990s it became fashionable for NASCAR racers to show up for the series’ All-Star Event in cars bearing one-off paint and graphic schemes. In 2000, in what may well be the most unlikely pairing in stock-car-racing history, Max designed a wild paint scheme featuring his signature vivid colors and cosmic imagery for Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
With all hope of finding the time to paint the cars fading, Max contemplated simply selling them. In June 2014 his business agent called a man named Scott Heller to say Max would be receptive to an offer. The Heller organization is a full-service real-estate firm that, among other things, specializes in New York City parking garages. Heller got the call to find new space for the cars in 2001, when the parking garage housing them on West 40th Street was sold. Heller quickly found suitable space in the Flatiron district and assisted with supervising the transport of the non-running cars. Heller helped again a few years later, finding space in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and then one more time in 2010, when they went to yet another garage in upper Manhattan. In the midst of all this, Heller had expressed an interest in partnering with Max to get the cars restored. Max wasn’t receptive to that idea, but he did think of Heller when he decided to sell the collection.
After the call from Max’s representative, Heller got in touch with friend and business associate Gary Spindler. Like Heller, Spindler is in the real-estate business and specializes in NYC parking garages. The Max Corvettes had resided in garages managed by Spindler’s company over the years, and Spindler had also expressed an interest in buying them.
“I’m an old-school car nut,” Spindler confesses, “with a diverse collection that includes a stock 1965 396 Corvette, a stock ’68 Camaro convertible, a ’67 Camaro that I’m resto-modding, a ’70 Road Runner, a ’76 VW Beetle and a ’52 Chevy pickup. It really hurt me to see the cars in the state they were in. About once a year I’d speak with Peter Max and urge him to care for them. [In 2014] I even offered to get one car cleaned up and running again at my own expense, just to see something done with them.”
Heller and Spindler immediately realized that it’s one thing to express an interest in the cars, but another thing altogether to actually buy all of them. The prospect of suddenly owning 36 Corvettes was slightly overwhelming, so they assembled a group of like-minded enthusiasts from among Heller and Spindler family members to determine how to proceed. They agreed that the first thing they needed to do was educate themselves about the present state of the Corvette hobby and marketplace. To that end Peter Heller (Scott Heller’s cousin) went to a car show at Old Westbury Gardens, where he met noted Corvette collector Chris Mazzilli, who was displaying his beautiful 1971 NCRS 5-star Bowtie winner.
Heller, another self-described car nut who recently restored a 1968 Corvette at great expense, quickly discovered that Mazzilli was both extremely knowledgeable and very friendly, so he began quizzing him about in the ins and outs of restoring vintage Corvettes. First he asked about a 1953, then a ’55 and after that a ’56 . Sensing that this was more than idle chatter from a curious enthusiast, Mazzilli posed a question to Heller: “Are you talking about the Peter Max Corvettes?”
Heller was stunned. “How did you know?”
In fact, there was no way Mazzilli wouldn’t know. He’s an obsessive Corvette collector he co-owns the famous Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan, so he always has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the city. He’s also the owner of Dream Car Consulting, a business that provides expert assistance to collectible-car buyers, sellers and collectors. But most of all, he had never forgotten about the VH1 Corvettes in the 25 years that had passed since he called that 900 number to enter the contest.
The Heller-Spindler partnership engaged Mazzilli to analyze the cars and offer his opinion. Mazzilli and Dave Weber, a restoration expert with more than 34 years of hands-on experience, spent many hours examining the collection and advised the group regarding what the cars needed, and how much they were worth. After much discussion the Hellers and Spindlers were not sure what they’d ultimately do with the cars, but the idea of rescuing them from their present state of neglect held great appeal. A deal was struck, and the new owners took possession in July 2014.
Up from the Ashes
In August, the group began shipping the cars to Vintage Automotive Restorations, Weber’s shop in Hicksville, New York. Weber and his team are currently going through the Corvettes one-by-one, and treating each to the restorative attention it requires. This means everything from replacing batteries and performing long-neglected maintenance chores to executing full-blown restorations on more the serious cases, which include the ’53.
As of this writing the new owners of this remarkable collection are still undecided about what to do with the cars after they are all put back into running and driving condition. At one end of the spectrum, they may simply sell the cars privately or send most or all of them to an auction. At the other end, a number of much bigger ideas are being considered, including making the cars part of a reality TV show or even another giveaway contest. Regardless of what path they choose, the group is now part of the larger story, having embarked on a grand adventure that will undoubtedly deliver a little bit of stress, an endless measure of fun, and the great satisfaction of knowing that they brought the famous VH1/Peter Max Corvette Collection back to life.