Braving the Storm: Keeping a Split-Window Corvette Within the Family
Story and photography by Vincent Anthony Conti
The vented white hood becomes emblazoned by the rising sun as we crest a bridge onto Palm Beach Island. On an idyllic March morning, surprisingly warm even by South Florida standards, I am riding in the passenger seat of one of America’s most iconic sports cars, a 1963 Corvette Split-Window. James Reisigl has a lifetime of experience driving this car – it was owned by his father before he was born.
The production year of 1963 is especially recognizable, not only among the Corvette family, but for all post-War American cars. It serves as a shining example of what is possible when a manufacturing giant leads with imagination. Revered for its unique appearance, the bold lines of the fiberglass body are a romantic portrayal of the futurist culture from which it was born.
Some of the Coupe’s features may have been, in fact, too forward-thinking in their conceptualization. Despite pushback from Chevrolet’s engineers, Chief Stylist Bill Mitchell insisted on preserving the car’s most striking feature: a protruding ridge that traverses the spine of the car, cleaving the rear window into two panes. With an automobile market clamoring for innovation and excitement, the stylist pulled rank over the engineer, and Chevrolet granted Mitchell his wish – for the time being.
The undeniable aesthetic appeal of the Split Window design also divided public opinion. Driving purists and automotive journalists lamented the unnecessary pillar, citing lack of visibility and a useless rearview mirror. After only one production year the window was returned to a conventional single pane. The stylish yet gratuitous faux hood vents were also removed. From controversy was born a cult appreciation. The Space Age imaginings of the second-generation Corvette Coupe were forever encapsulated within its inaugural production year.
The roads we’re driving along date back as far as the 19th century, sweeping through plazas and hedgerows, the buildings depicting the various eras and locales of their European architects. James tackles the island’s S-curves spiritedly, without power steering, enjoying all of Chevrolet’s revelations for the model, like the all-wheel independent suspension and the innovate weight-shedding “bird cage” frame. As we tear through a canyon dividing estates from the seawall the 327ci V8 emits a low and refined growl, echoing back to us from the limestone walls. This was Corvette’s highest performance option among all of the carbureted models with a motor capable of 340 horsepower.
Glancing around the red interior of the cabin I take in all of the design elements. A vertically-oriented Wonder Bar AM radio stands proudly between the generous curvature of the dual cockpit trim. James informs me that it still works, but that he never listens to it. Low profile spherical knobs replace the standard door handles a la race vehicles. All of the dials and gauges protrude proudly from the dashboard in their stainless housing. The needle dances across the oversized tachometer as James double-clutches through the gears of a very flexible 4-speed transmission. The breathtaking originality of car cannot be over stated. The only non-original components are the carpets and the seat cushions, evidence of the 82,000 miles on the odometer. Like his father, James is unafraid of driving the Coupe, and does so frequently.
As we skirt the coastline, chatting above the open-window din, James fondly recalls memory after memory of days spent driving with his parents, expounding on the family’s history with the ‘Vette and why his father–Jim Reisigl–fell in love with this car in particular.
A Brooklyn native and the owner of a creative design agency, Jim was enamored with the idiosyncratic features of the single-year body. This is a car that appeals to the artist as much as it delivers to the racer, and he was immediately tantalized. Having spent four years in the Navy maintaining and repairing helicopter engines, Jim never shied from driving and servicing the car regularly, despite its increasing age and rarity. The Corvette featured in the occasional drag race, utilizing a spare set of rims fitted with radial black wall tires.
Jim and his wife Lynn frequented car shows across upstate New York with young James bouncing along in the crawl space behind the two-seater cabin. Eventually James was taught to drive in his father’s car, initially learning to shift gears from the passenger seat while still only a child. James always treated the car responsibly, helping to maintain and wash it. When his high school years came and there were dances to attend and dates to pick up, Jim allowed his son to drive the Corvette. Ultimately James became the Split Window’s owner, but not before it spent a portion of its life away from the family.
Jim and Lynn moved with their three kids to Kendall, Florida, a suburb of Miami-Dade County. With the approach of Hurricane Andrew, Jim worked diligently to secure his home against one of the worst storms to ever make land fall in the United States. The house sustained severe wind damage. Only the master bedroom and the garage survived, largely due to the Jim’s preparation. The Corvette was spared nearly all damage with the exception of a few scratches inflicted on the paint (still visible today). The house was condemned.
In the economic wake of the hurricane and the damage suffered the family fell on hard times. Jim was forced to sell the car, and with the buyer being back in upstate New York, he and James drove the Coupe a number 1,400 miles north. Despite the somber nature of the drive, Jim made the road trip an enjoyable experience for his son. He insisted that the sale was a temporary situation, adamant that the car would be returning to the family. James was more dubious, but remained a supportive passenger. Jim addressed the purchaser of the ’63 Split Window, an avid car collector, with the same confidence. He informed him with no hint of irony that the car was merely being stored for the time being.
With the money made from the sale Jim started a new business, and the car never left his mind. After seven years of diligent work and success he began to consider the possibility of bringing the Corvette home. He made his intentions known to the family. Almost fatalistically, a phone call came from New York only two days later. The car was to be listed for sale, and Jim was being given first right of refusal. The collector had kept his word and the Split Window Corvette returned to Florida.
James and I have completed our brisk circuit around the Island. We arrive at a Worth Avenue coffee spot, the motor slightly reluctant to stop running. With quieter air around us, James takes a moment before we step out to share another story. There was no formal handing off of the keys to the Coupe, he explains. It was understood that the car was always destined for him. His father’s only stipulation was that the car was given proper storage. For years they shared the car under one garage. James has only a vague idea of the Coupe’s current value as a rare survivor. What matters most to him is that it continues to live and ride. Having recently become a father, he promises that his daughter will receive the same level of trust shown to him. She will be the third generation of the family to have the joy of driving this beloved Corvette.