You may recall the reason why I chose the name “Unconventional Wisdom” for this column — it was because I had long ago tired of assumptions mistaken for presumptions that so often arise in the collector-car world. Usually the province of the “always/never” crowd, conventional wisdom most often leads to rock-solid opinions based on sand. For me the surest remedy for assumptions is an honest and genuinely open mind. If I do not have first-hand experience of a car, I make an effort not to have an immovable position on its merits or faults. I am — shockingly enough — human, so I also must admit that I have thoughts about various vehicles I have not yet driven or ridden in that may have been influenced by what I have read in reputable books or magazine articles or conversation with friends, colleagues or acquaintances for whom I have respect. Nevertheless, nothing is as powerful as being in the moment in a place with a car. And like the summer sky in Montana, a truly open mind is practically limitless. I was recently made strikingly aware of this when I was asked to drive a car that probably would not have been my first choice for a video shoot. The occasion was a special Fourth of July production for our YouTube channel at the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport, RI. My team had come up with a very clever concept to celebrate the holiday in one of our twice-weekly posts. The conceit was that I was sitting at my desk working when the phone rang to remind me that I was late for an important appointment.

Lights, cars, singing

Dashing out of the museum, I would hop into a car and drive to the date, preparing as I went along. Once I arrived onsite, I would then fulfill my obligation. The conceit was that I was on the way to an Independence Day commemoration at historic Fort Adams. It would be me singing “America the Beautiful” against the backdrop of Newport Harbor and a red, white and blue trio of American cars. The blue was represented by a 2017 Ford Mustang, white by a 1923 Studebaker tourer and red by a 1967 Chevrolet Corvette custom convertible. That would be my ride. The car in the Audrain Collections is a car with a 454-ci engine with custom Hooker headers, high-performance ported heads and high-lift roller cam producing 550 hp and a monstrous 600 ft-lb of torque. The 17-inch wheels put the power to the road through a lowered F41-specification Camaro Z28 suspension. Flared fenders, a 427 stinger hood, deleted front bumpers and main-sewer-sized chromed sidepipes complete the package. All in all, not a car for the shrinking violet. As expected, the car makes a dramatic noise, which is part and parcel of the designed appeal. I had often walked past it in our storage garage and not really given it much of a second glance. For my tastes, the customs that I am drawn to are those that were built in the 1940s or 1950s — or contemporary vehicles that show careful and subtle detailing, usually inspired by custom-built cars of the ’30s or ’40s. This Corvette seemed a bit too “in your face” for me — a car for posing in rather than driving.

A rolling rocketship

When I got behind the wheel — after a stern admonition to avoid the sidepipes at all costs after the car had been running, unless I wanted a permanent calf tattoo — I turned the key. The noise was indeed dramatic — I had to have a mic check to be sure I could be heard as we rolled video on the drive. I turned the wheel to begin and the first revelation hit me. The handling was far better than I could have ever imagined, immediately responsive and linear. Also more linear than the lumpy idle would suggest was the power delivery. It pulled fairly smoothly off the line and gained speed easily and without fuss. I was impressed — and glad I had not totally dismissed this car out of hand. As I drove down the street, the brilliant red Corvette drew admiring glances and lots of thumbs-up from other drivers and pedestrians. It is an eye-catcher. Just when I was beginning to think I was completely taken by it, I decided to press down a bit further on the throttle. Things became exciting very, very quickly. All that torque was fine for low-end grunt, but the horsepower joined the party as the cam came on. And all I could do was hold on, as that was the same moment that the lowered suspension and the fat tires decided they wanted to attend different parties at the same time and the body began to protest in the way only an open mid-1960s fiberglass car can. It was clear at that point that this was an old-fashioned custom/hot rod, not a modern tuner car. Tuners — good ones, at any rate — always start with the suspension and work their way up. Next come wheels and tires, then seats, then more engine power. This was a car built from the engine down. Once I realized and accepted that, I could enjoy it for what it is — a rocketship roller coaster for the road. This car was designed for enthusiastic middle-aged drivers to amuse themselves — and young onlookers on the sidewalk — but not for covering very long distances or for driving on broken pavement. When I made my peace with the car, I saw the fun it could deliver — even to me, who finds delight most readily in well-balanced 1950s European sporting sedans. Every dog has its day, and there are horses for courses. When we open ourselves to possibilities, enjoyment and satisfaction can be found in more places. Is that not a worthy goal in itself? By not looking past a potential pleasure, I am surely bound to find more. I suggest we all should give it a try. ♦

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