This Corvette and Dick Guldstrand are of Another Era
Story and photography by Alexander Bermudez – Automobilist
As I take the inside line of turn eight at Willow Springs International Raceway, there is always a fleeting moment when Dick Guldstrand’s voice resonates through my helmet. “You have to be patient Alex! Go into turn nine as deep as you can and when you think you can’t possibly go any deeper, count to three and then brake and turn in!” Dick’s sound but comedic advice would inevitably induce laughter and occasionally even oversteer on turn nine’s entrance, the latter tossing my car into the infield like unwanted garbage. But that was Sunday…
On Monday, I walked through the doors of Guldstrand’s new location in Burbank, reminding myself to avoid the obligatory “It’s good to see you Dick,” as Guldstrand will invariably juxtapose my stale pleasantry with “It’s better to be seen than viewed,” a somewhat startling statement for a man approaching ninety! So this time, in an attempt to avoid the subject of Dick’s mortality, I commenced the dialogue with “Hey Dick! How are you?” to which he flippantly replied, “Well young man, I’m old and diseased, but I’m still friendly!” We laughed, shook hands, and walked into his busy shop.
Dick’s tour of the facility was akin to a comprehensive study of the Corvette’s evolution, everything from the original solid axle cars to the brand-new C7 were represented, some bone stock and others highly modified but all patiently waiting for a little Guldstrand magic. One car instantly took my breath away, an Artic Blue 1959 C1 convertible with a red leather interior! Guldstrand, sensing my deep appreciation, suggested that I take the car for a day or two. Who could resist such an offer? A couple of calls were made while I wandered around the shop and then I was on my way!
The Corvette cruised majestically towards Pasadena, escorted by a deep melodic rumble of the low revving V8 that garnished the attention of all within earshot. The distinctive open cockpit exemplifies the best of ’50s design and blends beautifully into the blue exterior of the car. The dash is an opulent array of sensual curves surrounding a central tachometer. A beautifully crafted steering wheel frames everything in a way that only Harley Earl could have conceived, in his final opus before retirement.
However, if the Corvette’s aesthetic design was a celebration of Detroit’s heyday, then tucked beneath the fiberglass are a series of startling reminders of how far we have actually come since then. With neither of the car’s two forward gears capable of keeping up with today’s freeway traffic, the Powerglide transmission is nothing more than a relic instantly rendered obsolete by President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act. The same is true of drum brakes that are astoundingly slow to react coupled with the equally lazy steering. Together, they make for a somewhat treacherous driving experience that if trivialized will end in tears. But that’s a small price to pay for the never-ending abundance of joyful smiles left in the car’s wake.
Perhaps the tree-lined grandeur of Pasadena’s Orange Grove Boulevard would have been the perfect complement to this Corvette’s extravagant design, but my myopic nature dismissed such common sense in exchange for the demanding curves of Glendora Mountain Road. So in what has become customary, I pointed the car north towards the San Gabriel Mountains, but not before a total stranger leapt, camera in hand, into my path! The ’50s era brake shoes abruptly expanded into the drums as I slammed my foot on the brake pedal as hard as humanly possible and to my relief, the car rolled to a gentle stop. The stranger, a young man in his thirties, preceded to ask permission to photograph the car; I obliged, after all today was his lucky day!
Once in the mountains the car slowly navigated the steep incline of the meandering road. The numb steering wheel had no intention of communicating; neither did the seat nor pedals but together with the suspension’s soft articulation they managed to lull me into a relaxed state. I have driven many cars on this road, all at a pace most would consider reckless, but now for the first time I had little choice but to truly appreciate the slow moving beauty of my surroundings. Eventually we did reach the summit, just in time to enjoy the warm glow of the setting California sun.
My heart sank as the heavy V8 stubbornly ignored the eager crank of the starter motor. To make matters worse, after two or three vain attempts to get the engine going, even the battery started to wane a little. The smell of gas enveloped as Dick’s advice sarcastically rolled off my tongue, “You have to be patient Alex…. Count to three Alex.” Gazing through the convex windscreen at the shimmering city lights below, I submitted and abruptly exited the car.
The beautiful moonlit curves of the rear quarter panels make it impossible to bear a grudge against this car, regardless of its numerous shortcomings. I marveled at its beauty and even took a couple photos before deciding to give it another go. This time the Corvette started right up as if nothing had happened; nevertheless, I was grateful, as it would have been a long walk back to civilization.
We cautiously edged down the backside of Glendora Mountain Road towards Azusa enjoying the cool mountain air as it gently brushed over the Corvette’s sweeping bodywork. The unlit road followed the jagged contours of the mountain as the headlights pointed the way through the dark. I found myself strangely connected to the car now, perhaps because like me, it was far from perfect and yet here we were both beating the odds. It was nothing short of a perfect drive.
Once off the mountain, I chose a route home that would be more conducive to the transmission’s original intent. We headed east on Huntington Drive towards Pasadena where even under the dim sodium vapor streetlights, friendly smiles of elation seemed to line the streets. The car was perfectly suited to cruising from stoplight to stoplight and I was happy to prolong the journey’s inevitable end.
Of all the cars I have had the privilege of driving, none have had the ability to draw attention to themselves like this Corvette, an impressive feat amongst LA’s jaded population where onlookers routinely dismiss fine automobiles as mere status symbols. Perhaps the Corvette transcends its function as a means of transportation as it points nostalgically to America’s golden age.
One thing is certain; both the Corvette and Dick are of a different era and both have taught me something today. For the first time ever, I have come to appreciate driving a car not for its tremendous speed or handling prowess, but rather for the simple joy it brings others.