This is the ultimate barn find!
Have you heard about the Peter Max Corvette collection? It is a set of 36 Corvettes, one from each year starting with the model’s 1953 debut and continuing through 1989. This collection is not only famous because they were owned by Mr. Max, the Pop Art star who gained fame in the ’60s, but also because he stored the cars for years in publicly accessible parking garages without much thought for their upkeep.
Members of Corvette forums seethed every time a new photo emerged showing the dust-caked cars in a dim garage. Some wanted Mr. Max to sell the cars or donate the set to a museum. Others didn’t much care who owned the cars, they only wanted to see them.
Thanks to the hard work of Daniel McDermon over at the New York Times, we finally have an idea about the history of this infamous collection.
I will pick it up from the first record of this collection I could find, 1988 with VH1. VH1 launched on January 1, 1985, in the old space of Turner Broadcasting’s short-lived Cable Music Channel. The original purpose of the channel was to build on the success of MTV by playing music videos, but targeting a slightly older demographic than its sister channel, focusing on the lighter, softer side of popular music. By 1988 VH1 was struggling for traction and ratings and came up with the idea of amassing a collection of cars that its audience would be interested in acquiring. What better than the Corvette to achieve this goal. So VH1 set out and bought 1 Corvette from each year, starting with the first Corvette ever produced, the 1953 and ending with the most recent at that time, the 1989; 36 cars in total.
To promote the collection, and really the VH1 brand, VH1 setup a sweepstakes where all you had to do was call a 900 number, at a cost of $2 per call, to enter to win the entire collection. This was a hit for both VH1 and the collection, as they raised over $2 million dollars to cover the cost to amass the collection and VH1 also got all the PR the sweepstake generated.
So who paid $2 and won this great collection you may ask. It was Dennis Amodeo, a carpenter from Long Island who entered only one time. Mr. Amodeo flew to California, where the cars were located, to accept his new collection and live his 15 minutes of fame. Now he owned 36 Corvettes and needed to figure out what to do with them, but before he did anything, Mr. Max contacted him about buying the collection to pursue his vision of a grand art project. As Mr. Max tells it, he found out about the collection through a friend, fell asleep shortly after, and had a dream that included cheerleaders, the 36 ‘vettes, and a stadium full of people yelling “They’re Peter Max’s cars!” Naturally, when he woke up, he got out his wallet.
Mr. Max then had the cars delivered to New York and did some preliminary work, taping color test strips in place on several. But he was busy with other projects as well as a legal battle with the Internal Revenue Service that led to a guilty plea for tax fraud. So the project was very slow to progress and after a few years of inattention, Mr. Max’s ambitious Corvette project was consigned, like so many others, to the garage. Not just any garage, however; in a city where a single parking space can now fetch up to $1 million, finding room for 36 cars was tough.
In 2001, Mr. Max needed to move the collection out of a garage on West 40th Street that was being sold. The owner called Scott Heller, who had worked closely with garage operators across the city for years. Mr. Heller found a new home for the cars quickly, in the Flatiron district, and helped supervise the move. They were moved again a few years later, to a garage in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Finally, in 2010, they made it to Upper Manhattan, where many of the cars now reside in a former Packard dealership.
Scott Heller said that earlier this year he had offered to work with Mr. Max, restoring the cars for sale and splitting the proceeds, but Mr. Max rejected the offer, he said. But Mr. Heller said that not long after, he was asked whether he wanted to buy the cars outright.
Not being Corvette experts, the Hellers engaged Mr. Mazzilli to help evaluate the collection and prepare it for sale. Negotiations were swift, and they took possession of the cars in July. Neither the Hellers nor Mr. Max commented on the price paid.
To walk among the ‘Vettes, even in their fallen state, is to experience how a singular American car has evolved over the years.
Dirt encases the cars, suggesting the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. But through the grime you can easily identify their distinctive periods: the ’80s Faceman cars; the louche, hip-heavy ’70s Stingrays; the sharply creased mid-60s cadets; and a handful of varsity lettermen from the ’50s.
Opening the doors is what it must have been like to unearth a house in Pompeii; the interiors are largely intact. Some, though, were stored with the windows down, and their insides are coated with dust.
There are missing elements, like decorative trim, and badges have disappeared. And some have significant damage to the fiberglass bodies: holes in quarter panels, smashed bumpers, shoddy repairs from years ago.
Thirty miles east of the Manhattan storage site, at a shop in Hicksville, work is proceeding on several cars at once. The 1953 model, No. 291 of 300, is undergoing a full restoration, its body separated from the frame.
That kind of restoration can take two years, said Dave Weber, 55, the shop’s owner, but the hope is to get it done in time for auction sales next spring.
Cleaning off the grime alone can take two weeks. Each car gets washed five or six times; carpets and seats are shampooed over and over.
“You feel like you’re getting black lung,” Mr. Weber said.
The 1955 model, one of 700 made that year, will also get an extensive restoration, according to Mr. Mazzilli. The remainder of the cars will be thoroughly cleaned and restored to running condition. About half the cars have matching chassis and engine numbers, he said, a factor that attests to the cars’ originality and increases values.
The group doesn’t have a specific plan for the auction yet, Mr. Mazzilli said, but would like to find someone interested in buying the whole set. (And with a spacious garage. Or two.)
But if a buyer with such deep pockets doesn’t emerge, the cars will be sold individually.
“We expect that people might pay a premium to own a car from the collection,” Adam Heller said.
Mr. Mazzilli said, “The biggest thing for us was rescuing the cars.”
“It was a good thing these guys came along,” he added, referring to the Hellers. “And they’re going to do the right thing.”
In a telephone interview, Mr. Amodeo, who sold the cars to Mr. Max nearly 25 years ago, said he was pleased that they would be fixed up. “I would like to see them out there when they’re done,” he said. “That would be nice.”
As for Peter Heller, whose chatting up of Mr. Mazzilli in June fortuitously brought the group together, he said he didn’t bother going to car shows anymore.
“I’ve got my own car show right here,” he said.
Mr. Heller and his cousin Scott Heller, along with Scott’s sons, Adam and Mike, bought the cars from Mr. Max over the summer. They plan to clean, and restore as needed, all 36 before taking them to auction next year. (The Hellers are partners in the venture with Gary Spindler, a New York parking management executive.)