On the corner of the driver’s side fender is a small crack, and in blue Sharpie, someone has written, “Bob was here.”
“Who is Bob?” I asked, and the owner of the car laughed and said, “Friend of mine. He came over right after I got this car, and when he went to leave I heard a crunch and turned around and he said, ‘I just backed into your car!’ I asked if there was any damage and he said, ‘I can’t tell.’”
It’s not the story you expect to hear about a 1954 Corvette, but we were at Bonneville, and people here have an easy-going approach to car culture. The car scene at Bonneville Speed Week isn’t just about the streamlined racing machines on the salt flats. Speed Week also acts as a sort of meeting place for the coolest custom cars in the West. Outside the Nugget hotel in Wendover, Nevada, the parking lots swell with roadsters, lowriders, beaters, and beauties. It’s not easy to stand out in a show where every machine is a one-off, but Rex Marshall’s 1954 Corvette caught my eye like a poorly-cast fishhook—only much less painful. Everything was good about the Corvette, the stance, the patina, the sound of the 400ci small block, and the strawberry-red interior as seen through a strawberry red Plexi-window. Rex was cool too, and he offered me a ride around town in the ‘Vette so we could chat in style.
Rex’s love of Corvettes goes all the way back to his brother’s first car, which was a ‘Vette, and today he has half-a-dozen restored and shiny bits of plastic fantastic in his garage. Still, something about the scrappy gasser we were riding in won him over, even though he tried to resist it. “My friend Corey bought this car about six years ago,” Rex said. “I kinda wanted it then, but he had plans and wouldn’t sell it.” Rex had other projects so he forgot about the ‘Vette, but it kept creeping back in his life. First a fellow named Rick came by to check out a ’56 Chevy that Rex had built, and while they were talking cars, the guy mentioned that he used to have a Corvette. “It was a 54, a hot rod. It had a 430 Lincoln in it with a 3-speed manual trans but the Lincoln was a big boat anchor so I pulled that out and installed a 301 small block and Borg-Warner 4 speed. I built ladder bars for the rear end and some 4-inch spacers for the front to lift it up gasser style, at the local high school metal shop. I even put a red Plexi-glass scoop on the hood…”
That’s when Rex interrupted, “Wait, what? I know where your car is!”
The men went over to Corey’s place for a reunion. Rick was emotional. “That’s my car!” he told Rex and Corey. “I sold this four days before I shipped out to Vietnam in April of 1967 and never thought I’d see it again. It looks like nothing was ever done to it.” Corey offered to sell Rick the car back, but Rick decided to go with a new Corvette instead. Rex forgot about the gasser again, until Corey called him up this past spring and asked him if he wanted it. “I looked the Corvette over, and it was just as cool as I remembered,” he said.
Of course it needed a little work after sitting for 48 years, but Rex says it didn’t take much to get it back on the road. “The brake drums had never been turned and had lots of meat left to resurface them. Shoes, wheel cylinders and lines are cheap. I had the engine sitting in the corner of the shop and a Camaro 5-speed transmission I had picked up a few years before. I had to buy a clutch kit, headers and radiator. To my surprise when I put a battery in it for the first time since 1968, everything worked! I mean the headlights, taillights, turn signals, horns, wipers, heater, everything!” Seems like the car was just waiting for him, and with his collection of early Corvette parts, it was pretty easy to get up and running.
“I had almost everything to make it run and drive on hand. I would estimate I spent only $1500 out of pocket to get the car done and two months working on it. The suspension was all in excellent condition, including the shocks with their mid ‘60s manufacture dates. I went to some considerable lengths to make the engine look appropriate for the car. Or maybe I should say I went to no lengths to make it look good. Whichever.”
The interior is mostly original. The door panels, dash, and seat cushions we found ourselves sitting on as we slid by the neon lights of Wendover were 63 years old. Rex’s wife made the carpet out of scraps of original material. She’s a car guy too, drives a Pantera. The driver’s seat bottom is from a ‘62 Vette and is a lower profile than an original to provide a bit more headroom. The hardtop is an aftermarket piece as these cars only had soft tops from the factory. “The car is deceiving,” Rex says, “because it looks like it would be kinda junky, but it’s not. It rides great.”
We parked around the corner to shoot details and stills. The photographer asked Rex to turn on the parking lights. One stayed dark. Rex kicked the thin chrome bumper and it flickered back to life. Any damage? We couldn’t tell.