March 9, 2019 10:03:02 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
After a more than 30-year career, plus 13 years in the Army and Active Guard Reserves, Vantee Summerville finally "scratched an itch" he'd had since his days at Columbus' Hunt High School. Today, it gleams in his driveway, a sleek, powerful machine in metallic navy blue.
"I've always had a desire for a Corvette, I just didn't have the money," Summerville laughed. "It's always been my favorite -- the design, the looks, the power."
Following retirement, he indulged.
"It was the No. 1 thing in starting to get some things I want," he said of his 2001 model. "I really love the car."
The former chemical technician, educator and military personnel specialist is enjoying his Corvette so much, he's hoping to find others who feel the same way about theirs. He'd like to get a Corvette club started. He's run some ads and spread the word, hoping to connect with other enthusiasts in the area. A club would be more than just a congenial way for members to share their interest; it would be an opportunity to serve the community.
"We can be doing some things just to help Columbus out, like raising some money for (groups like) the Red Cross," said Summerville.
Fellow Corvette owner Columbus Mayor Robert Smith endorses the idea.
"A Corvette club would be an asset to the City of Columbus," said Smith, who has a 1989 turquoise blue convertible and a 2017 blue Grand Sport model. "The club could be active in the community by doing volunteer work, car show activities and contests, fun events and fundraising programs to help citizens in need of assistance."
And besides, it's just plain fun to share a passion for an American icon.
Beginning a legend
Chevrolet's prototype Corvette debuted in January 1953 at the GM Motorama auto show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. At the time, European automakers dominated the sports car market. In June of that year, the first production Corvette rolled off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan. It featured an all-fiberglass body, a 150-horsepower engine and a starting price tag of around $3,500, according to history.com. Three hundred two-seater convertibles were made, all with polo white exteriors and sportsman red interiors. The only options offered were a heater and an AM radio.
The name Corvette originated with Chevrolet public relations man Myron Scott, who thought naming the car for the fast strike ships called corvettes from World War II would appeal to American men, especially those who had served, according to gentlemanracer.com and other sites.
By the end of 1953, production moved to St. Louis, Missouri; 3,640 Corvettes were produced in 1954.
Sales didn't take off in the early years, but as the car evolved from a racy convertible to a race-toughened performance machine, the luster of legend began to take hold. "Hollywood" helped things along. One of four black 1954 Corvettes produced was driven by main character "Mike Hammer" in the 1955 Mickey Spillane private eye film "Kiss Me Deadly," giving many film-goers their first taste of the sports car in action.
"I used to watch a TV show called 'Route 66' starring Martin Milner and George Maharis," said Smith. "They drove a 1960 Corvette."
That show on CBS from 1960 to 1964 followed its protagonists as they drove across America. It became a pop culture classic, a symbol of freedom and adventure, and the co-starring Corvette became a "dream car" for many viewers.
The '60s continued to be good to the brand. Bands like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean wove the car into song lyrics. Astronaut Alan Shephard and other Mercury astronauts -- American heroes -- were put behind the wheel of Corvettes, thanks to an arrangement with General Motors. Silver screen appearances began adding up. The Chevy 'Vette was well on its way to a permanent place in American culture.
"There's always been a passion for Corvettes. I love them myself," said Carl Ulmer. He grew up working on older cars and has been a member of the Southern Cruisers since 1996. That car club organizes large auto shows like Cruisin' the River and charitable fundraisers. Members may have "anything from a 1930s model hot rod to a 2020 Corvette," explained Ulmer.
Columbus has had Corvette clubs in the past, the Caledonia man said. He would welcome a resurgence and issues an open invitation to any group to come out to Southern Cruisers activities. He also organizes Cars & Coffee, a gathering of vintage and newer cars at Columbus' Hitching Lot Farmers Market on Saturday mornings from 7:30-10:30 a.m., beginning April 20. He knows how much sharing an interest enhances the enjoyment.
"Once you get into a group, it's camaraderie, it's fellowship with people who have the same passions. I live it. I breathe it," said Ulmer.
Summerville is looking for others who share that enthusiasm. He would like to hear soon from anyone interested in getting a new Corvette club up and running, especially since a major Corvette show is coming up in April in Memphis, Tennessee. He hopes some members might want to make the trip.
"We could tailgate up there together to Memphis and meet a whole lot of other Corvette owners," said Summerville.
"I like to be around people that love what I love," he added. "We can get together and do something worthy for the community, too."
Editor's note: Anyone interested in a new area Corvette club may contact Vantee Summerville at 662-242-0960.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.