Thursday, April 23, 2009

Driving the Dream – Part 2


Story and Photos by: Shannon Hammett

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While driving home one night in June of 1982, Phil Higgins fell asleep at the wheel of his 1963 Corvette, causing him to wreck. Fortunately, he was not injured. His dream Corvette, however, was not as fortunate.

“I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up just before I hit the bridge,” said Mr. Higgins. “I jerked the wheel so hard that I spun it out and hit the guard rail. When the car stopped, I had the clutch in and the motor was still running. I put it in gear, let the clutch out and drove it home. I had to go back the next day to hunt for my license plate. I put it up for about six months. I saved my money, and bought pieces here and there, and slowly but surely, put it back together again.”

Mr. Higgins’s days as an autocross racer were coming to an end. In 1995, he sold his 1966 Corvette racer. “I ran an ad in Hemmings Motor News. A guy that worked at the Pentagon called me about the car. I told him what I had and emailed him specs on the car. He sent me a deposit and then came out to pick up the Corvette. To my surprise, he was missing most of his right arm. I asked him how he was going to drive this 4-speed car. He said, ‘Oh, no problem. I can hold the steering wheel with my knee and reach across and shift.’”

In 1991, Mr. Higgins began what he refers to as a “30-year labor of love” on his ‘63 Corvette.

“In 1990 I began a body off restoration. I changed the engine and the transmission in the rear end. It's got a 350 in there now. I worked on it when I could. I had to wait until the money was available. This became a five year project with the car emerging completely stock. Bright red paint and red interior finished the project. The paint has been on there since about 1990.

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“I've kept it in good shape by keeping it in the trailer instead of letting it sit out in the sun for days at a time. Also, I never use wax on it. I use a product called McGuires #7. It's a show car glaze polish. If it rains on it or you wash your car, the stuff is gone, but when it's on there, it shines; oh boy does it shine.

“I discovered that I did not like the way the car drove in original trim, so I have gradually upgraded the mechanicals to modern specifications. I put air conditioning in the car a couple of years ago. What you see today has been a labor of love for 31 years. Late last year, I finally got it to the point where I can drive it around and enjoy it.”

Now retired from autocross racing, Mr. Higgins still enjoys taking his ‘63 ‘Vette out for a drive—although these days he tends to stay out of the fast lane. “This is just a highway cruiser. It runs good and drives good. I built it so that if you wanted it to really go, it will go, but I'm at the point in life where I just want to enjoy it. Ask me how fast it goes. I don't know. I don't care. I do know that I have a blast in it.

“I enjoy driving it to cruise-ins and things like that. This is a one car parade. I can pull into a gas station, and I won't see anybody. By the time I shut the car off, get out and open the gas cap, there's six people standing there asking me questions. When I go down the freeway people will pull alongside of me and give me a thumbs-up.”

Even though Mr. Higgins has bought and sold numerous Corvettes throughout the years, he insists that his dream ‘63 is here to stay. “I'll never sell this one. I have three kids. My oldest daughter was born the year this car was built. I took her racing with me a few times. She was a pretty good driver. She took after me. I have in mind that she will get this car. I have three Corvette shirts, my red watch, and even Corvette underwear. I'm 67 years old, and look at me—I’m a kid. Passion is what drives all classic car collectors, and I am very passionate about my Corvette.”

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