Visitors to Howard’s Pizza at the Classic 50’s location in Marketplace are greeted by a Marilyn Monroe mannequin in the front window.
Owner Tom Heisler has displayed a collection of ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevy Bel Airs in the window over the years, but it’s the car that’s been parked in the pizza parlor for the past three years that draws the most attention.
As it turns out, it’s not only a rare and historical sports car, it’s also a piece of Great Falls history.
The car is a 1954 Chevy Corvette that was originally purchased in 1955 in Great Falls and has remained here ever since.
“I bought it from a Great Falls family, I think about 15 years ago,” Heisler said. “They owned it since it was new. It might have been a year old when they bought it.”
Heisler is a collector of classic cars and was good friends with the previous owners. Persistence eventually got him the alabaster treasure.
“I’d ask him if he was ready to sell that car and he’d say ‘No, that’s part of the family. That ain’t going nowhere,’ ” Heisler recalled. “I think he had it in his brother’s gar-age, and his brother sold the house so they had to move the car. One day he called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to buy that car.
“He said ‘I know you’ll keep it in Great Falls and take care of it.’ ”
Only 3,640 ’54 Corvettes were produced in just its second year of existence. The first Corvettes came out in ’53 and only 300 were made. Prior to that, there’s only one, a concept car that is considered the holy grail of Corvette collecting.
“In the early ’50s, like ’52, General Motors wanted to build a little sports car, and they didn’t know if they were gonna put it in the Buick, Oldsmobile or Chevy line of cars so they ended up building three Oldsmobiles and one of them survived,” Heisler said. “It was a gold-colored ’53 Oldsmobile Corvette.”
The Oldsmobile concept car sold at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2005 for $3.24 million.
Heisler’s ’54 ‘Vette has a six-cylinder, 235-cubic inch Blue Flame engine with three one-barrel, side-mounted carburetors. It’s still plenty operable, Heisler said. He would just rather display it in his business and share it with others.
People occasionally ask if the car is for sale.
“They wanna open the hood and wanna know if it’s for sale,” said Heisler with a smile that suggested it won’t be available any time soon.
Heisler said that he has seen other ’54 Corvettes go for anywhere between $65,000 to $140,000, depending on condition. He said his Corvette needs a cosmetic restoration.
“That car is totally original,” he said. “It hasn’t been restored at all. There’s some chrome that needs to be rechromed, and it needs an upholstery kit. This is fiberglass. It doesn’t rust.”
Heisler has taken a few precautions to prevent losing valuable and virtually irreplaceable parts. He said the gas cap, which is unique to the car and can go for upward of $600, has been removed to prevent theft.
“They only built it the one year for the Corvette,” Heisler said of the gas cap. “People lift that gas cover there, and I don’t know if they’re looking for the gas cap. Some of them might have that information that it’s worth that kind of money and it would’ve probably disappeared a long time ago (if I left it).”
Until Heisler decides to swap cars and bring back one of his old Bel Airs, the Corvette will remain under the watchful eyes of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.
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