Three factory-built Corvette L88s left the St. Louis plant for delivery to James Garner’s Los Angeles-based American International Racing (AIR) team in November 1967. These Le Mans Blue convertibles were the first production models featuring the new L88 engine with first-generation closed-chamber aluminum heads. The cars were actually picked up at Gene Jantzen Chevrolet in St. Louis and then driven to California by Dick Guldstrand, Bob McDonald, and Perry Moore. As soon as the cars arrived, the engines were taken to Travers & Coons (TRACO) to be prepared for racing.
At the 24 Hours of Daytona, the two cars out-qualified all other FIA competition in their class. Unfortunately, endurance races are the true test of all things mechanical, and the #44 car driven by Dick Guldstrand and Ed Leslie suffered numerous problems with the rear differential and finished 29th, well downfield. The cars were put up for sale, and the AIR team ran the Sebring 12 Hours with two Lola T70 Mk II coupes instead.
In June 1968, a mobile home manufacturer, John Crean, bought all three Corvettes. He subsequently offered the cars for resale via advertisements in Competition Press. Eventually, in 1973, the #44 car was purchased by Jim Herlinger, who entered the SCCA’s National series in the A-Production Class.
Many years later, when Jim Herlinger decided he might like to get back into racing, he was skeptical about the possibility of finding his old car. But David Reisner eventually located it, and Herlinger’s brother Dave undertook the restoration at Herlinger Corvette Repair in Mountain View, California. Since the restoration, Herlinger has run the car at a number of historic and concours events. By the end of the 2007 season, the car had raced eight times and had won its class at one HSRA race at Laguna Seca. The car has also won trophies at the Hillsborough, Palo Alto, and Monterey del Oro Concours. Guldstrand drove it at the 1999 and 2002 Historics at Laguna Seca.
|Vehicle:||James Garner’s 1968 L88 AIR Race Car|
|Original List Price:||$5,267.90|
|SCM Valuation:||$275,000–$2 million|
|Tune Up Cost:||$400–$500|
|Chassis Number Location:||Lower left windshield frame|
|Engine Number Location:||On block in front of right cylinder head|
|Club Info:||National Corvette Restorers Society 6291 Day Road Cincinnati, OH 45252-1334|
|Alternatives:||1965–66 Shelby GT350 R, 1965–67 Shelby Cobra 427, 1971–73 Ferrari Daytona Factory Competition|
This car sold for $744,000 at the Bonhams & Butterfields auction at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, on August 15, 2008.
As the old AM radio stations used to sing, “The hits just keep on coming.” Only instead of Johnny Rivers or Creedence Clearwater Revival, some of the biggest automotive hits these days are the auction sales of cars, bikes, and memorabilia once connected to America’s most famous “real” car guys. Steve McQueen’s $2.3 million Ferrari Lusso. A Von Dutch helmet for $22,230. Or Carroll Shelby’s $5.5 million personal Cobra. Naturally, what financially separates these celebrity-owned items from their more common brethren is mostly the provenance that such ownership brings.
With the above-referenced AIR ’68 Corvette, provenance strikes again, this time riding the triple coattails of movie star James Garner, Corvette racer extraordinaire Dick Guldstrand, and the legend of the big-block L88 itself. “We got together through the movie ‘Grand Prix,’ and to do something special afterwards we bought three L88s and converted them to race cars,” Guldstrand recalls. “We raced them one time and did a lot of publicity with them.”
The “famous owner” premium
The appeal of owning a genuine FIA race car driven by Guldstrand and owned (in part) by driver/actor Garner is unmistakable, and with the chain of ownership of this car well documented, there was no doubt about its authenticity at auction. The quality and accuracy of the restoration were also said to be superb, and the fact that Dick Guldstrand himself fired up the car and rumbled it onto the stage certainly didn’t hurt. (In fact, such perceived validation of authenticity might have added significantly to the price.)
The L88 sold for $744,000 including buyer’s premium, a heady increase over the $250,000 to $500,000 a buyer might expect to pay for a perfectly restored street L88 of the same year. However, a genuine 1967 L88—the first year the option was offered and the last year of the quintessential Sting Ray body design—can command a much greater $2m to $3m today. But then, only 20 L88s were built for the highly coveted 1967 mid-year body design, compared to 196 for the next-generation “shark” design of 1968–69.
“Actually, I think it was worth more,” Guldstrand says of the ex-Garner AIR car. “I think it was a very good deal. There are not that many cars that were run that way, with James Garner, setting track records.”
Holding this car back from topping a million dollars is that it is a C3 Corvette and not the C2 mid-year model, and the fact that it only had a one-race FIA career and became a club racer after that. Still, three quarters of a million dollars is not exactly chump change for a Corvette—especially when it’s a privateer car and not a factory racer.
Why the L88 option matters
In 1968, Chevrolet’s Regular Production Order (RPO) L88 was the highest evolution of the Corvette available to mortals. Boasting a monstrous 427-ci iron V8 with aluminum heads, a close-ratio racing transmission, and racetrack-calibrated suspension, it was the boldest, brashest, most authoritative mass-produced car you could buy (not including low-production cars like the Cobra, of course). Even 40 years later, among Corvette disciples the name L88 still commands all the respect afforded to a priest’s smoking thurible at Saturday-evening mass. And a hell of a lot more guys will talk about the tire-smoking L88 they saw on the way home. Or on an empty western highway sometime in late 1967.
“The only time all three cars ever drove together was on the highway from St. Louis to L.A.,” Guldstrand recalls with a sparkle in his eye. “I can remember that like it was stamped in my brain. We put little tufts on the cars and got up close to each other to see how they would react at speed. We had to be going 130 to 140 nose-to-tail and we passed a cop. He looked up and then looked down again real fast—he didn’t want anything to do with us. We were clear out of control.”
From 1967 to 1969, GM’s St. Louis plant turned out 216 Corvette L88s in both C2 (1967) and C3 (1968–69) configurations. Articles and books about the L88 have fanned the flames ever since, but in the final analysis it’s really the deed that determines the legend, and the L88 decidedly backed up the hype that flacks and hacks put to paper about Chevrolet’s big-block ground-pounder. As Guldstrand discovered when he took a ’67 L88 to Le Mans in 1967, “You sure found out if you were going to be a great driver or a candy ass in one lap.”
The uniquely powerful and phallic design of the 1968 Corvette, together with the L88’s huge engine, enormous street credibility and genuinely terrorizing performance, had a dramatic effect on enthusiasts back in 1968 that is still vibrant and valid today. So was this car worth the cash? Plastic fantastic flyer though it may be, the Garner AIR L88 is easily aligned with the times in terms of celebrity value, and unlike an otherwise useless Von Dutch helmet with a rubber nipple on the top, the new owner of this car, for the price of a Palm Beach condo, can likely gain entrance to top vintage events anywhere in the U.S. or Europe—and have the time of his life driving in them in a car with genuine star power. Viewed in these terms, it was indeed a bargain